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Food for free


The voice on the phone gave me directions to a house in a residential neighborhood. The way she spoke made me feel vaguely like James Bond receiving an assignment from “M.”

“The owners gave permission for the tree to be picked, but they don’t get home from work until 2. Before then, don’t even knock on the door because they have two yipper dogs who will go crazy. If the dogs are in the backyard, knock on the neighbor’s door and he’ll put them inside,” she explained. “The tree is really tall, and I think it might be grafted, which means the upper cherries could be better than the lower ones, so if you have a ladder you should bring it. In this heat they aren’t going to last long so you should go soon. Do you think you can go today?”

My assigning officer had manila envelopes full of information on more than 100 trees around town, including 23 apricot, 52 apple, 16 plum and seven pear, as well as grapes, cherries and berries. When she’s out and about, she takes note of new ones, knocks on doors, and asks residents if they plan to pick their fruit. If not, she asks permission to send hungry harvesters like myself to do the picking.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 33 percent of the food grown worldwide goes to waste without being consumed. Valued at 750 billion dollars, it would take a farm the size of Mexico to produce this amount of wasted food. And when it rots in a landfill, the UNFAO estimates that the gases that are created account for 6 to 10 percent of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. If global food waste were a country, Grist.org reports, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

In the face of a growing population, much attention has been paid to various ways of producing more food, usually via modern agricultural techniques. A less sexy approach to feeding the hungry, while simultaneously cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions, would be to reduce the amount of food that is wasted.

Enter the gleaners.

The act of gleaning, as it relates to food, is to salvage food that would have gone unharvested. It’s an act as old as agriculture. The ancient poor used to prowl the harvested fields of rich landowners and pick the grains or vegetables left behind.

Today in the world’s poorest countries, gleaning still occurs in much the same way, while in wealthier nations like the U.S., gleaning takes on myriad modern forms.

In college, there was a cult of hungry gleaners, known as “scroungers,” who would assemble in the part of the cafeteria where people would drop off their trays. The plates on those trays usually held some amount of uneaten food, which the scroungers would scrutinize as you walked by. If something looked good the scrounger would politely say something along the lines of, “Hey, mind if I snag that lasagna?”

More recently in cities around the U.S., activist groups have emerged that have forged relationships with grocers, caterers, restaurants, and growers at the supply end, and with food pantries, homeless shelters, and other organizations feeding the hungry at the demand end. Many of these organizations, such as Food Shift in the Bay Area, consider reducing greenhouse gas emissions to be an essential part of their missions — along with feeding those in need.

And then there are rogue gleaners like myself, working in cahoots with the likes of the woman who told me about the cherry tree, or alone. Beginning in mid-summer it’s easy to walk the residential streets and alleyways looking for trees from which ripe fruit is dropping to the ground. All it takes is a knock on the door to determine if the homeowner would be open to you picking the fruit. I usually offer to pick up the rotten fruit that has already fallen as well, in exchange for harvesting the potential mess that’s still dangling from the trees.

Then, if everything goes according to plan, I have a lot of fruit on my hands, which must be dealt with very soon. It can be frozen, whole or juiced, or turned into jam, or dehydrated-my method of choice. I prefer dehydrating my fruit because it’s simple, and doesn’t involve any extra ingredients. The finished product takes up very little space, and I can bring it hiking.

Later in the season I’ll turn my attention to fall vegetables, like kale, which gets sweeter after a frost. The freeze is usually beginning just as the farmers markets are ending, and farmers are ready to turn their fields under for the year. During the last few markets of the season I’ll strike deals with growers to acquire large amounts of their kale before it meets the plough.

Sometimes the grower will invite me to come glean it myself, old-school style. But more often they’ll offer to harvest a massive amount and sell it to me at a bargain rate. Technically speaking, food that’s acquired in this manner isn’t “gleaned,” but “recovered.” Either way, it’s food that wasn’t wasted, and food that by filling bellies puts less demand on a carbon-intensive, land-hungry food system. It’s food that can fill a freezer, after being blanched in boiling water, shocked in cold water, and packed into quart-sized freezer bags.

And for those who don’t have an associate like the woman who guided me to the cherry tree (from which I used a steam juicer to make cherry juice, which I froze), a smartphone that can make a good substitute.

A new organization called Falling Fruit (Fallingfruit.org) is building a worldwide database of urban edibles, including, according to a video on the site, “Apples, apricots, mangoes, plums, avocados, star fruit, citrus, nuts, berries, vegetables spices, herbs (and) mushrooms.” A smartphone app is being developed.

I loaded the map on my laptop and took a look. It showed, within blocks of my house, apples, apricots, plums, peaches and grapes. So I took a walk, and there they were. There was also a nice gooseberry bush. Many trees were hanging over fences above the sidewalk. There were no mangos to be scrounged, but I pigged out nonetheless.


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