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Stop paying for your food!

Some of the country's top chefs forage for ingredients for their five-star meals. So can you, using databases of where to gather food from the wild or from someone's garden.

By MSN Money Partner Jun 17, 2014 12:24PM

This post comes from Donna Freedman at partner site Money Talks News.

Money Talks News on MSN MoneyWant 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.

Pears with linen napkin (© Michael Grimm/Digital Vision/Getty Images)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, 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.

More from Money Talks News

Jun 17, 2014 1:43PM

There is a small difference between "gleaning" and stealing. You ALWAYS need to ask permission from the owner before you help yourself to their produce. As a member of a community garden, non-participating people seem to think we rent our plots, buy the plants and care for them JUST so they can walk in and harvest the produce. It's called stealing and the dollar amount can add up fast. Who gets to decide what is "excess"? A person who gives back 1 jar of jam for all the produce they took is a cheapskate in my book. And it seems a little crass to ask the owner of the produce how they grew it if you are getting it for free.

If you want to reduce your food bill and eat fresh produce, then grow your own garden! Quit stealing from others.

Jun 17, 2014 1:56PM
There are some people who think that because the fruit or veggies are visible from the road that helping themselves is all right. I call it theft and have had it happen to me in a big way.  Last year someone came into my back yard and stripped my apple trees of all the fruit.  The local county extension person was of the impression that it was probably deer.  However I did not find any dropped or partially eaten fruit on the ground.  And there is an access to the back that is not visible from the house.  I just don't know but will electrify the fence this year.
Jun 17, 2014 2:00PM
New trend? More like people are too broke to pay anymore so they have reverted to hunter/gatherer!
Jun 17, 2014 1:29PM
Just make sure you're not trespassing on someone's property and stealing their stuff.  I once checked out a gleaners organization and there were rules as to how it could be done.  Besides, with most everything bred for machine harvest regardless of ripeness or condition,  It's pretty much of a pipe dream to think you're going to make a difference.  Having said all that, good luck.
Jun 17, 2014 2:10PM
I put a couple of plum trees, a mulberry tree and black berry bushes in my yard.  I'm not doing it to save money.  I just do it because I like the idea of growing something and being able to eat it. 
Jun 17, 2014 3:15PM
My dad grows a garden every year and every year he plants too much.  He literally begs people to take cucumbers and zucchini because they produce so fast.  I brought a bag to get some cukes and found 15 ready to pick that he didn't need (he had 6 in the fridge).  He was complaining about his eggplant not producing so I traded another neighbor 6 cukes for 2 eggplant.  Both were delighted and now they are both looking to trade a few times a week.  Gardening is fun, fairly easy and quite rewarding.  Even if you dont have a yard you can container garden herbs easily in a sunny windowsill.  Just try it. 
Jun 17, 2014 1:51PM
In Portland, you will find streets lined with cherry trees and people who live in the houses do not pick them.  My wife and I got permission to pick figs from a tree in Portland.  The people were too lazy to pick them.  Eventually they cut the tree down.  Himalaya black berries are everywhere but better not to pick on a roadside.  The mountains of Oregon you can pick, huckleberries, blackcaps, thimbleberries, salmon berries, blackberries and wild raspberries.   There are also wild strawberries but they can be small.  Do not forget the wild currants.   Do not pick mushrooms unless you really know what you are doing. 
Jun 17, 2014 1:52PM
new trend? I think it started at the dawn of the animal kingdom. Now that so many people live in concrete jungles they think its ok to find somebody's green stuff and help themselves to it. heck no!  
Useless yuppie thieves that are stealing because they cant afford to buy food to fill their McMansions. 
Jun 17, 2014 2:17PM
When you see kids foraging for mushrooms, you know it's not for food right ? 
Jun 17, 2014 2:12PM
Let us turn dumpster diving into something trendy.
Jun 17, 2014 2:24PM
Growing up on a farm back in the 60's we didn't call it was a part of life. We would collect wild Elderberries, Blackberries, Raspberries, Wild Plums, and Choke Cherries for jams for the winter time as well as Walnuts. A couple of rows in one of the fields was set aside for sweet corn, potatoes, green beans, squash, zuccinni, melons, beets, and cucumbers (for Bread and Butter Pickles). The family would get together and pressure can and cold pack everything. This supplied enough extras for 3 families through the winter time. If you don't have the garden space to do this, check out participating in a community garden or talk to a local farmer to see if they would rent out space in a field for a garden. Don't expect to plug seeds in the ground and walk don't see farmers do that. Expect to put some work into it. Plan on growing more than you need for a couple of meals. It is nice to pull cold packed sweet corn out of the freezer in February and it tastes better than the grocery store corn. Read up on how to cold pack and pressure can. If you decide to head out to the country to get some of those delicious berries you like...just remember, farmers as well as road crews spray the ditches and waterways around fields which can turn those Elderberries into a dangerous treat.
Jun 17, 2014 2:16PM

I plan on doing the same, if my garden grows well.  I am growing corn, tomatoes and stevia, as well as beans.  I won't let my two neighbors go hungry.  I plan on also canning some things and giving it to them as presents, as well.  Freezing also works well for vegetables.  The stores are getting ridiculous with their GMO's and high prices.  It is time we fend for ourselves.  You say you can't do it???sure you can.  Container Gardening...all the rage.  Homemade topsy turvy planters.  Easy to work with, no weeding, and watering throroughly results in a good harvest.  My beans are gonna grow upside down.


Have I ever done any of this before?? Heck no!  But its time the public go back to basics, even if it is to help out your neighbor.

Jun 17, 2014 9:32PM
This reminds me of Pelosi stating that unemployment was an opportunity for self improvement: poetry, art, etc.  Now, foraging is good for you...and its better than starving!  The "Hope and Change" of our new economy.
Jun 17, 2014 2:12PM
Don't forage in the city.  Most plants maintained by the city even though edible have been sprayed with chemicals.  Stay away from most yard edibles also, unless you know they've not been treated.  There are many edible weeds around Denver, but most have survived being sprayed with something.  Best is to grow your own, and forage in your backyard.  Or front yard.
Jun 17, 2014 5:30PM
are you kidding me picking wild mushrooms is like playing russian roulette.please don't pick wild mushrooms if you don't know what you are doing..
Jun 17, 2014 5:13PM
Let me catch you uninvited in my garden, my scarecrow is made by Colt.
Jun 17, 2014 5:26PM
Come on over to my house and eat my dandelions, please!
Jun 17, 2014 1:42PM
As taxes and the overall cost of living continue to increase whilst wages and job growth remain stagnant, more and more Americans will be forced to forage for food out of sheer necessity.  Before long foraging will cease to be an elitist, jaded liberal hipster movement and become commonplace.  What are you going to do about this, Barack Hussein???
Jun 17, 2014 6:08PM

" it may be illegal to forage if the land is owned by the local, state or federal government"

I thought the citizens of the United States owned this land. Apparently the illegals own this country now

Jun 22, 2014 8:20AM

C'MON MSN - - -  GET WITH THE TIMES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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