By Lisa Donchak
Vegetarian. Vegan. Freegan?
Most people are familiar with the idea behind vegetarianism and veganism. But what is freeganism?
According to freegan.info, “Freegans are people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources. Freegans embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.”
However, those familiar with freeganism summarize it much more succinctly. Strict freegans are people who don’t pay for food or anything else.
“[I am] capable of eating roadkill [or] sloppy garbage,” said freegan Theodore Schmidkonz. “I’ve seem many people here in America go into wet sloppy garbage and throw it in a bucket and light a fire under it and eat it … and these guys have been doing it for 30 or 40 years.”
Schmidkonz isn’t the only one who will eat food of questionable integrity. One source from Santa Cruz, who wished to remain anonymous, said he cooks up roadkill as a source of protein. He and his friends often eat fish they catch themselves, and he routinely enters UCSC campus dining halls illegally for free meals.
While Santa Cruz is home to of a number of freegans, the freegan lifestyle isn’t just a Santa Cruz phenomenon.
Schmidkonz, a professional nurse, lives in a freegan community in Mount Laguna, CA. The community consists mainly of “lean-to shelters and yurts and a couple of trailers,” he said.
About 15-20 people stop by the collection of shelters each day to trade and barter for food. “The last thing we do is use money,” Schmidkonz said. “Some would say [it’s] anarchistic. Perhaps it is, to a degree.”
While some choose the freegan lifestyle for political reasons, others, like Schmikonz, choose it for financial reasons. “We’re scraping by individually on several hundred dollars apiece, and the only way we can do it is being freegan,” Schmidkonz said.
His community is one of a very small number of similarly freegan communities across the country. According to Schmidkonz, “We’re focused on benevolent activities, recycling, clean living, and mutual survival and coexistence. We try to be as independent as we possibly can.”
For freegans, part of this independence also means growing some of their own food. Schmidkonz’s community, which covers about a third of an acre, has a plum tree, an apple tree, and a fig tree. They also had a year-round organic garden, but the up-keep became too strenuous for Schmidkonz alone to maintain.
Much of the food that freegans eat is salvaged from dumpsters behind bakeries or places like Safeway, Trader Joe’s, and New Leaf. This method of reclaiming food, called “dumpster diving,” is difficult in Santa Cruz where most dumpsters are locked up or are inaccessible. However, this doesn’t seem to prevent freegans and others from accessing the trash.
“Trader Joe’s is really good,” said Eric Pellissier, a freegan who attended UCSC last year, before transferring to community college. “I found ridiculous amounts of stuff there. I found $200 of steak that was still frozen … the latest thing we found was 17 cheesecakes.”
Eleanor Wasserman, a freegan and student at UCSC, also testified to the quality of food found in dumpsters. “I’ve been to New Leaf and scored a bunch of vegetables,” she said. “The vegetables are totally fine … if they weren’t, we wouldn’t take them. Why waste it?”
Though sometimes some freegans draw the line. D. Scott Newton, a freegan from Monterey Bay, stays away from “food with flies on it, food with rotting parts,” he said. “Meat I’d be cautious about, but I think a crock pot might handle any marginal contamination.” Newton has been a freegan for three months and still considers himself a newcomer to the lifestyle; he only eats two meals a week as a freegan.
“I was invited to eat a free-food meal with some folks and was surprised at how good it was,” Newton said. “Then I couldn’t help but notice dumpsters full of good food behind certain restaurants and stores.”
It may sound too good to be true, but dumpster diving is still illegal, so it requires careful planning. “There’s only a certain number of dumpsters and certain windows of time they’re available,” Schmidkonz said.
Schmidkonz bikes around to a variety of places where he’s had good luck before. “Most of the food we gather is done on the weekend at nights. I’ve got a route of places that are about 10 or 15 minutes from here.”
