Rekindle Your Wild Joy and Deep Belonging to the Earth

Scrounging Free Food April 19, 2010

Money tight right now?  One of my strategies has been to become an opportunivore.

While I can indeed exist on rice and beans, PBJ, and such, I do not really enjoy such meager repetitive fare day after day, being a spoiled-rotten American who loves to eat. Plus I’m a woman of A Certain Age, which means well past the I-can-thrive-on-Top Ramen,-no-problem stage of life.  However, like many of you DIYers, I am resourceful. I can bake my own bread from scratch, make and home-can my own applesauce and cider from nearby Gravenstein apple trees, make yogurt from a little starter bit, cook up some mighty fine roadkill, and brew cordial from stolen pears or green walnuts. At the ground of this success is Coyote, Raccoon and Magpie medicine: walking the path of the Scroungemeister.

Here are some recent gleanings.



It’s Spring in Sonoma County! This means abundant greens for the taking. Here you see salad makings from a few minutes’ picking from my back yard: plantain, young dandelion greens, and (pictured below) my absolute favorite: miner’s lettuce. Sweet crunchy yumminess wildcrafted from a gleefully neglected lawn.



Most folks would call these delicious edibles “weeds.” Ha! Go ahead and think that way. Pay $6 a pound for mixed salad greens that were picked Demeter knows how long ago. All the more free, extremely fresh salad for those in the know, like my neighbor pictured below wearing a sourgrass-eating smile.



Around here, late winter & early spring means rain, and besides mud and flood, rain means mushrooms! Yahoo!

These are Elfin Saddles. They’re so weird looking that even if I get there after lots of other mushroom hunters have plundered the chanterelles and porcini and other charismatic megafungi, I can generally find them.

Pungent Slippery Jacks are the same way: easy to come by because not only are they not the most choice to taste, they’re kind of scary to the eye with their slimy tops and spongy chartreuse underbellies. But both they and Elfin Saddles taste darned good when sauteed up in an omelette with butter and garlic.  (Of course, linoleum would taste good if sauteed up in enough butter and garlic.)


(Disclaimer: Please do not eat wild fungi without knowing exactly who they are! As the old saw goes, “there are old mushroomers and bold mushroomers, but no old, bold mushroomers.”)


Then there are human sources of free chow. We live in an incredibly rich and wasteful country, even now with the empire’s economy tanking. I am amazed at what abundance I can glean from a late-night trip behind a grocery store. Among other delicacies, I’ve found green vegetables like broccoli and lettuce, onions, perfect tomatoes, fancy cheeses, bread, oranges, blackberries, and a few lovely flowers for the table. Once I even found coffee beans.

Pictured here are the results of one brief foray last summer. Most of it is organic. All I had to do was pick off some withered outside leaves, cut off small bruised portions of certain fruits or pick out and toss the few berries that were beginning to mold, then wash everything I wanted to keep. This is not very different from what I do with produce I purchase.

Dumpster diving is an eye-opening urban sport. I find it quite a mixed bag. Some grocery stores guard their garbage like it was diamonds, locking it up behind high fences. Others, like our local Whole Foods, have it out in the open but wrap the 20 or more full cardboard boxes in wide, heavy plastic wrap, making them hard to get into and also adding unnecessarily to the Pacific garbage patch. I feel sort of torn about this: I want to advocate that the company knock it off, but in doing so, I’ll out myself as one of those nocturnal divers who desecrates it! After all, how else would I know about it?

Out of my samplings from our area, I rate Oliver’s Market in Cotati to be the best. At times, I’ve found grocery carts thoughtfully placed outside the back door near their dumpsters, with slightly bruised or close-to-expiration but quite edible food arranged in them for easy and clean picking. They get Indigenize’s Green Scouts award for this out-of-the-norm ecologically sound, rebellious, and kind practice.

If you decide to dumpster dive, please be extremely respectful.

Do not leave a mess. Put anything you don’t want back into the boxes, preferably not placing squished or rotten bits on top of edible food. This makes it easy and pleasant for the next diver. If you empty a box, either take it with you or flatten it and place it with the other cardboard recycling. Pile the boxes back up the way you found them, and close them up again. If you cut into that execrable plastic wrap, put it back over the top of the hole when you’re done so the contents do not fall out, making the garbage people have to clean things up after you.

These small attentions will make it more likely for the store to continue to turn a blind eye to our scrounging – which, after all, contributes to our full, happy bellies and wallets, to a healthier ecosystem with less waste and smaller landfills, and to the businesses’ bottom line as well, as there’s now less trash they have to pay to remove.

