Stop Paying for Your Food!

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Want to eat for free? Go out and pull some weeds, dig up some mushrooms or shake fruit off trees.

Whether you call it “foraging” or “gleaning,” you’ll do more than help your grocery bill – you’ll become part of the hipster-foodie crowd.

According to USA Today, foraging is shaping up as “a major 2014 food trend.” Chefs at highfalutin restaurants are scavenging ingredients like sea lettuce, wild garlic, pine needles, pepper grasses, Indian parsley and flowering cacti to tantalize their customers’ palates.

For some people it’s about exotic eats. For me, and maybe for you, it’s about good, fresh food for free. Bonus: A walk (or hike) on a nice summer day is good exercise and a major stress-buster.

Although I tend to use the terms interchangeably, “gleaning” means to collect food from fields once they’ve been harvested, whereas “foraging” means to go out looking for food. But it’s possible to glean even if you don’t live near a farm. For example, neighbors who’ve eaten all the tomatoes they can hold might invite you to bring a bag over to their garden.

It’s possible to forage even in a big city. Just ask any resident of Seattle, where the blackberries are so aggressive you half expect to wake up and find them next to you on the pillow.

Naturally there are safety and etiquette concerns (more on those later), as well as the question of “where do I look?” One easy place: Your yard, provided you haven’t used herbicides or pesticides. Erin Huffstetler, frugal living blogger for About.com, writes about harvesting dandelions, red clover, purslane, cattails and other “weeds.”

The Tennessee resident also has a foraging section on her own site, My Frugal Home. Thus far her family has gathered pecans, black walnuts, chestnuts, blackberries and mulberries; she expects the list will continue to grow.

Where to find gratis groceries

It’s easy to get started, she says, thanks to databases like Falling Fruit, which lets users list their favorite free-food locations. Another tactic is the simple power of observation.

“Pay attention when you’re out on walks,” Huffstetler says. “It’s amazing how much free food is out there, when you look for it.”

Suppose you don’t live in a rural area or near a municipal greenbelt? As noted above, city dwellers can glean/forage, too. In fact, other databases are set up to help you find food:

  • Fallen Fruit (different from Falling Fruit, above) features maps of “food resources” in the Los Angeles area.
  • Not Far From the Tree, a Toronto-based organization, gets volunteers to pick fruit that would otherwise go to waste; if you help, you’ll get a share.
  • Urban Edibles lists gleanable fruits, berries and nuts in Portland, Ore.
  • Village Harvest lists gleaning programs in nine U.S. states and one Canadian province.

Keep safety in mind when it comes to food gathering. When it comes to wild plants, make sure you know the difference between edible plants and any potentially poisonous look-alikes. Huffstetler suggests getting a copy of “The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants,” published by the Department of the Army.

In addition, some regional naturalists publish books about what’s safe to eat; check your library. No matter which book(s) you choose, keep in mind that you can’t memorize them all in a short time. Nor should you try. Instead, get to know a few plants very, very well, and gradually add others.

If picking from a neighbor’s yard, remember to ask about those herbicides and pesticides. Don’t forage close to roadsides or in areas contaminated by animal feces.

Be a good citizen, too. Suppose a plum tree branch overhangs an alley fence or a public sidewalk. Can you help yourself? Maybe. But check local laws. Even if it’s legal to pick from the branch in the public right of way, make sure you don’t step on private property without permission.

A big money-saver

However, some people are only too glad to share. Last year my life partner and I noticed a gigantic stand of rhubarb in a neighbor’s yard. When we complimented the homeowner, he urged us to take as much as we wanted. We harvested some 20 pounds – a fraction of what was available – and later dropped off a jar of raspberry-rhubarb jam as a thank-you.

About those raspberries: My niece and I picked them along a bike path here in Anchorage. Apparently they’d jumped the fence from a couple of nearby homes. During a recent walk along a different path I noticed two more likely patches. You bet I’ll be back. Have you priced fresh raspberries lately?

Last weekend my partner and I went back to Rhubarb Dude’s house, planning to leave a note asking if we could glean once more. We also took another jar of homemade jam, some bags and a couple of knives in case he was home. He was, and once again he said, “Help yourselves.”

We hauled home 15 pounds of stalks – and yeah, we may take him up on his offer to come back again. At the supermarket that rhubarb would have cost us almost $45.

Best practices

Gleaning/foraging can save you money, too, so pay attention. Hear a co-worker moaning about surplus zucchini? Notice neighborhood lawns littered with dropped fruit? Offer to take some zooks off the gardener’s hands. Leave a note asking the homeowner if you could harvest some of the apparently unwanted food.

Some homeowners might be delighted to have you take those apples or plums, as they attract insects and muck up mowers. But some might be too worried about liability to let strangers on their properties. You need to respect that.

You also need to stay off “vacant” lots or wooded areas unless you have explicit permission to be there. In fact, it may be illegal to forage if the land is owned by the local, state or federal government.

I’ve had some luck with The Freecycle Network, by putting in my own notices (“Got excess fruit?”) and by lucking into ads from homeowners. If someone advertises “plum trees ripe, come take all you want,” who am I to say no?

That man was absolutely delighted that I brought along a jar of my homemade blackberry jam. Although it’s not mandatory, offering a little something in return – some zucchini bread, an hour of weeding – might help get you in the door.

Finally, don’t take more than you can use. Food that rots in your fridge is food that other gleaners/foragers might have been able to use. As your co-worker already knows, there really is such a thing as too much zucchini.

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