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
Last week Kalish preached the gospel of freeganism from a table at the annual Anarchist Book Fair at the
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.
“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.”