This is an article I wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Santa Monica Farmers Market Panel Series on Gleaning and Foraging in Los Angeles!
Gleaning and Foraging: The Food Around Us
Fresh food is abound, if you know where to look for it. From Farmers Markets to backyards to empty lots, there is a variety of edible food in our midst.
This agriculture abundance was celebrated last Thursday night at the Santa Monica Library’s quarterly Farmer’s Market Panel Series. This free event, entitled Gleaning and Foraging: the Food Around Us, was held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium at Santa Monica’s Main Library and moderated by Sarah Spitz.
Sarah Spitz is a long-time former producer for Santa Monica public radio station KCRW. She is certified Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver through the UC Cooperative Extension where she volunteers in service to the community teaching gardening and food preservation and safety which focuses on low-income LA county communities which includes the Saturday Santa Monica Pico Farmers Market.
On stage, Spitz was joined by panel of volunteers and experts who are helping to find and distribute L.A.'s hidden bounty of food. These five gleaning and foraging practitioners, including: Transitional Gastronomy chef and forager, Mia Wasilevich, Naomi Curland of Westside Produce Exchange, Joanna Wheaton a UCLA Senior who was a key part of bringing a farmers market to UCLA along with being a active dumpster diver, Richard Weinroth of the food bank MEND Poverty, and Mary Baldwin, manager of Food Forward's Farmers Market Recovery Program.
Spitz opened with some statistic from a recent report by the Nation Resource Defense Council that 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land are being wasted.
Moreover, almost all of that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where organic matter accounts for 16 percent of U.S. methane emissions. Nutrition is also lost in the mix, food saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.
Spitz capped off these stark statistics by noting that the five people who joined her on stage emanated Gandhi’s statement of “being the change you want to see in the world.” All of these people looked at the world around them and recognized waste is just another word for abundance that has yet to be utilized. Each and every one of them found a unique way to employ this unutilized abundance for good for themselves and the people around them.
The most extreme form of utilizing excess food (and also the end of the line in the food chain) is dumpster diving. UCLA Senior Joanna Wheaton explained how she became involved in this subculture of food conservation and petty crime, “I got started dumpster diving while working in an office where we screened a movie called DIVE. I wanted to do it, but it took a month to actually get up the courage to dive in. Now I’m constantly driving around looking for dumpsters at midnight.” Wheaton noted that in the beginning of her trash journey the thing she found the most of was old 8 tracks, but as she continued doing it she became schooled in where the best dumpster bounty was located. “Friday is the most consistently bountiful day. There’s no way me and my 3 friends could us all of the food, so we all kept bringing more and more people. I’ve brought over seventy people diving now.”
For each person there’s a Big Question that must be settled before the adventure can begin. “Each person makes a decision about what’s safe in a dumpster,” explained Wheaton. Usually the food has been tossed because the grocery store received a new shipment, but it can be hard to tell whether things have mold on them in the darkness of a metal container at midnight. Wheaton noted how everyone has his or her personal food litmus tests. “With eggs, you can put it in a glass a water to see if it’s good or not. If it floats it’s bad; if it’s in the middle you can bake with it; and if it falls its good.”
There’s also a question of safety when rummaging through someone else’s trash on private property. “There’s usually security guards, but we just wait until they leave; it’s obvious we’re just trying to dumpster diving. At this point, I know most of the closing staff.”
Many times Wheaton would find a glut of a good thing “I once found 50 frozen Eggplant Parmesans that had just be thrown out and were still completely frozen. I invited a bunch of friends over and we had a party.” And so slowly she converts the uninitiated one person at time. “People who come dumpster diving with me usually never think afterwards that it’s unsafe to each food out of a trash can.”
For those looking still looking for adventure, but not the peril or unpleasantness of going through waste bins there exists the world of foraging. Chef Mia Wasilevich is one of the heads of Transitional Gastronomy, a full service Wild Food Lab specializing in foraging, classes, consulting, culinary research & development and private events. Wasilevich and Pascal Baudar created TransitionalGastronomy.com, and coined the phrase, as a response to friends, family and fellow wild food foragers’ curiosity about their passion for exploring local wild foods and creating gourmet cuisine using transitional methods. She explained, “At Transitional Gastronomy we look at the things in nature as a food source. Because of the economy, we’ve had quite an increase in the number of people coming to our classes in the last few year so they can learn about the food that exists in their immediate environment.”
As with dumpster diving, safety is a number one priority. “You don’t learn about foraging from Google or a book; it’s an oral tradition. You can only eat a bad mushroom once,” noted Wasilevich. “Be smart, don’t pick the weed at the bus stop. You’re 30 minutes from Angeles National Forest, which will have everything you need. Ninety-nine percent of foraged plants are invasive plants that parks want to eradicate. By now Pascal and I have relationships with rangers. They will call us and say, ‘we’re going to plow down acres of nettles if you want to grab them.’”
