3 Ways to Get Free Organic Food (Without Growing It Yourself)
Wanna learn how to get free organic food without having to grow it yourself?
Sorry. Stupid question… Of course you do:)
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It’s no secret that organic food isn’t exactly the most affordable option when you’re purchasing it from the store. This is, of course, one of the main reasons we grow a lot of our own organic food at home, because growing our own means we have access to free* organic food all season long, and we’re able to preserve the excess to enjoy year-round.
* I say “free” because it’s free to harvest, however there are, obviously, some costs involved in producing said food, although the costs are significantly less than if we were buying everything from the store.
But what if you’re not able to grow a garden at home? What if you’re just too busy to keep up with a large garden or don’t have the space to produce much?
For starters, I do think that everybody can grow at least a few things at home, regardless of time, space or experience. Herbs, for example, require very little time and effort and can be grown in pots on a small balcony or even in a window box.
But the reality is, if you don’t have a ton of space and time, then growing a large garden that will provide your family with an abundance of free organic food all summer and fall just might not be feasible for you. And while I do believe it’s worth a little extra money to buy organic, many people simply can’t fit store-bought organic food into their budget.
Now, there are definitely some more affordable ways to get your hands on organic food when it’s in season, including purchasing from local farms and roadside farmstands, visiting your farmers market, going to a u-pick farm or signing up for a CSA, but today I want to talk to you specifically about how to get FREE organic food, even if you don’t have a garden. Because while affordable is good, free is even better:)
First up on the list is foraging. There are so many wild foods that you can go out and harvest no matter where you live, and of course wild foods are inherently organic because they haven’t been tampered with by humans.
Now, what you’re able to forage for at any given time depends largely on where you live, what grows wild in your area and what time of year it is. But generally speaking, most areas have at least some wild foods that can be foraged. Here are just a few organic wild foods you might be able to forage in your area:
- Weeds and greens (including dandelion greens, chickweed, purslane, chicory, sorrel, plantain, lamb’s quarters, Japanese knotweed and stinging nettles, to name but a few)
- Wild asparagus and/or fiddleheads (young ferns)
- Wild mushrooms (including morels, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, chicken of the woods, lion’s mane and many more!)
- Wild onions
- Seaweed (while I haven’t personally foraged seaweed, my understanding is that most if not all varieties are edible. If you know more about this please leave a comment as I would love to know more!)
- Berries (including blackberries, wild strawberries and blueberries, huckleberries, saskatoon berries, elderberries, goose berries, mulberries and many more)
- Wild apples, crabapples, plums, pears, persimmons, paw paws, etc.
Even cities offer opportunities for foraging. When I still lived in Vancouver, it was a summer tradition to go blackberry picking at the end of August in parks and along dikes where the Himalayan blackberries grow wild and are considered an invasive species.
Just be sure when foraging that you…
- are able to positively identify the food that you are foraging for and you know for sure that it is edible and safe to eat (this is especially true with wild mushrooms and also berries)
- don’t forage for wild edibles from polluted areas like busy roadsides or potentially contaminated industrial complexes, etc. (because then it’s not really organic, is it?)
- respect local laws and regulations and only forage where you are allowed (check local bylaws to find out where you can and can’t forage. Often times designated public parks are off limits, although an exception is sometimes made for invasive plants like blackberries).
- don’t over-harvest. The general rule is to harvest no more than one third of a particular wild crop in any given area and leave the rest for wildlife, other foragers and to allow the crop to go to seed and replenish itself each year.
Another great way to get “free” organic food is to trade with others in your area. Now, technically this isn’t really totally free because you’re trading something for it, but you don’t necessarily have to spend money.
If you’re growing or raising some of your own food, (maybe you’ve got eggs or you raise meat, etc.), but you don’t have any fruit trees, for example, you can trade what you’re growing for what somebody else is growing in your area.
If you’re not growing anything, why not trade something homemade instead. Why not trade some homemade soaps or candles or bottles of homemade kombucha or SCOBYs or homemade bread or pastries for a box of organic apples or a basketful of organic garden produce from someone in your area?
