I'm a freegan.
I've written extensively about my freegan worldview and praxis over the years and I hope I've made it clear that freeganism can involve far more than just rescuing food. It's true that in these tough economic times, rescuing food may be among the more accessible recourses for penny pinchers (indeed, that was why I initially sought out freegan.info
myself); and perhaps food rescue gets lots of notoriety because of its spectacular nature - most people seem to consider it disgusting and shameful, though any meagerly conscientious person can clearly see that it's the sheer amount
of waste that's disgusting and shameful, not the act of rescuing it!
So it's important to note that freeganism is absolutely not
only about rescuing food.
According to freegan.info, "Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations...
Freegans are people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources… embrac[ing] community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.
Thus folks who subscribe to a freegan worldview may engage in many other kinds of rescue and conservation. Some freegans ride bikes, scooters, or skateboards rather than driving cars or even using public transit - the latter, of course, requiring a great deal of energy and oil, dependencies that keep us engaged in war and destroy our environment, even here at home (see: gulf oil spill, Appalachian mountaintop removal
). Some freegans squat and homestead abandoned buildings, believing that housing is a right, not a privilege. Some mend their own clothes rather than buying new clothes, which are often produced by exploited sweatshop workers.
As for me, one of the most stark expressions of my freeganism over these past few years has regarded my time and energy. In December 2009, I committed myself to various creative pursuits - music, writing, activism, videography and more! - and refused to seek steady work, believing that I could not afford to do both. I engaged in what some call "unjobbing."
Somehow this commitment resulted in a huge paradigm shift in my consciousness. Whereas previously I believed that my time was worth at least x dollars per hour, I now understood my time as priceless. I felt as though my mind had been freed from some kind of compulsory prison, the hamster wheel of consumerism and wage slavery
. I began volunteering my time to people and organizations around the city and the more I volunteered, the more I became privy to the extent that time has become commodified in our culture (and especially in a place like NYC). I realized that time is amongst the most valuable commodities here and I had it, free, in spades!
It's not that I haven't been working, though (let me be clear about that!). On the contrary, I've worked harder these past few years than ever before. I just didn't have another person dictating my schedule and I didn't earn a regular paycheck for my efforts. Instead, I had to employ a great deal of self-discipline to organize and abide by a very busy schedule (typically consisting of at least 40 hours of work per week, plus volunteering, church and social commitments) and I was paid largely in donations that I received for my music at shows, while busking, or online
Indeed, I came to see that I was working for God
, not men; and I knew that God would pay me in kind, providing all my needs. I'm unspeakably grateful and pleased to say that S/he has been faithful. But now I also see that God is calling me into a new season, into a new mode of work.
As I've mentioned on other blog sites, I've begun a steady gig as a dishwasher
at Darling Coffee in Inwood. I'll be working there twenty hours a week, on average, for the foreseeable future; thus I am no longer unjobbing. Nevertheless, I'm grateful to report on some of the many revelations I've received throughout this unjobbing stint, especially the fresh perspective I now have on the value of my time and work. I still regard them as priceless, which is why I would only spend them doing work that I deem to be significant, a blessing to my friends and neighbors. This is precisely what I've found in my new job.
I also absolutely believe that, unjobbing notwithstanding, I'm staying true to my ideals. While I yet believe that unjobbing can be a great paradigm shift for many people (as I've already stated, it did wonders for my consciousness!), I'm now looking forward to a new paradigm, beyond unjobbing. And make no mistake about it: I'm still working first and foremost for God. S/he may not be the one signing my paychecks, but God is certainly the one who continues to provide for my every need. I see it as some sort of cosmic barter system
So it's still within the confines of freeganism.
Looking into the fridge last night, I realized I was really low on food. The soup I had made last week was all out; what I had left by way of vegetables was a couple eggplants and a head of broccoli that were both turning a bit brown. Otherwise, I had nothing but bagels. This wasn't exactly enough to prepare a meal for the week.
I sliced the eggplants and added them to boiling water, turning the heat down. I'd make some soup, but first I needed more ingredients.
Up until just a couple months ago, getting a few more ingredients would be a grand ordeal. I'd grab my plastic bags and take the subway from Washington Heights (168 or 175 street) down to Morningside Heights (96 or 116 st) to forage the trash bags at Absolute Bagels, Dunkin Donuts, Health Nuts, and a few others. The locale with the best yield was usually Morton Williams at 115th street, so I'd head down there at least once a week.
On several occasions I was harassed by their security guard until he finally resolved to call NYPD. The officers coolly responded "there's nothing illegal about this" and allowed me to continue foraging the trash bags
I was vindicated and I intended to continue rescuing there.
