Earlier this year I wrote a review of Alex Barnard's new book, Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America. After I published the review, I asked Alex if he would be willing to answer some interview questions for the blog. He was kind enough to consent and the interview is below. It provides greater insight into his interest in freegans, his thoughts on food waste, and his writing process.
I really enjoyed your book and I felt like a bit of a voyeur as I entered a world that I found particularly fascinating. As an ethnographer, you give us tremendous insight into the freegan and anti-capitalist movement in New York City. You spent a considerable amount of time interviewing and getting to know activists. Your book provides a balanced look at the issue of freeganism and radical food activism in Manhattan. What was the response to the book of those who were profiled in the book and the food activism community in general?
It's a bit early to say what the response to the book is (or if there will be one!). I've been lucky enough to stay in contact with some of the freegans in New York and given those interested in it copies. But in many ways, the world has moved on from freeganism - and so have many of the freegans themselves. In that sense, it's been a bit of an uphill battle to convince people that, even if freeganism itself has dropped a bit off the food movement radar screen, the overall message of the movement - that we can't reduce food waste without rethinking the fundamental bases of a capitalist agricultural system - remains relevant.
You noted in the acknowledgements that your parents questioned your desire to study food issues. What was their reaction to the book?
I think that was slightly intended to be a joke, given that they were paying for me to go to Princeton and I wound up in a dumpster! They're both environmentalists so I think they very much appreciate the topic, even if they have a much more pragmatic approach. Someone who read about my senior thesis even sent my Dad a "My Son is a Friggin' Freegan" t-shirt, and he found it pretty amusing!
I was struck by the way you link food waste to neoliberal capitalism throughout the book. Few in the U.S. make this link. Given our current drive to enhance globalization through the Trans Pacific Partnership, what gives you hope that things will improve?
I think this link is absolutely essential! It's silly to think that we can explain the veritable explosion in food waste (a 50% increase per capita since the 1970s) without looking at the connections with the massive changes in capitalism taking place in that period: financialization, globalization, commoditization, privatization... My own politics have changed somewhat since when I was in the thick of freegan.info, and so I'd say that my 'hope' for the future comes from mass movements like that behind Bernie Sanders or Black Lives Matter, with the hope that they will eventually turn into a genuine left party. What I do not think should give us hope - and which, paradoxically, movements like freeganism often put their hopes into - is that environmental degradation will somehow on its own force a change in how capitalism works.
Your book focuses largely on freegans in Manhattan, which is certainly a place vastly different from the rest of the United States. In some ways, some in the freegan movement in New York City became what I call sustainulebrities due to their highly visible presence in the media and in documentaries. How do you think the fame of freegans and feeganism impacted the food movement?
"Sustainulebrities" - I love the term! I'm very explicit in the book that I think that New York City was a uniquely favorable "ecosystem" for freeganism. The density of the city and its relatively rudimentary waste removal city (curbside pick up of trash bags) made it possible for freegan.info to dumpster dive openly and publicly, with very little of the harassment from police or store owners that freegans encounter elsewhere. And of course, New York is large enough to have a thriving activist scene, even on the radical fringes, open to something like freeganism.
On the other hand, I'm not sure freeganism has had the impact on the food movement that I would have hoped it would. In particular, I think that food waste remains fairly siloed as an issue - you have people working on animal rights, local agricultural, and food justice, and they're increasingly collaborating with one another, while I'm afraid that the big food waste initiatives we're seeing are tainted by the fact that huge, very problematic companies like Wal-Mart or Whole Foods have jumped on board. I think that if you asked the average food movement activist what impact freeganism has had on them, I think the answer would be "very little" - except for a few who really did get their start diving in dumpsters.
I come from rural Wisconsin and I also work at a Long Island University (Hofstra University) which has a strong research focus on suburban issues. As I am sure you know, the suburbs are changing rapidly and are becoming more diverse with areas of extreme poverty. Some are also becoming centers of immigration, similar to what happened in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late 19th century. Even though they are less frequently studied, rural areas and the suburbs are more vulnerable to food insecurity than the cities because local smaller governments are unable to deal with complex issues such as poverty and food insecurity. In addition, there is not a strong tradition of non-profit services in these areas. Do you think that some of your conclusions would be different if you concentrated your work in these less cosmopolitan settings?
