Thursday, April 24, 2008

Freeganism, Or How I (Well, Not Me) Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat the Trash

Janet Kalish preaches the "freegan' gospel at last week's Anarchist Book Fair in NYC.

The old cliché that argues “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is perfectly applicable to New York City’s small but burgeoning “freegan” movement. Though their practice of searching through the garbage of grocery stores for their next meal is off-putting, if not flat out gross, to most, local freegan leader Janet Kalish is sure that the tide of public opinion is starting to turn ever so slightly. Dumpster diving, once a survival activity exclusively for the homeless and downtrodden, is now a statement against the waste of America’s consumption driven society.

Last week Kalish preached the gospel of freeganism from a table at the annual Anarchist Book Fair at the Judson Memorial Church, across the street from Washington Square Park. In that den of anti-establishment and anti-corporate feelings she did not have a hard time convincing people to buy into her movement. A few passersby asked to sample some bread she rescued from the trash of a nearby bakery. Several attendees sipped found juice from one of her impromptu cups, which formerly housed a serving of yogurt. At Kalish’s table everything is recycled, from the food right down to her sign-up sheet, which once served as part of a high school testing booklet.

So many good things are wasted, said Kalish, who showed me a container of Odwalla pure orange juice that she pulled from the garbage on April 11. We spoke on April 12, the listed expiration date on the juice container. The container is still factory sealed, and she even froze the juice overnight so it would stay cold during the fair.

“Are you afraid of it?” Kalish asks me. “Nobody is.” It may be the case that a sealed container of orange juice does not invoke the queasiness that one might feel when discussing the freegan movement, but what about the pile of pre-sliced bread that sits on her table, a product that lacks Odwalla’s factory seal? She understands the difference, and the squeamishness one might feel when it comes to eating the bread. From below the table she produced the bag that once held the bread, as if to assure me she did not just pull each slice from a stinking garbage heap. It was never sold, said Kalish, and there is nothing wrong with it. And though it might have been manhandled by the bakery staff that threw it away, just how clean is our store-bought food to begin with?

“Even if you go to a bagel store, there’s somebody’s hand that touched that bagel before your hands did,” said Kalish. “There has to be a little bit of trust in your own immune system.”

While we spoke a young anarchist, going by the name “Cabbage,” stopped by Kalish’s table. “Do you guys really eat garbage? That’s disgusting!” he joked before sampling her spread. A similar, serious reaction is fairly common, said Kalish, who became an active freegan about three and a half years ago. But her own health should be enough to persuade dissenters of the freegan lifestyle. “I think I lend a little credibility to it. I haven’t been getting sick from doing this,” she said. A vegan, Kalish noted that eating meat procured from the trash could be more problematic, and that those with weaker immune systems would probably have to be more careful freegans.

A pile of "freegan" bread.

New York’s freegan community meets about once a week to go “shopping” in the dumpsters of the City’s supermarkets. Nicer neighborhoods with better supermarkets produce better trash, said Kalish, who added that her own grocery bill has shrunk to just about $25 a week, most of which she attributed to soy milk and products for her cat. Even those minimal purchases upset Kalish, who felt she should be scavenging for all her food.

“Honestly, it’s sort of a luxury. I feel a little guilty about shopping. I buy food with guilt because I know I don’t have to,” said Kalish of her soy milk purchases. She feels the karmic effects of her purchases later on. “I get punished. The next trash tour, the next dumpster dive I go on, I’ll find what I just bought.”

Though Kalish is an articulate defender of the freegan lifestyle, most people are just not going to eat trash no matter how good an argument she puts forward. Leaving her table I felt a palpable sense of relief that Kalish did not ask me to try any of the bread, as I would have been put in the awkward position of being nice to a source and eating garbage. But freeganism to Kalish is about more than the trash hunt. Why can’t communities share one car or one washing machine?, she asks one man stopped at her table. Kalish is outraged by any waste, be it food, energy or otherwise. Hitting a dumpster for her meals is just the first step.

“I always felt uncomfortable to be shopping and buying new things. I already have enough shirts, why do I have to get another shirt?” she asked. “It never made sense to me to accumulate all this stuff.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Other Notable Clips

I've been busy away from the Village Voice. Have a look...

At Candidato USA:

"What Can Latinos Expect From The New Governor Of New York?" March 17, 2008.

"What Might Congestion Pricing Cost Latino Neighborhoods?" March 24, 2008.

At Positive Thinking Magazine:

"Five Things I Learned: Chris Bliss," March 2007.

"Five Things I Learned: Bill Nye," March 2007.

And how about two oldies but goodies...

"A Psychic Detective of Another Sort," Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2007.

"The Rundown on Scientology's Purification Rundown," New York Press, May 31, 2007.

Village Voice

I have been doing a ton of work for the Village Voice. It's the major reason I haven't been able to keep things up to date here. Have a look at a few of the more interesting pieces...

"The Revolt of the Superdelegates?" February 7, 2008.

"Penn Jillette on Libertarians, Hillary, Obama, McCain and Bloomberg," February 22, 2008.

"John Edwards Backs the 'Iraq/Recession' Campaign," February 25, 2008.

"Ralph Nader: Why I'm Running Again," March 3, 2008.

"Anonymous vs. Scientology: 'Our Nonsense Is Free,'" March 17, 2008.

"Scenes From Anonymous' 'Scientology Reconnect' Picnic," April 14, 2008.

"'Coffin It Up' Seeks to Transform Bad Things Into Music," April 17, 2008.

Coming later this week I'll have an interview with Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr and an examination of the "freegan" movement. Stay tuned.