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Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America.

Alex V. Barnard

Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America

Minneapolis, MN: 2016, University of Minnesota Press.

ISBN 978-0-8166-9813-4 (PB) $24.95. 280pp.

'So let me get this straight. You find yourself in the kitchen. You see an eclair in the receptacle... and you think to yourself: 'What the hell, I'll just eat some trash... You, my friend, have crossed the line that divides man and bum. You are now a bum' (Ackerman, 1994).

Our relationship with food waste has shifted markedly since Jerry Seinfeld first berated George Costanza for eating a pastry that, for a few minutes, occupied a garbage bin. From celebrity chefs testifying in front of the United States House Agriculture Committee about massive waste in the restaurant industry to France's ban on edible food discards by grocery stores to wedding receptions where guests are fed only food destined for the garbage, food waste has entered Western consciousness and is no longer a taboo subject (Chrisafis 2016; Jacobs 2016; Forster 2016). Despite new awareness of the ethical and environmental obligation to divert food from the garbage, however, there is little serious discussion, even within the growing field of discard studies literature, as to why edible food ends up as waste in the first place (Gille, 2010). (1)

Alex V. Barnard's recent book, Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America, engages this topic with a comprehensive examination of food waste as an outcome of neoliberal capitalism. According to Barnard's analysis, United States Americans discard more than forty percent of all edible food. His innovative and interdisciplinary text draws upon personal and participant observation, interviews and content analysis. Barnard succeeds in making visible drivers of ecological destruction in capitalism and provides a thoughtful analysis of the strengths, weaknesses and inconsistencies of anti-capitalist social movements.

Barnard opens the text with his underlying theoretical framework uniting the work of Karl Marx and Karl Polanyi to illuminate the function of waste in the capitalist economy. While Marx is often deployed to explain the necessary production of waste and environmental harm in capitalism rooted in use and exchange value, Barnard's development of the term 'ex-commodity' is a useful addition to eco-Marxist literature describing how it can be possible to extract more exchange value by throwing something away than by giving it away. Barnard traces the expanding ex-commodification of waste and how the fetishisation of waste reinforces this cycle. While he addresses food in particular, he recognises that this analysis may also be applied more broadly to housing, people and other commodities.

Barnard then dives into a case study of the activities surrounding freegan. info, a website that served as an organising hub for anti-capitalist activists in New York City and whose name is derived from the words free and vegan. Freegans 'rescue' edible food from dumpsters and teach others how to do so to reveal the waste, inconsistences and destruction of capitalism.

Freeganism, influenced by the anti-globalisation movement of the 1990s and organisations such as Food Not Bombs, began as an attempt to engage in direct protest and symbolic practice, exposing the drivers of capitalism while simultaneously enacting the possibility of a new world. While dumpster diving is a central component of freeganism, freegans to differing extents attempt to drop out of the capitalist system when possible.

Barnard emphasises the tensions between ideology and practice without making judgments as to whether or not the activities are political or pre-figurative, both of which are debatable. For freegans, and as Barnard points out, the question is not why people are not more efficiently using food waste through recycling or donation schemes; it's why don't people really see what's going on under capitalism? Making waste visible to others is an attempt to unveil the contradictions of capitalism, to illustrate that it is not an effective distribution system, that supply doesn't equal demand, and that scarcity is often manufactured out of excess.

Ultimately, after more than a decade of work, the freegans activists of Barnard's study grow dissolute and their work and becomes a snapshot of a particular experience at a particular time in a specific location. Barnard argues convincingly, though, that much can be learned from his extended case study. The struggle of living one's beliefs while confronting and attempting to overthrow the larger neoliberal structure is an informative one for anyone trying to change the system. Freegans 'see lifestyle changes as a stepping stone to more radical, transformative, and collective action' (p. 11). For Barnard this means that while freeganism will not lead to capitalism's downfall, it does illustrate in a vivid and relevant way how and why capitalism leads to exploitation and environmental degradation and how we might begin to develop the material and organisational skills necessary to change society. As Barnard notes, 'What freegans add to the debate is not fresh rhetoric, but evidence' (pp. 112-113).


Ackerman, A. (director), L. David, J. Seinfeld, A. Berg and J. Schaffer (writers). 1994. The Gymnast (Season 6, Episode 6, November 3). In L. David (producer), Seinfeld. Los Angeles, California: CBS Studio Center.

Barnard, A.V. 2016. Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Chrisafis, A. 2016. 'French law forbids food waste by supermarkets'. The Guardian, February 4.

Forster, M. 2016. 'Serving wedding guests food destined for the bin'. BBC News website.

Gille, Z. 2010. 'Actor Networks, modes of production, and waste regimes: reassembling the macro-social'. Environment and Planning A 42: 1049-1064.

Jacobs, A. 2016. 'Celebrity chefs turn wasted Olympics food into meals for homeless'. The New York Times, August 14.

(1). For an introduction to discard studies literature see


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Author:Surak, Sarah
Publication:Environmental Values
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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