Free Lunch

Freegans prove there is such a thing as they Dumpster-dive for food for themselves and the homeless

"After they beat me up, they ordered me to back my truck up into the space because they were going to arrest me," he says. "So, as I tried to back into the space, I hit one of their motorcycles. I didn't want to get back out of the car after that, so I just kept backing up, ran over the other one and left."

McHenry tried to make a break for Washington State, but a roadblock stopped him.

"My public defender said there was no way he could defend me successfully for this case, so he urged me to jump bail and stay underground -- so that's what I did."

Inside this fortress are one Dumpster and a grease 
trap.
Daniel Kramer
Inside this fortress are one Dumpster and a grease trap.
Nicole Caldwell and friends successfully navigate the 
real world as they share food.
Nicole Caldwell and friends successfully navigate the real world as they share food.

Years later he learned the Portland arrest wasn't on his record, but by then he was living completely off the books. He had recovered a bunch of art materials from the trash while living in Boston and started up a graphic design firm, eventually netting accounts with the Boston Celtics and the Red Sox.

In 1980 he began Food Not Bombs with seven friends.

"When I first started Food Not Bombs, I was actually diverting food from a natural food store that I had worked for."

To this day, most of the food shared by Food Not Bombs doesn't come from the Dumpster. Thanks to connections and craftiness, it is saved before it makes it into the bin. But many of the group's participants believe no good food should go to waste, no matter where it comes from.

McHenry eventually moved to San Francisco, where he started up a second FNB group. There are now hundreds of groups worldwide.

He says he was arrested 105 times while living in San Francisco. Apparently the police didn't have a problem with his serving food, but the authorities felt his group was promoting an anarchist message.

"Once we stopped bringing out literature and banners to the serving," he says, "we've never been arrested since."

At least not with Food Not Bombs. McHenry is a lifetime activist who gets in a lot of trouble for his involvement with direct-action groups. And the police don't take too kindly to him.

"I was tortured three times and beaten 13 times in San Francisco," he says.

"What they do is they get two officers, one officer on each arm and each leg, and they have you face down, and they rip your arms and legs apart in opposite directions. That rips your tendons and ligaments but doesn't really leave too much of a bruise and you have no broken bones. And then they put you naked in a chain-link-fence box that's four feet high, four feet long and four feet wide. Your ligaments and tendons have been ripped and you can't stretch out. That happened to me three times."

McHenry now lives in Tucson.


Not everyone who Dumpster-dives is homeless or a political radical -- or a frat boy preparing for a hazing ritual.

Melissa is a 36-year-old woman who lives in a nice neighborhood near Kingwood, but she still has a penchant for digging though other people's trash.

"My husband gets mad at me because I do this," she says. "He says he can't take me anywhere because I'm always looking in people's trash piles.

"When I was a little girl, my dad was married to a woman who used to do the same thing I do -- she would just check out the trash piles in the neighborhood. That's where I learned to do it. We started out with an apartment complex and we were taking the trash to the Dumpster one day and I guess somebody was moving and they threw away a bunch of stuff. We pulled the box out of the Dumpster without actually having to crawl in there; there was a whole set of cast-iron cookware in there. And it was the old kind, not the new kind that you can buy. And that's where it started.

"Over the years I've found all kinds of neat stuff on trash piles or in Dumpsters."

Melissa has always been eco-friendly, but Dumpster-diving became a necessity for her when she lost her first husband.

"I was a single mom," she says. "My husband had died when my daughter was young, so we didn't have the money to go to the furniture store and buy new furniture when we needed to. We made do with what we could find."

Unlike hard-core freegans, she has never recovered food from a Dumpster.

"If I got to the point where I couldn't afford food, I'm sure I would, but I've never been to that point."

Now she's doing better financially -- her new husband is an engineer for an oil company -- but she still forages when she gets the chance.

She scored recently in a Dumpster behind an H-E-B near her house.

"They were doing a remodel on the grocery store and they had that huge Dumpster out there, and it was piled high with fixtures from the store and everything. I pulled up there in the truck and I got in the back of the truck bed and I could reach the top of the Dumpster there. And I got about 12 wire baskets out and I made flower baskets out of them for my windows. That was a very good find.

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