Selling Free Food

Entrepreneurial foraging is the next phase of greener-than-thou eating


Among fast food outlets, giving away a free meal is an increasingly popular marketing gambit. But not even Col. Sanders can keep pace with the offerings of Mother Nature. Every day, in city parks and urban median strips, in backyards, on public beaches, and in your nearest stretch of federal wilderness, the earth serves up her bounty: snails, wild radish, miner's lettuce, stinging nettles, nasturtium, acorns, blackberries, loquats, lemons, sea asparagus, Dover sole, New Zealand spinach, chanterelles, morels, matsutake.

In an age when we've come to expect music, movies, news, used sofas, and so much other stuff to be free, this abundance has not passed unnoticed. Foraging isn't always legal. But just think of those huckleberries in your favorite state park as nature's MP3s: They are there for the taking if you are willing to risk the occasional stiff penalty.

It's not just the price that resonates so keenly with our current sensibilities. When Walmart carries organic frozen dinners and even your neighbor with the Hummer is touting the environmental efficacy and bonus deliciousness of peaches grown within a 50-mile radius of the neighborhood co-op, foraging represents the next link on the food chain of greener-than-thou eating. One consumes only what the earth yields naturally, without human coaxing of any kind. If Gaia gives you blackberries, wild mushrooms, and fennel, you feast! If you're stuck with a briny mound of sea asparagus, well, at least it's free.

Though not always. All across America, enterprising eco-aggregators are engaged in the somewhat paradoxical pursuit of commercialized foraging, leading mushroom-hunting safaris in forests and selling wild-harvested dandelion roots in bulk on the Internet. Iso Rabins, a 28-year-old resident of San Francisco, joined their ranks two years ago, when he started organizing "wild kitchens," paid events where diners enjoy "rambling dinner[s] of wild foraged foods" in private locales around the Bay Area. A few months later, Rabins added home delivery of food boxes to his menu of services. For $40 to $80 per box, subscribers get a steady supply of nettles, berries, and other wild foods without having to root around any further than their doorstep.

More recently, Rabins has been the driving force behind an increasingly popular Underground Farmer's Market. "To sell at a [typical] farmers market, you need to produce your wares in a commercial kitchen," he explained on his blog last December. "This is an impossible expense for many of us, so the underground farmers market is about helping to get some exposure for all of our fellow producers without the cash for a commercial kitchen." The most recent gathering, held in March, drew 1,262 attendees and more than 40 vendors.

Rabins' ventures have attracted plenty of press, both local and national. While the coverage has helped generate interest among potential customers, not all the attention has been appreciated. (He did not reply to my requests for an interview.) In the wake of one story, U.S. park rangers in the Presidio alerted him to the fact that picking miner's lettuce there carries a $125 fine. At his first Underground Farmer's Market, city food inspectors showed up—tipped off, he complained on his blog, by someone from a certified local farmers' market. Luckily, the inspectors were cordial, advising him how he could better comply with regulations that bar vendors from selling goods that haven't been prepared in a commercial kitchen. The trick, they explained, was to create a private club and require people who want to attend his events to join beforehand.

While Rabins was grateful for the advice, he expressed frustration with the regulations. "Bureaucrats are bureaucrats, whether they work for the IRS or the State Park Service, they all think the same," he wrote on his blog last summer. "We have been [taught] all our lives that the only way to know if something is safe is to ask the government," he mused on another occasion. "Is this toy safe, this seat belt, this apple, these jeans? Should I eat more meat? More veggies? More pasta? We don't know the answer to these questions anymore."

Explore San Francisco's 61 community gardens, and you're unlikely to find many Tea Partiers planting kale in the name of food justice and environmental sustainability. Nor are some of the ideas often associated with the alternative food movement—taxing soda, limiting the number of fast food restaurants in a neighborhood, various other means of regulating tastiness—characteristic of a small-government mindset. At the same time, there is a growing sentiment amongst local food advocates for less government oversight. In February, Wyoming state legislators introduced a bill designed to exempt "cottage foods"—or foods prepared in home kitchens and sold at roadside stands, farmer's markets, ranches, etc. —from safety inspections and licensing requirements. (It didn't pass.) Florida legislators are currently considering a similar bill.

In both cases, the goal was to encourage entrepreneurship among local food producers. That is essentially the goal of Rabins' market too. "To make the jump from being really good at making something at home to selling in public is at least a $4,000–$5,000 investment," he told The New York Times in December. "You need to get several licenses." Such barriers to entry exist for a reason—those free-range snails you've found in Golden Gate Park may be stuffed with snail bait—but they also make it difficult for budding food purveyors to bootstrap their way into a new career. For a generation that has grown up routing around middlemen, it must seem more than a little weird that you practically need a business plan to sell an acorn flour brownie to a stranger. Especially in San Francisco, where medical marijuana dispensaries deliver faster than Domino's.

Naturally, not everyone appreciates the foragers' entrepreneurial instincts. "We have the parks as an inviolate place for plants and animals," exclaimed state parks spokesman Roy Stearns in an SF Weekly profile of Rabins. After the piece appeared, one reader responded: "Collect your own damn wild food or shop at Ralphs. These people seeking to profit on dwindling natural resources are disgusting."

Our snail and nettle populations are probably safe, at least for the time being. Of all Rabins' endeavors, the one that has really struck a chord is the Underground Farmer's Market, which goes beyond miner's lettuce and sea asparagus to homemade local foods, including such quirky but relatively mainstream fare as cucumber marmalade, raw chocolate mousse, pickled vegetables, and quince butter. It's a gastronomic Etsy.com, offering people seeking an alternative to mindless corporate consumption a place where they can engage in mindful, community-oriented consumption of handmade foods. The most effective cure for shopping in this case is shopping.

When you purchase one of Rabins' foraged food boxes you may feel as if you're taking control of your food choices in a way that grazing at the supermarket doesn't permit. You can say no to pesticides, no to factory chicken. But that route also involves forsaking choice and autonomy. The range of available foods narrows. You have to make sure you're home at a specific time to receive your order. The producer, not the consumer, drives these relationships.

But like Burger King, the Underground Farmer's Market does a better job of letting you have it your way. Foraging evolves into metaphor, with Rabins canvassing the city for untapped sources of deliciousness: the backyard meat curer, the self-taught canner, the rooftop beekeeper, all aggregated into a lively and convenient emporium of choice and abundance. The sense of adventure and discovery that comes with trying to make weeds palatable spreads even to those working with more traditional ingredients. Why stick with orange marmalade when cucumber marmalade might be tasty too? Producers feel empowered to innovate. Consumers offer direct financial support for even their most radical R&D efforts. 

The average fast-food joint looks static and undercommercialized compared to this smorgasbord of creativity and trade. Until Ronald McDonald starts selling McAcorn Burgers, his appetite for capitalism remains suspect at best. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.