Photograph by Jason Schmitt
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Rob Greenfield is part way through an experiment that involves living in a tiny house in someone's backyard and harvesting food himself.

Photograph by Jason Schmitt

This man will eat only what he can grow or forage—here’s why

In his one-year experiment in “food freedom,” one Orlando resident is trying to remake urban agriculture.

Standing curb-side, about a block away from a congested intersection, Rob Greenfield is counting grapefruits—over a baker’s dozen he plucked from a nearby tree. He’s more than a hundred days into a year-long experiment in which he will forage or grow 100 percent of his food. On this particular day, Greenfield’s grapefruit harvest is only one of 10 different foraged foods ranging from Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) to Spanish needle (Bidens alba) that he’s found over the course of an hour walk.

“Food is growing all around us. It’s amazing if you simply open your eyes how much you start to see,” says Greenfield, who has covered about a hundred miles of different roads searching for food within the Orlando area—usually by bike.

“I’ve traveled to 49 states now and everywhere I go food is growing. Biking across Pennsylvania, I was finding mulberry trees all over the place. In southern California, I was finding loquats and kumquats and, in Wisconsin, it was apple trees and pears and plums. Here, if I see some really beautiful loquat trees, I mark it down and know to go back in March or April.”

Greenfield is no stranger to environmental crusades. He’s spent a good chunk of his 32-year-old life focused on promoting issues like food waste, recycling, and off-the-grid living, creating visual awareness of issues that may otherwise be ignored. In fact, this year-long experiment was delayed by a few months because of other projects he recently launched (Gardens for Single Moms, the Free Seed Project, and Community Fruit Trees), which meant that this particular project didn’t actually start until Nov. 11, 2018.

But that’s also because it required quite a bit of prep.

Building a tiny homestead

First, Greenfield learned what types of plants work well in Florida by talking with local growers, visiting community gardens, attending classes, watching YouTubers, and reading books about the local and native flora.

“That’s what allowed me to go from basically not knowing how to grow anything in this area to ten months later growing and foraging 100 percent of my food,” says Greenfield. “I tapped into the local knowledge that already exists.”

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Home grown: Seminole pumpkins, a variety that stores well, line Greenfield's bottom shelves while a mix of homemade fermented foods (vinegars, honey wine, kraut) are stacked on the top shelf waiting to be eaten.

Next, he had to find a place to live, since he doesn’t actually own any land in Florida (nor does he want to). He put a call out to Orlando-area residents through social media to find someone interested in allowing him to build a tiny house on their property. Lisa Ray, an herbalist who dabbles in gardening, volunteered her backyard, resulting in Greenfield’s 100-square-foot tiny house built with repurposed materials.

Inside the miniature space, nestled between a futon and a small desk, floor-to-ceiling shelves are methodically filled with a variety of homemade fermented foods (mango, banana and apple vinegars, honey wine, daikon radish kraut), over a hundred small Seminole pumpkins, mason jars full of honey (harvested from bee colonies Greenfield maintains), salt (boiled down from ocean water), herbs carefully dried and preserved, and bins of foraged potatoes and passion fruit. In the corner, he has a small chest freezer full of peppers, mango, and other fruits and vegetables harvested from his gardens or the surrounding city as well as local, wild-caught fish.

A small exterior kitchen is outfitted with a Berkey water filter, a HomeBioGas unit that looks like a camp stove (but runs on biogas produced by food waste), and rainwater collection barrels. An outhouse with a simple, compostable toilet and a separate rainwater-fed shower rounds out his home base.

“What I’m doing is extreme; it’s designed to wake people up,” says Greenfield. “The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population and uses 25 percent of the world’s resources. While traveling through Bolivia and Peru, I talked to people where quinoa used to be their main source of food. The prices went up 15 times and, now, what they used to live off of, they can’t even afford to eat because of Westerners like us wanting to eat quinoa.”

“This project is really about reaching the privileged group of people who are the ones ultimately negatively affecting people in those scenarios where we’ve turned their crops into commodities and made them less accessible,” says Greenfield, who prides himself on not being driven by money. In fact, last year, Greenfield’s total income was only $5,000.

