How to eat for free in a healthy and sustainable manner.
Food is life. Without it we die. But for many of us, food is one aspect of life that holds us back from living the lives we truly desire. In a monetized world, food is one of our main expenses.
Many of us don’t have enough money to feed ourselves and our families healthfully and instead eat food we’d really rather not put in our bodies while supporting companies that really do not align with our values.
This burden of paying for food – along with our many other bills and expenses – prevents many of us from pursuing our greatest desires and aspirations. That is why I’ve written this guide, to help you break free from this struggle of affording healthful food, while sourcing your food in a more sustainable manner. I have over a decade of experience in this realm and I’m here to share with you, that if you choose to, you could never spend a penny on food again.
This isn’t a guide that will aid in shrugging off responsibility. This isn’t a guide to mooching off the system either. This is about taking responsibility for our lives. All of these strategies take work. When I say free, what I’m talking about is not spending money, but there is labor involved. This work can be deeply rewarding and enjoyable though. It can feed your soul while it meets your nutritional needs.
Many of these strategies take some self-confidence. They take a willingness to abandon ego and societal norms. To become proficient, they will all take practice.
I do want to acknowledge my privilege in the ways that I have been able to break free from the monetary system. There certainly are many of us who face far more barriers to effectively utilizing these strategies that I share ahead. I’m doing my best to make this work accessible and inclusive. I have many Dear Friends who come from less privileged backgrounds who are applying these strategies of liberation with success.
Grow your own food. Growing your own food is a lot easier than it may seem. In these modern times, you’ll see all sorts of gadgets on the market and all sorts of videos showing complicated strategies. But we’ve been growing food as a humanity for thousands of years with very simple practices that are still accessible to us today. The key to growing food for free is to be resourceful and keep it simple. Find resources that are going to waste and being tossed out by your community. Build your soil by collecting food waste in your community or dumpster diving. You can even start a Community Compost Program to be of service to your community while getting the resources you need to grow your own food. Grow organically and you won’t have any pesticides or herbicides to purchase. Harvest rainwater to water your garden for free. You can even raise pigs for meat solely on wasted food and raise chickens for eggs on a mostly wasted food diet. Create a network of friends so you can trade with each other for the things you each specialize in growing. Grow a lot of food and you can trade for other things you need without money. In 2019, I grew and foraged 100% of my food for an entire year!
No space at home to grow food? You could get a plot in a community garden at low cost or see if you could do a work exchange for a plot. Or grow food in the yard of someone in your community, at a church, at a school or anywhere that a small plot of yard can be turned into a garden.
Forage for food. You may not know this, but there is most likely food and medicine growing all over your community. Many of the most nutritious foods in existence are “weeds” that are growing in city parks, abandoned lots and our own front yards. There are also fruit trees in most every community with a bounty of fruit just falling to the ground and going to waste. In the city, you can urban forage. Get to know your neighborhood and your community by finding the food that is growing freely and abundantly all around you. If you didn’t know that a plant was food, there’s a good chance that your neighbors don’t know either! Talk to them and see if you can harvest the foods that they are not utilizing and share it with them. Outside of the city there is food growing everywhere, too. In 2022, I spent a month eating solely food that I foraged!
Dumpster dive. I know hundreds of people who eat mostly for free through dumpster diving. I myself have gone months without spending a penny on food, living with joy from the food I harvest from grocery store dumpsters. There are many people who dumpster dive because they have no better option, but there’s also many people who do it as an act of thriftiness or as an act of resistance against a wasteful system.
We throw away $165 billion worth of food each year in the United States. That’s more than we spend on our entire public education system from kindergarten through university. Our dumpsters are treasure chests full of health and wealth just waiting to be opened by you.
If you’ve never been, you might be amazed at what you’d find. Fruits, vegetables, breads, packaged foods, eggs, dairy, meat – sometimes even dried goods like rice, beans and canned goods. Whether it is healthy food or junk food, groceries or whole pizzas you’d like, there’s no shortage of either. If you don’t want to dumpster dive but like the idea of utilizing the waste of grocery stores, my next tips are for you.
Talk to the grocery stores. If you don’t want to get in the dumpster, you could talk to the grocery store about picking up their excess food. Generally you are most likely to have success with smaller stores in this regard rather than the large chains. There are many small markets and food co-ops that are happy to give their excess fruits and vegetables to a person who comes on a dedicated schedule and who is courteous at the store. A great organization to learn from and take part in is Food Not Bombs. Sometimes the relationship requires you to say that the food is for compost or for feeding to animals.
Start or join a food rescue program. Grocery stores are less likely to give their excess food to an individual person and are much more likely to donate their food to a 501c3 organization. The Good Samaritan Food Donation act waives grocery stores, restaurants and caterers of liability when donating foods to nonprofits. You could either start a food rescue program or join one that is already in action in your community. By starting your own, you can choose what the mission is and what happens to the food. Generally, there will be far more than one family can eat and often enough to feed hundreds of families. There are many grassroots food rescue organizations you could volunteer with and take home enough groceries to meet much of your needs.
Go to the farmer’s market and talk to the vendors. At many farmers’ markets, there are farmers who have food at the end of the market day that they will not be bringing to the next market. It often gets composted. You can talk to them and many will be happy to share this food rather than composting it, often with joy that their hard work will be appreciated and enjoyed. You could also create an exchange with a vendor, such as helping to pack up their vehicle, or working the market, in exchange for the food.
