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Freeloading with the Freegans

(post, Nadia Arumugam)

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It’s difficult to get shocked by anything in New York City anymore. But digging around in someone’s garbage for my dinner was one thing that until recently induced an involuntary gagging reflex in me. Not that I plan to start riffling through rodent infested trash cans for that delectable last bite of a stranger’s discarded burger. But joining a group of Freegans (people who quite simply exist on other people's cast offs) on a trash tour recently  opened my eyes to the excess of seemingly decent food that eateries, supermarkets and other gourmet retailers discard at the end of the day. And at least for a nano-second, it had me thinking, that perhaps I was being too precious in my insistence that the contents of my fridge come to me from Whole Foods shelves rather than via its dumpsters….

Dumpster diving is how the Freegans describe their free food gathering expeditions. But despite this hip phrase that would sit happily next to snowboarding and bungee jumping, there is very little glamor, I imagine, to diving head first into a large container of unidentifiable refuse. Lucky for me, there were neither dumpsters  nor diving. 

I was taken on a most profitable route near New York University's downtown campus, along E. 8th Street, then up towards the Whole Foods in Union Square . The sources of our plunder were bulging, flimsily tied garbage bags that stores including the cupcake bakery Crumbs, the italian sandwich shop Cosi and Gristedes had only minutes before our arrival left on the sidewalk for collection. 

At Crumbs, my newly acquired  freegan friends nimbly untied bags then systematically sifted through their contents. Whole cupcakes with only minimal damage to the frosting were democratically doled out while the staff looked through the window bemused, but not shocked. This was clearly not the first time the freegans had visited. Then as if to signify that they were merely resourceful members of society not rampant ravagers of trash they tied up the sacks and left them neatly to the side of the curb. 

Their stomachs steeled with a sugary lining (I refrained from the cupcakes), we moved on. Sowmy, an graduate environmental science student, from Bangalore, India and a recent recruit to the Freegan lifestyle, explained that her diet was far more exciting now than when she made ends meet on her pauper's subsistence. She would never have been able to afford the cornucopia of luxuries like mangoes, avocados and pomegranate juice she regularly finds. And when she hankers for a bite of her native fare, she heads to the Indian restaurants in Murray Hill where her favorite dosas- Indian rice and lentil pancakes- are abundant. She has never had any problems with food poisoning nor nasty rotten surprises, she reassured me, in response to my ill-disguised look of horror. 

At Gristedes, there was a buzz of excitement. Dozens of bagels, still tender and probably baked that morning greeted my comrades as they peered inside flimsy white bags. There were also packs of marshmallows, wholegrain bread and bananas perfect for eating -if you like them on the riper side. I declined the bagels, bread and bananas but after a surreptitious glance at the sell by date on the still sealed packet, I graciously accepted some marshmallows.

What can I say, I have a sweet tooth.