Twelve people dug through bags of trash late in the evening on New York City's Upper East Side. Temperatures had dipped into the 20s. Everyone in the group was dressed warmly; everyone had a place to live. They could have afforded to buy the food they retrieved from the trash bags that lined the curb in front of a Third Avenue supermarket. Instead, they planned to create a menu from what the market had thrown away.
"We're making a statement to people," said Adam Weissman, 28, a member of the group, criticizing what he called "this over-consumptive, wasteful society" in which so much food is discarded.
He and the others call themselves "Freegans," a combination of the word "free," referring to the goods they retrieve from the trash, and "vegan," meaning someone whose diet excludes meat and animal products (although not all Freegans are vegans). Freegans also collect other goods that are left on the street -- books, clothing and furniture, for instance.
Weissman maintains that enough good food is available in the trash -- including vegetables and bread that's still in its original wrapping -- to make it possible for him to eat well without ever paying for a meal.
He said Freegans also give food away. "I'm going to be walking around the streets of Manhattan, giving out this food to people who can use it, and letting them know how they can do the same thing," he said.
Weissman was less direct when asked whether he worried that food from a trash pile might make someone ill. "Stores are throwing away perfectly good food," he replied. Pressed for a more specific answer on the safety of food collected from trash bags and Dumpsters, he said, "That's the answer you're going to get."
"It's not a good idea to do that, because they're placing themselves at risk," said John Krakowski, who works for a private charity called City Harvest that rescues food and distributes it to people in need. City Harvest was founded in 1981, also in response to the tons of food that are wasted each day. However, its procedures include food inspections and direct donations from grocers, restaurants, farmers and green markets before the surplus is discarded.
In New York City alone, Krakowski said, City Harvest gathers more than 20 million pounds of surplus food every year and redistributes it to 800 community food programs. Krakowski estimates that the effort helps feed more than 260,000 people every week.
One thing City Harvest and the Freegans have in common is a realization of the enormous food surpluses in the United States that go to waste if someone isn't there to rescue them.
Timothy Jones of the University of Arizona conducted a study to quantify food loss. "In the U.S., in our overall food system, we're probably losing in the range of 40 [percent] to 50 percent," he said.
"It is a really big issue. In terms of economics, we're talking at least $100 billion a year."
The study showed that American families are among the worst offenders -- that an average family of four throws out $600 worth of good food every year, and that 14 percent of that is food that hasn't expired or even been unpackaged.