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.