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Free food for the picking

Whether you call it gleaning or foraging, it boosts your budget -- and keeps good food from going to waste.

By Donna_Freedman Aug 9, 2012 11:40AM
Image: Pears with linen napkin (© Michael Grimm/Digital Vision/Getty Images)Every summer in Seattle I load up on the blackberries that flourish anywhere a seed happens to land. I freeze quarts of the fruit, make homemade jam and eat them just about every day until the vines stop producing.

These tasty treats are not only nutritious, they're free. In the past I've obtained several other varieties of fruit without having to grow them, by finding them and/or asking for them.

I'm not the only one who forages for food:
  • Erin Boyle of The Equals Record picks linden flowers and leaves in Brooklyn, to make her favorite tisane.
  • Carolyn, who blogs at Cookography,  happily harvests windfall figs in Washington, D.C.
  • Gleaning grapes, carob, nuts, passion fruit and other edibles is personally satisfying for Penny of Penniless Parenting. "Any regular forager can share the feeling of intense excitement you get when you spot something edible that you weren't expecting to come across," she writes.
Some gleaners organize to share the bounty. Urban Edibles lists gleanable fruits, berries and nuts in Portland, Ore. Fallen Fruit bills itself as "a mapping of food resources in Los Angeles."

Not Far From the Tree has already harvested nearly 2,000 pounds of fruit this summer in Toronto; it gets shared among pickers, homeowners and food pantries. A nonprofit called Village Harvest lists gleaning programs in nine U.S. states and one Canadian province. (Post continues after video.)

Another option is The Freecycle Network. I once saw a "Plum trees ripe, come take all you want" ad, and I once put a "Got excess fruit?" note in the "wanted" section, receiving apples and pears. I take jars of jam to the folks who share their bounty.

Chowing down -- carefully

You might come across a cultivated plant in a wild area, either because it jumped the fence (berries are famous for that) or because a seed was deposited by a bird or by careless handling of garbage (my neighbors had a tomato plant come up in the middle of the lawn).

Jeff Yeager, aka The Ultimate Cheapskate, says he's found asparagus, zucchini, black raspberries and melons growing along roadsides and in untended fields.

Wild greens, mushrooms, berries and nuts can be foraged, too. Do an online search for terms like "mushroom walks" or "wild edible plant programs." If you're going on your own, get a good field guide to local flora. The difference between the right plant and a lookalike is the difference between a nice salad and a trip to the emergency room.

Here are a few more gleaning tips:

  • Get permission. Check local regulations about harvesting on city, state or federal land.
  • Don't take more than you can use.
  • Don't try to memorize the entire field guide overnight. Learn a few plants really well, and add to your knowledge base slowly.
  • Keep your eyes open. In an alley a couple of blocks from my apartment building I saw ripe plums on the ground. I left a note for the homeowners and they invited me to pick all I wanted.
  • Put the word out among friends (especially gardeners) that you're willing to take unwanted produce. People get awfully tired of zucchini after a while.
Readers: Do you glean or forage? Is it mostly for fun or do you get a serious amount of food this way?

More on MSN Money:

Aug 10, 2012 12:37AM

Beno and Slim-What in hell do your inane comments have to do with this fruit story?


Aug 9, 2012 3:18PM
Why all the screaming kids?  Screaming in Restaurants, running wild in grocery stores...and all the parents that just look the other way while everyone else has to listen and watch these brats?  Then there are the good parents, you can see it and their kids are either good or trying to be good.
Aug 10, 2012 9:14AM

I love your articles!  I take my daughters berry-picking in the park near our house every year, but it's mainly for fun, as we live in the suburbs and other families are picking there too.  I pull dandelions anywhere I find them if I know the area hasn't been treated (example, in front of my daughters' daycare center--they don't do anything but mow, no chemicals in the lawn, also my sister's lawn and my own.)  I boil the leaves and use them like spinach-- nobody ever knows the difference, and I've had great interation with the daycare staff (many of whom are foreign and aren't the slightest bit surprised by this)  when they lean out the windows and chat with us as my daughters and I are picking.   It honestly doesn't save much money (not like spinach is expensive...) but it is fun for me and the kids-- they feel like Robinson Crusoe.


One year I threw pansies from my (organic) garden into a salad for a daycare luncheon.  Most of the American staffers were surprised and skeptical, but almost all gave it a shot, thinking it was very fancy and "gourmet".  One of the foreign ladies commented that where she's from, this is common, and she's never understood why American salads are so boring.


There's a peach tree just down the road here (in front of an office) that has spotty fruit nobody ever picks.  It's calling to me-- if the rain breaks this weekend, I'm planning to pick it and can it, and the wild grapes that terrorize my neighborhood will be turning into vine wreaths and dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) over the next week, as well.  (Safety note- stuffed grape leaves cannot safely be home-canned, but can be frozen.  The leaves can be safely canned un-stuffed, however,  to be filled later.)


Beno1961, I'm fairly sure you're just a troll, but in case your comment was serious, most of the "gleaners" I know are not freeloaders, they are fully employed greenies who simply don't believe in waste.  The peaches I rescue from waste get canned in my re-used canning jars I've owned for years-- end result= a metal can that doesn't get manufactured, transported (using oil), and need recycling.  The fact that I get a jar of free peaches for my fruit-crazy kids, at a savings of about $1.25/can, is really just a bonus to the entertainment value and warm-fuzzies of interacting positively with my children and our environment.

Aug 10, 2012 2:13PM
When you state "get permission" you don't put enough emphasis on that.  Some people think that foraging on land that is undeveloped is okay, but it's not.  Unless you're in a national forest or on other public lands, you're trespassing on private property.  The woods and fields you see around you are not free.  It is not okay for you to forage, pick mushrooms, or dig up edibles, hunt, or gather on any land except yours without permission, and you could be arrested if you haven't asked permission of the landowner before you leave the road.  There are people that make a living picking berries, gathering mushrooms, etc and there are  people that live off their own land and depend on it's bounty to feed their families.  Don't stop on the side of the road and pick what you think is unclaimed.  It might be unwanted, or you might be stealing.  Donna wrote the article about Urban Fruit Gleaning, so my comment is for those of you who live outside of town.

I pick berries on commericial property without asking permission often, but I am taking my chances that Burlington Northern or Honeywell won't mind.  If you go out into the woods mushroom picking, you are apt to encounter people that carry guns and are willing to defend their morel patches with violence.
Just saying that you need to ask permission everywhere you go, not just in parks.  The woods and fields belong to people too.

Aug 10, 2012 11:16AM
When we moved into our home there were wild blackberries in the fields surrounding it. I've picked and made jam every year since.  Unfortunately, houses that have been built have reduced the bushes and some of the neighbors have discovered the "bounty".  This year I went across the street to a small undiscovered patch, and picked just as many as I have in past in a smaller area. YAY!  One lesson learned...I had never encountered chiggers before picking these, and I learned quickly to dress in long clothing head to foot! HAHA
Avoid doing this on Parkland unless you know it is okay since you may run afoul of laws protecting endangered species.  Botanical Gardens often welcome Asians who want to glean Ginko fruits since the smell is terrible.  Most gardens only have female trees by accident.
Aug 20, 2012 11:28AM
Really?  Picking up dirty food from off the ground in an alleyway?  I prefer the food I eat to not be gross.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.