Summer Can Mean Free or Low-Cost Produce — If You Know Where to Look
Summer is here, and while fruits and veggies are at their peak, nearly half of Americans are experiencing reduced income due to the financial effects of the coronavirus.
Whether you’re on a tight budget right now or you’re just looking for more ways to be frugal, these three strategies can help you find free or low-cost veggies during the summer months.
Find Free Farm Stands, Fridges and Pantries
Depending on where you live, free veggies may be hiding in plain sight at free farm stands, free fridges or even Little Free Pantries, the “free food” iteration of the popular Little Free Library.
The hardest part of obtaining free produce this way is actually finding your closest options, as it can be difficult to know where to look if you’ve never used these tools before.
One place to start is local food rescues, food pantries or community cafes. These places all act as resources within communities. Staff and volunteers are likely familiar with local or regional options.
While some free farmer's markets require proof of income, others offer free, no-questions-asked fruits and veggies.
Free fridges and Little Free Pantries (which tend to have pantry staples, but you never know when a gardener might drop off surplus veggies) are no-questions-asked sources of free food.
Little Free Pantries has a mapping tool to locate pantries near you, but free fridges are trickier to locate. They’re usually marked by signs offering “free food,” so you might walk by one in your neighborhood or hear about it through the grapevine. Searching Instagram for #mutualaid, #freefridge or #communityfridge is another way to see what’s out there.
Shop Farmer’s Markets Strategically
Farmer’s markets are a great place to stock up on local fruits and veggies while supporting farmers in your area, but they can also be a good source of bargains when you know how to find them.
Generally, farmers don’t like to haggle on prices, but there are a couple of important exceptions.
Farmers will often cull their produce at market, putting out only the items that look the most fresh and delicious. Lumpy or misshapen produce that doesn’t make the cut can be sold as second-quality, usually abbreviated as seconds. Not all farmers set aside seconds, but those that do are usually willing to sell for a reduced price.
Subscription boxes like Misfits Market, Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce are another way to get "ugly" or imperfect produce.
Some fruits and veggies come with parts that most consumers don’t want or know how to use (things like radish greens or carrot tops). Consumers will often buy the radishes or carrots, then leave the greens behind.
While farmers will usually set these aside for compost, you may be able to get these for free if you ask politely. Radish greens and carrot tops both make great pesto, or you can do what I’ve done and use the free veggies to feed your pet. On the Food Recovery Hierarchy, feeding people and animals rank above composting food that would otherwise have gone to waste.
Farmers generally don’t want to bring unpurchased produce back to the farm. Toward the end of the market, when they’re preparing to load the truck, farmers may be more willing to extend a discount on anything that hasn’t sold. It never hurts to ask (respectfully!) so long as you understand that not all farmers can accommodate a discount.
Glean Unwanted Produce
Accounting for harvested and unharvested food, a California farm study found that farms waste 33.7% of food grown.
Farmers lack the time and labor to harvest everything in the best of times. This year, there’s the added difficulty of farming while six feet apart and farm worker shortages. Unharvested crops are often left in fields to rot — that is, unless they’re gleaned.
Gleaning organizations often harvest leftover produce from farmers’ fields to be distributed to food pantries or soup kitchens, but you can also glean for personal use. Just ask local farmers or even community gardeners if you can help clean up their fields in exchange for free food.
While gleaning as a part of a food rescue program usually means the food goes to those in need, sometimes farmers will give you produce as a token of appreciation (it’s happened to me).
You don’t need to live near farms to practice gleaning. Urban gleaning and foraging groups such as the League of Urban Canners often harvest from untended resources, such as street trees or homeowners’ trees when they don’t want their fruits.
You can also learn about local wild edibles by taking a class (the School of Self Reliance and Brooklyn Brainery are two to consider). Food grown on private lands can’t be foraged without permission, but if you find wild edibles in the woods or in a park, they’re generally fair game so long as you follow sustainable foraging rules.
Whenever you’re harvesting local fruit or wild edibles, it’s important to be confident that you’ve properly identified the plant. If you’re not confident, leave it alone.
The foraging nonprofit Falling Fruit maintains a global database of 2,725 edibles to guide you in your hunt. Their database covers find everything from mulberries, grapes, and elderberries to lesser-known edibles like staghorn sumac (used for lemonade or as a spice) or kousa dogwood, a small custardy fruit that can be used in homemade wine, jam or pie.
These strategies are flexible and achievable whether you live in urban, rural or suburban areas. They may work best in summer, when there’s abundance, but they can help you save year round, too.
Take what you need, but remember to leave some for others–and to give back where you can, when you can.
Lindsey Danis is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.