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Shelby Stanger: Could you live entirely off the land and only consume what you grow and forge for the year? Rob Greenfield wanted to find out. Rob's an activists and adventure who spent the past 219 days building a tiny house and planting a garden and fruit trees and vegetables all around the neighborhood in Florida to do just that. Now, he's spending a whole year eating only the food he can grow and forage.
I'm Shelby Stanger and this is Wild Ideas Worth Living. Before he started doing experiments to show how we can all live a more sustainable style. Rob was a typical guy. He was living in San Diego. His goals were to make more money, own awesome fancy stuff, but then he started watching some documentaries. He realized many of the things he was doing like driving his fancy car and eating processed food, it was hurting our planet, which he loves so much, so he decided to make a lifestyle change.
I met Rob a little after this change and we've known each other now for about a decade. He's had a lot of wild ideas during that time. I actually wrote one of the first stories about him when he first biked across the country on a bamboo bike to raise awareness about sustainability by drinking only from natural sources and creating zero waste along the way. Since then, he's done that trek across the country on a bamboo bike over three times. He's built and lived in a few tiny houses. He's taken people around the country dumpster diving and he's dove into more than 2,000 dumpsters across the country to raise awareness about food waste and to show we throw away perfect food.
He's traveled to different countries with just the clothes on his back and zero money just to show that people are inherently good. For one of my personal favorite projects, Rob lived like the average American and wore all the trash he created from month in New York City to raise awareness about food waste. He's written a book, it's endorsed by Jerry of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, given multiple TED talks and he's a fascinating guy and an eagle scout, who not only wants to make a positive impact on our planet and the lives we lead, but he's become a master at practicing what he preaches by doing grand experiments like the one he's doing now.
I caught up with Rob on day 187 to talk about how it's going, how he feels, what he's learned, and how you can do a less extreme version of this grand experiment. It got me hungry to examine my own relationship with the food I consume and my impact on the planet.
Shelby: What day is it for growing your own food and eating only what you grow in forge for the year in Orlando?
Rob Greenfield: Today is day 187. I just passed the halfway mark five days ago.
Shelby: Congratulations. How's it going? How's your weight? How do you feel?
Rob: You know, I have my ups and I had my downs, overall I do feel really good physically. I started the year off at 153 pounds and I'm between 149 and 150 on any given day right now. I've lost say three, maybe four pounds max. Considering I switched from eating a fair bit of packaged processed and some definitely some junk food down over to 100% grown and foraged, you're going to lose a few pounds of excess weight. I feel like I've basically maintained as good as I could hope.
Shelby: I want to get into that and I want to get into exactly what you eat, how you did it, how you did it without money. Because I think a lot of people assume right away that you bought land, which is expensive and unattainable for most people. One of the things that I think I might've incorrectly assumed early on as I was like, "This kid just must be for money."
Rob: I used to see a lot of that in the Facebook and YouTube comments. I haven't seen much of it anymore. Maybe I've cleared it up a few times.
Shelby: I think you've cleared it up pretty well.
Rob: Yes, people would call me a trust fund baby and things like that, and it just couldn't be more wrong. I grew up with a single mom, four kids, including myself in a two-bedroom house, a little duplex. My mom made somewhere around $15,000 a year with, I think, one of the three dads paid child support. We did get help though, the government assistance and then my aunt and my grandfather helped a lot. We were definitely poor, but we had what we needed. I worked hard. I got a paper route probably when I was in sixth grade and I would collect cans. I would collect worms and try to sound to the bait store.
I started pretty independently when I was in probably middle school. I don't think, once I turned 18 and left the house, I really had much in the way of financial support or anything in that regard, so about as far from trust fund. I've never had a trust fund or anything like that.
Shelby: No, but I think what I really appreciate in your videos and it's not that like - I think a lot of people assume that to have the lifestyle and be able to do the experiments you had some cushion. You do talk about some of the privilege you have as a white guy being able to do some of the experiments. I've always been really appreciative of your just transparency on that. I think there was a time where you got pulled over by some cops pretty early on in your experiment this year. You just explained to them like, "Hey, I'm not homeless."
Rob: I do have some cushion. That is correct. First of all, just being an American is a cushion because with an American passport, you can travel to many parts of the world that you can't if you don't have a US passport. Traveling with no money through Central America, that as a white male with a US passport is a whole different ballgame than say a Guatemalan woman trying to travel through Central America or South America. Then, run-ins with the police. Yes, I do have the occasional run-ins with the police. My life in many ways is technically illegal. Dumpster diving, not illegal, but not so legal in most places.
