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Want free food? Try gleaning

Fruits and veggies go to waste every year. Tap into this source of healthy sustenance.

By Donna_Freedman Jul 23, 2010 1:48PM
If I were in Seattle right now, I'd be picking free blackberries, which run wild anywhere there's a patch of dirt. Each year I pick a lot of berries to freeze and also to use in making jam (a very frugal gift). Since I'm spending much of the summer in Anchorage, all I can do is hope that berry season isn't over when I get home.

There's more than one way to get gratis berries, fruits and vegetables, though. It's called "gleaning," the harvesting of unwanted crops, and there are several ways to go about it.

Each year I put a note on The Freecycle Network, asking if anyone has surplus fruit. I've gotten apples, plums, rhubarb and pears this way. In return, I offer homemade jam as a thank-you. The trade isn't necessary -- as the name would suggest, Freecycle transactions are supposed to be strictly free -- but I consider it a courtesy.
I scored free plums from a neighbor because I noticed a heavily laden tree in her backyard late one summer day. It was as simple as leaving a polite note asking for permission to harvest any fruit the family couldn't use. The response? "I'm glad someone wants it."

The same could easily be said of zucchini -- how many novice gardeners make the mistake of putting in a whole row of these overachieving squash? The gratis zooks could be eaten fresh, shredded and frozen for quick breads (another cheap holiday gift) or turned into pickles.

Zucchini isn't the only veggie likely to be abundant. Believe it or not, some people grow so tired of tomatoes by late summer that they let some of the fruit rot on the vine. Or they'll plant a bunch of spaghetti squash only to find that they really don't like it much. Put a note on Freecycle asking for surplus vegetables and see if any offers drift in.
Here are some other possible gleaning techniques:
  • Search online for local sources such as Urban Edibles, a "community database of wild edibles" in Portland, Ore.
  • Put up cards on bulletin boards asking permission to glean. It might help if you offer something in return, such as a jar of the jam you make or an hour of weeding.
  • Join an online swap site; if you don't see any gleaning opps, post a "wanted" ad.
  • Put the word out among friends and especially among gardening friends. Again, be prepared to trade for surplus.
  • Show up at the farmers market very early and offer to help unload and reload in exchange for some unsold produce. You're running the risk of there not being any unsold produce at the end of the day, but it's worth a shot.
  • Also at the farmers market: Look for vendors selling beets, because some customers want only the roots. I once read about a woman who gets all the greens she wants for free, and there are other ways to cook beet greens besides boiling them for hours.
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