Lisa Ling

When Lisa Ling visits The Oprah Show, you're likely to go someplace you've never been before. She has given viewers rare looks inside places as remote as North Korea and Uganda and as close as secretive polygamous communities in America.

But it's likely you've never seen anything like "freegans." This growing grassroots subculture is made of people who have decided to live outside consumer society. Freegans say our culture's emphasis on buying the newest products—and throwing away perfectly fine older things—is a waste of the world's resources. Instead, they focus on buying less and use only what they need. One of the main ways freegans do this is by salvaging food and other goods from the trash.

Three years ago, Madeline was an executive living in New York City earning a six-figure salary. After a six-month period of conversion, she says she became a freegan who gets almost all her food from what other people throw away. "I started thinking about what I was consuming," she says. "I started looking at how much I was consuming and how consumerism is really driven by corporations who make lots and lots of money by getting us to buy things."
Lisa gets a tour of Madeline's apartment

Madeline's lessons in freeganism included a "trash tour" of New York. These tours show interested people just how much perfectly safe, edible food can be found that has been thrown away. "I thought, 'Well, why not?' I just wanted to see what's there." Now Madeline routinely takes people in New York City on trash tours.

Watch as Madeline leads Lisa on a trash tour of New York City. Watch

In her New York City home, Madeline prepares a meal for Lisa made from salvaged food. Her kitchen is stocked with the sort of things you'd find in many kitchens in America—fruit, vegetables, milk, bread, eggs and even cut flowers. All of which, she says, came from the trash. Madeline estimates she spends roughly $10 to $20 a week on things she can't find in the trash.

The food she's eating is far from gross. "It's not toxic waste," she says. Much of the food is still in its original packaging and has been discarded largely for cosmetic reasons, not because of poor quality. She shows Lisa how cartons of eggs are regularly thrown away when there's one broken egg—even though there are 11 perfectly good ones remaining. Fruit is often thrown away when it has only minor dents, she says.

"Once you know what you're doing, in approximately one hour, you can gather food that if you were paying retail price, [it would cost] between [$100] and $300," Madeline says.
Madeline explains why she's a freegan.

Madeline says she does this as a political statement, but it's about more than finding salvaged food. "Freeganism has expanded to cover all different kinds of simple living, all different ways of basically opting out of the system," she says. "I would rather not have new clothes every year and not be using up all of the world's resources."

Obviously, most people aren't ready or willing to set out on late-night searches through bags of garbage, but there are other ways to cut down on how much you consume. "Part of it is also just the practice of saying, 'Do I really need to go out and buy new clothes? New electronics? Do I really need an SUV to get around? Or could I go by bicycle?'" Madeline says.

One way to cut down on consumption in your community, she says, is by checking out websites like "You can find your own town and find people who want to give stuff and get stuff absolutely for free. So if you've got that pair of shoes you never wear anymore, put it on"
Daniel salvages food

While most newlyweds spend their time picking out new furniture and china, Daniel and Amanda are picking through eggshells to find salvageable food. This doctor and engineer are Nashville-area freegans.

When Lisa visits their home, Daniel and Amanda show off some of the items they have stored up. Their haul includes fruit and vegetables, frozen pizza, milk and eggs, 50 boxes of cereal, 2,000 envelopes, sheets, rugs, lotion, furniture...even workout equipment! They say they especially love cooking using cans that have lost their labels. "They're the most fun," Daniel says. "We call them 'mystery cans.'"

Daniel says he and Amanda adopted their freegan lifestyle out of frustration with our wasteful culture. "I think we're 5 percent of the population and we consume 30 percent of the world's resources. We just think that's wrong that so many people suffer," Daniel says.

Amanda says she is not worried about what other people think of them. "We'd much rather be known as people that dig in trash than people that buy needless things," she says. "You have to learn to not get your happiness from things. It's a pretty easy thing to learn once you try it."
Freegans Daniel and Amanda

Daniel and Amanda started their freegan lifestyle about two years after they started dating. "At first, I was really grossed out," Amanda says. Daniel says he introduced the idea to Amanda because he had some friends who did it first. When he showed Amanda the quality of what they could get in the trash, she agreed to give it a try.

What made them think it was a good idea in the first place? Daniel says freegan ideas about consumption fit into their beliefs. "We try to live very simply, and we don't spend a lot on ourselves. We are very happy with having a little," he says. "We like to make it a priority to share a lot of our money. A lot of that comes from our Christian values of sharing and generosity."

They say their scavenging can be so productive that they sometimes can't even use everything they find! When that happens, Amanda says, they either give their surplus to others or donate it to shelters or charities. "Just put it back into the system rather than into a landfill," she says.
Lisa Ling on waste in America

Just how bad is the problem of waste in America? Some sources estimate that stores throw away 2 to 3 percent of their inventory. That's approximately $30 billion in food, Lisa says. "Which, again, could feed entire countries."

Since she started living as a freegan, Madeline says she is surprised at how little she actually needs to live. "I've been looking at how much I accumulated, and I'm still giving it away," she says. "When I look at how people like my grandmother lived, she wouldn't be doing this kind of throwaway society that we do now. She wouldn't be going out and buying new outfits."

Lisa says seeing how much quality food and other items Madeline was able to pull from the trash really opened her eyes. "Freegans believe that, in a way, we are slaves to buying," she says. "When you think about it, we work so hard, but for what? To buy more. Whether it's a house payment or a car or food, we just want to continue to consume. Freegans have decided to kind of try and turn their back on it completely and stop buying stuff."

