On a cold March night in New York City, snow still on the ground from a late-season nor’easter, a small group gathered around a pile of trash outside a Morton Williams supermarket in Midtown East. There were around 40 to 50 plastic bags piled high. A lot of them held normal waste–discarded packaging, crusts from people’s lunches. But Janet Kalish, an organizer with New York’s freegan group, opened one bag to find around 50 intact, edible bagels.
Kalish and a handful of dedicated freegans–people who pull edible food from piles of waste in an art commonly known as “dumpster diving”–organize tours in New York every couple of weeks. During meetings, Kalish and her co-organizers will discuss the larger issues of the city’s food system, including why so much edible waste ends up on the street. They’ll give newcomers advice on how and when to forage (late at night but before garbage pickup is ideal), what to look for, and how to make use of their salvaged sustenance.
Generally, the freegan meetups are not open to the media and instead geared toward building a participatory movement shielded from interrogation. But the New York freegans play an integral role in new docu-series from Fusion called Food Exposed, in which journalist Nelufar Hedayat travels the world examining how our food systems work, who they exploit, and how they create waste in the process of feeding us.
Hedayat joined the New York tour in mid-March to retread the path she followed with the New York freegans in Food Exposed.
Digging through bags of trash for food “is designed to open your eyes, rather than fill your bellies,” Hedayat tells Fast Company. “In a land of plenty, there are so many people that go without,” she adds. “This helps you question and interrogate why that is.”
Part of the issue, Kalish explains on the tour, is that while we as a society have expended so many resources feeding ourselves to the point where we have an excess of food–she dismissed the bagels she found outside the Morton Williams, claiming there was a bakery a few blocks up that made better ones that still ended up on the sidewalk–we don’t know how to manage that excess.
In New York, the sheer volume of food we uncovered on the sidewalk stands in contrast to the more than 16% of New York residents who are food insecure, and often do not know where their next meal will come from, or if they’ll be able to afford it.
In a sense, it’s a distribution problem. There is enough food in New York City to feed all residents, but it often fails to end up in the hands of people who need it most. Right before leaving the Morton Williams, Hedayat pulled out a bag filled to the brim with fresh produce–onions, peppers, potatoes–discarded for slight irregularities. “Something has gone terribly wrong when all the produce, salads, and prepared sushi that were so valuable just minutes before are thrown out and now worthless,” she says after the tour. “That was a moment that opened everybody’s eyes,” Hedayat adds. “Most people weren’t expecting to experience that.”
But for people familiar with the issue of food waste in cities, and how frequently good, edible food is discarded for failing to meet a certain aesthetic standard, that bag is unremarkable. Recognizing the magnitude of the waste, nonprofits like City Harvest work to connect some of that excess food to pantries, which then distribute to lower-income people. The nonprofit’s trucks circulate through the city, picking up and distributing produce and perishables from restaurants and grocery stores. In other cities, nonprofits like Feeding America are establishing relationships between retailers and hunger-relief agencies to do the same, and myriad campaigns have launched to re-establish the value of “ugly produce” by encouraging grocery stores to still sell it at a discounted price.
All of these interventions, though, work as damage control for a flawed system. While Kalish and the freegans work to educate people about the amount of waste we generate, they essentially want to put themselves out of business. “What they’re saying is there should be no edible food in the trash at the end of the day for them to find,” Hedayat says. While the food system itself, and all the players within it, from distributors to restaurants to grocery stores, have to do much more to cut down on waste, Hedayat hopes that the freegan movement will inspire people to do “their own version of freeganism in their own homes.” Americans throw away 40% of the food they buy. “If we domestically reduce our waste, that would indicate a trend to the larger players in the system.”