Free Food: How I Found it and What I’ve Done With it, by Ristin B.

I have discovered an ongoing source of mostly organic, quality food that requires only my commitment, labor and time as payment. Because it often arrives at my house in amounts greater than can be consumed immediately, most of it is being preserved to add to my long-term storage of foods in preparation for the days ahead when obtaining such food will be difficult.

A new food shelf opened in my town a bit more than a year ago. This particular food shelf works with a major chain of well-known grocery stores. The food shelf accepts the fresh produce and flowers that cannot be sold because of bruising, spoilage, etc., other types of food near their expiration date, and day-old bread.

The food shelf has employees and volunteers who pick up the donations from the grocery stores three times or more per week. The food is placed in refrigerators and freezers as needed or arranged on a row of tables so that clients can see what is available and choose what they want to take with them. The food shelf is open three times weekly for distribution to clients. There are no monetary restrictions on who can get food; the only limitation is that clients can take food just twice each month. (The exception to this twice-per-month limit is bananas and bread; because they are given to the food shelf in abundance, there is usually enough of both that anyone can take these at any time, dependent only on availability.) The limitation of twice-per-month per client household is set to allow more clients to be served.

When the food shelf first opened, I thought of the food that could not be distributed to clients. I understand about “seconds” from a grocery store; some stores sell these seconds at a reduced price; some seconds are not worth buying. I realized that the food shelf would likely have at least some produce that the clients would not want, and knew the food shelf would have to find a way of disposing of it, the most likely option being it would be thrown into a garbage bin, with the food shelf paying to have it hauled away. I approached the food shelf director to see if I could have those items for my family’s consumption, or my compost bin. I knew that I could handle large amounts of “green” compost as I live near a forest and have easy access to as much “brown” as I need to mix with it to make great compost.

The food shelf director was pleased to have a way to dispose of the unwanted produce that did not require paying the garbage man to haul it away.

What I discovered when I brought the rejected produce home was that there was a lot of produce that was still edible, if only someone would take the time to rescue it instead of throwing it away.

My mother and father grew up through the Great Depression years, and had both been raised by parents who had lived through starvation times. One grandmother wrote of her father buying, cheaply, fish that was going bad, then pickling it to disguise the rot before feeding it to his children, who were grateful for any food whatsoever. Though she never went to that extreme, my mother was great at rescuing food. She would shop at a local produce store, often buying crates of fruit or vegetables that were starting to go bad. She taught us how to sort, clean, and recover the good food that was disguised by the bad food. To this day it makes me feel sad to see good food – food that could be feeding people – thrown away.

I have for over a full year gone to the food shelf at least two times per week after the weekly distributions. I haul home any produce that is left after the clients have taken what they want, food that won’t be edible by the next distribution day. By taking responsibility for this rejected produce, I have filled my compost bin with a variety of wonderful rotten fruits, vegetables and flowers, and have been able to eat and preserve hundreds of pounds of food that otherwise would have been thrown away.

Let me make this clear: I do not take food from the clients. The food shelf gets the food from the grocery store. The clients choose what they want to take on distribution days; volunteers are also allowed to take home what they can use. I only go to the food shelf when the distribution is done, and take only what they have left if it will not keep until the next distribution time.

I have no way of predicting what or how much of something I will get to take home; there are too many variables to project that. The grocery store gives different items in different amounts, depending on the season and what they have not sold. The food shelf clients have different desires and tastes, so they may choose to take a lot of one thing but only a little (or none) of another. Whatever it is and in whatever amounts, I get the leftovers.

Some weeks I bring home enough food to be recovered that I work many hours getting it prepared and preserved. Some days I bring home nearly nothing – perhaps just a few pieces of rotten fruit for the compost bin.

There have been times when the reason the food was sent home with me was not because it was bad, but because the food shelf got it in such a large amount that there was not the clientele to take it all. Such was the case when I brought home 60 dozen packages of basil. Yes, that’s 720 of those cute little plastic containers of basil. It took a long time to open all those packages, and to sort the bad from the good. I used and gave away some of the basil, froze some, and dehydrated the most of it. A similar situation allowed me to take home 200 pounds of bananas on one day.

