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Living freegan in Columbia

Locals cut down on waste by Dumpster diving, sharing food

November 11, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

In the slew of alternative food movements that have emerged in the past couple decades, freeganism is one of the more sensational, evoking images of twilight scavengers prowling through the wreckage of trash heaps and modern excess. According to legend, freegans come out at night and plunge headlong into Dumpsters to salvage clothing, televisions and cornucopias of uneaten food. One person’s trash is another person’s entree, and the best things in life are free if you’re willing to pull them out of a bin. Beyond a cost-conscious cliché, according to freegan.org.uk, freegans try to “live simply, reducing their consumption and the pressure they place on the environment, through such things as recycling, sharing resources and using one’s time to help others.”

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Dumpster diving might be the most documented component of freegan ideology, but in actual practice, freeganism is equally concerned with bartering, gardening, foraging and community sharing of food. Like the term itself, freeganism is a loose blend of ideologies combining the politics of animal rights, anti-consumerism and collective anarchism.

In the sense that the personal is political, freeganism is both a lifestyle and a political movement. Society wastes nearly half of its harvestable produce, and individual households waste up to 14 percent of their food, according to a 2004 study conducted by the University of Arizona. The goal of freegans is not simply to waste as little money as possible — it’s to make use of society’s waste. Although similar ideologies have been around for decades, in recent years they’re building steam in eco-conscious communities such as Columbia.

Noah Myers is a modern-day hunter-gatherer. Behind the counter at the Root Cellar where he works one day a week, the soft-spoken 22-year-old MU Spanish major perches on a stool and snacks on persimmons harvested from trees all over MU’s campus. He sees food everywhere — not in the sense of a hungry cartoon character who hallucinates his friend is a sandwich — but in the sense that he spots the wild abundance most people pass without noticing. Fallen apples. Wild mulberries. And the sticky-sweet persimmons he describes as the “dates of the Midwest.”

“People look at me like I’m crazy because I’m just eating these off the ground, but they’re really good for making jam or cookies,” Myers says. “This time of year, there are so many things that are just out there to eat.”

In the past five years, Myers has researched alternatives to conventional agricultural practices, such as organic farming, the local food movement and do-it-yourself methods of wild fermentation of yogurt and mead. Freeganism encapsulates his whole ideology behind food practices.

“It means you’re interested in having less of an impact, getting things without having to pay for them and eliminating waste instead of consuming something,” he says. “You get kind of addicted to it — the sense that you’re not wasting anything.”

Zora Serfozo says most people don’t even notice how much waste exists. Serfozo, a 23-year-old who has lived in Columbia for 20 years and is a Peace Nook employee, has been a freegan since high school, when ze (Serfozo prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “ze”) was known as “the community garbage dump” for a willingness to finish other people’s food. Serfozo only wears used clothing and walks everywhere barefoot, explaining simply, “Shoes aren’t necessary.”

“I just think there’s a lot more food in the U.S. than there needs to be,” Serfozo says. “People don’t notice throwing it away because it’s so readily available. If people go about their day not caring about what they see or not paying attention to the things they see, it’s easy to not recognize how much food gets wasted.”

Serfozo tries to cut down on excess by eating out of restaurant bus tubs, sharing community food, supporting the farmers market and, yes, Dumpster diving. Although many grocery stores such as Hy-Vee are often willing to give away or reduce the prices of items that can’t be sold, other times perfectly good food goes into the trash because it’s past the expiration date or not up to U.S. cosmetic standards.

“A lot of produce gets thrown away because people are used to having perfect-looking food,” Serfozo says. “If it doesn’t look perfect, then the store can’t sell it.”

Serfozo says ze has friends who can find almost anything in a Hy-Vee Dumpster, including sealed foods that have never been removed from the package. Few divers are willing to discuss the details, but similarly, they regularly pluck wrapped bread from the Dumpster at Uprise Bakery. Scrounging through Dumpsters exists in a legal grey zone — sometimes it qualifies as trespassing, but there are no specific laws against it in Columbia. For many, it’s also a social taboo, but Serfozo sees it differently.

