Free food distribution in Lyon
Free food distribution in Lyon
Anne-Sophie Novel

LYON – Those familiar with the Freegan movement know that dumpster diving to find food to eat is nothing new.

But organizing free food distributions to denounce food waste is a novel form of Freeganism – as practiced by the activists from the Gars Pilleurs organization founded by two young men from Lyon, east-central France.

One of the two has been scavenging at the end of the grocer’s market for a year and a half. The other has been feeding himself for months from what he finds in the bins behind supermarkets and bakeries.

Both have gotten used to looking for dirty, expired and unsellable foods. But they recover so much food that is still good to eat that they decided to redistribute the fruits of their urban harvest.

Their tips for finding free food: Start by scavenging food at the end of the grocer’s market (“the simplest”), and then local bakeries (“be there early in the morning before the garbage trucks”) and last, try the supermarkets, whose dumpsters are easily accessible.

“We retrieve discarded food and distribute it a few hours later, so if the cold chain is interrupted, it’s not for long,” explain the two men, neither of whom has ever been sick from eating like this. It is also a question of common sense: the smell and sight of the food can tell us if it’s gone bad or if it’s still ok to eat.

During their food distributions in the center of Lyon, they meet all kinds of people, not only passersby, but also students, employees, retirees, unemployed, homeless, Roma gypsies, etc.

Organic yogurt, leeks, an orchid, milk, and dog food were among what they found on March 21 last when they redistributed no less than 230 kilos of free food.

Journalist Anne Dory interviewed people attending the distribution for the free daily newspaper, 20minutes Lyon: Pierre found out about the distribution through social networks. “When I am out of money, I go through trash bins outside stores,” says the 24-year-old, who is unemployed. He fills his bag with food. Next to him are students and some elderly people. “It is shameful to throw away all of this, do you see at what price they sell it to us?” asks Maria, 63, who is struggling with a 1000-euro monthly pension.

The two men from Lyon hope to raise awareness on the issue and change the way people think about food production. “We should change the way we buy food, eat locally-produced healthy and organic products,” they say. “We chose to focus on food because it is relatively easy to obtain, but we could have taken cars from a junkyard and redistributed them in the same way.”

Food that “belongs to no one”

In France, 1.2 million tons of food is thrown away every year – about 20 kilos per person per year. Of these 20 kilos, seven kilos are still in their packaging, and 13 kilos are leftovers and fruits and vegetables.

But who owns this discarded food? It is legal to go scavenge someone else’s garbage? According to the discussions I have had with people from the Freegan movement, the issue is knowing if the garbage can be considered res nullius which means: “belonging to no one” or res derelictae, “without an owner.” The owner of the garbage made his or her intent clear by throwing out this food.

According to Maude Frachon, a blogger who writes about alternative ways of consuming, the law doesn’t really address the question of scavenging in other people’s trash. She recommends always carrying a letter that clears the owners of the trash of any liability in case of problems (i.e. food poisoning), for example:

"I, the undersigned ....... born on .... at ..... certify on my honor not to lodge a complaint against the former owners of the food waste found at ....... The ingestion of this discarded food is entirely my responsibility. I am aware that this letter can be produced in court and that any misrepresentation on my part exposes me to legal sanctions. Date, place, signature."

“As long as you don’t trespass on private property or litter the area with garbage,” says Frachon, it is ok. What is illegal, however, is to resell someone else’s trash.

Food is not the only thing that is wasted. In order to raise awareness and get companies to donate their unsold products, the non-profit organization Agence du don en nature (Gift in kind agency) organized in March a “Donations Week.”

The organization collects products from all kinds of companies and retailers (cosmetic, clothes shoes, personal care, household appliances etc.) that are still new, but will be discarded because they are last year’s collection, or it is the end of a promotion etc., to redistribute it to charities that help the poor.

“Nearly 400 million such products are destroyed each year in France,” says the organization, which has already redistributed 22 million euros worth of new products. “This allows us to redistribute products that were headed for destruction. For the company, it saves them on energy costs incurred by the destruction of the products, while having a social impact on impoverished people.”

Among the products that are most often discarded, and that the organization has the most of are personal care products, household cleaning products, toys and products for babies and toddlers, and school supplies.

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