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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.

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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.

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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.

Mission accomplished.


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!
 
 
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The city of New York takes recycling very seriously. Building supers and business owners can get hefty fines (pun intended) for not properly sorting their trash and recycling. They are both to be left on the curbsie for pickup, though on different days, and the latter is to be bagged in blue transparent plastic rather than opaque black or clear plastic.

This is also one of those states where virtually any plastic bottle can be redeemed for ¢5 .

So perhaps it's not surprising that there are individuals who traverse the city, collecting those blue plastic bags in shopping carts and schlepping them to grocery stores and pharmacies. I've seen these people all over the city and always wondered about them - are they homeless? Do they really make much money? Is it worth the trouble?

I greatly respected the work that they do and even fantasized about one day having the expendable income to give them a 20 and a hearty "thank you." At the same time I've had some apprehensions about them - could they be dangerous? - and I never bothered to strike up a conversation or otherwise get to know my neighborhood recycling redeemers.

Then last night, as I approached my familiar treasure trove outside of Morton Williams supermarket on Broadway and 115th, I was finally confronted by one of them.

"Hey Boss."

He was firendly in his address but I assumed he was going to beg for money, which I almost certainly would have turned down. I didn't know yet that he had collected three large bags of bottles for redemption, as they were leaning against the wall of the market, about twenty feet away.

"If you take one of those bags into the store for me we can split the money."

I was impressed and intrigued by his hustle but "Why can't you take it yourself?"

"They only let me take one hundred bottles, one bag."

I agreed to help him out and set myself to food rescue while he redeemed a first bag. I overheard him telling the owner, "no, those are his bags," pointing to the other two bags leaning against the wall.

"Boss!" I looked over and nodded in agreement.

Once he returned, I went to redeem the second bag. The owner stood conspicuously in the doorway, holding another bag open as I transferred the bottles one by one, as quickly as possible. He appeared annoyed. I don't think he was counting the bottles and I certainly wasn't either. So I presume he arbitrarily decided when there were a hundred of them. He pulled away and began tying the bag, directing me to the checkout line for my five bucks.

I made the line and within a few minutes I was out the door with the money. I gave three of the five to my business partner and proceeded to rescue my food for the coming week. He asked which way I would be headed from there, wondering whether I could accompany him to the next store. I had already got off to a late start and wouldn't have time to go with him, I said. And before I could look up to introduce myself and give a proper farewell, he was halfway down the next block. His identity may remain a mystery for some time, but I'm glad to have caught a glimpse of the recycling redeemer's way of life.

For more info on these folks, check out this article published in the Bronx Journal in June 2011.

 
 
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Several months ago, I saw that two or three of my peers on twitter were talking about an upcoming festival (a "gathering," NOT a conference or convention) in North Carolina that would focus on the intersection of art, justice, and spirituality. It was to be called Wild Goose Festival, after a Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit of God.

I contacted Jacob, one of the directors, hoping to snag some stage time at the event, but I was too late - the programming was already planned out. I ended up volunteering with the "recycling crew" instead (euphemism for the waste management team which also handled trash and compost).

Being a freegan myself - and therefore especially concerned about waste - I figured I was a shoe-in. I gladly accepted the position which would allow me to attend the entire event for free - food and camping accommodations included!

I volunteered 16 hours throughout the fest shouldering large compost bins and heavy black bags of trash and recycling into the bed of a bright blue pick up truck and emptying them at the farm's dump site. It wasn't very glamorous, but I did make friends with my fellow trash crew members and we even devised a secret handshake!

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Though it was fun and even enlightening - to a certain extent - to spend the weekend camping out, singing, dancing, playing, and engaging in conversation with my mostly-left-leaning brothers and sisters, I was sorely disappointed by their apparent inability to minimize and sort waste properly, even in a festival milieu that so aptly encouraged it! Nearly every waste station had separate bins for compost, trash, and recycling with colorful signs explaining which items ought to go in each - yet It was all too often that we found plastic bags in the compost bins, bottles and food waste in the trash. 

By the end of the festival we accumulated about two large dumpsters worth of both trash and recycling; relatively little amounts of food and paper waste were composted; stunningly exorbitant amounts of waste were improperly sorted. 

Now I hate to sound all holier-than-thou; but seriously, how can such a group of hippie, environmentalist, progressive, leftist, and/or so-called emergent Christians blow it on such a basic level? Christians really can't figure out how to reuse, reduce, recycle? To properly steward the planet created for us? If anything, we ought to be leading the charge! 

I know that many Christians are, indeed, leading the way - I first really learned about composting at a similar Xian event in 2008 called PAPA Fest - and that many of those who attended Wild Goose did their part. But on the whole the folks of this festival community (still only a small sampling of this minority appendage of the Church in the US) absolutely must do more to create a better model for consumption and waste. Here's hoping that by next year this flock gets its act straight, realizes its responsibility to care for the earth, and starts to lead the way. Our planet can hardly afford otherwise!

For more on my trip to North Carolina, check out the post on my personal blog page... click here =D