Marian seems like the average 43-year-old mother of three—but her life has taken her in a direction she never imagined. By day, Marian does all the typical things moms do, from helping the kids with their homework to making pancakes for breakfast. By night, Marian transforms into "Charlie," an exotic dancer at an upscale gentlemen's club in Atlanta.

Marian says she never thought her life would take this path. She attended Clemson University on a swimming scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree in tourism and management. At age 29, she got married and gave birth to three children.

When her marriage ended after nine years, everything changed. Marian was a single mom working at a tourism bureau and an insurance company, struggling to make ends meet. "The low point was when my checking account was 19 cents," she says.

Marian says she searched for a new job that would bring in more money, but the careers she looked into required extra education—and she didn't have time to waste. Then a friend made a suggestion that would change her life—maybe Marian could become an exotic dancer.
Marian explains how she became a stripper.

After the birth of her third child, Marian had worked hard to get her body back in shape. So when the idea came up to try exotic dancing, Marian decided to give it a try. "Had I not been prepared physically to do this, I could have never done it and would have never done it."

Two years later, Marian makes enough money to care for her family. Since she only dances three nights a week, she also has time to spend with her children. "I think this is a godsend for me in a way, merely because for the first time in a long time, I have money in a savings account. I have a life insurance policy," she says. "Before, I was kind of hanging on by a wing and a prayer."

Marian says she struggles with some people's perceptions that stripping is exploitative and degrading, especially because of her Methodist upbringing. "I even prayed before I started working there. I said, 'Lord, don't condemn me for this because I'm not doing it to thrill-seek or anything like that," she says.

People might judge her, but Marian says she doesn't let her job define her as a person. "It's what I do, not who I am. I think you can have dignity and respect in anything you do," she says. "The one thing I want my children to know is at least I didn't give up. I'm not sitting there waiting for someone to take care of me."
Marian at work

On a typical workday, Marian makes dinner for her children and a babysitter comes over so she can head to work. "I kind of feel like I'm maximizing my time because I'm gone when they would be sleeping anyway," she says.

When she arrives at the club, 4-inch heels and hair extensions transform Marian into her dancer alter-ego, "Charlie." Then it's time to take the stage with the other dancers, sometimes giving private dances to customers.

Marion says dancing naked in front of strangers can be a bit of an emotional challenge. "Sometimes it's scary, and sometimes you feel more de-clothed than others. ... It can get unnerving. I'd be lying if I said it didn't," she says. "Sometimes I'll look around the room, and I'm like, 'How did I get here?' Then again, I just try to keep a smile on my face. Sometimes I view work as a challenge. I say, 'Okay, I want to try to make rent tonight.'"
Sydney and Lisa Ling

Marian's 13-year-old daughter, Sydney, says her mom initially told her she was a showroom model. When she learned Marian was really a stripper, Sydney says she "freaked out." Now, with some time to get used to the idea, she says she is proud of Marian. "I think she's really brave to do it," she says. "My mom is not a bad person. She's a really good mom, and she cares about us. Believe it or not, she does a lot more stuff than a lot of those other moms do."

Is Sydney worried what people will think when they find out her mother is a stripper? "Yes and no," she says. "I'm kind of worried about what they might think about me and my mom and our family, but no because I don't care what they think. Our family is definitely not normal, but it's normal for our family."

After talking with Sydney, Lisa says her viewpoint shows wisdom. "If she's not judging her own mom, who gives everyone the right to do it?" Lisa says. "Frankly, Marian is there from the second those kids wake up in the morning, and as soon as those kids come home from school, she's right there. How many moms can say they have that kind of time?"
Marian knows she can't be a stripper forever.

Marian says she didn't tell Sydney the truth at first because she was worried what people would say. "Sometimes I'm ashamed merely because of people's reaction to it, and it does have a stereotype. You think you're a bad person or think you're a loose woman or whatever. That's what I thought before I started working there," she says.

Marian not only hid the truth from her children—her own mother doesn't even know she is a stripper. "My mother thinks I'm a showroom model, but she will know before this show airs. She's always said, 'If you've got it, flaunt it.' I don't know if this is what she meant, but I think she'll love me anyway," Marian says. "The reason I was kind of trying to spare them [Sydney and her mother], I didn't want them to be embarrassed of me or disappointed."

Stripping has improved Marian's financial situation and provided free time with her kids, but the 43-year-old says she knows it won't last forever. "I don't want to be out here with a cane, you know?" she says.

When it's time to stop dancing, Marian says she wants to find a career with the same perks—good pay and free time with the kids. She says she would love to be a personal trainer. "Fitness is a passion of mine," she says.
Lisa, Marian and Oprah

After all she has overcome in her life, Marian says she feels "victorious." She says she's ready to tell the world about her life as a single mom and an exotic dancer. "I've kind of lived my life for other people all my life, and I just felt like it was eating at me, and I hate to be dishonest," she says. "I don't feel like I should be put on a pedestal necessarily, but I shouldn't be condemned either. There are a lot of people who haven't walked in my path."

Lisa says she felt very skeptical when she took the assignment to interview Marian. "Spending the entire day with Marian and her kids and then seeing her naked was an unusual experience. It was a little disarming," Lisa says. "But I have to say that I think Marian is a really, really good mom who happens to be a stripper. That's her job. And she feels that this is the path that works for her."
FROM: Living on the Edge: Lisa Ling Reports How Far Would You Go?
Published on February 27, 2008


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