Feeding a growing family with fresh healthy foods on a budget can be a very challenging affair. The quality of foods that we eat, and that we feed our children, have a large impact on the quality of our health, so we feel very strongly that it should be a priority in our family budget. We focus on basic foods, with a big emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, and we very rarely purchase packaged goods, but even so, our grocery bill can be staggering sometimes.
Luckily, over the last couple of years, my wife has become quite good at finding free fruits in our neighborhood. In fact, my lunch today is a bowl of fresh, ripe, apricots, a small part of the continuing harvest from our neighbor’s apricot trees. We’ve been able to add tons of fresh fruit to our diets without adding a penny to our food budget.
For the most part, all it takes is five minutes to introduce yourself and ask permission.
In many urban areas, there are homes that have mature fruit trees, originally planted for food for the owners, which are now dropping ripe fruit over the lawn or sidewalk. The current owners or tenants consider it a nuisance, and would love to have someone come and pick all the fruit and take it away for them!
The easiest way to begin is to simply pay attention to the trees in people’s yards the next time you go for a walk with your kids (If you don’t take walks with your kids, now is a great time to start!). Get familiar with what apple trees and apricot trees, etc., look like – it’s easiest in the summer when they’re full of fruit. Once you know what they look like, you can identify potential fruit trees at other times of the year as well.
Once you’ve located a yard with fruit trees, go knock on their door and just ask them if they would mind if you harvested some of the fruit. You might get turned down once or twice by people who actually harvest their own fruit, but many times people would rather buy their fruit from the store instead of their back yard, and have no problem with someone harvesting the trees. You may also find fruit trees growing in or around ‘commons areas’, such as parks or medians, which are also free for the taking. Technically, if the fruit overhangs a fence onto a public area, it’s fair game, but it might be best to just ask the owner of the tree anyway.
When you’re ready to go harvest some free fruit, bring bags and gloves, and if you want to be extra helpful, a bag for the rotten fruits that have already fallen on the ground. The owners will appreciate the cleanup, and your compost pile gets some added nutrients. Only harvest the fruits that are ready to eat (or very close to ripeness), and be prepared to come back every couple of days to continue picking as they ripen.
Once you get home, clean and pick over the fruit, pulling out the most ripe pieces to eat or process first. For some fruits, such as peaches, plums, or apricots, taking out the pit and giving them a quick rinse is all you need to do before freezing them. Puree the ripe fruits to make fresh fruit ‘jam’ and then freeze, or put the puree in a food dehydrator for the healthiest fruit leather ever. If you’re a canner, then put up everything your family can’t eat right away. And if you really want to make the tree’s owners happy, bring them back a bit of whatever you’ve made, such as jam or fruit leather or applesauce.
With a little work, you can feed your family with fresh, free fruits for the summer, plus gather and process enough to keep them eating local fruits for a long time afterward! If there’s more fruit on the trees than you can use, consider harvesting some for your local food bank – fresh food is usually in high demand.
Some of the free fruits our family has gathered over the last year are apples, pears, apricots, mulberries, cherries, and jujubes, and we live in the Southwest, not necessarily an easy climate for fruit growing. In other areas, you may be able to find a wider variety, as well as nut trees to harvest from, such as walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, chestnuts, etc.
Also, check out Neighborhood Fruit, a site that tracks over 10,000 trees nationwide, for help finding fruit trees, or ask your coworkers if they know of any opportunities (maybe their own back yard?).
Image: kkimpel at Flickr