One Man's Trash Is Another Man's Dinner

Madeline Nelson is hosting a dinner party for a dozen friends. She is serving four courses, including mixed green salad and stuffed peppers. The grocery bill for such an elaborate feast? Zero. That's because this food doesn't come from inside a store, but outside of it.

The night before the dinner, Nelson led a "trash tour" on the streets of tony Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., dumpster diving at bakeries and grocery stores.

Nelson, 51, used to be a corporate executive, and worked in corporate communications for 20 years. But in 2004, she had a big change of heart.

"I just started looking at the state of the U.S. and the state of the world, and thinking, 'what the hell am I doing here?  What am I doing?  Global warming is happening, there's war in Iraq, Bush is out of control, and here I am, working at a corporation to help a company sell more stuff,'" said Nelson.

She started learning about different kinds of anti-consumption activism, and one of those activities was freeganism.

Freegans are people who live off what others throw away, to protest what they see as an out of control, consumer-driven economy that is harmful to people, animals, and the planet. They dumpster dive for everything from food to furniture. Nelson was invited to her first trash tour and found the experience eye-opening. 

"A little shocking that people were on the street doing this, but amazing what was happening — how much was being wasted, and the implications of the stuff, that I was seeing there, wasted," said Nelson.

She started to distance herself from the corporate world, and finally quit her six-figure salary job in September 2005 to become a full-time freegan.

"My friends were watching this, and some of them were saying, 'My God, Madeline, what are you doing?'  But others were seeing that I was happier, that I didn't need to be living the lifestyle that I was living, and that it was OK for me to be taking risks," said Nelson. 

Freegans say stores often throw away food, not because it's spoiled, but because it's not pretty enough to sell.

"I'd say what's gross and disgusting is the fact that this food is being thrown out in the first place," said Nelson. "What's really disgusting is the system that allows this waste to happen."

Freegans say they can tell what is fresh by smelling and touching the food, just as you would when shopping in a supermarket. According to Nelson, you just have to rely on common sense. For instance, you would not take food that was sitting inside a garbage bag next to a cleaning product, even if the food was in a box or packaged. As far as rats, Nelson said, avoid food that looks like it has been nibbled.

Their biggest competitor might not be rats, but garbage men. Freegans often have to hurry collecting their food before the garbage truck appears to take away what could potentially be tomorrow night's dinner.

One passerby, Dana Betts, acknowledged that, while the practice seemed a little "gross," she agreed with the point that stores are too quick to throw out unspoiled food.

"I mean, I'm watching them, and they're finding good stuff," said Betts.

The freegans did find a lot of good stuff in Brooklyn Heights that night. At Nelson's dinner party, the freegans feasted on pasta with tomato sauce, carrot-ginger soup, stuffed vegetables, and a tofu strawberry cheesecake — all made from the items they foraged on the streets of Brooklyn.

Freegans don't expect everyone to start dining from a dumpster, but they do hope to raise awareness about how much our society throws away, by proving one man's trash is another man's dinner.