On one of my bike trips, I was biking through Iowa, and I was in the dumpster. I was actually out of the dumpster eating the food in the parking lot and two police cars rolled up. They obviously had busted me. I'm sitting there, eating the food from the dumpster in the parking lot. We just get to talking and basically, I'm a pretty conversational guy. We start talking about biking and things like that. After about a half hour of talking and everything, they said - well, basically, they talked to the manager. The manager said, he has to put the food back in the dumpster.
I say, "Well, can I keep these bananas?" They let me keep the bananas, and then I'd see that they're pretty lenient. I just start stuffing the food into my bag. Then a half hour later, I check Facebook, and one of the police officers had already added me to Facebook. I'm a white male. Those things help a lot. There is definitely a lot of privilege there. If I was homeless, then those police officers most likely would have treated me a lot differently as like as a pest basically, that they don't want around. That's the reality.
Also one other thing to mention along those lines, I was in Inglewood, Southside Chicago. There were two guys, it was 95% black community. I was telling them about the situation with food waste, and they were just, jaws just dropped, they couldn't believe it. Two of them came out with me in the northern suburbs, which is more affluent. They explained to me that if the police show up, they're in the dumpster at night, they worry about being shot. That was a big wake up call for me realizing, "Oh, yeah, I don't have to worry about being shot by the police, I have to maybe worry about a ticket." Just putting those pieces together, I didn't acknowledge that early on. Over the last two years, I've definitely realized it more and more.
Shelby: For people who are listening, they're like, "What? He eats out of dumpsters?" We dove really into this the first time we talked on the podcast. I think you should give us a little bit of background on the dumpster diving and maybe how this dumpster diving might have inspired some of what you're doing now.
Rob: I wanted to raise awareness about food waste, and I was biking across the country. I just started to look into dumpsters and just discovered that food was being wasted all across the country. That's when I started to learn about it. I just found that dumpster after dumpster after dumpster all across the United States is filled to the brim with perfectly good food. I started doing experiments on my second bike ride across the country. I biked from the Mississippi River and Wisconsin to New York City, 100% fueled on dumpster food just to show the abundance.
Ultimately I proved to myself that, one, you can live solely off food from dumpsters and, two, that it's perfectly good food. That's partly what led to this is, now I wanted to see, can I live off of food that I grow and forage not from the dumpster? Can I live independently of that wasteful system? With this project right now, there is no foraging. Some people consider dumpster diving, urban foraging, but for this project, no eating food from dumpsters period.
Shelby: I think one of the things I was most curious about was Rob's inspiration for this grand experiment to uproot his life, move across the country, build a house and start from scratch as far as growing his own food. Well, that's a huge undertaking. Why is he doing this now?
I think we should just go back a little bit to your why. I saw this thing you posted on Instagram yesterday or two days ago. You said one of the inspirations for doing this was a guy named Ron Finley, the gangster gardener of LA. In this video, you show him giving a TED talk but also talking about how in the middle of downtown LA he figures out a way to grow food.
Rob: Yes. He was definitely one of my earliest inspirations. It was back in 2013 and a lot of people listening have probably seen this TED talk. One of the things he's famous for saying is, “growing your own food is like printing your own money.”
Shelby: I love that.
Rob: I love it so much too and so what he did is he turned that little patch of neglected grass some would call it the median or the parkway between the street and sidewalk, he turned that into a garden and then the city came after him and said, "You can't do that." He said, "This is neglected. You're not taking care of it. I'm beautifying it and growing food for the community, a community that doesn't have enough food and as a food desert, and you're going to tell me I can't do this?" He took to the streets and he got the city to basically drop it and became pretty famous. For me, what really got me is this he was the one that got me thinking, "Yes, we should be growing food everywhere and food doesn't have to come from the grocery store. It can be and is growing freely and abundantly all around us."
Why do this? Many reasons. One, is it possible in the 21st century in a Western society to do this? That was a big question starting out. I did a lot of research and never found a single person. Barbara Kingsolver is an example of a super popular book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but each family member had an exception. When they traveled, they could eat whatever local food and they could trade locally and all sorts of things like that. Then, there's one other book a guy over in England that I found and I read that and there had been quite a few exceptions like honey, for example.
So far, I still have not found someone growing and foraging 100% of their food, and the reason is why would you do it when you have access to convenience? Even when you step outside the United States, a lot of people make comments on Facebook and YouTube and stuff and they say, "You just go to any of these other countries and everybody's doing it." The answer is no, because of the cheap commodities; corn, rice, things like that. Most people, unfortunately, have been pulled away from that because of the globalized system. That leads me into the other thing is our privileged diets that we have in the Western society are destroying other cultures around the world.