He used his newfound knowledge to invest in seeds and planted several gardens to complement his foraging, turning front yards like Ray’s into a spread of daikon radish, lettuces, kale, chard, broccoli—and even sweet potatoes.

Pull Quote
What I’m doing is extreme; it’s designed to wake people up.
Rob Greenfield

“If a fruit tree is in someone’s front yard and I see fruit falling on the ground, I always knock on the front door and ask,” says Greenfield, who’s careful not to trespass, always gaining permission before foraging on private property. “I’ve had so many favorable responses of not just yes, but please do, especially with mangos in southern Florida in the summer.”

Greenfield also does some foraging on select parts of Orlando’s public and parks land, even though he knows this may be technically against city rules. "This is me following Earth code, prior to city code," he says.

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Greenfield uses a special tool to pluck grapefruits on a busy Florida street.

Asked about potential impacts if everyone did that, he says, “If everyone decided that they wanted to forage that would mean we would also transition in many other ways to a much more sustainable and just world.”

And while some of his previous projects have included dumpster diving, this one is solely based upon fresh food foraged or grown by Greenfield—nothing pre-packaged, which is why he finds himself spending the majority of his time preserving his bounty through cooking, fermenting or freezing.

“Florida is a good growing state, depending on who you talk to,” says Greenfield. He points out that it can be tricky to build up fertility in the sandy soil and extremely hot temperatures can make growing food in the summer difficult, but adds that is “where perennial crops and permaculture come in.”

While there were some upfront costs to get started (buying seeds and plants and a fishing license for $90), the overall cost of the project has been minimal.

Certain plants he purchased—like banana and blue spur flower (Plectranthus barbatus—his toilet paper plant)—keep producing. Honey is a staple he relies on to sweeten his food and for what he sees as medicinal benefits. He maintains three different honey bee colonies.

“I’ve produced 75 pounds of honey. That’s $750 of honey already if you’re selling it at $10 a jar,” says Greenfield. “I wouldn’t sell it because it’s too valuable to monetize to me...like it’s far too special to put a dollar value on it.”

The forager’s dilemma: getting enough protein and starch

“The problem with this kind of project—and it’s been tried many times before—is that you always run against the forager’s dilemma and that’s protein and starch,” says Hank Shaw, a California-based forager and author of several cookbooks including Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast.

“If he’s hunting and fishing and he’s good at it, he’s fine in that category,” continues Shaw. “If he’s not hunting and fishing, he’s going to have a very difficult time because his only protein source is going to be legumes and there’s not a lot of wild legumes down there. You’d need to grow a really substantial patch to get there.”

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American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a crunchy wild edible with a soft floral aftertaste.

Greenfield agrees that getting enough protein has been challenging. He goes fishing a few times each month (freezing his catch) and rounds out his diet with plant-based proteins like pigeon peas and southern peas.

“Ironically, sunflowers were going to be one of my main sources of protein, but squirrels kept eating my sunflowers,” says Greenfield. He had also hoped to scavenge a roadkill deer, but hot weather has made that impossible.

“A cold day there is like 47 degrees,” says Shaw. “That will rot a deer in about six hours.”

As for starch, Greenfield is relying upon foraged and grown yuca, yams, and sweet potatoes.

Already over a hundred days into this project, Greenfield says that he doesn’t “feel like I have any imbalances or anything like that,” though he did complete a blood test prior to the start of the project and plans to do another one after the 365th day. “It takes time to develop nutrient deficiencies. I actually feel like I’m eating a more complete diet doing this than I was before.”

Fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, oh my!

There are other significant dangers besides heavy traffic and the possibility of trespassing when foraging for food in a city: the mass proliferation of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. In the U.S. alone, over 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year and it’s becoming incredibly common for pesticide drift to contaminate food and water sources.

“Wildman” Steve Brill, a naturalist who has been foraging within the New York Tri-state area and other urban areas for close to 40 years, says that it’s extremely important to limit exposure to heavy metals and chemically treated plants.

“Lead is a heavy metal,” says Brill. “It settles near where it’s emitted so you don’t pick anything within 50 feet of heavy traffic. Fast-growing shoots pick up the most heavy metals and things like nuts and fruits pick up the least. The faster growing things, especially things in the onion and garlic family, those are the worst to pick near traffic.”