I have been able to process all this food using only the kitchen equipment I had in my household: my stove, pots and pans, colanders, dehydrator, knives and cutting boards. Because of this endeavor, I have upgraded my collection of bowls to include some very large ones, and have gotten a larger colander, too. I purchased a gizmo that allows me to fill baggies hands-free. I will continue to upgrade my equipment as bargains are discovered, but could have reasonably continued with just what I had at the start, regular items found in most any kitchen.

The week I wrote this article, my first visit to the food shelf yielded a small bucket of very rotten fruit and vegetables that went directly into the compost bin. In addition, I carried in three large boxes of recoverable food including 13 1-lb packages of strawberries, seven 8-oz packages of edamame, seven 10-oz packages of shredded cabbage, approximately 16 pounds of apples (mixed types), about six pounds of bananas, 12 bags of Swiss chard, and one pomegranate.

When I visited the second time a few days later, all that was left was small quantities of a variety of items – not enough to preserve, but just right for my husband and I to eat up: two packages of mostly-good strawberries, three small yellow summer squash, three small tangerines, one eggplant, one small purple potato, one very ripe avocado, one bag of romaine lettuce leaves, one bag of spinach leaves, and one bag with a head of red and a head of green oak lettuce. I also had a half-bucket contribution for the compost bin of rotten food which included bananas, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, oranges, and more.

From the produce I brought home on Monday, I found that the Swiss chard, when opened, was too far gone to be used, as was the pomegranate, so they went to the compost bin (the plastic bags from the chard were thrown into the garbage.) I parboiled the edamame and the cabbage (separately, of course), drained it well, and dehydrated it for future use. Aside from a few individual beans and a few shreds of cabbage, the rest was in perfect condition, but would not have held, even refrigerated, until the next distribution day. The cardboard overwrap and the plastic containers from the edamame went into the recycle bin.

The strawberries were a mix of near-perfect and rotten. I separated out the truly bad ones to put in the bucket for the compost, and sliced the rest, trimming off the bruised parts. I save some out for immediate eating, and was able to freeze eight quarts for upcoming treats. Again the plastic containers were recycled.

A few of the bananas were too ripe even for banana bread or were split open (possibly allowing fruit flies or other vermin to enter), so they went into the compost bucket. The rest I sliced to dehydrate. In the past I have frozen some very ripe bananas, but as we are anticipating a move in the not-too-distant future, I am trying to eat down the food from the freezer and prefer to dehydrate. Because bananas are a fruit I frequently bring home, and sometimes in large amounts, I have given away many to friends and family members. Overly ripe bananas are like kittens: You can give away only so many before everyone you know has reached their limit. Personally I use the frozen bananas for baking, and to make banana shakes (a bit of milk added to the frozen bananas, run through the blender, makes an ice-cream-like treat that is healthful and tasty.)

Some of the apples, also, were too rotten to salvage; I have found that if a bruise causes an apple to rot to the core, even if it’s a small area, it taints the entire apple to make it unpalatable. Rotten apples do not go to waste, though. I put them out for the deer and squirrels to enjoy. The rest of the apples I chose to slice or to dice for dehydrating. In the past I have frozen some, and have made up many jars of applesauce. Peelings, of course, are added to the compost bin.

At the food shelf I am known as The Compost Lady. Friends call me The Queen of Dehydrating. Though I have used a dehydrator for many years, it is only through my ongoing relationship with the food shelf that I have greatly broadened my knowledge of dehydrating.  I have discovered that nearly any herb, fruit or vegetable can be dehydrated. Note the “nearly” in that last sentence. I have found no way to dehydrate artichokes (though I discovered they can freeze well with very little preparation). I also cannot dehydrate avocados as they have too much oil; I have yet to find a good way to preserve them, which is disappointing as I love them, but simply cannot eat 16 of them at a time. (I did learn, though, that very ripe avocado makes a lovely spread on un-buttered toast.)

I have not been successful in dehydrating citrus fruit, so I stick to juicing those and freezing the juice. Same with pomegranates. I tried dehydrating watermelon, having read it makes a wonderful flavoring for punch and as an addition to frosting. However, I was not able to keep it dehydrated; no matter how I packaged the dried watermelon, it always soaked moisture from the air and re-hydrated, but not in a way that made it useable.

Over the past year I have used several methods of preservation: freezing; making jams, jellies and other preserves; making sauces (mostly apple and pear); canning; and dehydrating. Because dehydrating is easy and relatively fast (compared to some of the more complicated ways listed), and because dehydrated food keeps well for long periods of time, it has become my favorite method of preservation. I own several books about dehydrating, but the two that I use most are Mary Bell’s Complete Dehydrator Cookbook, and The Dehydrator Bible by Jennifer MacKenzie, Jay Nutt and Don Mercer. Both of these books teach not only how to dehydrate food, but also how to use the food after it has been dehydrated.