For example, quinoa. I love quinoa. I visited Bolivia and Peru. I talk to people who said that quinoa has gone up 15 fold. Imagine a $5 footlong going up to $80. You wouldn't be able to eat $5 footlongs for lunch every day anymore. That's their staple. That was like literally dirt cheap 10 cents a pound up to a $1.50 a pound. That's because of us. Our diets, our globalized diets, are taking those people that we do live in this delusional society where we think those people are living off the land still, but no, because of our global commodities, we've mostly pulled them from the ability to live off the land anymore because of our industrialized globalized food system. That's a big part of it.
I want to wake people up. I do these sort of extreme things that really get the conversation going, so we can go to those deeper places and say, "Actually, maybe the actions that you have aren't as innocent as you think and there's a good chance that what we're doing is probably not as simple as we might think it is, because of this very advanced complicated society that we've created."
Shelby: When we talked last, episode 47 on the podcast, and I'm so grateful because you were one of my last episodes of the first season. You'd been doing some experiments on how to live more sustainably. You learned a lot about food waste along your way. Do you want to share some stats about food waste?
Rob: Sure. Yes, that's definitely another reason I'm doing this, because our current food system is not without flaw. One of the big things is how much food is being wasted. In the United States, about half of all the food produced is wasted, which is more than the budgets for America's national parks, every national park, the public libraries, the Federal prisons, veterans’ healthcare, the FBI and the FDA combined.
We're talking $165 billion, is a lot of money, and that's how much food we're wasting per year. Enough food is produced to feed two entire American populations, two United States of America's, while one in seven Americans or about 50 million Americans are food insecure, which means they don't always know where their next meal is coming from. We have an insane abundance of food and a lot of people out there not getting enough of it. That's all a product of our current industrialized globalized food system and that's part of the inspiration behind getting away from that system and trying to help pave the way towards something else.
Shelby: Tell me a little bit more about this wild experiment that you're doing right now and how you set it up? Specifically, how you've worked with a woman to build a tiny house and garden on her land?
Rob: Yes. You mentioned a lot of people would assume to grow and forage all your food, you're probably going to need land, which for many people is a pretty limiting factor because buying land can be pretty expensive. My solution to that, because I have under $2,000 to my name right now and all my material possessions are under $5,000 for sure. Like I have very little stuff. Definitely not buying land. What I do is I utilize wasted resources to a large extent.
Millions of Americans have backyards that are just totally underutilized, some of them completely unutilized. When I decided I was going to do this project, I just put out a blog that said I was looking for someone to partner with that had an unused backyard that I could build my little tiny house in and live there for two years in an exchange for me setting up my tiny house, I would transform their place. I'd turn their yard into a garden, helped them to live sustainably. They could eat all the food they wanted from it. I'd be there to help them build rainwater harvesting and composting and all those things. I had dozens of people who said, "Yes, we want that." That's the reality of- it's not scarce. It's a nice little exchange that we have going, where we can benefit each other without a monetary exchange.
Shelby: You have a 10-by-10 house you built fully out of reclaimed materials. I'd love for you to tell us just a little bit about the house, the outdoor kitchen. I think people are just-- I know for me, I was just so curious like what do you do for the bathroom? What do you do for toilet paper? That's something you buy at the store and you have some amazing solutions for this.
Rob: Yes. I'm sure a lot of people listen to this podcast are into tiny houses and a lot of tiny houses today, things have changed over the last, say, 10 years in the tiny house world. A lot of them are getting more and more expensive. I've been to a tiny house festival where I saw tiny houses that were $150 grand. They were amazing, but 150 grand is pretty crazy. Now, what I intend to do is be an example of the other end of the extreme. I go really simple. My tiny house is 10 by 10, a hundred square feet. The other part of it is that I also want to demonstrate sustainable living. I wanted to demonstrate how we can live in a way that is more deeply connected to the earth and that doesn't destroy the earth at the level that we are.
My lifestyle causes some destruction but, ideally, regeneration, and a lot of what I'm doing is actually taking spaces and regenerating them. The house is not off the grid. I do have an extension cord that has three plugs on it. I'm using probably $10 worth of electricity per month maybe, a very minimal amount at my tiny house in San Diego, I was off the grid, but with this project, didn't pull it off. For water, all my water comes from harvesting rainwater off of my roof and Lisa's roof. That's my drinking water, my showering water, all rainwater. Then, all that water is cycled back into the ground here and used to grow plants. My bananas, I have bananas growing next to my shower. That's gray water. My sink water goes out the back through a tube, and then I have taro growing there next to my outdoor compost toilet, that is a closed-loop composting toilet system. There's basically a five-gallon bucket. It's a lot nicer looking than that. It's got a nice seat and everything like that. That's where our poop goes along with sawdust. It's amazing. It has very little smell whatsoever. Usually, no smell. That is composted and then that can be used for fertilizing fruit trees.
