Dumpster diving with freegans
By Ben Nelms
I never thought I would say “that’s delicious” after taking a bite out of expired and moderately warm cashew ice-cream. This was one of the many presumptions that would be broken in my time spent with this intriguing group of “urban gleaners.”
A “Freegan” is someone who gathers edible food from the dumpster bins of grocery stores or food stands that would otherwise have been thrown away. This is usually due to being past an expiration date or being damaged. Bread, fruit and vegetables, canned goods and even ice-cream is found and given a second chance.
I first met Robin through another story I was working on at a young women’s shelter in downtown Vancouver. Robin, who works there part-time, mentioned that she had quite different food habits than the normal 23-year-old city girl in Vancouver. I asked if I could photograph her on one of her “grocery shopping” outings and the rest fell together from that moment on.
As it turned out, Robin lives in the same household with five other dumpster divers who practice veganism as well: some for as long as nine years. Hopping on their bikes and venturing through the back alleys of Vancouver looking for food is a regular way to spend a sunny afternoon. After gathering their found food, the women will jump on their bikes and pedal back to their communal home in East Vancouver. They prepare and make delicious gourmet-style dishes that no one would expect had been found in a dumpster hours earlier. Believe me, I had a fair share of freegan food and I was taken back with the quality of food thrown out.
On the first night I went out with the group of girls and soon realized I should have worn my waterproof boots. With a lot of rain in the days before, jumping into the dumpster was like jumping into a puddle of slime. The girls call the water flowing on the bottom of the dumpster the “moat.”
Photographing this story was a technical challenge since the group of girls all have to work around their daily university and work schedules which means most of the dumpster diving is done at night. Shooting at the limits of my camera’s ISO capabilities at shutter speeds around 1/15th of a second was common. It came down to sacrificing quality for content, which is an easy decision to make – content is king.
The Vancouver dumpster and Freegan scene is relatively large, and oddly enough, competitive. Small lists of dumpsters are noted for their large haul of expired treasures. I quickly learned that organic grocery stores and quality bakeries yield large quantities of food on a daily basis due to the turnover of their food. At the more notable dumpsters it is common to find a group of freegans ready to pounce on the store’s day-end food at closing time. One store in nearby Coquitlam is even referred to as the “magical dumpster” and I was approached more than once by the freegans there telling me not to photograph or expose the location of the dumpster or store it is behind. On one occasion the women found so much food that they packed my small two door car full of ripe vegetables and baked goods to bring back to the house.
The most frequent question they are asked is, “Why do you do this? Don’t you have the money to purchase food at grocery stores or markets?” The answer in short is yes – they have the money and they do not need to scavenge their food from dumpsters. “It isn’t necessarily to save money” says Mya Wollf, 28, one of the female freegans, thumbing a tomato found in a dumpster.
The young women I photographed all hold steady jobs or attend university and are very pleasant, smart and clean people. Why they do it is simply the lifestyle they choose to live. All of them are extremely passionate about food; its supply, production and its growing waste. The fact that a group of people can support their entire diet by eating thrown away food and stay very healthy is remarkable.