Free Lunch

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

Patrick Lyons stands in the middle of a Dumpster, staring at a can of meat.

"I don't know who eats this stuff," he says.

He chucks the can aside and keeps on digging. His ball cap is slung low over his face; it connects to his long, thick, brown sideburns.

Patrick Lyons surveys the scene…
Keith Plocek
Patrick Lyons surveys the scene…
…and dives right in, searching for bread and veggies.
Daniel Kramer
…and dives right in, searching for bread and veggies.
Rhon Harris enjoys a plate...
Rhon Harris enjoys a plate...
…while others wait patiently in line.
Courtesy of foodnotbombs.net
…while others wait patiently in line.
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.
Keith McHenry founded Food Not Bombs with seven 
friends.
Keith McHenry founded Food Not Bombs with seven friends.

He digs down and -- jackpot -- he's found what he's looking for. He holds three small potatoes and a yellow bell pepper up in the air.

He's one step closer to a complete meal.

He places his bounty in a cardboard box and keeps foraging.

"One time a lady walked up to me and offered me $5," he says. "I told her, 'I'm not homeless. This is political.' "

Lyons is a freegan. He doesn't want to contribute to consumer society, so he eats for free whenever possible. Sometimes that means digging through Dumpsters behind grocery stores.

It's not as if this 23-year-old can't afford food. He grew up near Rice University, went to Lamar High School and now works at the Menil Collection. It's just that he's got strict principles -- and he needs to feed a lot of people.

For the last four years, Lyons has been involved with Food Not Bombs. Several times a week, about a dozen people gather together in downtown to share vegetarian food with the homeless. The grub comes from all kinds of places, including trash cans. Most discarded food, after all, is perfectly fine. Lyons and his friends eat it all the time.


Most of the participants in Food Not Bombs are vegans, i.e., people who eat no animal products: no meat, no dairy, no eggs, nada.

Freeganism is just the next logical step. Say you order veggie fare at Taco Bell; you just supported the same corporation that owns KFC. Hello, bean burrito. Bye-bye, birdie.

Anytime you buy anything, the logic goes, you're contributing to the problem, so the only way to keep your hands clean is to get them dirty, to dig around in the Dumpster and avoid consumerism as much as possible. And, hell, why not help out the homeless while you're at it?

The local chapter of FNB has been around for ten years; the national movement for 24. Most of its participants are idealistic youths.

"It's a good introduction for people -- it was for me -- into empowering yourself to be part of the solution," says Lyons. "Most 16- to 20-year-olds don't want to sit down and do paperwork or research or writing. So if they can run around with their friends on bikes and jump in Dumpsters and cook food together, it's not really work."

But it is a little dirty. Lyons says rats and cockroaches are never really a problem, but sometimes grocers share Dumpsters with other vendors, so motor oil and other contaminants get splattered on top of the food.

"That would get you sick and is also just gross," he says. "And rotten food is gross, but it's organic, so it's not that bad."

Dumpsters are grimy places, but freegans still follow the rules of etiquette when navigating them. Rule No. 1 is to never make more of a mess than necessary -- you don't want to spoil the goods for the next diver or, perhaps worse, draw undue attention from property owners. And No. 2, don't take more than you need.

"It's inefficient," says Lyons. "You've got to carry it home and then it rots in your house."

Looking out for your fellow divers is key.

"I was Dumpstering at this one place and there was this lady there who I've seen a lot throughout the years," he says. "And then this other guy who I've also seen over the years pulled up with his wife in his truck.

"We pretty much pulled everything usable out and divvied it up based on who needed what," he says. "We were all working together. All three of us just didn't want the food to go to waste."

Of course, there are those who don't see the magic of Dumpster-diving.

"I think, for some people, it's a matter of pride," says Lyons. "They don't want to feel like they have to do that. Society's view of garbage is that it's no longer anything but trash; it's dirty."

Sometimes even the homeless will pass up the free food offered by Food Not Bombs, once they learn where it's coming from.

"For some people the idea of a Dumpster is so foreign that it's a real turnoff. But then they see us eating it," he says. "I've always made it an absolute point to eat anything I'm even thinking about giving someone."

Lyons emphasizes that FNB doesn't forage in Dumpsters for table scraps. Day-old bread, veggies that have been replaced by slightly fresher ones, discarded sacks of flour -- this is the kind of stuff freegans are looking for.

