Stealing a carrot from a pig (or raising awareness about our wasteful society)

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Tonight I finally took a freegan trash tour, something I’ve been meaning to do for months. I’m glad I waited for two reasons. One, it’s Ramadan, a time of year when I’m especially conscious of food, its overabundance in my daily life and temporary absence during fasting. Two, tonight’s trash tour took place in Morningside Heights, which afforded me a fresh view of my childhood neighborhood.

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Freegans

From what I understand, the “freegans” of freegan.info see themselves as a sort of public relations arm of a larger movement aimed at reducing society’s waste and making use of discarded food. The group takes advantage of the relative freedom of New York City to dumpster dive and forage openly and with little interruption from store managers or the police. Members of the media and those new to freeganism are invited to rummage through garbage bags on street corners during trash tours (held several times a month) and to dine communally on the booty at occasional “freegan feasts.” In addition, their Web site deals with a variety of issues ranging from what we eat to a concept called “voluntary joblessness.”

What interested me was the chance to spend an evening more or less practicing what I preach here about ways to combat the overwhelming swell of city garbage. While it’s too late in the evening to process what I learned, I can share with you a little of what I experienced.

Meeting up with this evening’s tour proved easy enough. I showed up at the designated street corner where a Japanese cable access film crew, a student camera crew and a still photographer from Newsweek had already begun to document events. Right away I recognized at least three faces in the crowd from past media stories on freeganism. One of the organizers, a young woman in rubber-like protective bike gear and a bandanna, kicked off the tour with a short speech about privacy (for the benefit of the media present) and the importance of leaving places as clean as we found them. And we were off.

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Obligatory Japanese film crew

I accompanied the tour to three nearby sites: two grocery stores and one bagel joint. The first stop yielded less than expected (many present were collecting goods for a freegan potluck feast later in the week)—some bruised fruits and vegetables, mostly onions, made their way into tote bags and backpacks. As one freegan put it “it looks like pretty trashy trash this evening”.

The second stop, a high-end grocery known for poor labor practices and beautifully arranged if unaffordable produce, provided more in terms of both food and spectacle. Large plastic trash bins brimmed with overripe avocados, broken carrots and a hodgepodge of fancy greens. As the freegans went to work sorting and the accompanying media fell over themselves recording, a number of passersby stopped to stare, question and even join in the foraging. The event organizers quickly passed out calendar flyers, recited talking points and collected email addresses (I relay this not so much sarcastically as in awe of such tightly organized media strategy).

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Rescued fruit

As one young man tipped a bin of wet produce into another empty container to sort through the carrots and berries at the bottom, a thickly accented voice piped up from across the sidewalk: “animals eat.” I turned around. Apparently an employee of the store, the man with the accent—Turkish it turns out—had stood watching the sorting and documenting from the doorway to the grocery for quite some time before offering this key intelligence. In broken English, the informant explained to me that the trash had been sorted into real trash (collected nightly by a waste hauler), cardboard (collected every other night by a separate recycling hauler) and slops, collected nightly by a private company that drove it to an animal farm in New Jersey. One organizer muttered to another that perhaps this store should be dropped from the tour, seeing as the organic waste they were picking through might not truly be “trash”.

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Bagels!

After about an hour of rummaging and a brief display of yam juggling, the woman pictured above stood before an impressive array of produce, bread and half a salami and spoke on a melange of topics including excess waste, fossil fuels, war, labor abuses and rain forest cutting in Central America.

Next, it was on to bagels. I accepted a nearly-whole, perfectly good looking carrot from one of the bins (that by now may be on its way to feed Jersey pigs), peeked into a bag full of bagels from the shop next door and, plucking a pumpernickel for the road, thanked the organizers and headed on my way.

As I walked past the Turkish grocery man again, he asked “going home?”

“Yes,” I said, “thanks again for the information.” He had given me the name of the food waste collection company used by the store. “Wait, I get you sample,” he said. In chatting about garbage collection, we had established the Middle Eastern connection. When I said my family was from Iran, his eyes lit up. He had seemed grateful for a familiar term of reference after watching middle class whites root through would-be-pig-slops for so long. Now, he slipped into the store and returned with a lush container of fresh fruit cup (complete with papaya!), a plastic fork and a plastic bag to carry it in.

“For my neighbor,” he said. I thanked him profusely, considered refusing the bag, but in the end tucked the whole collection into my tote along with my partial carrot and stale black bagel, all to be sampled pre-dawn before another long day of fasting and meditating on food and waste.