Schmidkonz proudly enumerated the variety of food he’s gathered from dumpsters. “This last Sunday I went out and I did my routine, and I came back with a little utility trailer filled with those prepared packaged salads that you usually pay five or six bucks a pop for. I had two of them for lunch.” He also found organic bananas, raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, out of which he made smoothies.
According to Wasserman, being freegan “is what you make of it.” While a traditional, stricter freegan will not pay for any food, there are a broad range of lifestyles that fall under the freegan category. Some people who consider themselves freegan pay for vegetables and only eat meat if its next stop is the trashcan. Some freegans, who are just starting out, will eat several meals a week as a freegan, using only food that would have been wasted otherwise.
Wasserman described a freegan as “someone who is conscious of the capitalistic way [animals] are treated. I’m against that.”
Wasserman buys non-animal products and eats animal products only if they will be thrown out otherwise. “I definitely buy a lot of vegetables … I try to make sure it’s local and seasonal,” she said. Wasserman summarizes her lifestyle as vegan, but said she will eat meat to eliminate food waste. This is a fairly common practice; for many freegans, eating food, even if it’s animal-based, with the intent of reducing waste is better than knowing it will end up in a landfill.
Wasserman gave an example. “It was my birthday, and my friend made me these really nice cookies with eggs in them, so I took them. … I try to be as vegan as possible, but I do have a sweet tooth.”
For some, diet is not the only aspect of a freegan lifestyle. Politics and other types of purchases also factor into freeganism.
“Right now I don’t really buy anything,” said Pellissier, who attended UCSC for a year and now attends a community college. “I never buy clothes … I still buy gas because I have to get to college.”
Some freegans believe that spending money only contributes to a capitalist society. Freegan.info explains the logic behind the lifestyle: “Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system … instead of avoiding the purchase of products from one bad company only to support another, we avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able.”
Some have other reasons. “I think in a general sort of way I’m an anarchist,” Schmidkonz said. “I’m into self-sufficiency and individual survival. I think that the prevailing system here in the United States is beyond destructive … There’s no such thing as self-determination or democracy. It’s ridiculous. It’s nonsense.”
Yet, for Newton, “This isn’t political. Well, maybe a tiny bit of anti-consumerism.”
Pellissier also doesn’t feel his lifestyle choice reflects a political opinion. “Politics don’t really relate that much to not buying a sandwich at Subway,” he said. “It’s not that political.”
Due to the controversial nature and questionable legality of the freegan lifestyle, many critics have come forward.
One member of the forum veganpresent.com is vehemently against the freegan lifestyle, and expressed this opinion on the forum. “[By] associating yourself with veganism when you’ll eat anything as long as you don’t buy it yourself … doesn’t make you [freegan], it makes you cheap.”
Jessica Walker, a Santa Cruz resident and Cabrillo College student, finds a moral contradiction in the freegan lifestyle. She defined a freegan as “a vegan who justifies using products derived from animals as long as [the person isn’t] the primary consumer.”
“If you’re not doing everything you can to work against animal exploitation, then you’re not being a good vegan,” Walker said. “To have an extreme lifestyle and then say ‘It’s okay to break these rules,’ … it seems like a very convenient loophole.”
Freegans are well aware of their opponents’ viewpoints. “You hear all these deprecating comments about parasitism and to a degree some of it’s true,” Schmidkonz said. “But people in urban environments don’t have access to the land, and that’s the key. They don’t have access to a source of production.”
Many freegans have trouble telling their friends about their lifestyle. Some are against the choice to be freegan, even if they are considered liberally-minded.
Also, freegans tend to want to keep their lifestyles from becoming public knowledge. Often once businesses and organizations get wind that their dumpsters are being raided, they tend to lock their dumpsters or put up fences.
But while they may not be well-known and they may not be popular, freegans have found an underground niche in the Santa Cruz community.
“I think people who pick up those kinds of lifestyles are on the right track to a progressive lifestyle,” Walker said. “It’s just funny to live your life in such an extreme way.”