Mystery shopping is worth mentioning as it often allows for free food. Market research firms, watchdog organizations, and even companies themselves will send in mystery shoppers to scrutinize and report on particular aspects of a firm. This is a pretty flexible job that not only provides free food, (if you shop exclusively at restaurants) but also remuneration.
If you live by a park or near wilderness areas, nature can provide all the food you could ever need. We have, after all, lived off of nature’s bounty since the dawn of existence. If our Homo sapiens ancestors can hunt and gather, so can you. Gathering is great. It’s like hiking except you collect food along the way. Even if you don’t live near a forest replete with nuts, berries, routs, tubers, or mushrooms, urban foraging can yield a surprising amount of edible goodies. Consult Falling Fruit to find the best spots for wild produce in your area.
Surprisingly, many weeds (the common dandelion and mallow, for example) are chocked-full of nutritional value. Better yet, they are plentiful and grow virtually everywhere, be it an unkempt lawn or a crack in the asphalt. Not only are they commonly used to provide flavor and texture, urban-sourced edibles can also be steamed, boiled, sautéed, or tossed into a multi-ingredient weed salad. Don’t have the time to forage? Have your kids do it (assuming you have kids). Identifying wild edibles is so easy a toddler can do it. In many cases, kids are more inclined to eat something they found over a nasty piece of store bought spinach. If you’re really entrepreneurial, you can sell or trade your surplus items. Otherwise, excess food can be preserved through drying, canning, or freezing.
Similar to foraging, gardening is a great way to get free, healthy, food. All you need are seeds, water, soil, and a little sunshine (NB, if you compost, the soil is free as well!). If you catch and use rainwater, you can pretty much garden for nothing but sweat-equity. In some climates, gardening is as easy as throwing seeds down and waiting for them to grow. Don’t have enough room for a garden? No problem. Visit Shared Earth to be connected with people who have land, but no desire to sow it themselves. In exchange for some of the harvest, individuals with empty lots, backyards, or otherwise unused parcels will let you tend their land like a feudal serf.
Like gardening and foraging, hunting and fishing can also help you capitalize on the fruits of Mother Nature’s loins. Although both activities require equipment and permits, once the fixed costs are paid, the marginal costs are next to nothing. If you don’t have the time, willingness or wherewithal to hunt or fish, you might consider trapping. Even if you’re within city limits, traps, pellet guns, blow guns, and even sling-shots can be used to collect wild game. Rabbits, birds, squirrels, raccoons, the list goes on and on. In addition to harvesting the meat, you can also use the pelt to make clothing, blankets, or other accessories. Hunting within city limits may be illegal, so make sure you do it sneakily and with the utmost stealth.
There are a few caveats to urban hunting that you should research before you begin. Fish caught in urban lakes and streams can sometimes contain toxic heavy metals such as mercury or cadmium. Further, rabbits and other small mammals are known to carry francisella tularensis, a group of bacteria that causes tularemia. Aside from cooking the meat thoroughly, it might be wise to wear gloves when handling a carcass. You should also examine the liver of your catch. If it is covered with white spots, it has a condition known as Coccidiosis. This disease is more common than tularemia and is also commonly found in domestic farm animals and pets . The disease resides in the intestinal tract, so you can still technically eat the meat if you are careful, but I wouldn’t suggest it.
If riffling through garbage isn’t your thing, try making a friend who works the closing shift at a supermarket or restaurant – it’s amazing what you can get if you ask nicely. Otherwise, you can simply eat leftover food from the tables of strangers. This technique works particularly well at pizzerias, where people leave behind untouched slices of pie.
Another way to score a free meal is to take a trip to your neighborhood soup kitchen. Although you’ll literally be taking food from the mouths of the homeless, soup kitchens rarely ask questions (just make sure to wear something old and shabby). Similarly, if your income is low enough, you could apply for food stamps or subscribe to a local food bank (which, unless you are actually impoverished, may require a few white lies).
If you don’t want to further deprive the already destitute, you could consider attending local events/establishments that offer free food (such as open houses, art/film exhibitions, conferences/seminars, banks, etc.). Church functions are especially notorious for providing free food. Just slap on your Jesus peace, bust out your yarmulke or grab your Quran (or don’t, because a true religious group will accept you regardless of your beliefs). If you stick around until the function dies down, you can usually finagle some leftover food for later. Wait until the event has ended and offer to help ‘clean up’. Say that you hate seeing things go to waste and ask people if they want anything to take home. They will usually decline (or take a few small items), allowing you to have your way with the remaining loot.
If you are really confident in your appetite, you could partake in an eating competition. Some are held for free at carnivals and county fairs. Others can be found at specific restaurants (especially ones offering spicy wings . . . if you can handle the heat). Regarding the latter, make sure that you can actually finish the meal, otherwise the payment can be steep!
Samples at supermarkets can make nice snacks, but they hardly constitute a meal. So if it’s breakfast time and your belly’s rumbling, stroll into a hotel that provides a complimentary breakfast. Many hotel breakfasts are tantamount to all-you-can-eat buffets. All you need is the courage and confidence to sidle in and start eating. Because the hospitality industry is extremely customer-centric, you will rarely, if ever, be harassed or accosted in any way.
For those who are particularly parsimonious, dumpster diving is paramount. In the rubbish heaps behind grocery stores and restaurants lay bountiful feasts fresh for the picking. Dumpster diving (also known as, skip diving, binning, and canning) is not only a good way to score free food, but it is also very “green” and environmentally friendly. It reduces aggregate waste and frees up space in municipal landfills. Dumpster diving can even become a sport. There are social communities who revel in the hunt, getting cheap thrills by constantly competing for the best finds.
Legally speaking, grocery stores are required by law to dispose of food that has outlived its shelf live. But those “sell-by” and “use-by” dates are merely a formality; a guarantee of freshness. Most items are perfectly fine for days or even weeks after the expiration date. Regarding restaurants, acceptable inventory is thrown out daily because it does not adhere to the companies’ quality control standards.
Before you begin your dumpster diving quests, make sure to research local legislation. In some cities and states it is completely legal to riffle through other people’s garbage. In others, you could be charged with trespassing, invasion of privacy, or even theft. Best practices suggest dumpster diving at night. This is not only when markets and restaurants dispose of unused/expired foodstuffs, but it is also when your activities can be conducted in relative secrecy. As is the case with any venture, metrics, benchmarks, and KPIs are crucial. Keep a mental or written log of the best times and locations to maximize your diving efforts.