Scott free

A grad student on a mission will work—but not pay—for food.

By Jason Kelly

Photography by Lloyd DeGrane

Scott Wilbur once went 46 hours without eating. He did it by choice, he says, insisting his gluttonous experience at a friend’s Super Bowl party kept him from being hungry for almost two days. “You didn’t see how much I ate at that thing.”

By midday Tuesday after the satisfying Super Sunday spread, Wilbur felt some pangs. But a student panel on health-care and social-work internships in India (featuring free Indian food) was only a couple hours away. He could wait.

IMAGE: Scott Wilbur

“Food just tastes better when it’s free,” says Wilbur, who knows whereof he eats.

His voluntary—as opposed to budgetary—quest to eat free has become “a fun challenge,” says Wilbur, SM’08, a third-year graduate student in high-energy physics. It takes the willpower to wait when necessary and the will to binge whenever possible. “I’ve developed the ability to eat a lot when it’s free,” he says. “Storing up.”

Although “it’s fun to see how long I can go” between meals, Wilbur’s goal is not self-denial. He’s on a mission, not a diet. A free-food grazer as far back as high school, he became more of a connoisseur during his first year at Chicago, and it soon developed into an enjoyable habit.

With a combination of opportunism and patience, he studies the University’s free-food list host and other event calendars to plan his meals. The options, and often the portions, are plentiful enough to feed him for days at a time. “I don’t think I actually made dinner for myself in spring quarter,” Wilbur says in a July interview outside the campus bookstore.

Aside from dinner parties at friends’ homes, he explores the campus in all its interdisciplinary curricular and culinary glory. From Yoichiro Nambu’s 2008 Nobel Prize reception in the Gordon Center atrium to a swine-flu seminar at Harper Memorial Library, Wilbur has sampled Indian, Caribbean, and Chinese fare, to name just a few. “Anything from a nationality outside the U.S.,” he says, “is probably going to be good.”

Wilbur will work for food—he helps out with the regular Friday physical-sciences happy hour—but most often he simply shows up wherever free buffets beckon. He paid his student-activities fee, after all, and even when he comes just for the food, he almost never eats and runs. “Most of them, I’ll stay for the events,” Wilbur says. “I have no problem stealing food from the Republicans, but not religious groups or something like that.”

The 2007 Caltech graduate is not a picky eater—but no pickles or carbonated drinks, please—so when presented with options, he selects based on what caters to his interest, not his appetite. “If there are multiple events in one day,” Wilbur says, “I choose by the event, not the food.”

There was an LGBTQ talk about activism and California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 referendum to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage. “I would’ve gone even without food.” It so happened that there was food—too much, it turned out—and Wilbur left both enlightened and weighed down with a leftover box of Potbelly sandwiches.

Subs, pizza, pad Thai, and falafel are staples from building to building, lecture to lecture, cause to cause. Baked goods are also common, but while cookies might be “enough to get you through the afternoon, that’s not real food. It takes more skill to get real food.”

Wilbur has honed his skill with rigor worthy of the University’s reputation. He has no secrets; he just mines with a scholar’s depth the usual University sources available to everyone.

Take that PSD happy hour. A novice, interested in the prospect of cheap pizza, might wander over sometime during the event to take advantage. So naïve.

Experience has taught Wilbur that students who help set up, serve, or clean eat free. He chooses to set up because—this is the PhD-level insight—doing so allows him to arrive early and have first pick of the pizza.

Friends now come directly to him for information rather than to the Web sources. Wilbur offers news and reviews, like his high regard for 5710 South Woodlawn Avenue, where he says Multicultural Student Affairs and the LGBTQ Programming Office combine subjects and sustenance particularly well. “The events there are always interesting,” he says, “and they have a large food budget for some reason.” All the better for Wilbur to keep his own meal budget small.

He even made a video spoof offering his mock guide to no-cost consumption—Freegan: The Cheapskate’s Choice, available “for the low, low price of $19.99”—along with some real (free) advice for any poor suckers still paying for their food. It takes “real freegan skill,” he says, to eat well for free.

Nobody is more freegan skillful than Wilbur. But he is happy to share his gift—if not his PSD pizza—so that everyone’s plates and bank accounts may be full. “Food just tastes better when it’s free,” Wilbur says. And he’s done the research to prove it.

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