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20 Responses to “Stealing a carrot from a pig (or raising awareness about our wasteful society)”

  1. Adam Weissman Says:

    With regards to the produce at Garden of Eden going to pig farms– this is a claim we’ve heard from several employees in the past– only to have other employees insist this was complete nonsense. Ultimately this is a question that is going to have to be resolved by inquiries to management.

    Of course, even if this is the case, the question remains about the ethics and environmental sanity of having the waste from the sale of fruits and veggies being used to facilitate the fattening of animals for slaughter, rather than feeding people directly. We’ve all heard the stats on how inefficient animal systems are at food conversion– books like Diet for A New America and Diet for A Small Planet document this point in depth–and we hear constantly from nutrition experts that people in the US eat too much meat and too little fresh fruits and vegetables. Add to that all the environmental impacts of producing those fruits and veggies in the first place– from clearcutting rainforests to pesticide use to petroleum powered transportation across thousands of miles, and the fact that this vast surplus may be fed to pigs is little consolation.

    We should also remember that the pork industry is a terrible polluter, with factory farm sewage sludge contaminating waterways around the country. And of course, at the end of the day, there’s there are the animal rights issues around confining pigs in hellish factory farms for the duration of their lives and just the whole moral question of whether we have any right to raise animals to kill. While on the one hand its an environmental plus to feed pigs off of food that would otherwise be wasted rather than having to produce additional food expressly for their consumption, the side effect is undoubtably cheap food and thus cheaper overhead costs for pork producers. For those of us who want to see the meat industry abolished, this is not a good thing.

  2. everydaytrash Says:

    Hi Adam,

    All valid points. Let me know if you do inquire with the management about this issue. Thanks again for letting me participate in your event, I had a great time and met some very nice people.

    Leila

  3. Jonathan Bloom Says:

    Ducking the question of whether or not humans should eat other animals, I’ll stand behind the idea that food should feed humans before it does animals. It’s a principle the EPA espouses in its Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy: http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/organics/fd-hier.htm

    While I wouldn’t feel bad about “stealing a carrot from a pig,” I will say there are plenty of other stores from which to pluck edible food from headed-to-the-landfill trash. Of course, that’s if Garden of Eden is actually sending their food waste to animals. (I hope they are–it’s much better for the environment than landfilling it.)

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Leila, and for bringing attention to the issue of wasted food.

  4. everydaytrash Says:

    Thanks for the info and for your link, Jonathan.

    To clarify: I totally agree that there is too much food waste in the world and have much respect for those bringing attention to the issue via public freeganism—not least because they are doing what I am not, practing what they preach to the Nth degree. The sarcasm used in my post above is more a comment on the surreality of the experience of joining a media tour of garbage foraging than on freeganism itself. That said, the radical presentation employed by the freegans is an outreach strategy more or less targeting those already down with the cause: it has real appeal to youthful activists and has a tendancy to turn off the coporate set doing most of the wasting. Like most social justice issues: in order to change real practicies of the large-scale culprits in this world, we need to couple radical movements with the more traditional tools such as lobbying, op-eds and briefings for those in charge.

    Leila

  5. Piget Rainbeaux Says:

    Leila,

    I’m not sure why you tell the activists: “I am really not being sarcastic – that is just what I published. I don’t really feel that way or mean to diminish what you are doing” – to paraphrase.

    You then go on to give advise: “If you really want to get people to listen, do it *this* way.”

    You also repeat the “consensus reality” talking point: “You guys are just preaching to the choir.”

    Then say this, has a tendency to “turn off the corporate set.”

    Your writing is what looks comical, not the freegans.

    Why shouldn’t freeganism “turn off the corporate set?” Are you implying the idea should be administered with a sugar pill? Perhaps the freegans should dress as clowns and thereby become more acceptable?

    Considering for the corporate mentality “democratic freedom very largely consists in ignoring politics and worrying instead, about the threat of scaly scalp, hairy legs, sluggish bowels, saggy breast, receding gums, excess weight, and tired blood,” (to quote Marshall McLuhan), what’s the big surprise or the big point? They are not listening. La La La. If “they,” the consensus reality believers, could listen we wouldn’t have a problem now would we? Is this a “devil’s circle?”

    I hate to be taken aside, as often happens, and have people insist they support me (yet they do not activism themselves) and then go on to lecture me about how I’m not doing my job and how to *really* get it done I have to do it softer. What I’m saying is not palatable and somehow, in order for people to “get it” it’s up to me to tone down the message, water it down. This scene is a redundant cliche in my life.

