Doug Boudreau found himself stranded in Texas on a hunt for work 1,000 miles away from his home in Tampa. He was 18, a high school dropout with health problems. With no way of returning, he decided to live in a tent and make money working at “day labor” companies that offered minimum wage for a day’s work.
Boudreau quickly ascertained the four essentials of survival: shelter, water, fire and food. The last would prove particularly onerous.
With a field guide to edible plants in hand, Boudreau eventually began supplementing his food pantry diet with wild chickweed, mustard plants, mulberries, blackberries and amaranthus.
“It was the experiences of going hungry frequently that opened my eyes to wild food and edible wild plants,” he said. “If Americans weren’t so spoiled with so much food that they waste more than they consume, they might be more concerned about the local famine-food resource growing around them — the weeds.”
Boudreau used his first paycheck from working at a car wash in Texas to get a bus ticket back to Florida. Now he forages for food in Zephyrhills, located outside Tampa.
Gainesville also offers an abundance of wild food for those who know where to look — and favorable weather for those able to cultivate gardens.
Community gardens and foraging are sources of fresh, free food that are seldom-used supplements to the diets of Gainesville’s food insecure populations.
But what is the reality of using the land for food, and what does it mean for hunger?
The current solution to hunger
Community-created food banks and pantries represent the knee-jerk response to hunger. Far from a farmers market, pantries often become an alternative to a garbage can for many donors, said Angela Hinkle, an Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) agent for UF/IFAS in Escambia County.
“What people give is what they don’t want anymore themselves,” she said.
Canned green beans, corn, chickpeas and sweet pastries are staples among the shelves of food banks. Her program aims to help people donate better foods—milk, whole grains, meat and eggs—and help those who use food pantries make do with what they have access to.
Salt can be washed off canned goods to make them relatively less hypertension-inducing, Hinkle said, but people can’t take excess sugar out of the often-donated pastries and cookies.
While everyday citizens may not think to give produce to food pantries, farms around Florida pick up the slack by donating produce that doesn’t meet supermarket beauty standards.
“Just because it’s lumpy and weird shaped doesn’t mean it isn’t tasty and healthy,” Hinkle said.
The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, a USDA-funded, nationwide program to provide nutrition education to poor families, uses these ugly fruits and vegetables in public cooking demonstrations to show that they’re OK to eat.
For people living near pantries without the refrigerator space or manpower to offer healthy foods, there are ways to supplement the sparse diet of powdered milk and canned yams — foraging and gardening.
Foraging in Gainesville
Above: A crowdsourced map from FallingFruit.org of locations of public edibles in or near Gainesville. FallingFruit.org’s organizers note the map may be out of date or inaccurate. Additionally, experienced foragers have become sick due to improper identification. This article and map are not meant to prepare readers to identify wild plants.
Edens of publicly available fruit and nut trees do not exist in Gainesville, city spokesman Chip Skinner said. Residents can establish their own community gardens, but for apartment dwellers and the homeless, free produce is scattered and must be identified as safe to eat.
“There’s an Asian couple that lives near my home, and they really love dandelion salads, and they go on the side of the road and pick dandelion greens all over town,” Skinner said. “Things like that, you don’t see it very often because people in the United States feel that they’re just weeds and not really a food source.”
Boudreau’s favorite places to forage are in empty wooded lots and forests near small towns.
“A patch of woods that appears to have been unused by humans for anything is always best,” he said, “but some of the best edibles grow in disturbed soil as if they were designed to follow us around.”
He doesn’t advise foraging near railroads, landscaping, golf courses, mining operations or factories where potential chemicals or herbicides could coat surrounding plants. However, Boudreau argues current farming practices may not be safer than foraging in these areas.
“Industries are pumping practically every chemical known to harm us on land now,” Boudreau said. “Foraging on wild plants laying 30 feet from a highway may turn out to be no more or less contaminated with harmful substances than your water and conventionally grown foods.”