Glean at a farm. Many farms have a bounty of food left in the fields that go unharvested. Sometimes they grow more than they can sell. Sometimes it doesn’t match their standards of size, shapes or color. Sometimes they don’t have the labor to pick the food. The act of harvesting this food left in the field is called gleaning. There are many farms that are happy for people to come glean this food that is otherwise going to waste. Talk to your local farmers and see if you can clean up their fields. There is often enough to share with hundreds of people, but you could also just harvest for yourself.
Volunteer at a farm. There are many farms that you can work a couple hours per week in exchange for fresh produce. Besides the free, fresh food, this is a great way to spend some time outside and get to know your food, while supporting the local food economy. You could also get a job at a local farm. One of the great perks of these jobs is often a bounty of excess produce. An excellent organization for volunteering at farms is WWOOF – Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
Work at a food coop or grocery store. Many food co-ops and some local grocery stores are happy to provide their excess food to their employees. By doing this, they reduce food waste while taking care of the people who work for them. My sister worked at a food co-op for numerous years and barely purchased any food while she worked there. Many food co-ops also give 20% off groceries to their staff, so having a part time job at a co-op can go a long way in earning more than money, like a substantial amount of free food, and a discount on the groceries you buy. Similarly, you could also look into work at a restaurant that provides the type of food you like to eat and gives the excess food to their employees.
Start a food buying club. A food buying club brings together a small group of people in a community to buy their food together in bulk. This brings the cost of food down, while reducing packaging and creating a more community-oriented food system. It is a common practice for the person who organizes and manages the food buying club to be “paid” by getting their share of the food for free.
Food banks. For those that are financially struggling, the food bank is an option. Food banks vary greatly from location to location. Some have a substantial amount of organic food and fresh produce, while others do not. However, one of the common themes I have seen is that the fresh produce is often abundant at food banks because a lot of people choose the processed foods instead. Food banks waste a lot of food, too. It’s very common that food banks have more food than people take and a lot of perfectly good food goes to waste. It is possible to learn what days the food bank throws away their produce, breads, meats, etc. and go on that day. In this way, you can be sure that you aren’t limiting access to people who depend on the food bank, while getting your food for free and preventing food from going to the landfill.
EBT/ SNAP. SNAP is an important resource for millions of Americans. For many, this is one of their only easily accessible options for food. I am certainly an advocate of this program existing for all people who are struggling to meet their basic needs. I also know many people who could afford food, but still get SNAP. Many of them live very simply in dedication to Earth and humanity and I am an advocate for them utilizing this program to demonetize their life so they can be of higher service.
Many farmers’ markets double SNAP dollars for produce as well as many food co-ops. Through this program, a SNAP recipient can, for example, get $40 worth of produce for $20 at the farmer’s market using their SNAP funds.
Harvest deer hit by cars Hundreds of thousands of deer are hit by cars every year in the United States. And although most people don’t talk about it too openly in public, there are likely millions of Americans who have eaten meat from deer that were hit by cars as well as elk, moose, turkeys, grouse and other animals. This is a way to have access to high quality wild meat, without needing the skills, access or resources of hunting. Read about my experience here: Harvesting A Deer Killed by a Car
Hunt and fish. Millions of Americans fish and hunt, both people with low income to people with access to anything they want. One of the keys to catching an abundance of fish is to harvest the fish that exist in large quantities and that are often not desired by the mainstream. My friend Andy Firk came up with a creative means of getting his fish without actually fishing. He goes to the pier in Florida with a cooler and just tells the fisher people to put their fish in his cooler if they aren’t going to keep them. Another option is to go to the marina and talk to the commercial fishers and guides. They generally filet the fish and waste the rest of the body, the ideal part for making nourishing fish stock. Fishing and hunting can both be done in harmony with the land and water that we depend upon.
Clean out pantries, refrigerators and freezers. There’s one last strategy that I want to mention. We live in an era of abundance and I frequently visit homes where there is an excess of food in pantries, refrigerators and freezers. If you have friends and families who do this, with food often going to waste, you could have a routine of visiting them and helping them to clean out their excess food, while taking home the food that would otherwise go to waste. You could be doing a service for them, while meeting some of your own needs. This could be a weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly routine depending on their habits. Personally, I really enjoy organizing for others when I’m a guest and get great satisfaction from contributing in this way.
With these many resources of food, your issue may no longer be access to food, but having way more than you can deal with. This is a very common occurrence. Food preservation is an excellent skill to learn. Drying, freezing and canning are some of the most common forms of preservation. All of these skills are relatively basic and easy to learn. A deep chest freezer is one of the most valuable investments that one can make. Often they can be found secondhand for around $100 and they are quite energy efficient – often using only around $4/month in electricity – while being able to store a couple hundred pounds of food.
I hope after reading this, your eyes are opened to the truth that there is no shortage of food here in the United States and with some resourcefulness, critical thinking, exploration and connection in your community, it is possible to meet your food needs without spending a penny, or at least with a lot less than you may be spending today. Not only is it possible to access food for free, but healthy food that will truly nourish our bodies and minds. My recommendation is to start with the suggestion that you are most excited about and that you feel is most feasible for you. One step at a time, you can reduce your need for money and start to live with more freedom.
When some associate getting things for “free,” they may think of sacrificing their ideals or morals. But this is not about sacrificing at all. You can find this lifestyle to be a rewarding, purposeful and meaningful way to spend your time. You can share your knowledge with others to help them to gain food freedom, too. You may quickly find yourself with more food than you can possibly eat on your own and you may learn to share the bounty of food with your friends and community, increasing their health and wealth as well. And none of this has to be done alone. Build a community and find others to do these activities with!