Grad Student Lives Off Urban Gleaning for 10 Weeks

An anthropology student at U.C. Santa Barbara spent ten weeks “living off the land” in a town near the campus. He ate figs, apples, pomegranates, passion fruit, guavas, persimmons, blackberrys, citrus fruits, and arugula from front yards and urban landscaping, and gathered fish, octopus, scallops, lobster, and seaweed from the ocean.

He gives a mixed-review to his experiment in the urban hunter-gatherer lifestyle. On the one hand, “I really was eating the best stuff on Earth, and I was thriving on it.” On the other hand, “even now I don’t believe what I did was very constructive.” He found the experiment kind of anti-social in that he did most of his eating alone, and eating is often a very social activity. Also, he found that pickings were getting much slimmer as Winter approached.

I mention this experiment mostly because I think it’s neat and I’m glad that the student, Alastair Bland, gave it a try and shared with us us the experience he had. But I mention it also because it’s a good example of creative thinking about frugal living.

There’s so much surplus and so much waste around that some folks do pretty well for themselves just by scavenging. When I was looking for housing a while back (before I decided to stay with my current home) I interviewed at a semi-communal home in Berkeley that supplemented its meals substantially by dumpster diving for food that was no longer sellable as merchandise but was more than edible as food. And I remember also a woman I saw in the neighborhood where I used to live who went from cafe to cafe quietly bussing tables — and eating the leftovers people left behind. The staff at the cafes didn’t mind — she was helping them do their jobs and she didn’t cause any trouble. The customers probably didn’t even notice her.

Myself, I’m not doing anything so creative or taboo. I’m just buying food and cooking it and eating it the good, old-fashioned, boring way. But I admire folks who’ve figured out how to harvest the unclaimed surplus.

I’m currently spending about $400 per month on food and drinks. That’s about $13 and change per day, and my second largest expense after a combined rent & utilities category. While I do sometimes fondly look back on the days when I was casually enjoying the many restaurants of San Francisco, and half the time $13 wouldn’t even cover the drinks I’d have with dinner, I’m not exactly roughing it nowadays.

A typical dinner for me now is a hot pork sausage cooked on the backyard grill, served with thinly-sliced onions sauteed with chopped bell pepper in butter, maybe some rice or steamed veggies on the side, and a glass of Guinness. If that’s roughing it, life’s easier than advertised. But I get the sausages pretty cheap at an inexpensive meat market, buy the veggies at farmers markets, and even pick up the Guinness in bulk for less than a buck a bottle, so it comes out pretty cheap for all of its deliciousness. The whole meal ends up costing less than barleywine at the Toronado.