What is an apple? In your kitchen, it’s food, nourishment. At the market, it’s currency, a player in transactions. Dangling from a tree or baked into a pie, it’s part of our cultural identity, an axis for uniting families and friends around the bounty of the harvest. But what about when it’s sitting under three layers of thick black plastic, in a tower of bulging garbage bags on the curb, waiting for the metallic teeth of the nightly garbage truck? How do we regard this resource that holds such cultural, economic and environmental value when it’s suffocating beneath plastic, tossed away?
Several months ago I heard an NPR piece about the worldwide growth of Freeganism—a movement and lifestyle that capitalizes on commercial food waste by salvaging and eating it. The report mentioned the movement’s strength in New York City, and I wondered, “Why am I not doing this? I care about food. I’m passionate about turning waste from an asset into a liability.” So I joined a freegan MeetUp group and after my first “dive,” I was hooked.
On that first evening, I planned to stand at the sidelines, but the incredible warmth and energy of the crew soon had me elbow-deep in trash. Despite my excitement, I was pretty horrified at what unfolded. My grand visions of sneaking into delivery bays, dodging searchlights and the watchful gaze of late-night patrols, hoisting ourselves over dumpsters to clench crates of vegetables, loaves of bread, neat packages of delicacies waiting for a second chance, soon hit reality.
Crouched on the open sidewalk, balancing flashlights, we futilely tugged at knotted trash bags with quickly freezing fingers. We swam through unknown pits of soiled napkins, oozing cartons of yogurt and half-eaten sandwiches to uncover edible onions, potatoes, apples, eggplant and oranges in a range of states outside definitions of aesthetic perfection. While I was drawn toward clearly salvageable goods, this group was hard-core: You dug to the bottom of the barrel. No onion was left unsaved.
What started that night has grown into an obsession with the mountains of black trash bags left outside food establishments night after night. Walking home from school, I inconspicuously kick at the bags, guessing at the precious food that will never get to be savored—bagels, muffins, apples, avocadoes. I pass, stop, someone approaches. I quickly jump up, pretending that I wasn’t about to pick through trash.
Why does this feel so wrong? What's wrong is that edible, valuable food is in the trash—not my efforts to save it. People need to know about it.
I shared stories of my Freegan adventures—the pristine bags of organic baby greens, delicious bagels, perfect red peppers and abundant apples—and recruited partners to plunder the black tower behind the high-end market on the path from school. I showed them my strategy to feel the bags for the rounded outlines of whole fruits, and we dug through organic apples mingled with bright oranges, tangerines and grapefruit, an occasional plum, peach or nectarine, a few lemons and limes, a trio of mangoes. Even when we filled our bags with more than we could carry or possibly eat, our efforts barely made a dent in the mass destined for the landfill.
My adventure in Freeganism is really not about free food. It’s about changing perceptions and reframing how we think about and value food. Seeing the magnitude of food waste and becoming aware of the dirty secrets concealed by the city’s black trash bags raises a new respect for food and a true connection to the problem. I can tell you how 40 percent of all food grown in the U.S. is wasted, how commercial food businesses in NYC generate 1,640 tons of food waste every night, or about the methane this food waste generates in the landfill and how reducing this waste could alleviate hunger. But does this move you to act?
To me Freeganism is a catalyst, a tool for communicating a problem, for letting people see, touch, smell and experience the issue. It’s not about facts and figures; it’s real, it’s here and solutions are within reach. This is at the heart of the Design for Social Innovation program I'm in: communicating a problem effectively and powerfully so your audience gets on board.
So who’s up for some free apples?
Dumpster image via Shutterstock; trash sorting photo courtesy of Meredith Lanoue