Last Thursday, NYU senior Sam Fishman found a treasure trove of food. He found frozen ravioli, croissants (chocolate and regular), olive bread, naan, and a whole wheel of brie—the type of delicacies that makes a poor college student’s taste buds itch. And, best of all, this mouth-watering feast costs literally nothing—that is, unless you count the emotional cost of a few minutes spent poking through trash bags.
Fishman, like many other New Yorkers, practices freeganism—a method of reusing and recycling thrown-away food and other products. The particular food-scavenging part of freeganism—referred to colloquially as ‘dumpster diving’—has been growing tremendously in popularity in the past decade, especially right here in Manhattan.
“The idea of going into trashcan and getting food is pretty weird, and it was weird to me at first too,” Fishman said. “Its against social norms. But if you’re willing to be kind of weird, then you’ll get some pretty cool stuff.”
The word ‘cool’ hardly covers it. Fishman and fellow senior Robert Raymond told dumpster diving tales as if they were gold miners in 1849, recalling huge hauls of gilded bullions.
“My best time was dozens of cupcakes from a well-known, delicious bakery,” Raymond said, adhering to the strict dumpstering dogmas of never divulging the best spots. “There’s just an abundance. I’m just amazed at this free resource that’s not being used.”
Dumpster diving has grown alongside freeganism in a country famous for boasting an astronomical 50% waste rate of its food generated. Often categorized as an “anti-consumerist” movement, the practice has been touted as a solution for excess trash, overconsumption, and environmental problems. Freegans and dumpster divers often (but not always) associate with anti-capitalist principles, and identify with environmental movements.
“The goal of freeganism is to bypass the commercial industrial system that supplies people with food, based on the realization that it’s impossible to shop ethically.” Fishman said. “It’s to not contribute to a system that’s based on profits, rather than on ethical decisions.”
When it comes down to it, however, there are certain risks that come along with sticking your hands into an unmarked trash bag on the streets of lower Manhattan. While taking anything thrown away on the sidewalk is legal in New York, uninspected food always carries the risk of food-borne illness, especially if it’s been sitting on the sidewalk for a couple hours.
“It’s not a good idea to do that, because they’re placing themselves at risk,” John Krakowski, who works for a private charity called City Harvest that rescues food and distributes it to people in need, told ABC’s 2020.
But freegans maintain that the practice is safe and risk-free. “Everything I’ve eaten I would buy myself,” said Fishman, who freegans twice a week. “I don’t look at expiration dates—I use my senses. I’m over cautious—I use my nose and eyes.”
The greatest danger, it seems, has stemmed from mishaps that come along with digging around in dumpsters at night (when most shops and bakeries put out their unused food). Fishman recalled sticking his hand right into a broken glass jar, while Raymond showed off the rip in his sleeve that he got from falling into an open dumpster.
But for practicing freegans, the risk is apparently worth it. “Freeganing is a way to the get most out of things that are produced,” said Raymond. “It’s exciting and different. When I freegan, I feel like sometimes I’m venturing into unclaimed territory.”