Ask not for whom the fruit grows: It grows for thee!

It is only after I am waist deep in a dumpster full of bread that it occurs to me that I haven’t quite thought through how to get out.

I decide to worry about that later, and focus on picking through for the best loaves, tossing them up to friends. Most of the bread is less than a day old, and largely whole, it just didn’t sell. The bakery kindly deposits all the decent bread in a relatively clean dumpster at the end of the day, knowing that people come by to scavenge — it’s not quite open permission, but it’s an admission that the staff would rather not waste a dumpster’s worth of bread at the end of the day. It’s a popular spot. Soon people other than my friends are swarming, asking me if I spot any cinnamon loaves or good sandwich bread. We bundle everything up and most of it goes in the freezer, to be eaten later.

What we have just done is, strictly speaking, illegal. Some stores and wholesalers actually go out of their way to enable scavenging in the interest of limiting food waste, so you’ll find a flat of peaches perched next to the dumpster, buckets of cocoa butter by the gate. Others deliberately spoil anything they throw out to discourage people from trying to salvage it. It’s not entirely out of spite, though surely that plays a role — it’s also a big liability issue to have people sifting through your dumpsters. If they get injured, or get sick from the food, they could sue, and many stores don’t want to deal with that hassle.

While we’re driving home, I spot an apricot tree that I’ve been keeping an eye on, and the fruit is perfectly ripe, weighing the branches down so much that they nearly brush the sidewalk. I hop out to pick some, though some passersby look a little riled up about it, and then we zoom off, apricot juice dripping down our chins and the car smelling deeply, darkly yeasty.

What I have just done is perfectly legal. Well, with a caveat: The law may vary slightly depending on where you are. But in California, if fruit is on public land, it’s yours to pick — which means that those poorly-pruned fruit trees that overhang the sidewalk are producing tasty fruits that you are perfectly within your rights to pick. You can’t reach over the property line, but as long as that fruit is hovering in public space, it’s all yours. (If your neighbour’s fruit tree is overhanging the property line, you can also pick — but I can’t go onto your property to pick the same fruit unless I have your permission.)

Despite the fact that harvesting ‘public fruit,’ as it’s sometimes known, is perfectly legal, not many people take advantage of it. Which is unfortunate, because while food waste at the store is abhorrent, food waste on the tree, vine, or plant is pretty bad too. If it’s just going to sit there and rot, that’s a tragedy.

I think of this often when I’m in the Berkeley Hills, where a lot of people have planted fruit trees primarily for ornamentation, not realising that they’re going to bear fruit. I can’t do anything about the fruit that people are allowing to rot on their lawns, but I can swoop in to salvage the fruit on the public side of the fence, and I do. Some of it I eat, some of it I give away, some of it I can in some form or another — which is how I end up with things like persimmon-tangerine jam, and candied orange peels. Seeing perfectly edible food rot makes me angry, honestly, and people who can’t be bothered to care for their fruit trees should really be ashamed of themselves.

Sometimes I encounter other scavengers here and there, and we get to know each other, since we’re the only ones frequenting trees laden with glorious stone fruit, lovely heritage apples, persimmons, pomegranates, citrus — the East Bay is prime growing territory for a huge range of things. I find nuts occasionally as well, and in some parts of the city, people actually deliberately plant things in public space and encourage people to eat them — there’s a patch of heirloom tomatoes over by Emeryville that I hit up regularly.

I’m kind of surprised that more people aren’t eating public fruit in the Bay Area, honestly. This is a community where people claim to be foodies, and yet they’re missing out on fruits that you can’t get at the grocery store because the cultivars are too fragile for commercial use! It’s a place where people claim to care about the environment and waste, but apparently don’t care about the vast amounts of fruit being wasted in their own neighbourhoods! It’s a place where hipsters like to blather about artisanal this and wildcrafting that, and yet they’re not out there taking advantage of the myriad of cool, free, public foods.

So I urge you, friends: Check out public fruit laws where you are, and then have at it. It’s not just a way to reduce food waste. You’re also keeping the sidewalks clear, which can be a huge problem for wheelchair users and other people with mobility impairments. And it’s a way to get to know your neighbourhood and the people in it — sometimes, people will see you picking from their trees and even invite you into their yard, realizing that someone can put their fruit to use even if they won’t!

Image: Lesley Wilson, Flickr