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.
American buying habits are partially to blame, said Jones. "People buy … things they're not used to buying. Let's say you're in the store ... and you see something that makes you think, 'Oh, wow, that'd be neat to try.' You buy it, and then you get it home and you set it in the cabinet, and it sits there and sits there. And then once or twice a year, you start to clean everything out. And you go, 'I'm not going to eat this … I don't even know how to fix it.' So you turn around and you throw it out."
Jones said Americans buy more things in bulk, whereas Europeans buy smaller amounts of foods, so they can control their loss rates better.
And lifestyle is also a factor. "One of the things we saw in the household, was that people don't think about food in terms of their planning: 'How long is this going to last and when should I use it?'"
Jones said that Americans who work long hours and come home fatigued "don't want to fix meals, so they pull out the frozen food and eat it." Then they may throw out fruits and vegetables they believe are spoiled because they don't understand the process by which they could preserve them for use later.
Commercially, Jones said, "the highest levels of losses percentage-wise are in convenience stores. And the reason for that is the structure in which they provide instant food for people. You can only leave hamburgers and pizzas and things like that out there for so long. And then you eventually have to throw them away."
Jones' study estimated convenience store food losses at 26 percent. Full-service restaurants and supermarkets are much more efficient, he said.
"What happened in the supermarket industry was that a lot of competitors came into the industry and forced them to try to increase their bottom line. And so they had to become more efficient ... and they've done this over the last 15 or 20 years down to the point to where their loss rate is only 1 [percent] to 2 percent, which is incredible when you consider how much food they handle every day."
The Freegans say they find plenty of food that supermarkets simply throw away to clear shelf space for newer products. In a group preparing lunch from the street food that members collected, several people identified themselves as teachers or workers for environmental groups. Alexis Cole is a church music director whose boyfriend went to culinary school.
"I'd say 90 percent of our kitchen is full of stuff from the street. We still buy a few staples like orange juice," she said.
"The majority of my clothes, a lot of amazing hats … shoes … my dresser, a lot of the music that I have, a record player, computer speakers, and a lot of soaps and toiletry products that I have all come from the trash," Cole added.
Still, Krakowski of City Harvest is uncomfortable with the idea of Dumpster diving for food. When told that some Freegans claim never to have gotten sick, Krakowski said, "It's like somebody going through a red light and boasting that they went through a red light. Sometimes you go through a red light and nothing happens and sometimes you go through a red light and something disastrous can happen. It's a risk."
At the University of Arizona, Jones said he is happy for any light that is shed on the problem of food waste. He believes the nation needs a food loss reduction plan. He points to U.S. Agriculture Department statistics indicating that at least 12 percent of American households are "food insecure" at some point during the year, meaning they don't have enough to eat.
"If we were to recover, let's say, 50 percent of the food that was being lost … we would probably triple the amount of food available [for feeding programs] within the United States," Jones said.