"The food out of the Dumpster is perfectly good food," he says. Most of it just ends up there because of unnecessary waste. Apparently it's good business to keep a store constantly replenished, even when the food on the shelves is still nutritious.

Chichi grocery stores seem to be among the biggest offenders. Their Dumpsters offer bittersweet abundance for freegans.

"I'll eat anything out of the Dumpster," says Lyons, "but I wish it weren't there. I'd like eventually for our society to not have waste like that."

Store owners often go to great lengths to keep people from digging in the bins, even though they want nothing to do with what's inside.

"I think the mentality is that if people can get it for free, they won't buy it," Lyons says. "So the capitalist world or whatever doesn't want to make anything free available. Obviously, it's impractical to really care that much, but some places really do."

When the Houston Pressfollowed Lyons on a recent foraging mission, he came across a locked Dumpster behind a shopping center. One tug later and the lock was off, the lid open. He tossed the lock inside the Dumpster and hopped in.

As an example of the absurd measures people take to protect their garbage, he describes the scene behind the McDonald's at Main and Rosewood. A large cinder-block building is locked tight by a metal gate. On top of the structure, broken bottles have been cemented onto the blocks. And then there's concentration-camp-style razor wire on top of all of that. Inside the building are one Dumpster and a grease trap.

"Who wants a Big Mac anyway?" he asks.

His 27-year-old housemate, Nicole Caldwell, adds, "It's like they've got gold in there or something."

Razor wire is but one of the dangers faced by Dumpster-divers. One 26-year-old participant in the Houston chapter of Food Not Bombs, who asked not to be named, was shot two years ago while diving with a friend in Oakland.

"We were digging through, finding great pastries to bring back to our friends, when I began to notice a car had passed by us at least twice before," he says. "I climbed out of the Dumpster and on top of the fence when I heard a terrifyingly loud blast. I did not see much and did not feel any pain, but felt numb and knew something was wrong."

As he tried to get down, his pants got caught on the razor wire and he ended up hanging upside down -- and then plummeted to the ground.

He had been sprayed with buckshot. It shattered his femur and decimated a vein in his left leg.

"My loss of blood was so high that I was very, very, very lucky that the ambulance arrived," he says. "Otherwise I would have died.

"For a long time I was terrified to be out at night and to be around Dumpsters, but I knew I had to get over that," he says. "It has been two years and I am cautious when I am out at night, but I continue to Dumpster-dive regularly, ride my bicycle incessantly and [live] the way I desire."

Freegans also must deal with guard dogs, tricky trash compactors and bleach thrown on food by business owners. And then there are the cops. City code states that it is unlawful for anyone to handle material that has been placed for collection.

Sergeant Rose Terry of the Houston Police Department acknowledges that the police are likely to turn a blind eye to homeless people digging through the trash.

"[But] if you see a group of kids doing something like that," she says, "then your antennas are going to go up more so." Even then, most Dumpster-divers walk away with a warning.

But the police have harassed Food Not Bombs for serving food under the bridge at Main and Pierce. They tried to shut down the whole operation last year, the day before Thanksgiving.

"The cops came up and threatened to arrest us if we didn't leave," says Lyons. "We were screaming at them and we were saying, 'We're not going anywhere.' On top of that, 'Can you hear yourself? Do you realize how awful of a person you are, regardless of where the orders are coming from?' We ended up moving onto the sidewalk just to appease them. We were still able to get our food out."

Lyons says that shortly thereafter he went to the Web site of the Harris County Appraisal District to look up the area.

"Under that bridge, all the way, for the ten or 12 blocks it runs, it's all set aside by the city for health and recreation," he says. "I think we are both."

When the police came back a few weeks later, Lyons told them about his research. The officers never returned.


When Irish immigrant James McHenry signed the U.S. Constitution in 1787, he harbored broad hopes for his descendants in the States. Little did he know his great-great-grandson would end up homeless in the late 1970s, scavenging through Dumpsters for food.

"I had to go underground due to a very violent police beating in Portland, Oregon," says 47-year-old Keith McHenry. "I had to live out of Dumpsters."

The way he tells the story, he was beaten by two police officers in front of his apartment, solely because he had out-of-state plates, a "food for people, not for profit" bumper sticker and very long hair.

"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."

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.

"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."


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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