From these books and personal experience I have found that if I usually eat the food raw (such as with most fruits and many vegetables), I will dehydrate the food without cooking it. If I normally eat the food cooked (such as potatoes), I will parboil the food before dehydrating it.

By taking the unwanted food from the food shelf, I have gotten to try many types of fruits and vegetables I would not likely have tried if I had to pay for them. Fruits and vegetables that were new to me that I have now eaten and preserved include edamame, figs (both black and green), ginger, kale, many kinds of lettuces and other leafy vegetables, mangoes, and papayas.

I have preserved hundreds of pounds of more common fruits and vegetables, too, including apples, bananas, blueberries, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, corn, cranberries, eggplant, several types of herbs, kiwis, kohlrabi, melons. mushrooms, strawberries, peaches,  pears, peppers (sweet and hot), plums, potatoes, pumpkin, string beans, summer squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and various winter squashes (often bagged pre-diced, meaning all I need to do is parboil and dehydrate).

I have learned that the drier the food is when it comes off the dehydrator, the better it keeps for me. When I first started hauling home great quantities of food, I was in a hurry to get it all preserved, and sometimes took the food off the dehydrator earlier than I should have. As I’ve gone back to check on that food after some months, I’ve found that the moisture left in it made it rot, and I had to throw it out. Thankfully I put most of my dehydrated food in zip-type baggies, usually in the quart-size bags, thinking it would be easier to use the contents of a quart bag for cooking before the contents re-absorbed water from the air. So, when I checked those early efforts of dehydrating and found the rotten food, I had to throw out only small portions rather than large amounts. (Of course rotten fruits and vegetables, even if dehydrated first, make good fill for the compost bin.)

Once a baggie has been filled with dehydrated food, I remove as much air as possible, either by squeezing it out (rolling it, as in the case of shredded cabbage) or by sucking the air through a straw. The filled baggies are then placed in tins. I tried putting my dehydrated food in glass jars and “oven canning” them to seal them, but have not had great success with that. Instead I opt for the tins – cookie tins, popcorn tins and such that I buy from thrift stores or get from others; my family and friends know that I seek these tins out, in various sizes. I store my baggies of dehydrated food, by type, in a tin which is the right size for whatever amount I need to store long-term. I use address labels as stickers for labeling the contents. Because we have a number of plastic coolers (the type used for picnics) that are usually stored empty, my husband got the idea to put the tins into the coolers, adding yet another level of protection from moisture and vermin.

I am grateful for the food I’ve been given. I would like to be able to give it back – preserved – to the food shelf clients, but that is not allowed because I do not have a certified kitchen. I’m not sure what I’ll do with all the preserved food. I figure, though, that God knows what he is doing in trusting me with it. It will feed my family and anyone else under my roof when we hit TEOTWAWKI. It will make good bartering material, too. (How many of you have enough basil stored up? I’ll trade you some for what you do have!)

The system that has developed – the store donating to the food shelf, the food shelf allowing clients to take food, then giving me what does not keep – has produced a string of benefits to all. The store gets a tax deduction for donating the food to the food shelf. The food shelf is able to provide free food to the clients. The food shelf does not have to dispose of rotten or excess food in the garbage bin. I get a fabulous mix of rotten food to put in my compost bins, and an equally fabulous mix to eat or preserve. My long-term-storage food supply has grown tremendously in this way.

I know that as long as I am able and desire to do so, I will be allowed to collect the food that cannot be distributed by the food shelf.  When we move, I will have to stop; I am hoping someone else will be able to benefit in my stead. I will look for another source of free food near my new home. I know that there are often trees, bushes or gardens that go unharvested, perhaps, for example, owned by elderly people who can no longer use the crabapples from their tree, or by people uninterested in preserving the berries that are growing in their yards. There are farms that allow food to rot in the field because it can’t be sold; there are other grocery stores and food shelves that have produce that is thrown away. I trust that with a little ingenuity and by asking a few questions, I will be able to find other sources of free food, and that you can, too. Unspoiled people food should go to people, to eat now or later. Compost heaps should only get what can no longer safely be used by people. 

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