'Freegans' & forager form new foodways

Joan Gross

“Freegans” are connoisseurs of Dumpster diving—not for them the trash bins behind McDonalds or Pizza Hut.
“Ideally, they would eat only whole, unprocessed foods,” said OSU anthropologist Joan Gross, “but of more importance is whether or not it is ‘free.’ They prefer to opt out of the economic system entirely, living only on what society throws away, or what they can gather in other people’s gardens, in the wild, or by picking up roadkill.”

While most Americans think of Dumpsters as dirty places where refuse is thrown, the self-named Freegans regard them as a source of life, said Gross, a Center Research Fellow who is studying alternative “foodways” in rural Oregon. “There is a code of Dumpstering. You don’t take more than you can use and you leave the place clean. You never take all the food in case someone else looks after you do.”

Gross is researching two groups, the Freegans and the “back-to-the-landers.” The Freegan movement formed in reaction to “industrial” eating, that is, consumption of heavily processed, mass-produced foods, while the “back-to-the-landers” aim for self-sufficiency in raising their own food.

“Both groups reject a lifestyle that requires spending the bulk of their time working for money in order to be able to consume material goods. Opting out of modernity, both groups re-connected with foodways linked to subsistence agriculture and foraging lifestyles.”

The research project, “Capitalism and its Discontents: Investigating Foodways in Rural Oregon,” focuses on the fit between the earlier patterns of subsistence and the ones envisioned by contemporary countercultural groups.

“But more importantly, I am interested in how past practices, or models thereof, figure into contemporary anti-capitalist ideologies,” said Gross. The research draws on extensive interviews in rural Oregon conducted along with fellow OSU anthropologist Nancy Rosenberger and several students, initially investigating low-income people whose food choices were limited by money and time rather than ideology.

“In recent years, there has been a backlash against globalized industrial foods,” said Gross. This includes the—now globalized—Slow Food Movement founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini in 1986. “Slow Food’s plan is to combat fast food by restoring ‘suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment.’”

This contrasts strongly with the low-income lives first researched by Gross and her team typified by a family in which both parents worked at McDonald’s. “Dad would bring out bags of food at the end of his shift and they [including children] would scarf down some calories in the car before Mom went in to start her shift.”

|Americans rich and poor are working longer hours, moving farther away from slow meals, and buying cheap food when the budget gets tight because, unlike a mortgage or transportation, the expense of eating is flexible.

“I am interested in exploring the foodways of those who consciously attempt to disentangle themselves from the capitalist system and from industrial food,” said Gross.

During the 1960s Oregon, along with Tennessee, became prime a site for young back-to-the-landers who wanted to step out of the “rat race” and develop traditional skills. “These young people reversed the common internal migration pattern and moved from urban areas to the countryside, the more remote the better. They brought with them a mistrust of industrially processed food and tried to raise their children on organic vegetables and whole grains.”

The Freegans represent a younger counterculture group, though both Freegans and back-to-the-landers favor organic, whole foods when they have a choice, and the Freegans look for Dumpsters behind organic food processors. “Both groups prize ‘suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment’ of food prepared and consumed communally.”

Though neither group is flatly against accepting help from government programs, both are critical of the kind of food that is distributed through emergency food services.

“Both groups pattern their foodways on pre-capitalist practices, but their choice of models differs. Might we say that the back-to-the-landers are motivated by a vision of non-industrial agriculture, and the Freegans by pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers?”

This is the third Center Fellowship awarded to Gross, who is the author of An Ethnography of Walloon Puppet Theaters (John Benjamin, 2001).