The Freegan Revolution Will Not Be Kickstarted

A ragtag group of Tufts students went online to fund a café that would serve free food—and every crumb, every morsel of it would be pulled out of dumpsters. The project went belly up almost immediately, illustrating an uneasy relationship between activism and viral crowdfunding in the process.

maximus thaler of the gleaners kitchen

Maximus Thaler / Photo by Alex TK

The mood is damp in the Somerville townhouse where the founders of the Gleaners’ Kitchen now live in self-imposed exile. Just a month before, they had been poised to launch an ambitious freegan café that had found massive support online. But on this rainy June evening, they’ve served me a ceramic bowl of white rice with bell pepper sauce, and are trying to explain what, exactly, had gone wrong.

Doing most of the talking is Maximus Thaler, who’s seated at the kitchen table, half-heartedly chipping away at a few slices of bacon and a block of cheese. He might not have been the leader of the Gleaners’ Kitchen, technically, but he’s certainly the center of all the attention. Tonight he’s wearing an elaborately patched, distressed pair of pants, with a flowing shirt emblazoned with mystical designs. His wild, curly hair is braided in the back. He speaks in a curt monotone, and his brow is furrowed, as though he’s pondering something very far away.

Maximus is eccentric, to be sure, but before the Gleaners’ Kitchen fell apart, his infectious enthusiasm made him a compelling—if unofficial—leader. In promo videos, he clambers into dumpsters, ripping open bags and over-articulating his words with a peculiar intensity. In one clip, he delivers a rambling monologue over a soaring instrumental soundtrack in front of a vast display of flowers.

“We aim to show that it is possible to feed hundreds of people high-quality food without ever having to exchange a dime,” Maximus says in the video. “Dumpstering is about finding wealth that others overlooked, wealth that was camouflaged by bureaucratic red tape so well that most people don’t believe it exists, even when it is right in front of their eyes.”

The plan for Gleaners’ Kitchen was straightforward and ambitious. At night, Maximus and other classmates involved in the project would raid dumpsters, and during the day they would serve coffee, tea, and lentil soup in a Tufts-area house known for hosting punk shows. A bike cart christened “Dr. Deesnuts” would be the vehicle for delivering extra groceries to area residents, and there’d be a public dinner every evening at 6 p.m., along with other “concerts, poetry readings, academic lectures, and craftivist workshops.” The modest startup costs of the enterprise would be funded through Kickstarter. There would be no cost for food or drink, but visitors would be asked to volunteer or make donations, and their generosity would keep the project alive after the Kickstarter funds ran out.

More than just a café, Gleaners’ would serve as a deliberate provocation. By choosing to fund the project on Kickstarter, Maximus let his contributors feel like they were taking part in a bite-sized, crowdsourced revolution.

In his video rant, Maximus positioned the café and its supporters as avatars of radical sustainability. “We are society’s kidneys, filtering its waste, and re-assimilating what we can,” he says. “We strive to close the loop between production and consumption, creation and destruction, to integrate all of society’s processes into a sustainable whole. We are society’s decomposers, the bacteria and fungi that live on the forest floor. The insects that come out and make use of the forest’s waste. We transform the waste into our bodies, and when we are done, we leave the soil fertilized, renewed, and ready for next year’s growth.”

The internet almost instantly fell in love with the idea, and, I suspect, with Maximus. The Gleaners’ Kitchen was written up in TIME, the Huffington Post, the New York Daily News, and this magazine; it was mentioned on the NPR game show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” and Boston Public Radio. It was blogged about, tweeted, and shared on Facebook; it appeared in the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail, Russia’s Ridus, and on the Taiwanese, Italian, and Czech media. People talked about it around Boston and elsewhere. My mom, who lives in Vermont, emailed me a link to a story about it. “Check this out,” she wrote. “Do you know him?”

