Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Thoughts on Gleaning Veggie Scraps, the Importance of Community, and Why It Is Moral To Do So

 photo 100_6759_zps1d82ff55.jpg
3 huge bunches of cardoons, a bunch of radishes, a lot of scallions,
TONS of bananas, are among the many, many, many things I
gleaned/rescued at the market
I've already written more than one post on this topic, but, quite frankly, it's not enough, in my opinion, because its not that most people don't know how to be frugal, it's that they're worried what other people will think if they actually do those frugal things, especially if they're of the more extreme frugal variety.

I get that concern, I really do. No one wants to be seen as an outcast in their social circles, or be seen as someone worthy of pity. This is why I think its so important that people live with others in a similar financial standing.
If you live in a wealthy, high class community, you'll generally feel pressure to have the same expensive items and live the same high class lifestyle, and if you stand up to the pressure and do your own thing, you'll likely stick out like a sore thumb, and may not be fully accepted or respected by the community. On the other hand, if you live in a community of frugally minded people, not only will you not have the pressure to live beyond your means, you'll often have more frugal resources available as well as people willing to pitch in to help save you money.
Note that poor communities and frugal minded communities are not necessarily the same. In some poor communities, even without money, people live "the high life" paid completely for by credit cards; conversely, in some places, even wealthy people live simply and frugally, because they live according to their non-materialistic values.

When choosing a community to live in, I cannot stress enough how important it is to pick a community with similar values. And if you value things other than materialism, if you value living simply and within your means, make sure that the community you intend to be part of shares those values. Especially, especially if you have kids or intend on having kids in the future.

While we homeschool our kids, I'm always on the lookout for schooling options in case we see homeschooling isn't working for us anymore. I have a lot of things I'd insist on before I'd considering sending my kid to a school, and its really hard to find such a school here. Finally I heard of one school that meets all the requirements I made... and then I heard that the parents who send their kids to the school are very wealthy, high class, and there is lots of pressure there to “keep up with the Joneses” there. That school became a non option.
Because its imperative that the people that you surround yourself with have similar values.
A community isn't just the people living in your immediate vicinity. Communities can be based around a church or other place of worship, they can be a neighborhood, a school can be a community, and you can have a community based on other common interests, such as farming. Whatever you do, try to immerse yourself into one community that values non material things more than materialistic things if you want to be able to live within your means happily.

If you don't have a local community like that, even being part of a virtual community can help you feel more “normal” in your frugality, giving you the confidence to keep on doing whatever it is that you're doing, even if some other people outside your “community” may look at you funny or whatever.

Today I was in the city and passed by the open air market at closing time. As I usually do, I waited near the dumpster for the trolleys of stuff heading to the garbage to come. A trolley arrived, carrying 2 cases of bananas, among other things, about to head into the dumpster. I took them and inspected them- their problem? They were browning. Perfect! I could use them to make all my yummy sugar free gluten free desserts. And it was 2 huuuuuuuge cases of bananas free! (In case you're wondering the size- once I got home and peeled them, I was able to fill 6 freezer bags with bananas from that.)

Then I went and got some chicken scraps that were going to be thrown out.
“Oh, you have a cat or a dog? This is for your cat or dog?” the man asked. In the past, I just said “Yes, a cat” and even lied and described an imaginary cat when I was asked further questions about my “pet”. But now, I didn't feel like lying. Why not get someone else to change their perspective?
“No, I'm not a dog and I'm not a cat, but I still think its a shame for all this meat to go to waste, and to go to a landfill. Its not that I'm poor and can't afford to buy it- I can- I just think its terrible how much perfectly good food goes into landfills when I and my family can eat it.”

Then I went back to the dumpster, waiting to see what other treasures the trolley would bring. While I was there, my friend Eve walked up to me and said “Are you getting free stuff today?”
“That's the plan..”
“Can I join you? I want to see how you do it.”

So we hung out together, and went and got tons of perfectly good food that was being thrown away. Eve got a whole bunch of pitas and flatbreads and rolls and loaves of bread, there were lots of peppers, a huge amount of scallions, lots of radishes, a few avocados and persimmons, etc... As we scavenged, we talked.

Eve brought up the concept of the difference between frugal and cheap. Frugal is being money smart, being money mindful, whereas cheapskates/misers have a hard time parting with any money, ever. They want to spend as little as possible no matter what.

Eve and I, though we scavenge for free food that would otherwise go to the trash, aren’t cheapskates- we're frugal. Examples that we gave each other that showed that is that Eve likes her cheeses. She'd rather save her money on groceries and get free food, so she can have extra money to spend on some good Parmesan. And, similarly, I will get free food, scavenge for and rescue sub-par foods instead of letting it go in the trash, but I am not always looking for the cheapest no matter what- because I save money on my standard groceries, I am able to have more money available to spend on gluten free items, unrefined sugar, etc...