    Telling people to “hush-hush” is the same talking point tactic used by the war promoters. “If you want to end the war and get people to listen, you must not disturb their agenda.”

    How do we get out of the box?

  6. everydaytrash Says:

    Hi Piget,

    Thanks for taking the time to post a comment. Interpret my writing how you will, but I don’t recall asking you to “soften” your message. I wrote, and I maintain, that different strategies are needed to target different audiences and that there is strength in employing a range of tactics when advancing a mammoth cause such as environmentalism and the reduction of societal waste.

    You’re right, though, that I can’t employ sarcasm without the risk of offending. In the pursuit of a provocative post, I was a bit dismissive about the freegan philosophy. At any rate, I appreciate you adding your two cents to the debate. The trash tour and consequent flutter of blog comments has been a most educational experience.

    Leila

  7. dumpstertaoist Says:

    Some thoughts from a dumpster diver on this subject…

    Let’s face it: activism in most any form turns a lot of people off. Especially corporate America. I don’t think Freegans are likely to change the behavior of Corporate America anytime soon. Grocery stores aren’t charity organizations and probably never will be.

    But what I do appreciate about the Freegans is that they may be helping to reduce the stigma against scavenging. If we’re talking about feeding hungry mouths, there’s hardly any reason for a person to starve in this country. Dumpsters are overflowing with edible food, apartment bins are stuffed to the brim with wearable clothing and other useful household items. Heck the free food co-ops in my city are hemorrhaging free food, and they can’t get rid of it all…the food’s not even in a trash bag! There’s people out there who are either too embarassed to go get what they need from the trash or are unaware that they can get what they need free of charge. So let’s make it more acceptable to scavenge and not be capitalist robots, the stuff is out there, people are just afraid to take it.

    A con: almost all dumpster divers’ jerk reaction to any media attention about their activities is fear, and rightly so. Fear of locked dumpsters and intentionally destroyed goods, so what’s in the bag really is useless. What usually results from attention to the Banquet of the Dumpster Goddess isn’t companies getting into the charity business, but placing their trash under lock and key so the people who want or need it can’t get it. I’ll just have to hold my breath and see what results!

    DumpsterTaoist

  8. Stankleberry Says:

    Gross.

  9. richiesprincess Says:

    Instead of trying to undo the damage that our corporate companies have
    done; we should find more ways to increase awareness of waste. I was amazed at how grocery chains supposedly get rid of food. I am not aware of the injustices in detail; however I noticed many items that are in condition are purged into dumpsters. Nashville has a severe number of homeless citizens who could very well benefit from recycling these items as a way to earn a wage and feed others. Businesses should look more towards the idea of supporting a freegan way contributing to a problem that is turning
    into a epidemic. On Tuesday a child was arrested in school for eating a lunch worth 40 cents.
    He is on a subsidized lunch program and did not have any money on this particular day to eat. The administration thought it best to punish him for being hungry. This intolerance or hypersensitive justice will
    show itself in this child either through a hatred for authority or a hatred of poverty. The child will either never go hungry again by studying hard and
    getting a education and a great job followed by an early retirement bonus
    or be another un-intentioned youthful offender turned adult offender.
    All because he did not have 40 cents for a lunch. What is wrong with this picture? Our country is the wealthiest country in the world we can not seem to feed our own people. Im sickened At the fact we waste paper on what Paris and Britney are crying about and stick 11 year old in jail for theft of cafeteria meat loaf mixed veggies bread and a milk! Who are we
    and when did we stop caring about real people, pain and hunger!

  10. everydaytrash Says:

    What an incredible story. For others interested, here’s the school lunch theft story: http://www.newschannel5.com/Global/story.asp?S=7929258

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  12. Little Shiva Says:

    I lived in NYC for 17 years, and the scavenging was excellent. Never ate from dumpsters there, but when I was a teenager living in Coronado, CA, I used to go dumpster diving with my mom and our hippie neighbor Katie. The big bins behind the Alpha Beta (a CA grocery chain) held all kinds of recently-tossed and still-good goodies.

  13. everydaytrash Says:

    Coming soon: more on food waste!

  14. » Blog Archive » Leila Darabi, Queen of Trash Says:

    […] whose red lava waterfall is set on endless loop. Leila’s a serious trash reporter, taking nighttime excursions with freegans to explore the trash bins of Morningside Heights, interviewing interesting people like professor […]

  15. Hard times call for gleaning (new study) « everydaytrash Says:

    […] While they didn’t exclude people who consider gleaning a political or environmental act, the report focuses on those who glean out of financial necessity.  In other words, everybody but the freegans. […]

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