Free Lunch

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

"Everybody who comes to my house, they're like, 'Oh, my gosh. Where did you get those?' 'Cause they're wire and you can actually see the peat moss through them -- it looks really neat. I just tell them I got them off the Dumpster. They think I'm joking.

"The whole philosophy of Dumpster-diving to me is just to keep stuff out of the dump. Those wire baskets would have taken up a lot of space in the dump if I hadn't taken them -- and I was needing window boxes anyway. You just want to do your part."

Keith McHenry founded Food Not Bombs with seven 
Keith McHenry founded Food Not Bombs with seven friends.

On a Wednesday evening underneath the bridge at Main and Pierce, about 50 homeless people form a line toward what appears to be nothing. Several crusty kids wander around talking to them.

Then a truck rolls up and the kids spring into action. A table is erected and set; the line slowly moves forward; heaping spoonfuls of tasty vegetarian fare are doled out. After the diners finish their plates, they carefully scrape them and stack them neatly in a pile.

"We have a process for working which is so essential because it's not hierarchical," says Nick Cooper, a 36-year-old who has been with Food Not Bombs for about a year. "It's very much about that process. When Food Not Bombs makes a decision, there's no positions, there's no titles, there's no chain of command -- it's just a group that decides something together."

Sometimes the absence of rank makes it difficult to mete out responsibility.

"There's a couple of people who do a lot more work than other people and it's really rough on them," he says. "[But] we have a system for doing it and this is it."

That system extends to the way FNB treats the homeless.

"What we're doing is not charity," says Lyons. "It's solidarity. Because charity implies a handing down, like we have it and we're better and we are nice enough to give it to someone else. We believe that we have no more of a right to food than anyone else.

"A lot of times the Christian groups will come out and look down their nose and condescend to homeless people," he says. "They feel better by doing it. You can tell they don't want to be there; they're not going to look anyone in the eye."

And they often will show up once and then disappear for weeks. FNB, on the other hand, is steady.

Just ask Gary, a 49-year-old military vet who has been sleeping under the bridge for the last seven weeks. He sits on a wall near Pierce, sharing his perch with two buddies while listening to sports radio. They are surrounded by a plethora of plastic bags filled with their belongings.

Though he's been homesteading there for less than two months, Gary seems to have achieved an avuncular status with the other residents of the underpass. An elderly man walks up and offers him a banana. Others come by to say hello and check on the score of the game.

Gary talks about how difficult it is to find food in the area, given the large number of people panhandling and digging through the trash. But he livens up when asked about Food Not Bombs.

"These kids come Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays," he says. "Every month, every week. I have faith in them, like friends. I don't know them all by name, but I trust them.

"Rain, sunshine, tornado watch -- these kids are coming. This is why I praise them, and that is why God blesses them."

Such immediate feedback and results -- absent from most volunteer work -- are some of the bonuses of life as a freegan.

"A lot of work that people do, you don't see the effect for a while or you just can't really ever see it," says Lyons. "You know it's somewhere, but you have to have faith in it. This way, every time people are like, 'Thank you.'

"It's pretty real-world shit for a lot of kids."

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