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Joshua Lynch

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Freegans dine on trashed edibles

Freegan dumpster-diving flowers

Paul Brown dumpster dives for flowers to give to his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. Photos by Joshua Lynch.

Like many Seattle eco-conscious shoppers, Paul Brown pedals up to a wholesale grocery store on his bicycle, canvas shopping bags draped from his shoulder.

But unlike most, Brown heads to the store’s dumpsters rather than through its mechanical doors. Inside the stained brown containers he finds discarded zucchini and potatoes. The barely-bruised vegetables go in his bags.

Lifting up a heavy pile of raw bacon, Brown uncovers the find of the night: a large bag of pinto beans. He scoops up enough to fill several recycled containers when he gets home later.

One person’s trash is a freegan’s next meal.

Brown, a senior biology major at Seattle University, identifies himself as a freegan, a person who finds their food for free, whether it’s from a dumpster or a fruit tree. Freegan is a combination of the words “free” and “vegan,” as many freegans also eat vegan.

The freegan movement began in the mid-1990s in West Coast cities, including Seattle. Freegans choose to opt out of what they see as a wasteful and unethical economic system, according to Freegan.info, a Web site about freegans hosted by the Wetlands Activism Collective in New York City. Freegans focus on reducing their own waste in any way possible, from hitchhiking to dumpster diving.

“There are a variety of reasons,” says Brown of why he’s a freegan. “Mostly environmental reasons and thinking about how food is produced. Usually either people or animals are exploited, and there’s environmental damage done, too.”

Brown started dumpster diving this summer. When he moved into his home, he found that the previous tenants had left plenty of food behind. He started eating for free, and when the supply ran out “I just started diving,” he says.

Freegan dumpster diving in Seattle

Paul Brown, who identifies himself as a freegan, goes on weekly dumpster dives to keep his eating costs low and to reduce consumer waste.

“But I had been thinking about dumpster diving for awhile,” he adds.

Now Brown goes once or twice a week to dumpsters that frequently have edible food. He goes late at night to avoid getting caught in the businesses’ alleys; otherwise, the dumpsters might be locked when he returns. He made an exception the day before Valentine’s Day, risking getting caught to dumpster dive some flowers for his girlfriend.

Brown says it averages out to less than an hour a day searching for food. When he’s busy, his girlfriend uses her meal plan to buy him food at C-Street. He frequently comes home with bread and lots of bagels, and usually there are some vegetables to be found. His best discovery ever, he says, was a 10-pound bag of rice.

And the grossest thing he’s ever found in a dumpster while searching for food?

Raw, spoiled meat and cat litter rank at the top.

“Restaurant dumpsters are usually awful,” he says. “It’s like a bunch of food mixed together. It’s pretty gross.”

Working in the restaurant business is part of the reason why junior creative writing major Matt Hitchman dumpster dives when he has time. He says the waste he saw while working at restaurants was appalling. Hitchman, who identifies himself as a vegan but not a freegan, started dumpster diving when he was a sophomore in high school, though only for furniture and other discarded material possessions.

Like Brown, Hitchman also began dumpster diving for food this summer. He went without paying for groceries for a few months. Because of his busy schedule during the school year, Hitchman says he usually goes dumpster diving twice a month now but considers it “a privilege” not everyone has the time to do.

Regardless, Hitchman doesn’t tell too many people about his dumpster diving.

“I usually don’t bring it up. I don’t think too many people know,” he says. “My dad doesn’t know. I didn’t tell him. My mom is kind of nervous about it. She was thinking she should send me more money for food.”

Both Brown and Hitchman share their “dumpstered” food, as they sometimes call it, with their roommates. Sometimes their roommates come along to dive.

On a recent late Monday night, Brown returned to his home, the university-owned Kolvenbach Community, and left a note on a fridge-mounted whiteboard.

“Please enjoy some dumpstered muffins,” he wrote. Brown says one day he hopes to live in a community that grows most of its food.

Until then, he says, “I feel like I can live pretty frugally with diving and things.”

But there are pleasures to the lifestyle. Earlier in the night Brown found a relatively intact chocolate cake with white icing.

“Ummm, a midnight snack,” Brown said, pausing for a bite. “This is reeeeal good.”

A feast for freegans