Garbage Gleaners


Protecting the environment and eliminating waste one dumpster dive at a time.

By Janice Hoppe-Spiers

It’s no secret that food waste in the United States continues to be a major problem. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted, equivalent to $162 billion. 

Food waste is bad for the environment and the economy, and it is also often wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need. However, a staggering amount still ends up in landfills. The USDA estimates that 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels is equivalent to about 133 billion pounds. 

Why so much waste? Consumers stray from the “ugly” produce in supermarkets, toss food after the package date has passed or buy in bulk and can’t consume it all before the package date. Those I’m sure are just a few examples of how food is wasted in this country. 

Although some people pride themselves on “wasting less” than other households – there’s no exact definition on what that means – the Freeganism lifestyle takes wasting less to the highest level by showing that one man’s trash truly is another man’s treasure. “Freegans are people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources,” says. “Freegans embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity and greed.” 

The word freegan comes from compounding “free” and “vegan,” although not all freegans are vegan. Those who take on the lifestyle want to help the environment by reducing waste and are doing so today predominately by dumpster diving; i.e., pulling food out of the garbage that is still good to consume for themselves and others. Freegans typically pick through supermarket dumpsters that has mostly “ugly” fruit or food that has reached its packaging date instead of regular trash that may include a variety of other things in addition to food items. 

Is Dumpster Diving Becoming a Trend? 

In 2013, Maximus Thaler founded The Gleaners’ Kitchen in Somerville, Mass., and describes it as an “underground restaurant and grocery store of sorts.” “We turn waste into wealth by making fresh, wholesome meals from food that others thought was garbage,” The Gleaners’ Kitchen GarbageGleaner1says. “Our ingredients come from dumpsters. We prepare them and give them away freely. There are no price tags.”

The Gleaners’ Kitchen website explains that being a part of the “experiment” includes going behind the back entrance of stores after they close, hopping into a dumpster and taking all the discarded produce they can. “The goal here is not to start a business,” The Gleaners’ Kitchen says. “The point isn’t to profit – it’s to prove that this is possible. We aim to show that it is possible to feed hundreds of people high-quality food while hardly having to exchange a dime.”

Paris’ Freegan Pony, founded by Aladdin Charni in 2015, is an illegal squat located under a highway overpass and only known by the bright green painted pony on a set of tall metal doors. The establishment serves 80 meals a night, four nights a week and accepts whatever payment people want to give. The menu is developed from food that is thrown away because it’s reaching the end of its shelf-life, but is still fine to eat. 

Secrets of Paris writer Heather Stimmler-Hall reviewed the restaurant in January of this year, describing the place as “the best-kept secret restaurant in Paris.” She enjoyed the entire three-course meal and described the atmosphere as “comfy and welcoming.” 

Freeganism may not be a lifestyle for everyone, but it is helping shed light on how much usable food winds up in landfills. We expect there may be other underground experiments or establishments throughout the United States already in operation, but because of the legality of it, they are keeping hush. 

Documenting Waste

Food waste is certainly getting more attention. Chef Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, is partnering with New York-based The Rockefeller Foundation to produce Wasted! The Story of Food Waste. The documentary will focus on how much food is thrown away every year. 

In January, The Rockefeller Foundation announced the launch of YieldWise, a seven-year, $130 million initiative to demonstrate how food loss and waste can be cut in half globally. The foundation’s goal is to strengthen food security and advance healthier, more productive food systems around the world. “The amount of food lost or wasted before it ever reaches a table is simply unacceptable with devastating impacts on people, profit and planet,” said Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation. 

“Yet, it’s a challenge that can be prevented with a blend of existing solutions, from technologies that help farmers keep more of what they grow to models for private sector engagement that ensures those crops will be bought, rather than left to rot,” she continues. “Through YieldWise, The Rockefeller Foundation will finish the business we started with the Green Revolution more than a half-century ago – to ensure more of the world’s people are fed and the planet’s precious resources are protected.” 

Chefs from around the world will participate in the documentary to offer their perspective on food waste. The documentary is in production, according to Variety, and is expected to debut in 2017. 

As freegan-centric establishments and documentaries on food waste continue to rise, we should expect food waste to become more front-of-mind for consumers. Just as GMOs have become the “bad guy” in the food industry, we expect more of a focus on food waste as it permeates to a greater audience, or sadly enough, becomes trendy. 

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