Spring and summer bring a bounty of fresh vegetation to Oklahoma City, and for some locals, that means a free lunch. By doing a little urban foraging for wild plants that grow in backyards, on roadsides and in overgrown fields, local citizens are finding a unique way to save money by harvesting the plants that most people kill as pesky weeds.
It's called urban foraging, and although the practice isn't new, it's gaining new ground in areas like the Oklahoma City metro. From picking berries, fruits and nuts that fall from trees to picking herbs and greens, foragers are spreading the word that bagged salads from the grocery store are a waste of money. With a little know-how and effort, a buffet is waiting in backyards throughout the city.
Urban foraging is popular in states like Oregon, Washington, New Mexico and California. Here in Oklahoma City, an organized movement isn't prevalent, but there are people who do it. Matt Zitterkob is one.
Zitterkob lives for free. A soft-spoken young man with a scruffy mop of black hair, he speaks quietly about not spending money "¦ for anything. The clothes he wore " a sweater with light blue jeans " were free. The coffee he offered was gained from a local coffee shop that was just going to pour the extra, unsold brew down the sink. Most of the appliances and furniture in his home were collected from the curb.
"Most of my diet comes from the community garden, and most of what I eat are weeds that pop up," Zitterkob said. "I actually have a challenge going with my friends to see who goes the longest without paying for food. Now is the best time to find salad greens and wild violets. Wild violets are delicious. A bunch of us go foraging all the time."
Between the bad economy making most think frugally and the getting-it-free lifestyle getting more press (think "freegans" of New York City who organize Dumpster-diving as a way to live free off of waste), urban foraging offers even mainstream citizens a new way to look at weeds.
Allen Parleir is an Oklahoma community gardener who not only eats what he grows and finds, but teaches others how to harvest their own food as well.
"We do all kinds of stuff with edible landscaping," he said. "You can design your yard full of plants that provide food. You can literally walk out your front door and pick your salad for dinner."
Because of recent scares over salmonella-tainted spinach and foods, more Oklahomans are looking to plant their own provisions " food they know is safe.
"You really don't know how much processing goes into the produce you buy at groceries," Parleir said. "How do you know it's safe? Because of that, people here are looking to buy more local produce or grow it themselves. Back in the Great Depression, people grew their own food and lived off of what they produced. It feels good to pick fresh vegetables out of your garden and just cook it."
Those without the green thumb can find easier ways to harvest local produce for free. A walk in a park exposes pecan trees, lamb's-quarter (considered a weed to most) and berries. Others, like Zitterkob, harvest edible acorns and mushrooms, but he warns that educating oneself is the key to not eating something that may make you sick.
"There are a lot of plants that people think of as a weed that grow (prolifically) here. Lamb's quarters is quite tasty and more nutritious than spinach," Parleir said. "See, older folks know how to harvest stuff that grows wild. We've lost that ability to talk about food and grow food. We can spend a lot of time working in order to spend our money buying food, or we can spend a little time in a garden or park and pick our own outstanding food."
Financially, urban foragers see an added benefit.
"It's much cheaper. For a couple of dollars, you can grow a whole season of edible plants," Parleir said. "For free, you can walk in a field and find salad greens all over the place. Or, you can spend money for a tiny bag of salad mix."
Although most urban foragers mainly search out edible plants, Zitterkob and his friends go a step further. As freegans, they make an art out of finding food and items that grocers and other stores throw away: bruised fruit, packaged coffee past its sell-by date, even canned goods.
"Freeganism is getting things for free "¦ Dumpster diving for the purpose of finding food," he said. "For instance, you can find perfectly fine bruised apples that the stores won't sell. I wouldn't buy a bruised apple, but I'd eat one if it were free."
Freeganism can be a challenge, however. While some stores are tolerant about freegans (they make it a point to clean up and not make a mess), Zitterkob said others will throw them out or call the police.
"Some places destroy the food they throw away so you can't get it out of the Dumpster. They open the packaging or they pour bleach all over it. It's very selfish," he said. "Sometimes, we'll knock on someone's door to ask if we can glean the extra fruit from people's fruit trees. Sometimes, they don't even realize they have a fruit tree."
While certain grocery store owners said they were aware of the practice and didn't mind it, they also did not want to advertise the fact with the fear that more and more freebie-hunters would converge and make messes.
But, it's perfectly legal.
"It is not illegal for a person to rummage through commercial trash," said Kristy Yager, spokesperson for Oklahoma City. "The only problem is if the person were trespassing or littering in the process."
THROUGH THE WOODS
Seven years ago, Zitterkob was a typical guy, working a dead-end job he hated while living in a tiny apartment in Dallas. Next to his apartment was a forested area, and every day, he would walk through the woods.
"That forest is what kept me sane," he said. "I wanted to know all about the plants. I was trying to get out of the dead-end fast-food job, so I was trying to get as much as I could for free. It was really exciting to find plants to eat and discovering new plants."
Zitterkob made the decision to leave the life he hated and never look back. He moved to Oklahoma City, and, for the most part, he lives off the land. He's learned to determine what fresh roadkill looks like, how to cook a pigeon (which, he said, was "really delicious") and how to deep-fry dandelion flowers.
"Most of us don't have jobs. We live off what we can find," he said. "It's the freedom. I don't ever want a boss telling me what to do, I don't want a job I hate doing. I don't want to support capitalism and the destructiveness of that. It's easier than you think to find what you need.
"A lot of people are interested. It's the economy, and a lot of people are realizing that it's much more fulfilling to provide for yourself "¦ it's healthier and it tastes better."
The idea of foraging isn't new to Michael Bailey, program administrator for consumer protection at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department. His own grandmother used to pick lamb's-quarter, dandelion and poke greens to cook.
She was even known to rustle up the occasional squirrel for dinner, Bailey added.
"I had a grandmother who cooked all that. Past generations lived off the greens you find around here, but you have to know how to prepare them correctly or they can make you very sick," he said.
The Oklahoma City-County Health Department said many risks exist when foraging for wild food, and getting food from Dumpsters is dangerous. Not knowing which plants are poisonous is also perilous.
"It depends on what you're harvesting," Bailey said. "Every year, we have a few hundred deaths in America from people eating the wrong kind of mushrooms. A lot of mushrooms look alike, but some could have a psychotic effect or even kill you."
And although wild foraging is accepted by some, the practice of Dumpster diving is something the health department views with a horrified eye.
"One of the things we worry about with people getting food from Dumpsters is that the food is going to be contaminated," he said. "For one, it's in a Dumpster, which is already a contaminated environment. Secondly, it's going to be contaminated by others that are diving in for food besides you " rats, animals, roaches. Basically, don't do it." "Heide Brandes