Eve and I were talking about how it's easier to be extremely frugal when it's a choice you make, and not because you're destitute. Which is why I'm not embarrassed to do what I do. I fortunately am not destitute or anywhere near- we have enough money for everything we need. So I'm able to hold my head high and not be embarrassed despite doing things that others might consider embarrassing.

Now you might be wondering why I brought up the concept of community at the beginning...

When I was asked if the chicken was for a cat or a dog, and I said “It's actually for me”, I could very easily have gotten confused or flustered, etc... embarrassed if the guy thought I was weird. But I didn't care at all what he thought of me. Because he isn't part of my life, he isn't part of the community. I care what my community thinks of me more than what random strangers think of me.

But Eve is a part of my community. When she showed up, I wasn't embarrassed, because Eve knew me already by then and respected what I did to save money, even the extremely frugal methods... My community respects frugality, and predominantly want to learn to do similar things. (I can't count how many people have told me that they want to come with me on my gleaning trips at the open air market.)
Because I have a community of like minded people that I am part of, it gives me the confidence to stand up for what I believe in, for the truth as I see it, and be able to share what I'm doing, to tell the people “No, I plan on eating this”, even if some people might look down on me for it. I don't care what they think of me, because the people that I do care to have in my life respect me for what I do.

Now I feel I need to address something that always gets brought up by commenters every single time I write about my gleaning trips.
“Its not fair for you to take those stuff for free- you should be paying for that- why are you taking away from the store keeper's income? That's morally wrong.”

Lets expand on that topic a little more.

There's person A, lets call her Sarah, and there's person B, lets call him Steven.
Sarah has money, a moderate amount, enough so that as long as she spends wisely, she has more than enough to cover her expenses. But, of course, if she spends recklessly, she will run out of money and go into debt.
Steven is an artist. He paints beautiful photos and creates beautiful sculptures, and sells them for a lot of money.
Does Sarah have a responsibility to buy Steven's art so that he has an income? What if buying Steven's art is going to give Sarah financial issues? What if buying his art won't give her financial issues, won't put her in debt, but will make her more strapped financially so that she couldn’t afford the extras she really wanted, like that hotel stay she'd planned with her husband?
Personally, I think Sarah has no responsibility to support Steven.

Now, if Steven was someone that Sarah was friend's with, and Sarah knew that Steven was struggling to put food on his table, and she went and bought a sculpture of his, specifically to help him out financially, I'd consider what she's doing a form of charity- charity that Steve will accept more easily, because he feels like he's doing something in return, and isn't just a pitiable person. But this sculpture that Sarah could easily do without, but that she's buying in order to help him financially- its charity, optional, and not a moral obligation.
You're not morally obligated to support every single person out there who is trying to earn an income. That claim is so ridiculous, its preposterous. If you were morally obligated to do so, that would mean that you would have to walk into every store you passed, bought something significant at every store, use and pay for every service available to man, etc... regardless of your own financial abilities- because you should be supporting these people!

You see how ridiculous that claim is?

Ok, lets bring back Sarah and Steven.

Lets say Sarah, as much as she likes Steven, doesn't have the cash to buy some artwork from him, or chooses to spend her extra cash on something else she would prefer to spend it on.
Now Steven, when making his art, ends up with lots of scraps that came out badly, that he no longer wants. So he chucks it in the public dumpster.
Sarah passes by the dumpster, sees some art scraps there, and says “Hey, with a little bit of loving, I can make those scraps look beautiful!” so she fishes them out of the trash, works on them, and uses them, and puts them on display in her home.

Is Sarah doing anything wrong?
If so, what?
Is she taking anything away from Steven?
No. He threw it out, he no longer wanted it.
Is she preventing him from earning an income by taking his scraps?
No. We've already established that she won't be buying artwork from him, that's not where she wants to spend her money.
Is Sarah required to buy the artwork that she didn't want to spend money on, just so that she can support Steven?
No. We've already established that while it may be nice to buy something from someone in order to support them, doing so for that reason alone is a form of charity, and isn't an obligation in any way, and to require someone to support everyone trying to earn a living is a truly ridiculous idea.

Sarah taking Steven's scraps- no one is hurting, and Sarah benefits.

Nothing wrong, in my opinion.

