The british filmaker Craig Rook, director of What a Freegan Waste (UK/US, 2006), talks exclusively to our correspondent at Slow Food on Film about the making of his documentary, food waste and a group of people who call themselves Freegans.
Your film documents interesting aspects of the issues surrounding food waste in the UK and the USA by showing us how the in-date, edible food thrown away in abundance by supermarkets assists the Freegan lifestyle. But what exactly is a Freegan?
A Freegan is someone who, based on an objection to capitalism and the exploitation it creates, finds ways to live outside economy by making use of wasted resources, discarded goods (e.g. food, clothing, books), abandoned buildings (for squats), vacant lots (for gardens) and so on.
Where did you draw the inspiration for this documentary?
I came across the movement in a magazine article I read in 2005 about Freeganism in the UK and a man called Ash Hooper, a british Freegan who also collects computer parts from skips and fixes them up to be put to good use. What interested me the most about what these people were doing was that they had found a way of getting free food and how they went about getting it.
Before reading the article I had never heard of the word Freegan, so I began researching to find out more about the scale of Freeganism worldwide. I realised that the United States has the biggest following and can, if you like, be considered a movement. Elsewhere, for example in the UK, Freeganism is on much smaller, group-based level. Still, it’s growing.
For four months after reading the article I sent emails to anyone I thought might be willing to explain more to me about this Freegan lifestyle and the first one to get in touch was Adam Wiseman, featured in the film. He is an American Freegan based in New York and the founder of freegan.info, a website detailing their activities, beliefs and motivations. After Adam understood who I was and what approach I wanted to take in terms of film production – as Freegans have often been negatively portrayed in the press – he passed on very useful information about certain Freegans in the UK that he felt would be prepared to answer my questions. In particular, I made contact with Alf and Martin who also feature in the film – British and Australian respectively- who live in a camper van named ‘The Dude’, ‘bin raid’ and are active members of the Freegan movement.
You mention that Freegans have been portrayed negatively by the press in the past. Were they open to the idea of your film after their experiences with the media?
When speaking to the Freegans featured in the film, I wanted to establish an honest relationship from the very start. Their cover in mainstream media had included several newspaper articles, radio programs and I believe they had dealt with the TV at some point, but they did not feel they were portrayed in the right light. This was possibly because of the fact that the Freegans from the UK featured in the film are Jesus Christians, but this wasn’t my focus. I wanted to make this film specifically about food and food waste.
I was lucky to have the luxury of making the film without time constraits, which enabled me to spend time with them and gain their trust as a filmmaker and person. In my opinion, as a filmaker I have a responsabilty to convey the truth as accurately as I can and in this case, having had the chance to get to know these people and establish an understanding, the results were received positively by those in the film.
Did you have any idea of the scale of waste you would be encountering during the making of this film?
No, not at all. I was completely suprised to see the amount of food – that was in date and in good order – thrown away at every single place the Freegans we were following stopped. They managed to find enough food to eat more than sufficiently 99 percent of the time.
When visiting the land fill site, I was overwhelmed by the amount of food being put into the land and the massive environmental damage it’s causing. What’s sad is that someone on the streets, or elsewhere, could have eaten this food because it’s perfectly healthy and in-date.
If we look back at our parents generation they simply didn’t waste food, but as we have become wealthier, attitudes to food have changed and in turn food waste is up. In the UK one third of the food produced is wasted and in the USA 50 percent of the food produced gets thrown in the bin. The British have the worst record for recycling our rubbish – shown by the fact that we are at the top of the land-fill league table in the European Union. 26 million tonnes of food waste is dumped into landfill each year, followed closely by Italy with around 20 million tonnes.
We have targets set by the EU in order to reduce waste, but they will simply remain targets. People only take notice when it hurts them in their pockets. At present it is more fashionable to be seen as environmentally conscious and people are doing more on an individual level compared to ten years ago, but we have a long way to go. I admit I was as much a culprit before the making of this film in terms of leaving food on a plate or unecessarily throwing away food in my fridge.
There is a saying that the food we produce today is enough to feed the world four times over, but at present this cannot be put into effect because of they way food is currently being produced and discarded. Individuals cause effect in a movement of this scale, but the real action will be made by the governments and institutions who impose higher taxes on the way we manage refuse.
In the film we saw you took part in a few bin-raids with Alf and Martin, how did you feel on your first visit to the supermarket wheeley bins?
It was exciting, partly because it’s an illegal act to take things out of bins in the UK. In the USA, the FBI inadvertently made it legal to ‘bin raid’, ‘dumpster dive’ or ‘scavenge hunt’ – some of the names given to how Freegans find there food – but in the UK it’s still technically considered as theft because you are removing items from supermarket property.
Do the Freegans you met spend any money on food or is everything they need usually found in waste bins?
They generally find everything they need in the bins. They are happy to get whatever there is and there is always more than enough. They said that there have been a few times when they haven’t found much, but it’s rare. If they do need something Alf and Martin, from the UK, get money from contributions and donations given to them, but they prefer to find what they need rather than buy anything.
In one of the bin-raids you filmed, Alf and Martin pull some chicken thighs out of the bin. On the issue of health, do you think it is safe, for example, to eat meat found unopened and in- date in supermarket wastebins?
Alf and Martin said that they had never been ill from the food they have taken out of the bins. They actually eat better than many people I know and I have to say whilst making the film they looked healthy and bright-eyed. On the issue of meat, the word Freeganism itself hints at veganism and the Freegans we filmed in the USA do not eat meat. In the UK, the Freegans I met were of the belief that by choosing to live this lifestyle you can’t choose what you eat, but you eat whatever is thrown away. Still, they were more cautious with meat and the packaging always had to be sealed.
Has the making of the film changed the way you purchase food and look at food packaging?
Making the film certainly opened my eyes to every layer of food production from the origins – mainly in developing countries – to food transportation, redistribution and the issue of food poverty. Food packaging is a very current discussion in the UK as we look set to start paying taxes on carrier bags in supermarkets.
So, do you feel you are more conscious eater and consumer now?
I can say I probably recycle more than the average person and I’m suprised at the fact that I’ve changed certain habits and I’m actually keeping them up. I take time to walk to recycling bins or to the local dump, but more importantly I try to live with what I need as opposed to what I am told to need. I can understand people not wanting to be preached to about these things, but the UK is supposedly the fourth biggest economy in the world and I was shocked to see how much food poverty affects people. People affected by food poverty in the UK may not necessarily be starving, but what their diet still falls very much below the sugggested dietary needs for a person.
What do you hope people take away from your film?
Like any filmmaker, I want people to enjoy my film and hopefully learn something new. As Adam Wiseman mentions on camera: ‘as a group of people eating food from bins we are not going to cause global mass changes, but it’s like lighting a candle in a sea of darkness’. The Freegan movement is about making individuals more concious of the effects their daily habits and purchases can have on others and the environment.
Are you still in contact with the Freegans from the the film?
Yes, I’m still in contact with them and in fact I’m currently working on the equal, or follow-up, of What a Freegan Waste, the working tittle is Bin Appetite. But even before we knew we would be doing this new film I had kept in touch with them. Adam Wiseman from the USA still sends me newsletters.
Do you think that you might make other films which focus on other issues of the current food situation across the world?
After my visit to Slow Food on Film and seeing the different issues raised and linked with agri-production, the passion for food and the traditional skills that are disappearing, I feel it’s something that I definitely want to investigate more. I enjoyed the festival and the selection of films and the more I understand what the Slow Food movement stands for, the more I’m starting to think about making another food related film.
Victoria Blackshaw works at the Slow Food Press Office