Another idea is to barter with a neighbour or someone near you for free organic food and promise to make them something with that food in return. So, for example, if someone has an apple tree in your area, you could offer to bake them an apple pie or make them a few jars of applesauce, some fresh pressed juice or a package of dried cinnamon apple slices in exchange for a box of apples.
If you don’t personally know anybody who’s got anything organic to trade, Facebook marketplace is a great place to start your search, or you can create your own post advertising that you’re looking to trade with someone. There are also lots of Facebook groups dedicated to facilitating these types of trades between farmers, gardeners and other community members.
In my area, I’m part of a self-reliance group and a bunch of buy, sell and trade groups where members regularly set up trades with each other.
The possibilities are pretty much endless when it comes to trading, and to be fair that’s how we used to do business with each other long before money was required for every transaction. Plus, learning to trade and barter with your neighbours and community members is an invaluable skill to have as a modern homesteader working toward self-reliance and freedom from dependency on grocery stores and the almighty dollar.
This is hands-down my favourite way to get free organic food, and it’s gaining popularity as both food waste and food shortages become an increasing problem.
So, what is gleaning?
In short, gleaning is the act of harvesting and collecting excess leftover or unwanted crops so that they don’t go to waste.
Historically, gleaning was actually considered a human right in parts of Europe and the middle east. In fact, the right to glean was even written into the Old Testament:
“’Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger.” – Leviticus 19:9-10
It was common practice to leave the excess crops in the field for the poor and peasant class to come glean, and in 18th century England it was the legal right of those without enough land of their own to grow food, to glean the fields of local farms after the majority of the crops were harvested. Similar laws existed in France too at the time.
Gleaning eventually fell out of fashion though when private property rights began to take precedence over charity for the benefit of all, and over time not only did it become illegal to waltz onto someone else’s property and pick over their excess harvest, but the volume of food waste in the west also began to climb.
Today an estimated 96 billion pounds of food is left in the fields and wasted before it even gets a chance to make it to market. And up to 50% of fruits and vegetables are discarded for being “ugly” or imperfect looking.
Luckily gleaning is making a comeback in communities across North America and the world, and community food recovery programs are popping up all over to facilitate the process. These programs typically donate large portions of the food to local food banks and initiatives, but volunteers usually get to keep a portion of the harvest for themselves too.
So while you could certainly ask local farmers and neighbours with fruit trees and large gardens if you can come glean their properties when they’re done with their main harvest, you might have better luck finding and joining a gleaning organization in your area. Not only will you get some free organic food to take home, you’ll also be helping to provide fresh, healthy food to your community’s most vulnerable members.
Where we live, in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, there’s a program called the Lush Valley Food Action Society that we volunteer with (if you’re in the area then join us for a pick!). They organize “farm picks,” where volunteers help local farmers harvest their crops and are usually rewarded with a bag of organic produce to take home. Or they do “fruit picks,” where volunteers pick fruit from trees that landowners don’t want or are unable to pick themselves. In the case of fruit picks, ⅓ of the produce goes to the landowner (if they want it), ⅓ goes to local community organizations and food programs.
It’s a win-win-win!
Yesterday my daughter, Evelyn and I helped pick garlic at a local farm and we got to take home a large bundle of organic garlic that was deemed too small for market (still larger than ours this year, sadly), along with a small bag of organic tomatoes.
Tonight our whole family helped pick apples at a local property and were gifted a large box of apples to take home for ourselves! Any guesses what I’m doing this weekend?
To find a gleaning organization in your local area, you can either search Google, ask online in local community groups (like on Facebook), or check out this list of gleaning programs across North America to see if there’s an organization listed near you!
*Please note that this is not a complete list of all programs currently operating.
Organic food doesn’t have to cost a fortune!
Even if you can’t grow your own organic food, you can still get your hands on some for little more than the cost of some time spent foraging, bartering or volunteering in your local community. And that means you can still prepare and preserve organic food for you and your family to eat all year long!
On the flip side, if you have excess produce of your own, consider trading it or donating it to someone else in your community who could really use it. Contact your local gleaning program or food bank to learn how you can help!
Do you know of any other ways to get free organic food even if you don’t have a garden? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!
Wishing you homemade, homegrown, homestead happiness:)
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