Similarly, when I get some veggie or fish scraps from the open air market, I'm not taking anything away from anyone.
I'm just like Sarah, taking what “Steven” no longer wants. I wasn't going to buy from “Steven” in the first place, so my taking his cast offs hurts no one, and benefits me.
Yes, if I wanted to do the store keepers a favor and support them by buying stuff from them, I could, but personally, I know enough people that are in rough financial situations that my charity would go first to them, and not to random guys running the stalls in the market.
I have limited funds, and if I can stretch my funds further by taking cast offs that no one wants, I can have excess money to spend on the things that are important to me, like expensive unrefined sugars instead of refined sugars, healthier oils instead of cheapo GMO oils. While it would be nice to support as many shopkeepers as possible, if I don't take care of my own finances and my own needs, no one else will.

Are you part of a community that values frugality, looks down upon frugality, or doesn't care either way?
Would you have the confidence to say "No, this is for myself, not a cat/dog"?
Do you think its an obligation to support shopkeepers?
Do you agree with my assessment of Steve's and Sarah's situation? Do you think it would be immoral for Sarah to take Steve's art scraps from the dumpster?


  1. the moral obligation thing doesn't make sense to me. The shop keepers are willingly giving you food for free, or are throwing it away! They don't have to do that. They could decide to charge for their scraps and brown bananas, or to keep everything out of the trash and try to sell it. It's within their power to make decisions about that sort of thing. Nothing you do changes that.

  2. You're not stealing and you are keeping food from going to waste by simply being thrown out? I really don't see what is wrong with that. You shouldn't have to justify your actions to anyone. You are not coercing the sellers into giving you their scraps for free. There is no harm in simply asking. I am glad you do!

  3. It never would have even occurred to me to think there might be an issue! (???) :)

  4. On the one hand, I agree: saving vegetables from being wasted is a good thing.

    But from the perspective of the business owner and other consumers, it's a bit more complicated. The analogy to the artist is correct, except in two areas: nobody needs art, but everybody needs to eat. Secondly, Steven can charge whatever he wants to for his pieces, but the shopkeeper can only charge as much as his competitor if he's going to entice people to spend their money at his store. If enough people decide to glean rather than buy, then the shopkeeper must either stock less or raise prices or go out of business, so it is the paying customer who loses. So is it moral to make everybody else subsidize your lifestyle?

    I would have no problem gleaning from places that I already shop at. But I think the morality of gleaning from other places is a bit more complicated than you've made it out to be.

    1. But Jules, don't those merchants then have the option to sell the materials instead of throwing them out? They don't HAVE to throw that stuff out...and if they find that throwing it away hurts their bottom line, surely they could sell it instead?

  5. Jules: "Nobody needs art". What, what, WHAT??? I humbly, yet vehemently, disagree. But that's another topic altogether. I see a flaw in your argument about if enough people glean instead of buy it will hurt the merchant. For one thing, there are only so many scraps and glean-able "trash" out there; there is not enough to go around. As soon as they are gone people will be forced to purchase. Another thing, who are these people that are all the sudden going to start gleaning??? I'm just guessing here, but I'd say that a VAST majority of Americans think it's a deplorable act. So no, people aren't going to suddenly decide to start gleaning everything and put store owners out of business. That's kind of ridiculous. The morality IS more complicated, I just don't think it is in the way you think it is. To put it another way, if someone grows/produces all of their own food are they also being morally sketchy and putting grocers out of business in the way you describe those that glean? What about people that decide to use reusable diapers for their children instead of disposables, are they also putting diaper companies out of business? It seems like you mean us to purchase absolutely everything we could possibly need and never make or do anything for ourselves, so that companies thrive; what about helping the individual thrive? I mean no ill-will (even though I probably seem really snotty). You have a very interesting argument, I just disagree with it.

    As to the post, HOORAY for gleaning. I do not feel guilty for taking landfill fodder and doing something good with it. I dumpster dive, among other gleaning practices, as often as I can. In fact, I'd go so far as to say not only do we NOT have an obligation to PAY for things such as food, we have an obligation to keep waste out of landfills and to keep our dumpsters empty. So not only do I feel the Steve and Sarah situation as totally justified, I feel that it is Sarah's responsibility to do so!

    I'm not against buying things; I buy stuff all the time. I buy stuff from my local vendors and perhaps even buy more that I need; I am all for supporting your local community. But I also try not waste and can do amazing things with other people's waste. It's my RESPONSIBILITY as a human on this planet to do so. In my case at least, I would NEVER have bought the items I have gleaned. Never. I use them to supplement, feed/clothe/etc. others, put away for a rainy day (dehydrate, can, etc.), and to give away to charity. I am not hurting any merchant by not purchasing items I never would have purchased in the first place, instead I am helping my planet by keeping stuff out of the landfill.