One day I brought a roommate with me. He was interested in my food acquisition methods and wanted to see how I did it. We went down to the Dunkin Donuts around 100 street, rescuing dozens of donuts of all varieties. He was stunned. We stopped at Morton Williams as well and grabbed what there was to find there. Then we made our way back uptown on the 1 train, getting off at 157 street, a few blocks from our Washington Heights apartment. We nearly walked right past the Associated grocery store on Broadway, but my roommate was on top of things. He pointed out the small dumpster bins on the curbside.
I had never walked past this grocery store, so I was not aware of its existence, much less the contents of their garbage. The bins had a sign reading ORGANIC WASTE. Could it be? Garbage bins full of organic waste only? Fruits and veggies? I popped the trash can open with pleasant surprise. I'd have to come back here.
A few days later I returned to Associated, only a block and a half from my apartment, and rescued a bunch of produce. I then walked down another block for some Dunkin Donuts. Then across Broadway and back uptown. I spotted similar organic waste bins outside of a grocery store on 163rd street called Liberato. I peeked into their three bins, again procuring several fruits and vegetables. This store is just across Broadway from my apartment building - indeed, I had just picked up nearly a week's worth of groceries without having to walk more than three blocks from my own apartment!
That was maybe a month and a half ago. I've rescued food several times since then, but the last two occasions have been particularly fruitful, and not just in a literal sense.
Last week I went on a food rescue mission to my usual destinations. When I walked up to Liberato's, I saw three men sitting and chatting outside the store. I had seen them there before and I'm certain that at least one of them works there - I always see him wearing a white coat, like a chef's or butcher's garment. The men had certainly seen me foraging there before but had not said anything to me. I poked into one of the bins which had a thick layer of leafy greens on top. I was about to dig deeper when I heard a whistle. Shrugging it off, I peeled off a layer of greens. Then I heard the whistle again. Looking up, I saw the man in the white coat standing behind another of the trash bins. He pointed down to it silently, like revealing a secret hiding place. I cautiously moved toward him and opened the trash bin to find a dozen green plantains and oranges and mangoes, among other fruits and veggies.
This was a big deal. Not so much that I'd found these items, but that this employee of the store was actually helping me to find what I was looking for! I suddenly felt a great sense of solidarity with this man. Overjoyed, I walked home with my night's findings.
By last night, those items were nearly all gone. I had a couple eggplants simmering on the stove, but I'd need to find some more ingredients for this week's meal. I headed down to Associated, where I found lots of zucchini, potatoes, peppers and onions. Then a block down for donuts and back up to Liberato's.
As I passed Associated on the upswing, I noticed an older woman - in her 60's, I'd say - rummaging through the trash bags and bins there. I passed quietly, hoping to avoid contact. My conscience got the best of me as I walked away - after all, I'd already taken most of the good produce in the organic waste bin. She might need it more than me and it's a freegan principle to share. Besides, it might behoove me to meet other food rescuers in the Heights! So I turned back to meet her.
I began speaking to her in English but she quickly interrupted, "No e-speaky Spanish." I tried Spanish next and we connected. I told her that I had passed a few minutes earlier and taken a lot of the fruits and veggies; she was welcome to take some of mine if she wished. She was reluctant, but I told her it was fine, that I'd taken more than I could really handle. She grabbed a few pieces of fruit as we talked about the various items she has found in the bags next to the bins (there's always a pile of bags there, but I'd never bothered checking them out myself). We talked for a while and she was very sweet. She explained that, as a Dominican, she hates seeing so much food go to waste; the importance of untying and tying bags at the knot rather than ripping them open; finally, she offered to bring some goods and leave them outside the store for me (I'll have to retrieve them tonight).
A teenaged girl walked past as we said our goodbyes and "mucho gusto". She must have realized that the two of us had met while rescuing food. She laughed audibly. Perhaps not at us. More with us, I think. I was still rather stunned to have met another food rescuer in the neighborhood myself! The woman's reaction to the teenaged girl was a comment on the crazy people that roam these streets in the Heights.
"you think they're crazy?" I replied in Spanish, "We're the ones getting our food from these trash cans!"
We laughed and parted. I look forward to bumping into her again.
I headed up to Liberato to have a look. More onions. I was peeking into another bin when the man with the white coat approached me again. This time he had a bag of bananas in hand, presumably a bag that he was about to toss in the trash can. He handed it to me.
This is a whole 'nother level of complicity, haha!
I brought my findings home and cleaned all the produce in the kitchen sink. I chopped an onion and half of a jalapeno to add to the eggplant stew still simmering on the stove. The rest went in the fridge.
I've noticed on the various freegan list servs that there's interest in more organized food rescue in the Heights. I'll be taking steps toward making this happen - group rescue missions, meetup, an uptown chapter of Food Not Bombs, and who-knows-what-else! If there are any freegans or prospectives in uptown Manhattan, from Morningside Heights to Inwood, or even in the nearby Bronx neighborhoods, please get in touch with me and I'll let you know what we're up to... I could also use your help!