Freegans . . . Altruistic or Literally Self-Serving?

Hubby went off to class one day with plans to spend some time at the gym afterwards. He rarely stops for lunch when he’s out by himself like this, but for some reason that day he did. It was mid-afternoon, so he stopped at a bagel shop. It was our lucky day, because he hit bagel paydirt. The clerk glanced over at him and asked if he’d like to take some bagels home with him–for free! Otherwise, all the leftovers in the case would be tossed into the garbage bins behind the shop.

Apparently he was cleaning up and preparing to close for the day and had lots of leftover bagels. So Hubby happily obliged and brought home a couple of dozen assorted bagels. We gave our daughter and her family half and put the rest in the freezer. We had free bagels for days after that. 

I was reminded of this incident by a group calling themselves Freegans, a group of people electing to “drop out of commercialism” and who might have felt equally at home had they lived during the 1960s “hippie movement.” They decided to stop their own excessive consumerism by cutting their spending habits and living off consumer waste instead. Some even quit high paying positions in order to devote full time to their new foraging lifestyles. 

According to Raina Kelley, a Newsweek reporter who recently spent one month as a “Freegan/vegan who bought nothing but local and/or organic food, used only ecofriendly transportation, cut her electricity use in half, and vowed to erase her carbon footprint,” the movement began in Seattle and Portland in the mid-1990s.

If the proliferation of stories about them is any indicator, the movement is spreading rapidly to other large cities across the country. They call themselves Freegans because they have also given up eating meat, which will reduce methane gasses from growing more and more cows to feed our incessant beef demands, and so on and on. 

You might think the pickings would be slim, but from what I read they’re doing quite well indeed. They even manage to throw dinner parties for their affluent friends to show off the fruits of their new hobbies. (Of course, it’s stylish and economically gainful as well these days to also knock out a new book or two documenting these “drop out” for a year or two lifestyles, but that’s another post.)

We all know how we only want to pick out the prettiest and best of the produce lined up in our grocery stores. I’ve watched people pick up tomato after tomato and throw them aside if there was the remotest hint of a bruise on them.  So what happens to all those tomatoes and beans and cantaloupes and and lettuces we throw aside? It very likely goes outside in the garbage bins. Along with all kinds of other foods from gourmet food shops like Whole Foods according to Madeline Nelson, a Freegan who appeared with  Tucker Carlson  on MSNBC.

I’d always thought, and in fact have been told so many times, that restaurants and grocery chains throw away good food because they’re afraid of lawsuits from someone who potentially is harmed by eating food that may be past its expiration date, or from a dented can. Ms. Nelson said she could understand how most American’s would think that, but that in fact the law was changed in the U.S. in 1981. She goes on to say:

“There‘s a good Samaritan law, and basically food that isn‘t considered prime sellable food because it‘s maybe a little bit wilted on the lettuce, a day old on the bread, that sort of thing, if you give that and you give it in good faith, you can‘t be sued.”

So what I’m wondering is why can’t these food vendors, restaurants, grocery stores, etc., donate these goods directly to soup kitchens and food shelters for poor people? Or am I being too naive? While I appreciate the intent behind Freegans desire to tame our rampant materialistic and wastefulness, something about it just doesn’t sit well with me. Why don’t they share their bounty with soup kitchens and homeless shelters?

All they’re doing, seems to me, is living off the same capitalistic system that over produces and wastes so much of everything in our lives. Their foraging and eating for free does nothing to change our wasteful society. We still over produce, over consume, and waste too much, while only giving lip service to those who need help even when there isn’t a natural tragedy in the news. Becoming Freegans does nothing for them.

What we have to do is change the system. Maybe the Freegans, who have shown how successful foraging and living off capitalism can be, can show us how–not to freeload–but how to help the people that need it most. Less wasteful and more responsible consumers here may leave more, not just for the poor in this country, but for those  countries that always had too little because we insisted on having too much.

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4 thoughts on “Freegans . . . Altruistic or Literally Self-Serving?

  1. You hit the nail on the head. It is not “captalism” that is at fault, it’s the consumer’s fault for over purchasing food and causing waste. I’ve seen individuals waste more food than some businesses do.

    There are many restautants and grocery chains that do donate expired inventory to shelters, food banks, and similar non-profit organizations. It is simply that many businesses don’t advertise the fact that they do.

    Freegans who dumpster dive are playing ecoli roulette. The inside of a dumpster harbors numerous harmful bacteria,in addition to rats, mice, and other animals’ excrement.

  2. Didn’t we live like this in the sixties when we were broke and hungry. I used to be able to make the best meals from the Safeway dumpster. I never thought of bacteria just that we could have a baked potatoe with a salad for dinner instead of canned soup. Now days many stores and cafe’s donate their food to the food bank or to homeless shelters. Much better.

  3. Yeah, but it’s not much fun bringing home a meager bag of expired canned goods from the food pantry, either.

    Freegans are just playing at being poor– it’s more “hair shirt” than solution. Face it, their lifestyle pretty much requires that this unchecked wasteful consumerism continue, in order for them to throw free dinner parties. Worst yet, they’re putting themselves in competition with people who may not have a choice about eating out of a dumpster.

  4. startlingmoniker,

    You said in just a few words what I think I was trying to get at through the whole wordy post. That is, they’re just “playing” at being poor. When what they’re doing would take on real meaning if they were to turn it into a way to help others. What if we all decided to drop out and freeload? It does smack of the same issues I had with the hippie generation, and I was there then too.

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