“The problem with Dumpstering is it’s seen as gross because of the way we see trash,” Serfozo says. “But it’s not really trash. It’s leftover food that’s only considered trash. I guess that’s what Dumpstering is. It’s kind of like leftovers.”

But not everyone agrees. Ron Rottinghaus, owner of Uprise Bakery, says he takes offense to the freegans who raid his Dumpsters for bread. Rottinghaus explains that the bakery works hard to provide the community with a unique product, and some waste is inevitable because it’s difficult to forecast demand. Eating the bread for free, Rottinghaus says, devalues the hard work that goes into creating it.

“If they’re not willing to pay for what it takes to make it, I don’t think they should come onto our property and take it,” Rottinghaus says.

Although Rottinghaus considers diving into an Uprise Dumpster to be a slap in the face, he’s more than willing to contribute bread to service organizations that show respect for the bakery’s product.

Every Monday night at the corner of Ninth and Walnut streets, Columbia’s chapter of Food Not Bombs serves a free vegetarian meal with a wide selection of donated Uprise bread. Food Not Bombs, an informal network of global anti-hunger activists, has been one of the cornerstones of the freegan movement since its early ’80s inception in Cambridge, Mass. Volunteers at Café Berlin, where Columbia’s Food Not Bombs chapter prepares its food, use donated food to whip up meals for anyone who drops by. This is where the whole community-sharing aspect of freegan ideology comes in.

On this particular Monday, a crowd of approximately 20 — a mix of young activist types and bearded 50-somethings who look like they might feel more at home at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally — is gathered on the patio at Ninth and Walnut. Molly Zapp ladles an improvised lentil-potato stew onto a plate for a man dressed in black clothing and a hat that reads “Jesus is Lord.” Zapp has been involved with Food Not Bombs since Columbia’s chapter relaunched in February. Both the salad and hearty lentil stew served tonight were made from Clovers Natural Market’s expired produce.

“Basically, we take donated food, and we prepare and give it to people for free,” Zapp explains. “It’s that simple. We’re saying what is worthy of our time and our resources is feeding people, is being good to members of our community. We give people food. We don’t give them Bibles. We don’t give them guns.”

Although Zapp doesn’t personally identify as a freegan, she sees a lot of crossover between freeganism and Food Not Bombs’ mission. “There is so much leftover food,” Zapp says. “If someone gets that out of the Dumpster and eats it, that’s great. If we can get it before it gets to the Dumpster and give it to people, (that’s) also great. But there is literally enough left over that we can feed dozens of people.”

“Free food!” the cluster of participants calls out to passers-by. There are a few stops to see what’s on the menu, but most continue. Food Not Bombs isn’t the only opportunity for freegan-curious Columbians to experiment with a less wasteful lifestyle. For those squeamish about the legality and sanitation of Dumpster diving, websites such as freecycle.org make it easy to give away or barter unwanted goods. Myers has more tips.

“Don’t buy anything packaged or ready-made,” he says. “There are so many resources that go into processing the package, and the food is worse for your health. Make more things from scratch — you can save a lot of money making things from scratch. Get a garden plot, and grow what you can.

“And talk to restaurants,” he continues. “Talk to grocery stores. I have a friend who gets mangoes from Gerbes or Hy-Vee because suddenly they have all these mangoes that go bad, and they just want to throw them away, so they’re glad to sell them to you cheap or just let you take them sometimes. Ask if places are throwing stuff out, and they’re usually willing to let you take them.”

The distinction between accepting grocery store rejects and plucking sealed food from a bin might appear minimal, but Dumpster-diving taboos probably aren’t going away anytime soon. In light of the Uprise Bakery position, permission seems to be the difference, but Serfozo argues freegans shouldn’t be punished for repurposing others’ waste.

“People get mad at other people for going through their trash,” Serfozo says. “Well, you threw it out, so it’s not your trash anymore. Don’t get mad at someone for making use of something you’ve decided not to use.”

Waste not; want not — the unofficial motto of Columbia freegans. And because “freeganism” combines “free” and “veganism” into a satisfying portmanteau, what might the other unofficial motto be? Zerfoso and Myers both agree: Never eat meat that comes out of a Dumpster.

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