Encounter With a Freegan
Yesterday I spotted my first freegan, standing in front of the Dumpster in the parking lot of a Chicago Trader Joe's. The encounter made me think long and hard about what I would feed my children and how I should procure it.
I've been fascinated by freeganism since reading about it and hearing about it on the radio. So when I saw the young man by the Dumpster, I turned my head to look closely. He gave me a shrug and a smile. I rolled down my window and asked, "Freegan?"
Yup. "There is some amazing stuff in here!" he said. Indeed, "amazing" was the very adjective used to describe this particular Dumpster on a freegan Web site I'd seen. On the ground were a few grocery items that looked similar to the stuff I had just paid over $200 for inside the store. A loaf of whole wheat bread, in a bread bag. A container of mini red and yellow peppers which had spilled open. A plastic-wrapped wedge of brie.
"Did all that come out of the Dumpster?" I asked. In response, he held up a large backpack that was so full he could barely lift it with one hand.
"All this came out of there," he told me. "Want some bread?"
I chuckled, and he glanced at the backseat and said, "You probably don't want to feed your kids out of the garbage."
Do I? Reading about freeganism, I have thought that it's something I wouldn't mind trying. People routinely find wrapped or packaged food, before the expiration date, from premium stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.
But now the freegan himself suggested that his spoils might not be fit for children. I thought it over on my drive home. Suddenly I could think of all kinds of reasons that feeding my family out of Dumpsters might make me nervous:
-- I don't know why the store discarded the food. A lot of it, freegans say, is thrown out because of a small blemish or other reasons that would not affect the safety. But how am I to know that it's not being pitched because a cooler broke and the food wasn't kept cool enough overnight? Or because it was sitting under a leak from an upstairs toilet? Or because a customer returned it complaining that it tasted moldy?
-- Much of the food is wrapped, but it is not exactly being stored in a clean place. Would I mind if a cockroach or a rat walked across that breadbag before I brought it home and set it on my counter? OK, that could happen in the food warehouse, the truck or in the store as well, I know. But it seems almost guaranteed to happen in a Dumpster, don't you think? And what if the store puts rat poison in the Dumpster to keep vermin away?
-- What about that other garbage it's sitting next to or under? Suppose my wedge of cheese has been lightly bathed in the last drops from a bottle of Draino that was also thrown out?
Of course, I can think of counterarguments to my squeamishness. The store always looks clean and shiny, but I know my food has not always been in pristine places throughout the production chain. And even with these risks to food purity, my kids would probably be better off eating organic food from the garbage than the conventional low-quality produce I usually buy from the grocery store nearest to me. And the waste of resources involved in all that food ending up in a landfill is probably a bigger threat to my kids' long-term health than the possibility of getting a dirty banana today.
Alas, as much as I long to be a radical mommy raising a couple of little Abbie Hoffmans, I guess I'm more Donna Reed in this respect: Say rat, and I'm outta here. Even hypothetical rat. Anyway, if we shopped outside the Trader Joe's instead of inside, my 3-year-old would not get a balloon, and, let me tell you -- there would be serious repercussions.
So -- any freegans reading out there? Tell me, do you feed your kids this way? Am I underestimating the hygenic standards of the modern Dumpster?