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July 19, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Freeganism

The outcome of our shopping list: three capsicums, smugly wrapped in transparent fossil fuel, sitting on Styrofoam; meat from the ass of a cow, gleaming invitingly, red as raspberry cordial; a fizzing mixture of sugar and food acid and water, plastered with brightly coloured logos. Looking at our plastic-clad bundles, it’s difficult not to conclude that we are vastly detached from the production of our kai.

Not all of us, of course. My neighbours are picking piles of silverbeet big enough to make a six year-old cry. In the depths of the nature-loving Cotton Building there are office windows full of tomato and basil planters, with the occasional mandarin tree thrown in for good measure. If you listen hard enough you may hear proposals for potato plots in the stairwells, conversations on eel-harvesting in the corridors, and tales of Tahr-shooting in the tearoom (for the uninitiated, Himalayan Tahr are a large, invasive ungulate).

For the majority of New Zealanders, it seems the concept of growing and harvesting our own food is either unwelcome or impossible. Here in Aotearoa many traditional mahinga kai (food-gathering places) are unable to be utilised by communities due to loss of lands as a direct result of colonisation, or through degradation of habitats and threat to native species.

Globally, we all know things aren’t too pretty, food-wise. Although it’s difficult to pin down concrete statistics, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated in late 2009 that over one billion people are undernourished worldwide, up from the 854 million estimated in 2006. Contrary to our childhood dinner table entreaties to “think of the starving children in Africa”, almost two-thirds of hungry peeps live in Asia and the Pacific. Suffice to say, it’s extremely depressing. So what to do?

The New Zealand Government is calling for ‘better’ (read: more intensive) global agriculture, to cut greenhouse gases and feed the hungry. They argue that we need to industrialise food production, possibly even adding a few pinches of Genetically Modified Organisms to keep up with the exponentially expanding human population. While our swelling species probably doesn’t help matters, it’s too easy to pin all our food issues on “overpopulation”. In fact, the world currently produces enough food to feed us all.

There’s a mash-up of reasons for malnutrition: poverty, harmful economic systems and conflict being first in line. What we’ve got here is a distribution problem. Think of Aotearoa: we’re a ‘developed’ country with a welfare system, supposedly clean water, and hundreds of thousands of cows meandering around paddocks nationwide. However we’re still subject to skyrocketing food prices, with families who can’t afford to buy breakfast, and kids succumbing to “third world” illnesses because of micro-nutrient deficiencies.

A primary school kid opens her lunchbox and sees no fresh fruit; simultaneously 30 fresh oranges are thrown into a skip behind a supermarket, resting next to a can of dented beans and a discarded tray of eggs, just one cracked. Last year The Guardian reported that global hunger could be alleviated by redistributing the millions of tonnes of food disposed of annually in the UK and US.

In New Zealand it’s particularly difficult for shops to give way unsold products, due to higher regulations dealing with use-by dates. While your local bakery staff may dearly love to give their excess custard pastries to the city mission, it’s likely difficult for them to do so.

It’s a bit upsetting when you start to mull over it. Luckily, there’s a global movement out there dealing with this sort of waste. It’s called freeganism.

Freeganism: a brief introduction

‘Freeganism’ is a mash-up of ‘free’ and ‘vegan’, describing an anti-consumerist lifestyle based on “limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources”. The movement sprung from a collision of alterglobalisation and environmentalism in the 1960s, with primary aims of reducing waste, limiting environmental and social harms resulting from goods production, and building awareness on how human actions impact the world.

Freeganism is often motivated for environmental, religious or political reasons. Freegan activities may include building renewable energy systems, squatting and cycle-sharing, For sake of simplicity we’ll focus on three issues of food freeganism: ‘free stores’, Food Not Bombs and dumpster diving.

But first, my disclaimer: I’m no active freegan. Rather, I’m interested in portraying freeganism in a fairly accurate light. Like all movements, freeganism is diverse and individuals are motivated by a smorgasbord of reasons; this article does not pretend to represent the movement.

Buying food, for free?

In May 2010, a small vibrant business was set up on Ghuznee Street by artist Kim Paton. The shop stocked a range of fresh produce and grocery items, but with a catch: all goods were completely free. The Wellington Free Store was designed to raise discussion around the value of products and definition of ‘waste’, exploring what happens to edible food items after trading stops.

For a fortnight customers flocked to look, comment and ‘buy’. The store was supplied by a number of local retailers, many who already provide excess stock to social agencies at no cost. Goodies included coffee from Supreme and People’s Coffee, bread from Arobake and Brooklyn bakeries, and produce from Countdown and Woolworth’s supermarkets.

