Nelson,54,was searching for good-quality food that had been tossed from the store's stocks of slightly wilted produce,day-old bread and dented canned goods.
Nelson is a freegan – a mash-up of “free” and “vegan.”
Freegans try to shuck the constraints of the capitalist system. They participate in community gardening,resource sharing,squatting,Dumpster diving and other alternative methods for sustaining themselves.
“Freegans embrace community,generosity,social concern,freedom,cooperation and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism,moral apathy,competition,conformity and greed,” according to the freegan website.
Nelson left her six-figure job as a director of communications for Barnes & Noble in 2005 after she attended her first Buy Nothing Day and learned about freeganism. She hasn't returned to the corporate world and has no plans to do so. She now runs the New York freegan Meetup group and helped start the D.C. freegan group in January.
“My skills are needed if the world is going to change,” she said. “We need to be working for the kind of world we want to be living in.”
The New York Meetup group has more than 700 members,
and 2,400 people subscribe to the New York freegan events calendar.
The websites are used to organize group Dumpster dives – also called trash tours – which are usually held once a week. Nelson said that what she finds discarded by stores is shocking: whole wheels of cheese,huge quantities of produce,canned food,baked goods,eggs,sandwiches.
“The best thing to find would be nothing at all,and unfortunately that's not what I find,” she said.
On a recent trip to a Trader Joe's trash bin,Nelson found a 10-pound bar of chocolate in damaged packaging and an entire flat of shrink-wrapped olive oil with one broken bottle.
“It's obvious to anyone that looks; they are throwing out good,viable,human-quality food,” she said. “We've come to the point where we value the packaging more than the product itself.”
All food collected by freegans is inspected to make sure it's safe to eat,Nelson said. Sometimes stores trash items far before their pull-dates or clear their shelves if new shipments come in,she said.
Lynda Biaou,23,co-founder and assistant organizer of the Washington freegan Meetup group,was inspired to change her lifestyle after watching a documentary on freeganism. She went to New York to learn the ropes from Nelson.
After three months,the group has 92 members and runs weekly trash tours.
“The word is spreading pretty quickly,” Biaou said. “Every dive,we have new members who are so excited about it. Some are freaked out,but once they see how much good stuff you can find,they get into it.”