The Ethics of Foraging

Like many in New England, I live in a place that once contained an apple orchard. The land has long since been divided up, but the old apple trees persist on bearing fruit, much of which, when the season comes, goes unharvested. Some view the resulting apple drop as a nuisance, I can’t help but see it as food going to waste. A recent New York Times article gave rise to a lively debate (see their comments section) over the ethics of foraging food on the property of others:

At Vacant Homes, Foraging for Fruit

As she does every evening, Kelly Callahan walked her dogs through her East Atlanta neighborhood. As in many communities in a city with the 16th-highest foreclosure rate in the nation, there were plenty of empty, bank-owned properties for sale.

She noticed something else. Those forlorn yards were peppered with overgrown gardens and big fruit trees, all bulging with the kind of bounty that comes from the high heat and afternoon thunderstorms that have defined Atlanta’s summer.

So she began picking. First, there was a load of figs, which she intends to make into jam for a cafe that feeds homeless people. Then, for herself, she got five pounds of tomatoes, two kinds of squash and — the real prize — a Sugar Baby watermelon.

“I don’t think of it as stealing,” she said. “These things were planted by a person who was going to harvest them. That person no longer has the ability to. It’s not like the bank people who sit in their offices are going to come out here and pick figs.” Read more…

Upon further research, I learned that foragers, whether urban or wild, abide by a code of ethics. Most seemed in agreement that foraging without permission is considered stealing, except in survival situations. From Urban Edibles:

Asking Permission

Always ask permission before you pick no matter where the trees or bushes are located. Not everyone is alright with their neighbors picking from their sidewalk plot. However, many fruit-producing trees and herbaceous species are readily available on public land. It’s not always easy to tell which is which. Part of being a thoughtful community member is in respecting both private and public terrain. The Urban Edibles wild food source database is designed as a resource for potential harvesting locations (i.e. areas with an abundance of fallen fruit). We do not condone unsanctioned harvesting practices or trespassing. Consistently asking permission to harvest wild foods ensures lawful conduct. It also promotes face-to-face dialog between you and your neighbors. We believe that building this kind of wild food network helps connect us to one another as well as our urban habitat. It makes our communities that much healthier!

Luckily for us, our neighbors are easy to approach and we’re hoping this year’s collection of community apples results in some fine apple cider for all!

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