Self-facilitation was rife: those in need carried shopping bags home with them; students self-moderated to a larger degree; others might have chosen a singular item. In a world where ‘need’ is often socially constructed, the Free Store showed that individuals and families may have a better idea of their own needs.

I recently caught up with Paton, planning a brief retrospective of the project. But I was pleasantly surprised: the Free Store is likely returning to our windy city. Paton says the two-week trial was a test, and that she plans to “look at viability over a longer period of time”; by late August a longer, four-month version of the Free Store should be underway, largely due to youth community group Zeal taking on the project.

Kaibosh is a Wellington non-profit organisation that has been working since 2008 to redistribute food products from retailers that would otherwise have been disposed of to charities. The Free Store worked alongside this organisation, but Paton considers the retail side of the Free Store important: “Businesses and shops are public spaces, and customers felt comfortable starting up in-depth, complex, intensive discussions.” Customers also commented that the Free Store had no shame attached, unlike perusing a food bank.

While Paton is incredibly passionate, she recognises that the store “should only exist when it’s viable to exist”. In a perfect world, businesses would change the way they run and the store would no longer function. This seems a far-off dream, but at least Free Stores are booming. A Dunedin Free Store is currently coming to life, and Paton has been asked to carry out a trial run in Waitakere City.

Diving into Dumpsters

Paton’s project highlights wastage in a consumer-friendly manner. But there’s also a secret squirrel community of dumpster divers out there, refusing to let supermarkets and bakeries throw away perfectly edible (and often remarkably delicious) food.

While it seems that everyone wants to jump on the ‘free store’ wagon, dumpster diving is the less cute-and-cuddly side of the Freegan coin. Not everyone likes the idea of climbing into dumpsters and over barbed wire to get their weekly groceries, and not everyone is physically able to. Then there’s the issue of legality: um… it’s definitely illegal. Trespass is the standard charge, but theft could also be on the cards. Last year three Dunedin students were arrested and charged for ‘diving’, so it’s not something to do for the hell of it.

The divers I talked to were quick to point out their focus on the unequal distribution of resources. Dumpstered food is often redistributed to those who need it through collectives or groups. Like the Wellington Free Store, dumpstering is seen as a stop-gap measure in an imperfect world, not a salve to fix the underlying problem.

The magnitude of wastage can be astounding: slightly dented tins of baby formula; deformed but perfectly delicious apples; more baguettes than you could ever carry. There’s enough to share it around.

Food Not Bombs

Admittedly, I was confused when I first heard about Food Not Bombs. It was a few years back, when I was still relatively green to being ‘green’, and the idea of giving away food for free sounded good, but why? My naive questions on the subject were answered with “Food’s a human right, yeah?” So I thought a little harder and decided I couldn’t help but agree with such blatant logic.

Food Not Bombs is a global grassroots movement of independent collectives which gives free vegetarian and vegan food to hungry people as a means of protesting war, poverty and military spending. Ingredients may be provided by surplus food from supermarkets and shops, or sourced from dumpsters. The movement has supported anti-globalisation and environmentalist actions during its lifespan of almost three decades, with a rough ideology that corporate and government policies allow hunger to continue in the “midst of abundance”.

Food Not Bombs has been represented in Wellington by a myriad of groups over the years. Soup and chocolate seem to be favourites of both food givers and receivers. One frosty Saturday night at 2am you may be lucky enough to score some free hot chocolate as you wander, tequila-soaked, down Manners Mall.

Just like the Wellington Free Store and dumpster diving, Food Not Bombs draws attention to the ridiculous amount of waste our society creates and the terrible state of our food distribution. Tonight, when we sit down for dinner, let’s remember that elsewhere peeps are simultaneously dining on dumpstered dal and rice; that volunteers are ladling out free soup; and that others have nothing at all.

Dumpster Diving Etiquette:

• Network with other divers.
• Dress appropriately: we’re talkin’ thick plastic gloves, long-sleeve shirts and pants, sturdy fabrics and footwear.
• Brings props: a torch and bags for carrying goodies at minimum.
• Be careful: watch for broken glass and unwrapped meat products.
• Be stealthy: Make sure no one is around and keep a look out.
• Take only what you can use or share.
• Leave the dumpster as you find it.
• Clean items (and yourself) thoroughly afterwards.
• If discovered, leave quickly and politely.
• Know your rights, ‘cause it is illegal.

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  1. YY says:

    Question: How big does silverbeet need to be to make a six year old cry? Is this assuming an average expenditure of effort in fresh-produce based violence, or would one need to silverbeet one’s children as hard as they can with said size of silverbeet?

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