Lifestyle

Thursday 28 August 2014

Slumdog, New York-style - how to be a Freegan

Caitriona Palmer on the Big Apple's middle-class scavengers

The world of a middle-class American may seem far away from an Indian slum; but not for New York teacher Cindy Rosin.

Like the Indian children in the Oscar-nominated film Slumdog Millionaire, Rosin forages for food among the refuse that others have discarded. But unlike her counterparts in the developing world, Rosin has a job with a salary and enough cash on hand to shop for dinner at the local supermarket.

Instead she has chosen to rummage through fetid garbage as a self-proclaimed 'freegan,' -- the word is derived from 'free' and 'vegan' -- an alternative lifestyle that rejects consumerism and encourages followers to live off the waste of others.

Often college-educated people with a leftist bent, freegans want to minimise their impact on the planet.

They buy second-hand clothes, furnish their apartments with cast-off or broken furniture found on the street and forage through local parks for 'wild foods' like nettles, mushrooms and herbs.

Now, as the recession digs deeper, 'freeganism' is taking off in many American cities and even further afield.

For Rosin (32) and her determined group of freegan colleagues, anything is fair game.

After work in the evenings, they head out into the busy streets of New York and forage for food and 'dumpster dive' from the skips and black bags outside restaurants and supermarkets.

"Right now, I'd say about at least half of my food is recovered from the trash," Rosin told the Irish Independent.

"I'm in New York, and as in any urban area, the concentration of stores that are so very, very wasteful makes it easy to live off of capitalism's excesses."

Take a recent night's foraging, says Rosin. A trip to a couple of supermarkets and bagel stores around Manhattan unearthed a goldmine of still fresh vegetables, packaged dinners, prepared sushi and fresh bread that had been heaped into black sacks and thrown onto the sidewalk.

Most of the food that is thrown away by the stores are either nearing the end of their sell date or are bruised or damaged, says Rosin. But all, according to freegan standards, are still good to eat.

"It's horrendous how much is wasted... tons of produce ... prepared meats ... sushi. Right now it's about 30 degrees [Fahrenheit] outside so the stuff is basically still being refrigerated," she said.

"And bagels, of course. Every bagel store in the city, it seems, throws out three garbage bags full of bagels that are still so fresh that half the time the bags are still warm."

A refuse sack full of freshly prepared salads was an added bonus for Rosin that night -- instant dinner.

"Not only did I get my produce and bread and stuff to cook food for the rest of the week but I had dinner on the way home too," she said.

Fueled by freegan internet sites that advertise a step-to-step guide on how to forage for food, maps of where to go for the best finds, and easy recipes for what to do with the food you find in the bins, the freegan movement has grown worldwide in recent times, with a big following in Britain, Sweden and South Korea.

But it is New York, a gourmet metropolis stuffed with bars, restaurants and high-end supermarkets that discard over 50 million pounds of food a year, which serves as the epicentre of the movement.

And local New York group, Freegan.info takes advantage of the city's excesses to conduct 'trash tours' for tourists and first time dumpster divers, educating them on where and how to find the best meals, and creating a sense of community for those who want to distance themselves from consumerist society.

The sight of dozens of well-dressed New Yorkers scavenging knee-high through rubbish for food does sometimes bring others to a halt but Rosin says she uses these occasions to educate passers-by on what freeganism is all about.

"And people are shocked. Initially there's a bit of shock value because there's a taboo about touching things that are considered trash," she said. "But once we will pull it all out and put it on display and show people how much is being wasted and people are horrified by that."

Back home in her apartment -- furnished with bookshelves, night stands and a Japanese screen all recovered from the trash -- Rosin roasts her recycled veggies and pairs them with pasta sauces made from previous forages.

She supplements her dumpster finds with the odd bag of rice or pasta bought from the stores and insists that her freegan lifestyle is not only saving her money but also making her healthier in the process.

"My diet is a lot better now that I've started doing this because fresh produce is very expensive," she said. "It's much, much cheaper to go to a restaurant, even like McDonalds and buy food that's absolutely horrible for you than to buy a halfway decent quantity of organic vegetables and go home and cook them yourself."

But even this die-hard freegan has to bend the rules once in a while, and Rosin admits that now and then she'll break down and buy a sandwich on the go.

"If I'm out and about all day I will buy a sandwich or a burrito because of that convenience," she said. "Just because I've rejected the idea of selling all my time for money to then exchange back for goods doesn't mean that we're not leading very busy lives.

"And occasionally that convenience can be very seductive."

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