Maximus seemed to enjoy all the attention. “I spoke with a sociologist named Alex Barnard at UC Berkeley a couple days ago,” he wrote on the Kickstarter page in early April. “He wanted to interview me for a book on dumpster diving.” And the donations poured in: by the time the Kickstarter closed, it raised $3,212—a modest sum, but more than twice the initial goal.

In the coming months, the Gleaners’ Kitchen would fail to deliver on almost all of the project’s promises: They would never serve a public meal, open their door to neighbors, or host an arts event. The supportive community Maximus hoped to foster never materialized.

In one room of the townhouse I can see cardboard boxes, still half-unpacked after the hasty move, scattered about like metaphors for biting off more than you can chew.

•  •  •

Dumpster diving for food is a nasty business, and the worst part is all the slime. Chicken slime, fish slime, and vegetable slime get on your hands and inevitably your clothes. To avoid attention, you need to go in the middle of the night. It’s also exhilarating, maybe because it’s one of those rare times you can actually get something for nothing. Since I started diving, I’ve found pallets of fresh produce, still-warm pizzas, ground and whole-bean coffee, and a red Carhartt shirt I still wear to this day.

The practice of dumpster diving has roots in 1960s counterculture, and became popular during the 1990s as an aspect of antiglobalization and other activist movements. More recently, the issue of food waste has begun to seep into the mainstream. An estimated 40 percent of food goes uneaten every year in the United States—20 pounds per person, worth about $165 billion annually. The former president of Trader Joe’s, a man named Doug Rauch, grew so dismayed by the amount of food thrown out each year that he founded an expired-food market called the Daily Table that will retail only products that are beyond their sell-by date. It’s expected to open in Dorchester later this year.

It was behind a Trader Joe’s in Alewife where I first met Maximus, purely by coincidence, after the last employees had gone home on a chilly night in late March 2013. I was rummaging through the dumpster myself when he rolled up in a Zipcar—half-price after midnight, he’d later tell me—and hopped out, barking orders and encouragement to a pair of companions, who seemed uneasy in the grim quasi-darkness of the parking lot. It’s not unusual to run into other divers at grocery store dumpsters, but I’ve never seen one create as much of a spectacle as Maximus. He fixed magnetic LED floodlights to the interior of the dumpster, illuminating it from the inside like a cartoon treasure chest, and coached his buddies to climb in and pull whole trashbags onto the pavement, where they sorted the contents and loaded salvaged food into the Zipcar’s trunk.

Once things were running smoothly, Maximus paused and explained that they were a group of Tufts undergrads gathering food for the Crafts House, an alternative student residence in Medford. As a senior, he decided to see if he could feed the dozen or so residents solely with food he hauled out of dumpsters. He told me the experiment had been largely successful, and that he’d just launched a Kickstarter to fund a free café that would be based out of his apartment.

I wasn’t convinced. After all, you can meet some strange people hanging around dumpsters in the middle of the night.

The next day, I saw him on the Huffington Post.

In the weeks that followed, the project exceeded its goal and Maximus and his friends graduated from Tufts. Along with classmates Rachael Kadish and Nikolaus Bugas, he began subletting a space on College Avenue in Powder House Circle. They moved in their cooking equipment, removed years of garbage from the filthy basement that would become the dining room, and cleaned every surface. At night, they were dumpster diving to stock up on foodstuffs and feed themselves. Nikolaus says he would sleep for a few hours in the evening, dumpster dive in the middle of the night, and go back to bed in the early morning.

They’d only been living there for about a week when the property manager caught wind. He rang the doorbell late one evening, Maximus says, and “started yelling,” convinced that they were drilling holes in the walls and inviting homeless people to move in.

The main problem was that they weren’t on the lease, but tensions also grew with the house’s other residents when it became clear they intended to serve food out of the basement. They also never ran the plan by the landlord or property manager.

“If I’d spoken to them, they would have said no,” Maximus says. “That’s why I didn’t.”