Absolutely! I talk about New York City as an "ecosystem" for freeganism for a reason! That said, there's plenty of food waste in suburban areas - I've recovered quite a bit of it myself - but it's harder to imagine doing a walking trash tour like freegans did in the 'burbs. It's also a long-established sociological finding that cities tend to attract and promote subcultures in a way that suburbs traditionally haven't.
On the other hand, despite all of the attention to urban food deserts, the growing visibility of suburban poverty is going to make the question of food access ever more present. And while it might be harder to dumpster dive, other freegan activities - like abandoned-lot farming, wild food foraging, or squatting - might actually be much more practical in a suburban setting.
You mentioned the work of Food Not Bombs several times in your book. I am familiar with their efforts on Long Island where they do a tremendous amount of work on food issues. I wondered several times as I read your book whether there was any conflict between the folks involved with freeganinfo.com and the folks involved with Food Not Bombs. In some ways, Food Not Bombs is ultimately the more successful organization, but I wonder whether it is was seen in this way by the folks you worked with in developing your book. What are your thoughts on Food Not Bombs?
I think Food Not Bombs is great and the book actually originally had almost an entire chapter on Food Not Bombs in the East Bay in California, which I looked at as something of a "precursor" to freegan.info. I wouldn't say there was a great deal of conflict between freegan.info and FNB during the time of my research, because in so many ways - in their commitment to egalitarian organizing, meetings peoples' needs outside of capitalism, or reducing waste - the two movements are incredibly close. On the other hand, I had the impression that the groups attracted different demographics: freegan.info was more media savvy and had a greater age and gender diversity (both groups could be critiqued for often missing racial and class diversity).
The broader critique of Food Not Bombs is the same as for freegans, as for Occupy Wall Street, as for squats... how do we take these exciting initiatives happening at a local level and actually scale them up? In the end, this is where my thinking has changed the most, because I think that to really transform the food system, we will have to engage with the state and with policy in a much deeper way than most anarchist-inspired movements are prepared to.
We are often changed by the topics we study. In many ways, we open a Pandora’s Box when we tackle difficult subjects like food insecurity. How were you changed by conducting the research for this book?
I started my research as a "recently converted" vegan; my model of "activism" at the time was to convince people to buy soy steaks instead of beef steaks and that would pretty much solve things. Freegan.info was crawling with one-time vegans ready to disabuse me of my illusions about ethical consumption! I've never been so serious that I'd call myself a "freegan" - although, as I state many times in the book, there isn't really an official threshold at which you've earned the title - but waste recovery, mutual aid, and limited consumption are still a big part of my life nine years later. I even met my wife in a dumpster!
One of the amazing aspects about this book is that it started as an undergraduate project. I brought your book to my senior seminar class and told my students that they too could write and publish a book if they took the time to research and write. I commend you on the contribution you made not only on the topic but on your ability to publish such an important book so early in your career. Many writers have a process that they use to stay productive. In my case, I took a seminar many years ago with Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way, which helped me develop solid methods for increasing my writing output. What did you do to stay on track and keep writing and what recommendations would you give to young writers who are just starting a project?
The answer is that I didn't stay on track and was lucky to have people who guided me back to the project when I strayed from it! The idea that the project could be a book came from my undergraduate advisor; at the time, I didn't really believe him and the thesis remained untouched for two years as I moved on to other things. When I started at Berkeley, though, Professor Michael Burawoy read the bloated, unfocused opus that was my thesis and encouraged me to give it another go. There was then a series of starts and stops. In the end, though, once I really landed on the big idea of the book - "the ex commodity" - the (re)writing went extremely fast. The take away, for me, was that writing is going to be painfully slow until you figure out what you really want to say - but that there's no way to figure that out other than writing!
You are now working on your Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. Can you tell us about your current project?
I've now wandered off in a completely different direction, and passed the relay on food waste to the numerous researchers doing greater and scientifically very rigorous work on the topic. I'm following a different itch and looking at cross-national differences in health care for severe mental illness: why, for the same illnesses and increasingly similar medical practices, does this population have such different trajectories between the health, disability, and justice systems? The only connection with food waste, I suppose, is that studying both involves looking at a shameful underbelly of our society's functioning and finding value in things or people who are often, literally or figuratively, discarded...
To Purchase Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America click here.