by Birdsong S.
Some people have been commenting that the Eat Local Challenge is too hard or too expensive. I want to address this by discussing some of the free sources of food I have found over the years...
I love to walk and when I lived in the big city of Sacramento back twenty years ago, I was almost always able to walk to work. The Central Valley climate is very benign, and there were lots and lots of citrus trees along my various routes: lemons, kumquats, oranges. Walnuts were also quite common, both the English and Black varieties, and so were figs, a luxury in many climates. Many were even in vacant lots, where homes had once been, now either torn or burnt down.
I would keep an eye on these trees, and come back when the fruit was in season. I took to asking friends if they were going to use the fruit or nuts, and frequently ended up with their surplus. I also kept an eye out for dye plants, tea herbs and medicinals, using garden and reference books to help me familiarize myself with them.
My husband was much bolder, and would stop at a house where a fruit tree was heavily laden, obviously going unpicked, and ask if the owner would like him to lighten the load for the sake of the trees (he is a trained arborist and used to run his own tree service, so could go into great detail about the care and feeding of a tree).
When I moved to very rural Sierra County, the vegetation changed somewhat, but the free sources were even more prolific. I lived (and still have a home) in the mining town of Forest City, a National Register Historic District, where small homesteads all had at least one antique apple tree, and often pears as well. Rhubarb was far more fashionable than it is these days, and each little homestead had its own patch. These resources were planted at a time when most eating was localized and when most families preserved the summer/fall harvest to get them through the lean times of winter and spring. It is amazing how long these trees can live, their trunks thick and gnarled, branches twisted from being bent down by the heavy snows each winter, but coming back each spring to put out an immense crop of flowers, later turning to fruit.
Rhubarb is a perennial and comes up amongst the first growth of spring. The red stalks are best before the leaves get large, and can be made into jam, or frozen or canned for desserts and sauces. Blackberries thrive at this elevation, as well as elderberries and gooseberries (my now-adult children think there is no better jam in the world and would gladly don gardening gloves to help pick the torpedo-looking bright red berries each fall). Each fall, we have more apples and pears than we know what to do with, and have made apple butter, pear and apple chutnies, and juiced and pressed cider. My donkeys are always grateful for the fact that we pick up boxes of culls to give them as treats through the winter.
I don't have to travel to where you live to know that there is such food going to waste there as well. There are also gardeners who grow too many tomatoes, cucumbers and squashes and would love to know who to share with. One of my fondest dreams is figuring out the best way to build a food network system that allows people to tap into this un-used food... would it be a computerized network, like FreeCycle or Craig's List? Would it be a volunteer program like Senior Gleaners, going around to homes and collecting surplus produce to re-distribute to meal programs, food banks and homeless shelters? I would love to have someone reading this post have the key to make my dream a reality, but I already suspect that the system will be as localized as the foods that are surplus and that each community will have to find for themselves what works best in their shared culture. Every time I walk past an unpicked fruit or nut tree, I can't help but think about how people need food someplace not all that far away from this untapped resource.
My suggestion for those who have already decided that the Eat Local Challenge is for someone else, is to do nothing else this month but look around you and familiarize yourself with the food resources growing in your daily sphere. Is there a fruit tree in your neighbor's yard? Did you just notice someone unloading tomato cages a few streets over? Does your Sunday morning stroll take you past a park with nut trees? Becoming aware of food in its growing state may be your best first step towards localizing your eating.