Marko Manriquez is the founder of The Freegan Kitchen, a site that promotes cooking found food. He's been diving in dumpsters for food going on three years now. As a result his lifestyle is both environmentally and socially responsible. I recently became aware of freeganism through a mutual friend. Then I got to interview Manriquez about how he's been off the agri-business grid since. Photo by electromute.
Kelly Abbott: When did you first become interested in the freegan lifestyle and what drew you to it?
Marko Manriquez: I've always considered myself an environmentalist (as well as a bit of cheapskate), so it was a natural fit for my lifestyle. My friends kept finding amazing things from the dumpster, including food. At first, I was apprehensive to eat any of it, taking only timid bitefuls. But, I was surprised at both how much perfectly good food was being thrown away (~14% by conservative estimates) and that no one really knew about it. And it also bothered me that most of our garbage was being literally entombed in landfills rather than composted or returned into the ecosystem. The United States is a culture of enormous consumer appetites (obviously)—we consume (and waste) so much but it never really seems to satisfy our desires. The impulse to buy our way out of anything is very strong, rarely questioned and conditioned into us perpetually from a very early age. I wanted to share this revelation with others. I created FK as a way to both satirize our consumer media bubble (how better than with a cooking show?) while at the same time empower others to alternative forms of sustainability—all the while leveraging the tools of the system to critique itself.
Freegan Biriyani. Photo by Monka.
KA: If you started dumpster diving in college, did you do it in La Jolla or the San Diego area? If so, where, specifically, did you do it and did you encounter problems?
MM: Yes, this has become a problem as freeganism becomes a victim of its own success; in terms of more and more dumpsters becoming fenced off and locked up. The Whole Foods dumpster in La Jolla is a good example of this—its trash is securely locked tight. I think it's ironic that a green company perpetuates this green façade in the front of the store and a different stance in its back alley. Right now, I'm working on a web widget/mobile app that will be a tool freegans can use to addresses this problem. I hope to introduce it in time for Earth Day.
KA: How long have you been a freegan?
MM: I discovered freeganism circa 2005 (three years ago), and have been an environmentalist practically all my life. I think it started in first grade when I drew a picture of a submarine than would travel the sea filtering out toxic waste and garbage. I was an odd little kid, haha.
KA: Why do you choose to be a freegan?
MM: I think it's immoral to waste food or to harm our ecosystem. It follows then, that freeganism specifically and environmentalism/sustainability in a broader sense is a lifestyle choice. I like to view myself as passionate about sustainability without being dogmatic or intolerant. I hope that translates into my art.
Freegan Ice Cream. Photo by doubledareya.
KA: Can you explain the art of dumpster diving? What advice might you give to beginners?
MM: It's fun and kind of a rush when you first get started and don't know what to expect—like a scavenger hunt. It's especially useful for art students or creative-minded individuals looking for raw materials to salvage into clever art projects since you find all sorts of odds and ends in the dumpster. You name it, chances are it's laying in a dumpster somewhere. College campuses and affluent neighborhoods can be goldmines for furniture, housewares, and electronics. Food is hit-or-miss in the supermarket dumpsters of these areas. Here's what I've found helpful:
Dumpster Diving Etiquette
- Be quiet, discreet
- Be considerate—don't leave a mess
- If you find something of value that you don't need, place it aside for the next freegan
- Bring a flashlight or headlamp
- A pocketknife is also helpful
- Bring a bag or something to carry your loot
- Gloves are nice but optional
- Early morning or later in the evening is optimal
- If a worker asks you to leave, don't argue, just move on to the next dumpster
- If it smells/looks bad, it probably is
- Thoroughly scrub your produce with a brush (and I like using baking soda too)
KA: As for food, do you ever get tired of what you find? Is there usually a variety of food? What do you do if the dumpster is empty?
MM: Not really. You can find pretty much anything you need to survive tossed by someone in the dumpster. This includes but isn't limited to: furniture, electronics, computers, monitors, vacuums, food, clothing, books, even unopened alcohol (my friends have been more lucky at this than I). Most of the furniture in my house came from the street. We like to look around college campuses (SDSU dorms especially), especially at the beginning or end of the quarter—it's a goldmine. I've personally found TVs, monitors, computers, vacuum cleaners, speakers, shelves, cookware, art, CDs, books—all in perfectly good shape and more than we can use. Most of it only needs a little repair and is soon good as new.
Freegan Pastries. Photo by veganstraightedge.
KA: As for sanitary issues? How do you know you're not eating contaminated or spoiled foods? Do you have methods for securing food sanitation?
MM: It's the same whether you're inside the grocery store or out back in its dumpster—use your eyes and nose. You look for mould, rotting, and discoloration. If something smells bad you toss it. If a bag or can is bulging, you avoid it. But here's the thing: grocery stores are continually restocking and tossing out food that is technically expired (due to the expiration date) but is perfectly edible—sellable one day, labelled as garbage the next day. So, the dumpsters are continually being replenished and odds are good that you'll find plenty of bounty. Overall, by following a careful practice, I feel pretty good about the quality of food I gather and have never gotten sick or ill from it.
KA: I have to ask: Does being a freegan ever interfere with your social life or family dynamic?
MM: Never. In many ways, it probably enhances the dynamic. It's a great reason to go out dumpster-diving with a couple friends and divide and cook the bounty afterward.
Guest contributor Kelly Abbott's post Ungeek to Live highlights all the ways you get can stuff done without (gasp!) a computer.