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Nicole Bergot, "One Man's Trash…"

"One Man's Trash…"

Nicole Bergot, Newsday

Freegans say they dine well — and make an important political statement — by eating food thrown away by stores and restaurants.

Leaning over a black garbage bag on a recent cool night, Adam Weissman uses his bare hands to scoop steaming brown rice and veggies into a plastic container. Alongside him, two friends pull muffins, pasta and sweet potatoes, still warm from a hot buffet, from the pile of trash bags outside Lifethyme, a natural foods market in Greenwich Village.The trio meets at 9:30 p.m. — about the time grocery stores close and put their trash out — and rummage through one store's leftovers before moving on to the next. Picking through garbage bags, they fill their knapsacks with enough fruit, vegetables, loaves of bread and packaged goods to fully stock their shelves and refrigerators.

They're not homeless, and they have jobs. They call themselves freegans, and though some fill their fridges with food from garbage bins to save money, many choose not to buy food for philosophical reasons.

"Freegan" comes from the term vegan — a person who does not eat meat or animal products for health or ethical reasons. Freegans take it one step further by eating food thrown away by stores and restaurants, to avoid waste and limit their impact on the environment. They say that by not buying food, they're boycotting a capitalist consumer society that needlessly slaughters animals and harms the environment by mass-producing nonessential food, much of which ends up in landfills.

"It's about being aware of the insane waste by our culture of overproduction and overconsumption," says Weissman, 26, who wears oversized jeans and a baggy T-shirt he "recovered" from the trash. He is a part- time security guard and a full- time freegan. He and his friends salvage "large quantities of unsold items, not half-eaten food off someone's plate," Weissman says.

Trash du jour

He's lived on a diet made up almost entirely of trash for nine years, he says, and when he doesn't forage near his home in Hackensack, N.J., the trash of New York City provides him with more edible food than he can carry home.

Like Weissman, Alexis Cole, a 28-year-old jazz singer from Manhattan, rails against what she calls an unjust capitalist society gone mad with greed at the expense of the environment and other humans less fortunate than prosperous Americans. "This culture makes me sick," she says.

Dressed in a white top and blue cords — all recovered — Cole, who says she is writing a cookbook called "The Decadent Dumpster," rides her bike to choice grocery store garbage bins several times a week. On each trip she can count on filling the two baskets on her 21-speed with bags of lettuce and spinach, bread, bananas, apples, kale, bagels and packaged goods. It's more than enough for her and her two roommates, who, according to Cole, "have never eaten so well."

Tonight the freegans start at Garden of Eden, a Village health food store, where they find two whole fresh salmon in the trash outside, before heading west. They visit Century Market, Gristede's, Lifethyme and other food stores along the way, if the trash looks promising.

"After I started doing this I gained, like, 60 pounds," Weissman says. Now he's more careful about what he eats and bypasses the trash outside Dunkin' Donuts for the healthier bags filled with produce outside Gristede's.

He's not worried about the safety of the food; he says stores throw out goods long before they've gone bad. "When you throw out food from your refrigerator, it's at the point where it's gross," Weissman explains. "That's not the case with stores."

Glynn St. Juste, a manager at a Greenwich Village Gristede's, says the store throws out only food that is no longer edible. But during one tour, the freegans find still-usable wrapped cheese sticks, sealed cottage cheese, bread, croissants and even peach cobbler outside the supermarket. (They argue that food is usually still edible on, or just after, the printed expiration date.)

John Phillips of Manhattan, an 18-year-old freegan, says none of his freegan friends have gotten sick from eating food from trash. The only health problem he says is overindulgence. "People go crazy because they find a 50-pound bag of doughnuts," he says. "Restraint is a problem."

Not all freegans are strict vegans, but most are vegetarian. Freegan meat-eaters say that as long as an animal is being killed, it's better to use the meat than let it go to waste.

Dr. Ruth Kava, director of nutrition at the New York-based American Council on Science and Health, calls the movement "fascinating" but says it raises concerns. If food has been "sitting in a pool of sauce ... anything could be on it," she says. "The quality might be compromised to a point where it could pose a risk."

Brian Halweil, a senior food and agriculture researcher with the Washington, D.C.- based environmental research institute Worldwatch, knows about food waste. "It's astonishing how much food at restaurants and supermarkets is wasted," he says, "often because the food doesn't look right."

Halweil says he's not surprised freeganism is catching on as people become more aware of food production. America's obesity problem is a common story; "Fast Food Nation" was a bestseller, and the documentary "Super Size Me" was a box office hit. "All over the country we're finding people are rebelling against mass- produced food," he says.

Even so, there's no central freegan organization, and no statistics are available on how many people have adopted the practice. Freegans tend to hear about one another through word of mouth, often meeting at environmental activist gatherings. (Weissman has started a Web site, Freegan.info.)

Some freegans have reasons for feeding themselves from trash that are more practical than ethical. During one tour, outside the gourmet food store Dean & Deluca on Broadway, Sue Nowaczyk, a home health aide who earns about $650 a month, finds wrapped sandwiches that sell for about $6 each. For her, finding free food is a necessity. "It's economical," she says. "I've just gotta be careful about the meat, because it could spoil."

Free for the taking

Wendy Scher, a 25-year-old videographer and musician from Bedford-Stuyvesant, says she gets nearly all of the food she consumes from trash. "I don't have to buy food to get food," she says, as she rummages through a bag full of sloppy pizza pies outside of Due Amici, an East Village pizza restaurant. "I'd rather take it than waste my money paying for exactly the same stuff I can get right here."

The freegan movement is not limited to New York. Luna Tic, the name by which he's known in the freegan world, is a 27-year-old entomology student at Seattle Central Community College and a member of Food Not Bombs, an organization that feeds people with food that otherwise would be wasted. He says one day of "Dumpstering" can yield enough food to feed the six people he lives with for a week. "There's mountains of perfectly good food out there," he says.

The best spots are garbage bins outside upscale grocery stores and fruit stands. His freegan loot includes more than food. Luna Tic recently converted his car to run on the cooking oil discarded by restaurants; he collects it from vats outside Chinese restaurants. He says he gets 12 miles to the gallon and recently drove from Salem, Ore., to Seattle burning nothing but recovered vegetable oil.