My little gleaning pales next to the hauls that David Cohen finds. His “Dumpster Dividends” (see example on right) are Olympian in magnitude. How many people would it take to eat that much? I struggled to give away one boxful of tomatoes.

That’s another good thing about scrounging: even in strained financial times, a big windfall like this can turn you into Ms. or Mr. All-Providing Beneficence. Would you like some fresh organic strawberries? And as we know, a hand that’s open to give is also thereby poised to receive. Good things come when energy in all forms, including food, flows freely.


There’s something very satisfying about finding and making our own foods and medicines for free. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of folks are trying it out. After all, it’s part of our heritage: gatherers, hunters, and fisherfolk have done this for thousands of years! I hope this post has inspired some good scrounging experiences to come into your life. Please share your own stories and tips.

The roadkill recipes will have to wait for another post.


14 Responses to “Scrounging Free Food”

  1. Karen Haralson Says:

    Tina – It is so true – there is free food all around us if we know where to look, or what we are looking at. That’s no weed, it’s a nutrition-packed delicious spring delight! I recently found a patch of morels growing in my driveway!! The amount of food wasted in this country is absolutely shameful – grocery stores, restaurants, and our own homes. Left-overs are an incredible resource, just takes a little effort and imagination. I enjoyed your post – Karen

  2. Erin Vang Says:

    Your fine example inspired this response: cupboard-scrounging to make Expiration Date Soup.

  3. Tim Says:

    I am biding my time awaiting the road kill recipes.

  4. Ellen Skagerberg (Facebook link) Says:

    Fabulous, Tina! I have posted the link to Twitter. (If you’re there, I’m @EllenSka)

  5. Lisa Mertz (Facebook link) Says:

    Wow. You are so resourceful! Also, as you know, multi-talented. I love the part about the mushrooms. Did you ever hear of “Wildman” Steve Brill? He’s dedicated to picking wild food and takes people on walks (for a fee) to teach them to identify and pick edibles and medicinals in such places as Central Park.

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ellen Skagerberg. Ellen Skagerberg said: Money tight? You don't need to pay $6/lb for fresh greens in Sonoma County (CA). Tips from an “opportunivore.” […]

  7. Bob Wentzel Says:

    Wow Tina! Just found this site of yours! I used to rarely miss a look into a dumpster, but now mainly focus on curbside donations!! SF and other cities have their days when stuff is placed on the curb for free pick up! Best to be driving around in a truck that day! HAHA When raising rabbits yrs ago, I used to hit the markets dumping areas for greens, etc, for the bunnies, but usually our family ate more of the throwaways then the livestock did! It’s criminal what goes to waste in this country.

  8. Anne-Marie Cory (facebook link) Says:

    hey Tina, I read your post this morning, walked outside to go to work, saw three awesome chairs near a dumpster, thought you and liberated them! Thanks for the inspiration.

  9. Mary Kay Landon (Facebook link) Says:

    Hi Tina–I’m glad to read that you’re still your resourceful, rebellious self that I so love–though I am sorry to hear about your continued employment woes. Very interesting post but alas I await the roadkill recipes!

  10. Mark Galipeau (Facebook link) Says:

    I like the term Freegan. I just looked in my fridge and found it spare. I did just return from my community garden plot where garlic, onions, beets and Fava beans are taking shape. Bounty is all around us. Honey is in my hive, chard and lettuce are in my home beds, and my larder is full of jams and jellies. Spring lies in wait for the bulk of seed I have purchased in anticipation of warmer days.

  11. Andrey Vinogradov (facebook link) Says:

    I am a seasoned expert on roadkill! Once, when I lived in California, an acquaintance of ours rushed into the house with a pheasant that she just ran over in the fields. She asked if was too late to take it to a vet… I ate it.
    And those Canadian deer… and moose…

  12. Eric Says:

    In regards to the miner’s lettuce, I have heard that called miner’s lettuce here in Sonoma County but for some reason when I google images of miner’s lettuce I get images of a different plant. Do you know if this is a variant particular to here?

    • Tina Fields Says:

      I don’t think so. I’ve seen (and eaten) it all over the American west – and in central Europe as well.
      These vernacular names could be used for different plants, though. For example, my folks called a certain furry-leaved and aromatic gray-green high desert plant “Skunk Cabbage,” but it turns out that other folks use that term for a wholly different being.
      The Latin name for what I called Miner’s Lettuce is Claytonia perfoliata. What other plant did you find?

  13. […] years before I found another full-time position that paid enough to not be scrounging for food (see a fun post on that) and running down my savings just to avoid becoming homeless, let alone pay off this loan. The […]

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