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Becca Milfeld/Medill

Food pantries and soup kitchens make good use of food donated to them that would otherwise go to waste. Two of them explain how.

Freegans feast on trash buffet in the food conservation movement

by Eric Kroh and Becca Milfeld
March 12, 2008


Becca Milfeld/Medill

One person's garbage is another's  meal. Members of the freegan movement turn to trash bins for nourishment, making a statement about waste and consumption.


Becca Milfeld/Medill

Some food will be wasted before it reaches consumers' shopping carts. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 7 to 12 percent of food is lost on the way from retailers to consumers due to spoilage and expiration dates.


Becca Milfeld/Medill

Some Chicago area food pantries receive leftover baked goods from Starbucks, one of many vendors that donate what they can no longer sell.

Related Links

USDA Economic Research Service food waste data

Food Pantries: Reclaiming Chicago's food beyond the market date

A major source of supply for soup kitchens and food banks is edible food that might otherwise go to waste.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository parcels out food to over 600 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters and about 50 percent is food that would otherwise be tossed out, said Bob Dolgan, director of communications.

This reclaimed food can come from grocery stores, donations from individuals or food drives. A primary source is donations from large food companies such as Kraft or Sara Lee.

The food may be out of season, discontinued or the victim of a packaging misprint.

At Care for Real, a Chicago food pantry on the Northwest Side, the number of people served escalated greatly in the past year.  In February, the pantry served food to 1,361 clients, up from 525 clients in January 2007, and 1,248 in January of this year. Care for Real is feeding the hungry with donations from the Greater Chicago Food Depositry, Dominick's, Whole Foods and the small bakery down the street, to name a few

Nearby, Good News Community Kitchen adds Panera Bread and Starbucks to the list. A good portion of these food pantry donations also comes from religious and civic organizations.

Wherever there are piles of food waste, there are people contemplating what to do with the garbage.

One option is to eat it.  And a number of diners scavenging from this buffet consider themselves conservationists and activists. 

“People have been eating trash for longer than anybody’s ever thought about it,” said Jimmy, a Chicago resident who didn’t want to reveal his last name. Jimmy is a Freegan, a member of a growing movement that encourages foraging for edible food in the refuse of grocery stores and restaurants. While many people eat from trash because they are needy, Jimmy said he does it to protest the excesses of capitalism.

“People bring politics and whatnot into it. Other people start paying attention,” Jimmy said.

And people are paying attention. As reducing our carbon footprint has come into vogue, people are thinking seriously about ways to reduce or reuse food waste. Oprah showcased freegans on her show and celebrity chefs such as Chicago’s Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill are turning food waste from their restaurants into fuel and compost.

About 20 to 30 percent of the edible portions of the fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains—and 30 to 40 percent of meats—that reach consumers is wasted either in cooking or simply in going uneaten, according to data provided by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

About 7 to 12 percent of food is lost on the way from retailers to consumers, according to the same source.

That leaves a lot of leftovers for those who don’t mind eating food others didn’t want.

While “freeganism” may seem like simply a way to capitalize on society’s excess, it is more than just about finding free food, Jimmy said.

“Economics is definitely a motivating factor for some people, but for the majority of freegans I know, it’s about politics.”

Freegans take issue with the American tendency to view everything not only as a commodity, but a disposable commodity, Jimmy said. To combat what they see as the wanton evils of capitalism, many freegans reclaim waste and put it to good use.

The same holds true for at least two Chicago restaurants that have found ways to reduce food waste to nearly zero by turning it into compost or even fuel.

Frontera Grill, and its sister restaurant Topolobampo, at 445 N. Clark St., are headed by star chef Rick Bayless, and specialize in high-end Mexican cuisine. While the restaurants may be known for attention to culinary detail, their staffs also exert the same amount of care with food waste.

With the help of the Resource Center, a non-profit environmental organization, the restaurants compost any waste that is biodegradable, said Bryan Enyart, Chef de Cuisine of Topolobampo. That includes paper and cardboard as well as food.

In a few months, that list will include the restaurants’ used vegetable oil, which Enyart hopes to convert into biodiesel to run the farm machinery and trucks at one of the Illinois farms that supplies the restaurants with produce.

Altogether, the restaurants compost over two tons of organic materials every week. When the biodiesel project starts, Enyart hopes to recycle 735 pounds of vegetable oil per week.

But most food retailers are not that diligent wFOODWAST_chartith their waste, so Jimmy said finding food is relatively easy. With five or six years as a freegan under his belt, he said he could account for 100 percent of his food needs by “dumpstering,” if he tried hard enough.

Stanley Peters, owner of Stanley’s Fruits and Vegetables at 1558 N Elston Ave., is one step ahead of Jimmy. Rather than entice people to scrounge around in his trash, Peters regularly gives away food that he cannot sell.

“If an apple falls to the floor, you can’t resell it, it’s bruised,” Peters said. And when a tangerine falls, it usually splits. The solution: give them away to those in need.

Peters didn’t want to estimate how much food he gave away because, he said, “I don’t want to sit back and cry.” But he is emphatic that people should not eat straight out of his trash bins.

Frances Guichard, director of the Food Protection Program at the Chicago Department of Public Health, agreed with the assessment that trash bins are not the best place to search for food.

“Once you put it into the garbage, it’s what we’d call garbage, and it’s food that has been put into an environment that’s not protected,” Guichard said.

The primary risk of eating food that has been sitting in the trash is food-borne illness, Guichard said. Once food sits in what she called the “temperature danger zone” of about 40 to 140 degrees, it is prone to the types of microbial growths that tend to cause illness and disease.

To drive the point home, health inspection officers who find compromised food during restaurant inspections throw the food away and then pour bleach on top of it.

“We don’t want people to become ill, so we denature the product,” Guichard said.

Jimmy said it was easy to tell the good food in the trash from the food that will make you sick.

“You learn how to pick food after a while. You learn from other people, if something is in the least bit questionable, err on the side of putting it back in the trash rather than hurting yourself,” Jimmy said.

There is no law that specifically prohibits people from sifting through garbage for food, said Tim Hadac, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Public Health.

“The law doesn’t prevent any individual from doing something crazy like that,” Hadac said. He added that people could eat dirt if they wanted to and the law would be powerless to stop them.

On the other hand, grocery stores and other organizations that donate food to charities are protected from liability by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, passed by President Clinton in 1996. The act encourages food donation by protecting donors if the food later causes harm to someone who eats it.

Jimmy, though, doesn’t have to rely on handouts. He simply visits the alley behind his favorite restaurants. “If you’re in the mood for pizza, you go to a pizza place. If you’re in the mood for doughnuts, you go to a doughnut place,” he said.