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The New Radical

Posted Jan 05 2010 7:22am

by Andrea Wilson 

Can finding food in dumpsters, i.e. “dumpster diving," improve the world’s diet and prevent obesity? There may be a lot to learn from freegans (free + vegan), people who use non-traditional strategies to gather the vegan food they eat and items they need, not want, including foraging in the wild, dumpster diving, and good old fashioned sharing.

Freeganism rejects involvement in the traditional economy and advocates for minimal use of resources. The food freegans retrieve from restaurant and grocery store dumpsters, and other locations, is packaged and edible. It is thrown away only because it has a cosmetic imperfection or is near, at, or slightly past its expiration date. But freegans will not eat anything they find – it must be vegan.    

I have previously written about the health benefits of a vegan diet – one rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts, and without any animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, or eggs. But with the ever-expanding list of vegan alternatives, it is easy to move from nutritious staples to less healthy items such as cupcakes and cookies.

The freegan philosophy can change that. All food, and especially unhealthy food, is available with greater frequency and in larger amounts than ever before. The 24/7 food environment encourages us to overeat unhealthy food, often because it is convenient. While baked goods, packaged foods, and other on-the-go items are eaten by freegans, freeganism can fight the effects of this environment by its principle of only consuming food that is needed and has been obtained by unconventional, and therefore potentially inconvenient, means.

Their unique food choices would be ideal for a study on obesity and weight loss. Freegans eat to live, not live to eat. They have a decreased chance of being affected by food marketing when obtaining food. They may be subject to food advertising on television, radio, internet, and billboards like the rest of us, but they do not see in-store displays. And instead of consciously or subconsciously remembering the ads when purchasing food, they retrieve only from the items that are available to them. 

I do not expect most, some, or even any of the readers to become freegans. But I wonder how the tenets of the freegan lifestyle can be used to improve the food environment at home, in the office, and in restaurants by changing their defaults, thereby increasing appreciation and awareness of and mindfulness in every bite, including the type and amount of food. Here are some suggestions.

Individuals and groups:

  • Buy, prepare, and order food in the amount needed. 
  • Grocery shop once or twice a week.
  • Eat until satisfied at a restaurant and take leftovers to go to eat later or share with someone in your household.
  • Donate unneeded food to a local food drive, food bank, or Food Not Bombs.
  • Incorporate a vegan diet once a week.

Restaurants/policy makers:

  • Create dishes that are individual portion sizes.
  • Offer more vegan dishes.
  • Label calories and number of portions.

Freegans get a bad rap for “eating from the trash.” But what may seem like a radical social movement may offer insight into the way we eat that creates positive and lasting change.

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