Food bank charities, food stamps and church donations reduce the need for some to forage, Boudreau said. But transportation and cold spells can hinder homeless folks from foraging.
“While some people would have limited opportunity to supplement their diet on wild food, others might be able to live almost exclusively by foraging, and everything in between,” Boudreau said.
Green Deane, an Orlando-based forager, has foraged since childhood. He started a YouTube channel called EatTheWeeds in 2007, and it’s gained over 60,000 subscribers. He said foraging would appeal to high- and low-resource populations alike.
“Wild food tends to be more nutritious than cultivated food. (They) often have more antioxidants, phytochemicals, etcetera,” he said. “They also tend to be lower in simple carbohydrates while higher in fiber. They often have more vitamins and/or minerals than cultivated plants.”
While not always high in calories, foraged plants can provide all the nutrients a human needs to survive.
Andrea Nikolai, an agent at UF/IFAS Polk County Extension, said this is especially true in food deserts, where dollar stores and gas stations may not carry as much produce, namely vegetables.
Additionally, the “chain of contamination” is made smaller through foraging, Deane said. Usually, produce goes from soil to processing plant to store, an invisible process to consumers. Picking and cultivating one’s own food affords the chance to certify the plant is showered with uncontaminated water and developed in exceptional soil, he said.
But gallivanting around Gainesville plucking ripe oranges from roadsides and never shopping under the garish glow of supermarket lights may not be a paradise that’s possible.
“There is more to it than just finding food,” Deane said. “The biggest obstacle to living off what you can forage is daylight. There are only so many hours in a day that you can look for, process, store and protect food.”
And time isn’t the only limiting factor. Sickness, injury, fatigue, pests and the weather all preclude productivity. Deane said a solution to that is a foraging unit, such as a family or tribe.
People don’t have to spend time learning how to identify plants and searching around town to gather enough for dinner, though. With a yard or a rented plot of land, they can grow produce close to home. Hence the advent of community gardening.
Four of the community gardens in Gainesville are on the east side of town — an area without readily available, affordable foods that would constitute a healthy diet.
“You have Dollar Generals — dollar stores — on that side of town, but once again, you’re looking at processed foods. You’re not looking at whole fruits, organic breads or anything like that,” Skinner said. “And if you don’t have a vehicle, that becomes a possible hindrance to you getting good food.”
Typical crops in community gardens are onions and carrots, and the seasons dictate the menu. Lettuce and broccoli favor cooler weather, while tomatoes, peppers and summer squash thrive in Florida’s warmer months.
The city invests in community gardens, which Skinner said can be made cheaply depending on the materials used, seed availability and community commitment.
“It could be all for naught if they’re not willing to put in the work to maintain it,” Skinner said.
For instance, the Porters Community Farm was started in 2012 but fell apart over the years. What was supposed to be the first urban farm in Gainesville became a fenced lot with overgrown grass and fruit trees that bear rotten, scorched fruit.
Most community gardens in Gainesville allow residents to have a small plot of their own to grow food. Community gardens like McRorie cost no money to plant in, while other gardens do. The UF Organic Gardens, open to the Gainesville community, requires a payment of $15 every 6 months and a down payment of $35.
For those without the luxury of land or money to rent it, volunteer-run farms offer similar benefits to community gardens. One such farm is the Edible Plant Project in southeast Gainesville. For a decade this project has been promoting edible landscaping, spreading plant material and teaching communities how to live sustainably.
Carolina Madera, volunteer coordinator, said volunteers can fill out a short online form and set a date to visit to learn more about easy-to-grow edible plants that take root in all types of soils. After a hard shift, volunteers can take some food home.
More than 40 edible plants thrive on the farm, which is well-guarded by a goose, some chickens and two dogs.
“We seek for volunteers all the time, because I can’t do it all alone. I’m learning at the same time as you are, and we are going to work together,” Madera said.