On May 29, the property manager told them that subletters were no longer allowed. They had to leave immediately, and they had spent all the Kickstarter funds up front on rent, which they couldn’t get back.

Maximus posted a melancholy update to the Kickstarter page in hopes that somebody would step up and offer them a new space for free, but nothing panned out, and they had no funds left to rent elsewhere. Later that summer, he rallied volunteers a few times to give out fruit and flowers in public spaces—and to build a raft out of an old mattress and hundreds of empty bottles, which they floated down the Mystic River on a Saturday night—but the broader mission of healing a wasteful system or questioning conventional notions of value was essentially over.

They packed up their cookware and left, without ever having served the public a single meal.

•  •  •

Visiting the house where the Gleaners’ Kitchen was supposed to be, it’s difficult to imagine things working out even if they hadn’t been evicted. A ragged couch on the front porch looks onto Somerville’s upscale Powder House Circle, where families and children are enjoying the sunny day. Diners, as it turns out, would have had to crouch down and squeeze into a red, hobbit-sized door underneath the back porch to get into the dining room in the basement.

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter are a great way to raise cash in a hurry. People in Boston have raised support for commercial restaurants, build-it-yourself robots, and for Glen James, a homeless man who returned a backpack worth more than $40,000 to its owner. But Maximus’s vision for the Gleaners’ Kitchen couldn’t be bought with a pile of money. They also needed cooks, dishwashers, dumpster divers, and supporters who could have advocated for them, or found them a new space, all of which are hard to come by on Kickstarter.

Thales Teixeira, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, studies how videos go viral on the web. He warns that when content speaks to viewers on a purely emotional level, the very properties that compel them to share or contribute to a project can undermine their ability to see its weaknesses. “We have a cognitive brain and an emotional brain,” Teixeira says. “They talk to each other, but one can be overpowered. When the emotional part of the brain talks too loud, and doesn’t let the cognitive portion have a voice, that tends to create problems for decision making.”

While not speaking to the Gleaners’ Kitchen specifically, Teixeira has found that people share viral content because they believe they will look good by doing so. It’s a way to support a cause, but at the same time, be the center of attention. “By and large, most ads go viral because people who get the ads share it with many people, for the sender’s own personal gain,” he says.

But, Texiera cautions, building support is only one part of bringing a project to fruition. “Advertising is about two things: getting attention and persuading,” Teixeira says. “After that, you still need to provide the product or service.”

When Maximus meets me one last time at the house they’d been evicted from, he appears to be dressed like a wizard, wearing a woolly robe and carrying a short wooden staff with a furry brush on one end. It’s the day after Halloween, and I ask if he’s still wearing a costume. He’s not, he says.

With a bit of hindsight now on his side, Maximus tells me that he wishes he’d better bridged the gap between promoting the project and making it a reality, or had found a better way to pivot their mission after the eviction. He also can’t explain why they didn’t fight to stay in the space or reclaim the funds with a mediator, a lawyer, or a petition. “There were logistics I should have figured out,” he says. (Logistics like if you’re “… preparing food from the dumpster in a non-inspected kitchen space, you will eventually run into trouble with the law,” as one longtime diver would later put it.)

It’s ironic, but I think the Gleaners’ Kitchen’s main obstacle was Maximus’s deep, compelling idealism. His concept was so vivid, and his plan for realizing it was so clear in his mind, that he couldn’t adapt to the idea that people would oppose it. He didn’t see the Gleaners’ Kitchen as just a project; he saw it as the way the world ought to be. And for a while, he convinced 116 Kickstarter contributors and a significant subset of the news media that for a few thousand dollars, he could make that concept a reality.

Before we part ways, Maximus tells me about his interest in the philosophy of biology, and particularly how organisms work together to form a coherent whole. That was the idea, he says, behind the Gleaners’ Kitchen. “I wanted to build a community that would take on an identity other than me,” he says.

I ask whether it had ever come close to doing that.

“No,” he says, looking away at the sidewalk.