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The key to a free lunch

Rejecting capitalism, 'Freegans' find their groceries in market garbage cans. One turned foraged food into a Thanksgiving feast.

September 11, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

For lunch in her modest apartment, Madeline Nelson tossed a salad made with shaved carrots and lettuce she dug out of a Whole Foods dumpster. She flavored the dressing with miso powder she found in a trash bag on a curb in Chinatown. She baked bread made with yeast plucked from the garbage of a Middle Eastern grocery store.

Nelson is a former corporate executive who can afford to dine at four-star restaurants. But she prefers turning garbage into gourmet meals without spending a cent.

On this afternoon, she thawed a slab of pate that she found three days before its expiration date in a dumpster outside a health food store. She made buttery chicken soup from another health food store's hot buffet leftovers, which she salvaged before they were tossed into the garbage.

Nelson, 51, once earned a six-figure income as director of communications at Barnes and Noble. Tired of representing a multimillion dollar company, she quit in 2005 and became a "freegan" -- the word combining "vegan" and "free" -- a growing subculture of people who have reduced their spending habits and live off consumer waste. Though many of its pioneers are vegans, people who neither eat nor use any animal-based products, the concept has caught on with Nelson and other meat-eaters who do not want to depend on businesses that they believe waste resources, harm the environment or allow unfair labor practices.

"We're doing something that is really socially unacceptable," Nelson said. "Not everyone is going to do it, but we hope it leads people to push their own limits and quit spending."

Nelson used to spend more than $100,000 a year for her food, clothes, books, transportation and a mortgage on a two-bedroom co-op in Greenwich Village. Now, she lives off savings, volunteers instead of works, and forages for groceries.

She garnishes her salad with tangy weeds picked from neighbors' yards. She freezes bagels and soup from the trash to make them last longer. She sold her co-op and bought a one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn, about an hour from Manhattan by bike. Her annual expenditures now total about $25,000.

"I used to have 40 work blouses," said Nelson, sipping hot tea with mint leaves and stevia, a sweet plant she picked from a community garden. She shook her head in shame. "Forty tops, just for work."

Freeganism was born out of environmental justice and anti-globalization movements dating to the 1980s. The concept was inspired in part by groups like "Food Not Bombs," an international organization that feeds the homeless with surplus food that's often donated by businesses.

Freegans are often college-educated people from middle-class families.

Adam Weissman, whose New York group has been around for about four years, lives with his father, a pediatrician, and mother, a teacher. The 29-year-old is unemployed by choice, taking care of his elderly grandparents daily and working odd jobs when he needs to. The rest of his time is spent furthering the freegan cause, he said, which is "about opting out of capitalism in any way that we can."

Freegans troll curbsides for discarded clothes and ratty or broken furniture, which they repair to furnish their homes. They trade goods at flea markets. Some live as squatters in abandoned buildings, or in low-rent apartments on the edges of the city, or with family and friends.

In recent years, Internet sites like have posted announcements for trash tours in Seattle, Houston and Los Angeles and throughout England. Some teach people how to dumpster-dive for food, increasing the movement's popularity. At least 14,000 have taken the trash tour for groceries over the last two years in New York. Another site,, offers lessons for cooking meals from food found in dumpsters, such as spaghetti squash salad.

Though recycling clothes and furniture doesn't strike most people as unusual, combing through heaps of trash for food can be unthinkable to many.

One recent night, Weissman and Nelson led a trash tour through New York for about 40 experienced and first-time diggers, including college students, a high school teacher, a taxi driver and a former investment banker. One veteran handed out plastic gloves.

An employee at D'Agostino's supermarket in Midtown Manhattan had carried out the garbage minutes earlier. The clear plastic bags lining the gum-stained sidewalk bulged with bruised peaches, discolored eggplants, day-old poppy seed bagels and imitation crabmeat.

Careful not to rip the bags and risk angering store managers by creating a mess, some unknotted the ties and sifted through the garbage with bare hands. The bittersweet scent of cilantro, bananas and bread drifted into the air.

Two women who worked next door at a nail salon came outside and stared. A few first-time tour-takers stood away from the group, looking self-conscious.

"We encourage people who have never opened a bag before, just try it," Nelson told the group. "Go ahead."

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