Dumpster divers, plate scrapers, wild foragers, thieves, hippies. Call ‘em what you want, the mystery of the freegan remains a largely elusive social scene in Toronto. Exactly who are these earth-lovers scouring the urban streets searching for treasures, and why do they do what they do?
The freeganist philosophy can be traced back to the environmental movement of the 1960s during the San Francisco Renaissance. A street theatre group in Haight Ashbury started giving away rescued food in the community. Every day at 4 PM, they would set up shop in Golden Gate Park and serve a stew made from salvaged meat and vegetables, and serve it from behind a giant yellow picture frame like a puppet show. At times they would feed up to 200 people who had no other source of food. They called themselves the Diggers. They made zines, threw parties, and baked bread in coffee cans.
From early on, freegan activities have been inescapably political because food waste is a pressing issue. Addressing this problem is the vital first step to sorting out other problems like global warming and poverty. Freegans have taken a personal initiative to make a change by intercepting food on its way to the landfill.
Alas, like many alternative lifestyles, somewhere along the line freeganism became popular and its politics were lost among the superficial “glamour” of grunge. This is a sorrowful truth for Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, the international organization that feeds those in need in over 1000 cities. He takes a break from packing up from a day of action in his town of Fort Lauderdale to talk to me.
“Freeganism, as a term, came up as a joke. I found this huge wheel of cheese in the dumpster and I was just like ‘why be vegan when we can be freegan?’ But really, to me, Food Not Bombs is the real movement, the real thing. Freegan is something that was adopted by the media to de-politicize the FNB movement, to make it into a chic, non threatening thing and so it’s kind of a funny thing because people call me about freeganism but no one calls me about FNB.”
He tells me how the New York Times called him for an interview and wanted to hear nothing about FNB, and was simply interested in the scene aspect of freeganism. “They wanted to talk about freegan, about a nice cliche little thing, upper middle class kids doing the ‘garbage thing’ and getting free stuff and having a bohemian lifestyle, not about capitalism needing to be challenged. Freegans don’t go to jail. FNB does.”
The idea for FNB started when Keith was a homeless 16 year old hitchhiking down Route 1 in California. He pulled thirty 45-cent Martin Luther King postage stamps from a dumpster in Santa Cruz and took them into a Denny’s restaurant and tried to convince the waitress to accept them as payment for breakfast. (She did). But the “real” light bulb came on when he was working produce at the Bread and Circus in Cambridge Massachusetts and he found himself having to discard tons of food. He decided, instead, to take it to housing projects near his work instead. Keith began to make rounds at other supermarkets to see if he could rescue more food, an inquest leading him to recover 3-7 cases of organic produce each morning up to 5 mornings per week. He did this in Boston for 8 years, before moving to San Francisco to start a second chapter of FNB. Since then, his work has led him all around the world, salvaging food in New York, Tel Aviv, Sydney, Berlin, and Istanbul.
Speaking on the phone with Keith feels similar to sitting cross legged on the floor in front of a grandfather who has stories for days. His fantastical experiences are relayed in a monotone voice that sort of adds up to an air of magic realism. His tales are occasionally interrupted by giving directions to his volunteers as they pack up their evening’s event. I can hear his crew shuffling equipment into vehicles. “I haven’t brought the large table yet … just load up all the big stuff first … Oh! He just got hit in the head with a bagel!” he cries, as if surprised I didn’t notice this occurrence. His flighty demeanour is not to be mistaken for flakiness. Keith’s work has taken this grassroots feat to a revolutionary concept, prompting reactions from the public and the police.
Keith was arrested over 100 times and spent over 500 nights in jail during FNB’s rocky times in the 80s. Despite this, he still encourages his volunteers to be confident, have a strong presence, and use art to reach out to people. “Theatre helps wake up the public. I still encourage all chapters of FNB to have theatre involved in their meals, and music and art. We were influenced by the Living Theatre out of New York, their philosophy of the fifth wall of theatre– the blur between daily life and theatre and you can’t tell which is which. The public going by was part of what we were doing and they wouldn’t even know.” When Keith hangs up, I can’t help but picture him and his volunteers gallivanting around a park in Florida banging soup spoons on pots and pans and singing praises to the wheat sheafs and corn crops. He just makes FNB sound like a really good time.
In a way, I’m glad freeganism became something of a trend. Without it, FNB probably wouldn’t get as much attention and the opportunity to take part in something truly beneficial wouldn’t stand. Toronto’s free scene is a lively one, including such active groups as Really, Really Free Market, Toronto Free Gallery, and our own local FNB chapter. Facebook is crawling with Toronto freegan support pages, where people organize night time dumpster dives, exchange goods, and impart caution as to which areas might have bedbugs, etc. Keith tells me that when he visited Toronto a few years back, he was impressed with our FNB chapter and our ability to do something that FNB constantly tries to do – stay strong and active. He says, “I tried to tell them that, and I really think they got it, they’ll be alright”