Becoming an urban forager means tapping into a resource of free and abundant food. But whether it’s foraging edible weeds, redistributing excess produce or even diving into a dumpster, there’s far more you can gain than just a free meal.
The savvy urban forager can dine out on gourmet cheese, berries, herbal teas and locally grown olives without ever stepping foot into a shop. But the philosophy goes further than just eating for free. You’ll reconnect with nature, save food going to landfill, learn plant names growing in your yard, parks and bikeways and connect with your neighbours.
Wild harvest means collecting food that is often unknowingly growing around us and many of us discard as weeds. There is a bounty of culinary and medicinal plants ready to be put to good use. Close to the ground you will find dandelion, nettles, wild fennel, plantain and chickweed, while apples, figs, olives and riberries are a few examples of what can be found on trees and shrubs.
The key is to learn which plants are useful and safe to forage and to be on the lookout for species that might be available to spice up your dinner, make a tincture, a tea or to preserve for future use.
Italian-born Diego Bonetto (pictured, left) has been harvesting foods from the wild since he was a child, and now runs wild-harvest tours and workshops in Sydney.
‘Your main job is to find a clean place to harvest,’ he says. ‘Our suburbs are managed with pesticides and herbicides and there are lots of pet owners. Start by foraging in your own garden, then look around your local area for undermanaged places that have been left alone. Become the caretaker of your immediate environment. An important step is to map out your neighbourhood, so you can recognise plants and places, and get your head around what you’re looking for.
‘A valuable resource in urban foraging is street trees and trees in parks, because they are the least tampered with. For plants on the ground, look for those that grow higher than the mower, such as wild fennel and tall mallow. And always wash your foraged goods.
‘Supermarket food is grown with herbicides and pesticides, too. You’re far better off eating wild-harvested apples than supermarket ones that have sat in a gassed room for nine months.’
While there are many useful and edible plants growing all around us, it’s also important to note that there are many poisonous ones, too, so begin by walking with an experienced harvester and learn the dos and don’ts. Be aware of pesticides and herbicides that might affect your harvest and only ever take what you need, leave enough to regrow and for others to use.
Start with a handful of foraged wild greens such as mallow that you can add to your stir-fry or quiche, blend into a vegetable stock paste or steep to make wildharvested tea. Find out medicinal uses and make tinctures, oils or infusions, or use wild-harvested fruit to make jams or preserves.
If you are keen to go even further down the wild harvest path, you could try wild animals such as rabbits and deer. Once you’ve gained the appropriate authority to hunt depending on where you live, you could join a club, learn the skills and connect with others on hunting trips. These animals have reached plague proportions and are damaging local ecosystems.
Wild greens stock paste
250 g of mixed wild greens
1 tsp salt
Wash leaves and blend with salt in a food processor. Press into a clean jar and keep refrigerated. Add a spoonful to cooking for flavour, salt and bitterness. Spread it on toast with cheese or add a spoonful to a soup.
Gleaning originated in ancient times when farmers would leave what was left of their harvested crops for peasants to take. While it may sound like a primitive tradition, go to the heart of the idea and it’s not only people helping each other, it’s also an efficient way to manage waste. Harvesting every last spikelet in a grain field was an inefficient use of time, so they were left for gleaners who’d pick through the stubble and clean up the field.
Modern gleaning might mean visiting a market garden or farm and redistributing produce they were going to throw out or dig back in. It might be harvesting fruit from trees in your neighbourhood or using neighbours’ excess produce.
Stevie Browne and her partner Charlie Whiter live in Melbourne’s suburbs and will glean food when the opportunity arises.
‘A lot of people in our neighbourhood are active growers and we are having a constant conversation about minimising food waste,’ Stevie says. ‘We are always keeping an eye on the timing of food coming into season. This year, when we were coming to the end of the season for olives we knocked on the door of a neighbour who had some unharvested trees. They were happy for us to harvest them. We preserved 25 kilograms of olives.’
Charlie says opportunities will exist all over your area, you just need to get familiar with where to find it.
