8. Food and Water
Milton Friedman, through a book of that title, foolishly popularised the phrase ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’. It is instantly obvious to anyone with half their wits about them that Milton spent much too much time reading economics textbooks and no time at all taking strolls through the woods foraging food. To be fair, this phrase is used by economists to convey the concept of ‘opportunity cost’, an idea that author and economist Campbell R. McConnell(155) states is “at the core of economics” and which stems from the belief that in order to have or do one thing, we must sacrifice another. The idea is that even if we do something apparently free, like sit and contemplate the beauty of a quiet evening by a lake, it ‘costs us’ the opportunity to do all the other things we could have done with that time. Like making money.
On this I would note a number of points. First, I would alter McConnell’s statement to say that it is at the core of modern monetary economics, and that it is more symbolic of humanity’s current mindset and culture than it is any universal truth. It reveals how modern economics and culture views everything as a win-lose situation, as opposed to the win-win-win scenario that is possible with non-monetary, gift economics. Take this for example. I’m feeling the need to get some fresh air and stretch my legs, knowing that I’ll also be hungry when I come back. So I head off to the hedgerows with the willow basket that I thoroughly enjoyed making earlier, searching for fun adventures and food. And oh how I get both in abundance! I return home feeling great, having no need for the gym and all its high technology machines, my lungs brimming full of country air, with a basket full of the most alive food I will ever have the pleasure of putting into my body.
My question to McConnell and Friedman is: in what way was that lunch not free? The opportunity cost of lounging around the house feeling physically and mentally unhealthy is hardly a cost, nor is having to go to a busy supermarket to pick up bags of food that are nutritionally equivalent to cardboard, and possibly less flavoursome. In fact, if the exercise and good food helps me towards health, fitness and a longer life, I might actually have more time remaining in my life after my walk than I did before – not so much an opportunity cost, more an ‘opportunity dividend’.
The mindset that believes that there is no such thing as a free lunch is symptomatic of, and a perpetuator of, an economy that compartmentalises life into distinct activities, one where the ways in which you meet your needs must be dour and boring. In the mindset of the gift economy, you meet your needs everyday by doing the things you love to do, integrating your private life, work life and social life into one inextricable whole. My favourite times are when I am out in Nature planting seeds. That it just so happens to supply me with all my own dietary needs months later is a bonus. Give me the choice between growing food or going to the cinema, or going on a holiday to some ghastly tourist resort, and I’d be out playing in my natural habitat every time.
Life doesn’t have to be separate and compartmentalised. We could just as easily design lives that are fluid, lives where we always mix business with pleasure.
On that basis, I hereby refute Friedman’s claims and state that there is such a thing as a free lunch. How you go about getting such lunches is a bigger question, and will depend largely on whether you live in an urban or rural setting; what your philosophies around food are; and how much soil, hedgerow or woodland you have access to.
In this next section I will introduce various methods for eating for free, suggesting further reading for each technique (as some are books in themselves) so that if one chimes with your practical needs and ideological stance you can explore it in a lot more depth in your own good time. Some options will be suitable for urban life, others for rural. The ideal is to incorporate a number of methods into your food economy, as diversity builds resilience. In the monetary economy, you’re dependent on the local supermarket having shelves full of food stocked – if that system failed, would you have a Plan B?
I’ll also look at ways of drinking for free (water that is, see chapter 15 for a free pint of the fermented stuff), again exploring various options so that we find a solution for everyone’s situation.
There are three general ways in which you can eat food for free – wild food foraging, the various forms of growing (ideally some Permaculture approaches I will look at in this chapter), and skipping. If you live in the city and this is all new to you, once you start looking you’ll be surprised to realise how much food there is going unused (nettles, for example are highly nutritious and great for a soup), you’ll see growing spaces everywhere and, if you’re prepared to do it, the bins of supermarkets would keep you and your friends feasting every night for as long as you wanted.
From the produce you get from some mix of these three methods, you can also include bartering to the list. This is particularly useful at harvest time if your allotment or back garden has a glut, or if you’ve had a bounty from the bins, though in such circumstances I prefer to just give it away for free to neighbours.