Book Review — Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America

Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America by Alex V. Barnard is a study of the freegan movement from the beginnings to the present. Barnard is a graduate of Princeton with a bachelor’s in sociology. The topic of his senior thesis was “Pulling Sustainability from the Dumpster: Radical Community, Activist Identity, and Human Possibilities in the Freegan Movement.” Barnard earned his master’s from Oxford and working on his Ph.D. from Berkeley.

We are brought up to believe that we must pay for what we want, which makes sense –Work, make money, buy. If you take something that isn’t yours that is stealing and a very accepted belief. What if something is discarded by someone as having no value. Is that yours to take? Freegans work on the idea that there is so much excess in capitalism that there is no need for them to buy anything. Almost forty percent of all food ends up as waste while one in six people in America face hunger. The system is set up to dispose of excess rather than donate or provide charity. Nearly twenty-five percent of all publications end up in the garbage… not donated to libraries or schools. Granted the owner of the property can decide the fate of his property but once he disposes of it, it becomes “public” property to those who wish to retrieve it.

The Freegans in the book are idealists. Many are trapped in the system they want to end and some are dependent on that same system. I do admire the community bike projects where discarded bikes are taken apart and the parts are used to make new bikes. People ride these bikes instead of driving and reusing parts is important. We live in a world of planned obsolescence and cheap manufacturing. We “need” a new cell phone every two years. We “need” the new fashions. We are bombarded day in and day out with reasons to buy something new. The idea of fixing what you have is no longer an acceptable option. Do not repair your clothes, buy new clothes. How many things do we own are no longer repairable?

Capitalism (the enemy in the book) requires growth to survive. When growth does not happen we have a recession or a depression. Recessions end when there is growth and growth is caused by buying new things — cars, houses, appliances. That growth creates jobs which in turn creates more spending and more growth. Sooner or later we run out of areas to grow in and the system stagnates.

Freeganism plays off the “waste” of the system. Supermarkets dispose of massive quantities of still good food. People throw away plenty of still functional items and good clothes that have fallen out of style. Why not put these to use. That is the original idea behind freeganism — don’t buy what is free. None of the people in the book are hungry and none of them are needing clothing. Shelter is taken up by squatting in unused properties. Housing is another bit lightly covered in the book. During the housing crisis banks foreclosed on homes and then bulldozed them over waiting to “grow” new homes.

Marxism sets the definite tone in this book. The problem is instead of explaining the problems of capitalism the people jump at a philosophical Marxist rant. Perhaps the biggest problem about Marxism is the way it is explained. Those explaining try to make it sound extremely philosophical. It’s not just the freegans in the book but almost everyone. Try reading Lukac, for example. The freegans make very valid points but lose much ground in their explanation. Keep it simple and in America, don’t call it Marxism because people think (incorrectly) of Stalin and the Cold War. Change does happen and people do start paying attention. No one would have thought a Jewish Socialist had a chance as a Democratic presidential candidate until last year.

There is some good out of the freegan movement other countries have taken notice. Both England and Italy now have supermarkets donating “waste” to charities. It also opened some eyes. Although not entirely successful in their goals the freegans, like other movements, created awareness of the problem. There is quite a bit of admirable work done by the freegans, unfortunately, in America, their politics harms more than hurts them. That is not a direct criticism of their politics but rather how their politics are viewed by Americans in general.

The book starts to demonstrate the practicality of the freegan movement. I am a bicycle mechanic and I have worked bikes costing over $10,000 and these are not for professional racers, just cyclists looking to spend money. Where I now work there are t-shirts for sale with a company logo printed on them. It will cost you $40 to advertise for that company by wearing their shirt. I can agree the system is warped and definitely has problems with waste, advertising, earnings, poverty, and a host of other problems. I also think the concept of Freegans is a sound one, but one that they overshadow with their politics. It is hard to get people to support your movement if all you do is tell them how wrong they are. Find the similarities like food waste and the hungry. Few people think the poor should starve good food being disposed of because it is not sold might be common ground. I appreciate the idealism. I ride a bike and do not drive. I am a strict vegetarian. I am a minimalist. I see your point, however, inclusion should be the theme.

All in all, this is a good book. The review is political as that is what the book turned to. A sound idea but slightly flawed in execution. Presentation of facts concerning the amount of waste was well done and spread throughout the book. Barnard’s narrative does a good deal to tone down the message of many in the movement.


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2 responses to “Book Review — Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America

  1. Sounds fascinating. They are right, there is certainly a lot of waste, over-buying–and don’t get me started on planned obsolescence (have you ever tried to get a small appliance repaired?). However, judging the people you want to join your movement sounds alienating.

    • A Goodreads friend in the UK sent me a YouTube to Hugh’s War in Waste, a BBC1 series. A more “friendly” look at the problem with the same shock value.

      As a bike mechanic I can say most components are not repairable and Wal-Mart bikes on the whole are more expensive to fix than replace.

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