    Thank you, Penny, for this post. I've never posted before but I just had to after reading this. So many people look down on "gleaners". Luckily my community has those people that will bring you a step stool to help you climb into a dumpster and keep scraps for you if you ask for them, but also those that will call the police if they see you digging around (much fewer of that latter, thankfully). Keep up the good work!

    1. @ Harris: I would be the last one to suggest that we cut out art from our lives. But on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, food, shelter, sleep, and clothing are on the bottom rung. If you're in such deep sh*t that all you can afford is gleaned produce, you're probably not going to be spending your next dollar on art--that's all I was saying.

      You're confusing my point. Sure, you could do all the stuff you mentioned, and no, it wouldn't hurt anybody, and it's not morally wrong. Economics is supply and demand--what you're doing when you use cloth diapers is cutting back on the demand for new disposables, and shop keepers and diaper companies have to take that into account. Growing your own food is cutting back on the demand for food. Etc. But the thing is, when you do all these things, you don't need to take stuff, even if it is free.

      On the other hand, if you glean things, then that means that there is a demand for said things--just not when they're being sold. And in refusing to pay for the items when they're being sold, you're effectively creating the waste which you glean from. And read my argument carefully: it's not the store owner who loses (unless he closes shop). It's everybody else who buys stuff from the store.

      Now, I agree--in the real world there probably aren't that many people who would do this to the point where it would kill a store's bottom line. And (again) I would have no problem taking stuff from the "questionable" pile at the supermarkets. I have no problem picking stuff up off of the streets--half of my apartment in Philly was dumpster-dived. I buy lots of things secondhand. But this post was about the morality of taking stuff without paying for it and not the actual consequences thereof, and personally, I think it's more complicated than just making sure nothing gets wasted.

  6. i would never think there would even be an issue of you using something that would otherwise be trash! I live in california and everytime i read one of your posts I wish I could do the same thing! I have never seen anyone throw anything away at a farmer's market though.

  7. Whats that mans trash is another mans treasure.
    I think it is morally wrong that stores don't set out food they are unable to sell for people who need it to take for free. I think it is wrong to throw something away especially food and not give someone the option of using it.

    Plus I think it's just plain wrong to throw away food..what we don't eat the dog eats, what the dog does not eat the cats eat, what the cats don't eat the chickens eat and what the chickens don't eat goes into compost!

  8. I came across your website and it inspired me to make a call to my local organic market. I was told they were throwing out their box of "scrap" produce in ten minutes. I live 5 minutes away and said I would be right there…upon arriving the produce guy working said they throw out scraps daily and as long as I come before 2 everyday I can have them…I left with two huge boxes of awesome local, seasonal organic produce. I felt like I won the lottery! I rummaged through the boxes as soon as I arrived home and it was amazing!!! I had bags and bags of lettuce, mounds of leeks, celery, upwards of 60 potatoes (two types), blood oranges, cherries, figs, peaches, bunches of parsley and cilantro, mushrooms, green onions, an entire box of fennel…most of this food was absolutely edible…some I will feed the chickens and guinea pig (the more baby greens, lettuce leaves that were ripped small, celery tips etc)…it was just today that I called and I am thrilled about the impending future of DAILY pick ups of this magnitude! I am overjoyed of always knowing that no matter how tight money is there is always an option to call various establishments to ask for so called "scraps"!! and be able to feed my family good healthy food and likely enough to share…I just wanted to thank you for putting the idea in my head…I was hesitant to make the call, but had I called just ten minutes later I may have been discouraged and not had the outcome I ended up with…I will let you know how it goes after I get a rhythm of daily pick ups!

  9. I miss all this. I used to live with my best friend and frequently all we ate was foraged food, bannock, fish we caught and the odd bird/animal we trapped. We did this because we honestly had no money. You learn to live without, and I can honestly say that was the best time of my life. Sometimes our families looked down on us, but we never starved and were never bored. For the record I live in Canada so foraging season is very short.

  10. I live in Western Sydney AU , as in alot of commonwealth countries people put unwanted items near the kerb on the roadside where any one is welcome to take ( furniture house hold goods etc).
    I shop at a produce market that reduces prices to maybe 5 cents for aging veg and fruit.We buy chicken carcasses which still have backs and necks and lots of meat and skin for 6.00 for 10 kg.We cook and eat make stock etc or use them to feed our dogs.We can also get bags of end cuts of deli meats cold cuts and cheeses for 2.00 a couple kilos worth we use it for sandwiches or to flavour a pot of soup or beans etc. We save alot of money which we dont have much of and no one looks at us twice about it...sally


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