Sara Ross never expected to be rummaging behind grocery stores looking for food. “Coming from middle-class values, I just would never have thought that I would find myself here, eating this way,” she tells the Straight.
This isn’t yet another story about how the recession has affected the lives of the formerly affluent, who are now forced to take staycations and pilfer from their savings. Ross—a community artist, an activist, and a member of the B:C:Clettes dance troupe—identifies herself as a freegan. The word is a portmanteau of free and vegan that’s used to describe everyone from anticonsumerist vegetarians to those who occasionally raid their neighbourhood’s back alleys for discarded furniture and appliances.
Ross and her roommates at the Beehive, a collective house that operates on the concept of shared living, fall somewhere in the middle of the scale. While they source much of their food for free, using methods ranging from foraging and farming to bartering and binning, they’ll splurge on essentials like grains, cooking oil, and salt. For Ross, Dumpster diving is a way of both working within and excusing herself from a food system she sees as broken. She can still eat organic and local, but she’s also able to salvage and intercept waste.
“It’s not out of necessity—and there are lots of people who do it out of necessity,” Ross says on the line from her East Van home. “And for me, it’s not even fun or funky. It’s about politics. It’s a political choice. It’s about waste in our society. It’s about inequality. It’s about some people not having it and some people having way too much.”
A great quantity of food routinely gets thrown out at all stages in the food system in our society: by producers, retailers, and consumers.
That’s according to Mark Bomford, director of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm. “I don’t have good statistics for this country, but in the U.K., where it’s been audited a bit more with care, it’s estimated that about a third of the food that is purchased at the retail level ends up in the garbage,” says Bomford. “It goes into your home, it ends up in the fridge, goes bad, and gets tossed,” he tells the Straight in a phone interview.
Still more food—perfectly edible food, according to freegans, but unsold or deemed unsellable by grocery stores—enters the waste stream. And while local organizations like Quest Food Exchange and the Vancouver Fruit Tree Project exist to distribute and divert food headed to the landfill, some still gets sent to the Dumpster.
There, it’s ripe for the taking.
Ross mainly rummages for produce and the occasional loaf of bread, favouring fruits and vegetables over more flashy Dumpster fare like baked goods and prepared foods. She talks about finds of artichokes and papayas like they’re Bob Dylan possessions.
Visits to her usual haunts—which she prefers to keep mum about—are carefully timed. “There’s a sort of ebb and flow of when produce gets put out, so you get to know the cycles of each location. It depends on when the compost gets taken away and when the shops close. There are definitely rhythms you learn,” Ross explains. “You should see how many people are at the Dumpsters when the cakes go out.”
Everyone loves a bargain. But can you have your cake and eat it too?
Certain grocery chains can be antagonistic toward freegans. They lock their Dumpsters, or in extreme cases press charges against freegans for trespassing or theft. But others exist in harmony with their freeloading neighbours.
“The garbage bin and the cardboard bin we lock up at night and discourage people from taking from,” Doug Smith, general manager of the East End Food Co-op, tells the Straight by phone. The consumer-owned Commercial Drive store donates food that would otherwise be thrown away to organizations like the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society’s Community Angel Food Runners, Sheway, and the Kettle Friendship Society. But what ends up in the compost is fair game.
“People just walk right in and start going at it,” Smith says. “People tend to clean up after themselves.”¦they generally keep a very tidy area for us.”
Besides the risk of injury that comes with diving into Dumpsters, there are other obvious health hazards associated with eating food found in the trash. Along with the good stuff, there can be contaminated and spoiled food. “At the same time, it’s not as though as soon as something goes into the waste stream it has been certified unsafe,” Bomford says. “I’m not saying there’s no good food in the Dumpster—there is good food in the Dumpster—it’s just that it’s mixed in with some stuff which is definitely not good food. And there are very few folks who have the time and the guts to sort the good from the bad.”
But despite the risks, Ross is proof that there is such a thing as a free lunch, if you know where to look and what to look for. Freeganism has its own rewards for those willing to put in the hours and the effort.
“Some days it’s just celery, and some days it’s just bananas. Some days it’s just half a dozen tomatoes, a bag of mushrooms,” Ross says. “It’s always an exciting gamble.”