Are Freegans Vegan Cheaters?, uses the term “freegan” to mean someone who, based on an objection to capitalism and the exploitation and it creates, finds ways to live outside the money economy by making use of wasted resources– discarded goods (for food, clothing, literature, etc), abandoned buildings (for squats), vacant lots (for gardens), etc.

But chances are, you’ve heard that “other” definition of freegan. You know the one– the one about the person who’s usually vegan, but then someone gives her half a ham sandwich, and since she didn’t pay for it, says it’s “freegan” and eats it. Basically, someone looking for loopholes to still eat meat.

When I first heard the term freegan it was also in the context of this less flattering definition. I don’t remember when I first heard the word, but I do remember the first time I heard it used in the more positive sense. It was around 1995 or so in Seattle, Washington, I was describing my lifestyle and the person I was with, an activist with the Northwest Animal Rights Network told me I was a freegan. I think at the time I chalked up the difference between the very unflattering definition I’d heard and the much more appealing way he was understood the word to regional differences in usage.

For years thereafter, I wouldn’t identify with the term because of the negative associations many vegans have with the word, based on the more negative definition. Over time I came to the belief that in fact the definition uses is in reality the correct one, and that the other usage has come from people who have misunderstood the concept explaining the term to others and then them passing on that incorrect definition ad infinitum.

My guess as to what happened was that strict vegans were dismayed to see people eating dumpstered animal products and upon demanding why people concerned about animals rights were eating such things got the response “It’s freegan.” Which, of course, is true– any food that is dumpstered is freegan food. Of course, the eating of nonvegan dumpstered food is not the DEFINITION of freegan, any more than the definition of a vegan is someone who eats broccoli. Some freegans eat dumpstered meat. Others don’t. Just as some vegans eat broccoli and others, I imagine, don’t like it. Being freegan neither requires or procludes someone from eating dumpstered anything. That said, many freegans are freegans because of the exploitative practices that are responsible for the creation of everyday goods. They don’t draw imaginary lines between meat made out of tortured animals or grapes grown by severely exploited workers or coffee grown on formerly rainforest land that was clearcut for plantation. To a freegan, anything we buy is morally suspect, and recovering things without driving demand for further production of these commodities with our dollars is a moral imperative. To many freegans, eating steak from the trash seems FAR more ethical than buying vegan foods whose production supports a myriad of forms of exploitation rarely considered by most vegans.

For the average vegan this is an uncomfortable message– it suggests that instead of pointing fingers at others, they need to look more deeply at their own consumption practices. It’s always easier to blame others than be accountable, so I suspect that many vegans conveniently ignored the broader politics of freegans to focus in on criticizing SOME freegans for eating meat. As a result, freeganism in their mind came to mean someone who will eat meat if its going to waste– a “cheater.”

Anyway, this is my theory.

If you look at the essay “Why Freegan?,” the oldest amd most widely circulated essay I’ve seen on the subject of freeganism, it offers a definition very similar to the one used by

So in the end, maybe it would just be simpler to come up with a whole new word, since there is so much confusion about this one. But at the same time, this word was created to mean something, and part of me wants to reclaim it rather than cede it to people who don’t understand it, feel threatened by it, or both. I also label myself an anarchist without apology, even though many people have negative associations with THAT term…