Greenfield doesn’t seem too worried.

“People have this misconception that what they’re getting from the grocery store is safe,” says Greenfield, who avoids anything that is obviously sprayed or close to contaminants. “Even organic foods…whatever food we’re eating, we’re being exposed to things we don’t want to be exposed to.”

Yet, Philip Ackerman-Leist, a pesticide expert and author of A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement, urges those who forage in urban areas to use the same judicious discretion that they would in the produce aisle of the grocery store.

“Where organic farming operations are, by virtue of management and inspections, carefully controlled environments, it’s the Wild West in urban and suburban environments,” says Ackerman-Leist, who advises anyone foraging in these areas to know the history and current land management. “Pesticides that are highly regulated even in so-called conventional agriculture aren’t controlled and questionably regulated in terms of the buyer, user, or usage on public and private spaces in urban and suburban areas.”

Food freedom

Greenfield’s year-long quest for food freedom is a test to see if it’s even possible to do this in 2019, in Western society, where a globalized food system has changed how we eat. Even Greenfield, who prior to this project relied on local grocery stores and farmers’ markets, isn’t sure of the final outcome.

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Lunch made up of foods foraged and grown: greens, peppers, and herbs from the front-yard garden; Turk’s cap and mango (in the dressing) foraged.

“Before this project, I’d never eaten for one day food that was 100 percent grown or foraged,” says Greenfield. “Making it past 100 days, I already know this is life changing because I now know how to grow food, how to forage food and, wherever in the world I am, I feel I’ll be able to find food.”

While his project may be an extreme example, Greenfield hopes that it will help wake up mass society to reconnect with food, health and, overall, freedom.

“My greatest measure of success would be that thousands of people start growing a little of their own food,” says Greenfield, “whether it’s a simple tomato plant on a balcony or turning part of your front yard into a garden; talking to the people who produce their food and understanding where it's coming from, stepping away from the industrialized, globalized food system and not supporting these corporations that aren’t serving our best interests.”

Recipes courtesy of Rob Greenfield

Morning Fruit Smoothie

Half a fresh papaya (grown)

1 frozen mango (foraged)

2 frozen starfruit (foraged)

2 frozen banana (foraged)

Half of a mature coconut (foraged)

Handful of moringa (grown)

Small chunk of ginger (grown)

Small chunk of turmeric (grown)

A few sprigs of mint (grown)

Handful of holy basil (grown)

A spoonful of honey (grown)

A cup or two of water

This is a typical morning smoothie for me. It makes about 3 pints to half a gallon of smoothie. The ingredients vary, but this has been fairly typical for the first third of my year.

Mashed sweet potatoes and greens

4 pounds of sweet potatoes (grown)

Two twigs of rosemary (grown)

Small chunk of ginger (grown)

Small chunk of turmeric (grown)

A few leaves of garlic greens and or garlic chives (grown)

A few handfuls of greens from the garden such as kale, collards, Swiss chard (grown)

A few pinches of sea salt (foraged)

Coconut oil (foraged- if I’m doing well)

Garnish with herbs from the garden such as cilantro, dill and basil

Mashed sweet potatoes and greens is a go-to meal for me. I will also do the same with yuca. I typically make a few meals worth at a time in the pot and then just heat it up at each meal. To make it a complete meal I will add fish stock made from fish heads and bones from my ocean catch.

Enjoyed with a few ounces of honey wine or jun (a drink made of fermented green tea and honey)

Yuca collard wraps with fish

3 pounds of yuca (grown)

1 fish (typically mullet)

4 hot red peppers (grown)

A pound of greens from the garden such as kale, collards, broccoli, Swiss chard (grown)

Sea salt (foraged)

Topped with daikon radish and turnip ferment (with green onion, garlic greens, turmeric, ginger and sea salt)

I boil the yuca with the peppers and salt, sauté the greens, and steam the fish.

I wrap the yuca, fish, greens and ferment inside of the collard leaves. The simple collard wraps really fill out the meal, add a crunch and add variety to my life.

Enjoyed with a few ounces of honey wine or jun