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Free Eats in the City

Foraging, farming, dumpster diving, and eating on the cheap

by Michaela Cavanagh

Wild blackberries can be found in Point Pleasant Park.  Photo: Campobello Island
Wild blackberries can be found in Point Pleasant Park. Photo: Campobello Island

Summer is the perfect time to experiment with urban foraging — there are many ways to broaden how you nourish yourself. Eating for free is easier and safer than you might think, and Halifax offers a host of alternatives to the zombifying shopping experience, all within cycling distance around the HRM.

Dumpstering, city foraging and urban farming can offer a subversive alternative to big grocery stores.  However, it's important to remember that while some use these options for fun and adventure, others need them to simply get by.

Let’s review.
Urban farming
Let’s start with the most obvious: Common Roots Urban Farm. This interim project, created in association with the hospital, is located in the huge green space at the corner of Bell Road and Robie Street. While it’s not going to be around forever, it’s around now and it’s not too late to hop on the Common Roots bandwagon. OK, it’s not completely free – at $30 per community plot, however, it’s a reasonable bargain. Plant all the edibles you can muster in what’s left of the season and reap the fruits of your labour.
The EAC food action committee’s urban garden project also offers a school garden matchmaker program, connecting gardeners with local school gardens, as well as workshops on how to garden in small spaces, building a compost system for your garden and seasonal gardening.
The Urban Farm Museum Society of Spryfield features raised beds, enclosed gardening areas and even more workshops and resources for the as-yet uninitiated urban farmers.
If you’ve got a handle on how to grow your own food but just don’t have a spot to do so, guerilla gardening could be for you. You didn’t hear it from me, but Vera Martynkiw, a recent Montreal transplant and urban farmer, says it’s not unheard of to plant edibles in abandoned lots.
“You take a vacant lot owned by HRM and a group of people get together and plant edibles,” she says. “It’s as simple as that.”
Martynkiw uses a neighbour’s backyard to grow her edibles. Martynkiw then shares her fresh vegetables and herbs with her neighbour as a repayment for "renting" the space from him.
To search for backyards to be shared in your neighbourhood, check out sharingbackyards.com, and for gardens in your area, halifaxgardennetwork.com.
If you’re hungry now, and not in two months, foraging may be your best bet. You don’t need to head outside the city to forage, however. From berries to edible weeds and plants, to fishing on the boardwalk, you’ve got options.
Martynkiw says that at Long Lake you can forage for blueberries, cranberries, huckleberries and strawberries, and you can find blackberries at Point Pleasant. Mushrooms are widely forageable outside of the city, although less so on the peninsula. Worth noting, however, that certain types of mushrooms can be highly dangerous. There are guides available at the library on which species are safe to eat and which are not, and you can also consult the Nova Scotia Mycological Society's website (nsmushrooms.org) -- they offer workshops and walks around Halifax well into the fall.

You can readily fish mackerel right from the boardwalk, or from the Saint Mary’s boat club. Contrary to what your first instincts may tell you, eating fish caught from inside the city is safe as the fish don't actually live in the harbour. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/story/2011/07/19/ns-fishing-ha...)
“Humans have an instinctive nature to forage – that’s why shopping appeals to so many people,” says Martynkiw. “Maybe we don’t find a thrill in finding sales, but we find a thrill in, say, dumpstering food.”

To begin, you might want to tag along with an experienced forager, however, with enough research and a bit of caution, the city can become your dinner table.
Dumpster diving
Consider it another type of urban foraging. Dumpster diving can be contentious, but if you’re looking to reduce wasted food, there's no better option than this. “People throw away perfectly good food – things that are perfectly edible,” says Martynkiw. “When you eat local food you’re connecting yourself more to our food system…but when you’re dumpstering you’re looking at the excesses of capitalism,” she says.
A general rule of thumb for dumpstering is the smaller the store, the better the dumpstering. Nicole Marcoux, a summer staff intern with the Loaded Ladle and habitual dumpster diver in her own life, says the larger the store, “the more they are protecting their garbage.” “They’re hiring security, paying for extra infrastructure like alarms and door locks, to protect their garbage,” says Marcoux.
As with foraging, there are precautions that you need to take while dumpstering, but as Martynkiw says, “we’re willing to take a small risk, but once you know you can get perfectly good food for free, you never want to pay for it again.” With dumpstering, there's obviously no guarantee of food safety, but generally big box stores have extraordinarily stringent food safety policies as well as aesthetic requirements for their shelves. If a piece of fruit is severely bruised, the store will typically mark it down and after that, they'll just throw it out if no one buys it. It's typically safer to stick with produce -- especially bananas and fruit and vegetables with a protective skin -- but even damaged packaged goods are generally thrown out because they look bad on the shelves. It's best to stay away from meat or dairy - at least to start.
Food servings
The Loaded Ladle started as an NSPIRG working group in 2011, and has since expanded.  Located in the Dalhousie Student Union Building, the Loaded Ladle serves vegan, halal food to the masses four times a week - for free!
“We don’t turn anybody away,” says Marcoux. “A large portion of our funding comes from a donation box we put out at every serving."  Students to attend Dalhousie also a pay an annual levy to go towards supporting the Loaded Ladle and its mandate.
“We try to acknowledge students and general poverty on all levels – students are not only financially poor, but time poor,” she says.  “Ultimately we see food as a right, not a commodity – it shouldn’t be something that people in general should be paying for,” Marcoux says.
The Ladle works with local farmers and producers, and prepares the food in a “limited but usable” kitchen by staff members and “a bevvy of volunteers,” says Marcoux. During the summer when they're not serving four days a week at the Student Union Building, you can check the Ladle’s website to see where they’ll be -- typically at political or community events.
As far as other food servings go, Food not Bombs is another free option, with servings on Sunday afternoons at the North Street library, and Wednesday evenings at the Spring Garden library.

'Free' meals and who's eating
Something to think about while seeking out your next free meal, however, is the divide between people who can afford to spend time foraging or dumpstering socially or recreationally as opposed to people who do it to survive, says Marcoux.
“There’s a huge stigma around going to food banks, and that’s ridiculous, but that’s the way it’s perceived – if I’m digging through a dumpster at night that can be a lot easier than going to a food bank and giving them my information,” she says.
“There’s a very clear social class divide between dumpster diving and poverty," says Marcoux. There are people who dumpster dive as a complement to their regular shopping, and there are people who dumpster dive in protest of the industrial food complex and the wastefulness of western society. Then again, there are people who have no other options. This is an important distinction to be mindful of, says Marcoux.

This article is part of our continuing Just Us! Just Journalism series, dealing with food security, cooperatives and sustainable farming. We thank Just Us! Coffee Roasters for a portion of the funding that made this article possible.

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Topics: Food
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