But for those looking for a less rugged way of utilizing the abundance around there are produce exchanges. Similar to a CSA, produce exchanges are opt-in exchanges among neighbors who want to share what they're growing in their gardens. Gardeners and cooks bring vegetables, fruits, herbs, eggs and baked goods from their gardens, chicken coops, and kitchens.
“I’m originally from Minnesota,” noted Naomi Curland, founder of the monthly Westside Produce Exchange, “I grew up with farmers markets and food waste reduction. When I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, I saw so much food is wasted with orange trees and because of it I got into Fallen Fruit. And then Food Forward. And then since I loved to organize, I started The Westside Produce exchange three years ago.”
For the Westside Produce Exchange, participants drop off bags of produce between 9:00 AM and noon on Saturday at the Learning Garden at Venice High School; volunteers redistribute the bounty; and will then deliver a cornucopia of local foods right to your doorstep.
For those look to share abundance not only with themselves, but also with others through the act of do-gooding there’s Food Forward and their Farmer’s Market Recovery Program.
Food Forward “Glean Team” volunteers arrive at the market ready to collect in their bright blue caps and khaki aprons and issue donation boxes ornamented with the Food Forward logo to the farmers. The farmers fill the boxes with their unsold excess produce. At the end of the market, the Food Forward volunteers collect the boxes and distribute them to their receiving agencies.
With 128 farmers markets held on a weekly basis across Los Angeles County, Food Forward’s Farmers Market Recovery Program offers the only formal market-endorsed donation system for farmers wanting to help fight hunger with their unsold produce. FMR Program Manager Mary Baldwin stated, “we’re connecting people to agencies within five miles of market. We work with the big picture; we don’t want to get into the business of individuals. Instead we work with 501c3 receiving agencies, collecting excess produce and giving it to these organizations that can use all the food within 3 days max. I’m not a chef, I’d rather give it to a kitchen who help people on a larger scale.”
And the numbers show how this big picture thinking is a success! The Program averages 15,000 pounds of fresh free produce per month, has over 150 volunteers, works with 210 farmers, and has 25 different receiving agencies. Since their launch nine months ago, Food Forward's Farmers Market Recovery Program have successfully gleaned over 100,000 pounds of fresh produce from local farmers markets and donated 100% of it to hungry Angelenos.
One of the largest receiving agencies that Food Forward works with is the food bank MEND Poverty. MEND is the biggest non-profit anti-poverty agency in the Valley where Richard Weinroth has been the Executive Director for the last five years. MEND now services 20-25,000 clients per month (a rate that doubled in 2008).
“With the produce we receive from Food Forward we give the perfect fruit to the people, and then ‘broken’ fruit we ‘process’ it in our kitchen.” Weinroth has consciously changed the food bank model so now MEND sees canned food as a last resort. “Every day we send out volunteers to gather fresh food that would otherwise be thrown away. So much effort has been put into something that might be thrown away because it has a spot. We now gather around 100,000lbs of fresh food and vegetables each month. This goes to families so they can do things like buy shoes for their kids and save for college.”
“Our distribution center is open 4 days a week. We have a kitchen, but we don’t only feed our clients, but send everyone home with 2 cans of soup, 2 cans of tomato sauce, pasta, yogurt, frozen meats and dairy, and fresh foods and vegetables. Usually a box for a family weighs 75 lbs.”
For several years, MEND has run a small but popular after school program called Seeds to Supper, in which school children learn to grow, harvest, and prepare vegetables from MEND’s small parking-lot garden. “We teach kids how to grow organically, and then teach them how to cook without cutting off their fingers.” MEND is now implementing a new Home Gardening Training Program that will go much farther, teaching 72 families over the course of 2013 how to grow their own food on a sustainable basis in the backyards of their homes.
Weinroth is constantly working on ways to make the abundance extend just a bit longer; at the moment he’s going through Food Forward’s preserving program. “We got 40,000 lbs of strawberries today. I can’t wait to teach my clients and volunteers how to can and preserve these fruits and vegetables.” Until that happens MEND gives food to the other thirty organizations in L.A. area trading strawberries for tomatoes. “We make a few phone calls with other food banks and we share what we get.”
And as attendees shared the small bites created by Mia Wasilevich for the post-panel reception, which included lambs quarters (aka wild spinach) empanadas and white clover cocktail with watercress and cattails, there was a buzz abound on sharing the wealth. Of utilizing one of the first lessons learned in kindergarten: sharing with your neighbor. Because as Mary Baldwin stated, “there’s no end to the need for the food.”
Kat Thomas is a Santa Monica writer who is lucky to be surrounded by a wealth of food and abundance in the Santa Monica food community and plans to share any time she can.