‘If fruit is hanging over a fence, this is a potential resource,’ he says. ‘Other opportunities exist on properties that are abandoned. We love having the opportunity to meet people in our neighbourhood and collaborate to reduce food waste.’
There are many community groups who redistribute gleaned food from restaurants, supermarkets and farms and turn it into meals for those in need. Gleaning reduces waste, redistributes food and brings communities together.
Start by noticing any fruit trees growing in public areas. If fruit is hanging over a private-property fence, knock on the door and offer to trade a jar of jam or chutney for access to the tree. Introduce yourself to market gardens and farms in your area, or consider volunteering for a food redistribution group.
If gleaned fruit is tart or bitter opt to preserve or ferment it rather than wasting it.
|If you’re considerate, fruit hanging over public property is up for grabs, Vauko||Peppercorns hang in abundance on trees, ready for the picking, By Archie Rose|
Not for the faint-hearted, dumpster diving means collecting food from bins behind shops, supermarkets and bakeries and putting it to good use. You may be surprised to learn it’s not necessarily the down-and-out who are riffling through bins, it’s often people motivated to make a difference to a broken food system.
Common concerns would-be divers have is they think they are only going to find processed packaged food. The reality is fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meat make up the majority of what’s thrown out because they have a shorter shelf life. You can eat extremely well on the food discarded by retails outlets. In fact, some dumpster divers eat only organically grown produce.
Charlie began ‘diving’ in Tasmania when a friend introduced him to the bin behind his local greengrocer. He and partner Stevie now dive together in the suburbs of Melbourne and more or less eat for free.
‘We do it for cost-saving and environmental reasons,’ explains Charlie. ‘It’s diverting good food from landfill and redirecting those resources back into the community. If we have a surplus when diving, we connect with our local community and share the extra food.
‘There are a couple of facebook groups where people will direct other divers to a particular bin if there is a lot of food in it. Sometimes people take the extra food and share it with their friends or community.
Jo, who doesn’t want to use her surname, is also a diver from Melbourne’s suburbs and describes the amount of food thrown away as ‘shocking’.
‘Especially meat in supermarket bins, often a whole dumpster full, it just doesn’t make sense,’ she, says. ‘Growers have taken the time to raise these animals, they’ve been transported, killed and butchered, then they get thrown in a bin. Around Christmas you will often see a bin full of turkeys.’
Stevie says the pair uses the surplus they discover when they dive as a trading currency for other foods.
‘We have a neighbour who’s a baker, and we use surplus food to swap for freshly baked bread,’ she says. ‘The quality of the food from the bins is really high. A lot of it is gourmet, organic food. I personally eat better now than I ever have in my life’.
However Charlie reveals they probably wouldn’t spend the money that’s asked for a lot of food they find.
‘We are regularly blown away by the prices,’ he says. ‘We might find cheese that has a price tag of $60 per kilo. So we can pick up $300 worth of cheese in one haul. There is no way I would buy many of the expensive foods that I get for free.’
In terms of any stigma associated with gleaning food from garbage bins, Charlies says it’s rare.
‘Usually when we talk about it, people are genuinely interested and curious,’ he says. ‘They want to know more. I probably introduce four or five people a year to diving, even though most of them don’t stick with it.’
As for the legalities of dumpster diving, it’s a bit of a grey area. While there is no specific law that prohibits you from going through or taking from a garbage bin, activities associated with the practice – like trespassing or theft – are an offence if reported.
Some shop owners will turn a blind eye to dumpster diving, while others will report it. In an ideal world, all excess edible food would be distributed to those in need. But that isn’t happening, and so food destined for landfill is still available to be reclaimed.
Consider joining an experienced diver for your first time, and it’s a good idea to wear gloves and to take a torch. Check use-by dates of dairy products and wash fruit and vegetables well with water and vinegar when you get home. Be respectful of the space, and leave it as clean or cleaner than when you found it.
This article represents the permaculture principle PRODUCE NO WASTE.