I pee directly onto a banana tree, so my pee feeds that. It's high nitrogen, which will produce bananas. Then, I grow my own toilet paper. It's a plant called blue spur flower, plectranthus barbatus is the genus and species, and it is soft as can be and it's in the mint family so it's even got a wonderful smell. On a dewy morning, it's got little, nice little hairs, and it actually traps in the moisture and even makes a nice wet wipe.
Shelby: Wow. For those of you who just like wanting to see this, I'm going to post some links to-- Rob has amazing YouTube videos with a tour of his bathroom and outdoor kitchen and his tiny house and his whole setup. He's done several videos, and just so you know, he doesn't just directly pee on the banana trees. Like he has two toilets, one for number two, one for number one and one toilet feeds into one area. The other is for composting. After a year, it will be safe to use as compost. It's so incredible what you've done. How long did it take for you to set it up?
Rob: Well, in part, it took me years by accumulating this knowledge. I've been learning about these things. Because if you go back seven years, I had never had a compost toilet. I had never done rainwater harvesting, all that stuff was somewhat mind-boggling to me, because we live in this society where our poop goes into a little toilet and we hit a little lever and it's gone. I had to relearn all of these systems. Then as far as establishing this, it's been a lot of work. That is one of the challenges of what I do, because I'm always moving on.
I'm only here in Orlando for two years. I'm establishing this whole system. It's a lot of work. I've been building it all from scratch. I'm over a year-- what am I-- I'm about a year and a half into living here and I'm still creating things that I would have liked to have created a long time ago, but overall, really just four months, five months, and I had most everything done and created the homestead. Now, it's adding on.
Shelby: What's so remarkable is you did this without transportation. I mean, without a car. You had a bike and a trailer?
Rob: Yes, so I have a trailer that can carry 300 pounds. That bike trailer is amazing. I mean, I pick up shelves from Habitat for Humanity and all sorts of things like that. Now, I don't have a car, but I do use-- Well, I don't drive other people's cars, but I get other people who help me or I pay them for some labor with them going out with their car. That's a big part of what I'm doing as well. We don't all need to have every resource. That's the idea of community. If you just talk to the people on your street, if three of you have a food dehydrator out of 10 of you, that's enough and you can just share with each other. Then, the other seven people, they have things that other people don't have.
We can live abundant lives today. Probably, if you just look within your small neighborhood, everything you need is already there. If we would work together, we wouldn't really need to buy things and we could start to know our neighbors better, get much more connected, stop having to work so many hours because we wouldn't need so much stuff. That's a big part of all this. It is about just rethinking our lives and it's about trying to live the lives that we actually want rather than slaving away just trying to keep up with the bills and the debt and the credit cards and needing more stuff and all that that just seems to never end for a lot of people.
Shelby: When we come back, hear what Rob actually eats, what he uses for medicine and his tips for how you can grow your own food and make an impact in your community.
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Shelby: One of the things I was most curious about is what Rob eats. I try to eat a mostly plant-based diet. I'm not perfect and have been eating some wild salmon lately. Even then, I have things like grains, coffee, and chocolate to fill me up and satisfy my sweet tooth and my love, of course, of caffeine.
What do you actually eat in a day?
Rob: Well, let's see, what did I eat today? For breakfast, I had a seminal pumpkin, sweet potato, carrot soup with a coconut milk base with different herbs, rosemary, thyme, oregano, garlic, red peppers, as the spices and sea salt, salt that I harvested from the ocean and rainwater, purified rainwater, as the water for the soup. Then, I ate some mulberries off of a community fruit tree that I planted last year that's growing mulberries.
For foods, my staple crops are yams, yucca or cassava, and sweet potato. I eat a lot of coconuts that I forage, tons of greens, I probably have 30 or 50 types or more types of greens that I grow. I eat a lot of those, whether it's in soups, salads, moringa is one of the most nutrient-dense plants on earth and I can make my own moringa powder. Lots of fruit that I forage for, mulberries, loquats, and Surinam cherries were just what's in season. So far, I’ve probably eaten about 150 to 170 different foods since the project started.
Shelby: Wow. What are your favorite dishes to make like breakfast, lunch, dinner?
Rob: Okay, there is no differentiation between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the past, I would have oatmeal for breakfast and never in lunch for dinner for example, but now usually what I have for dinner, I'll have the next morning for breakfast a lot of the times. I hope to start making some pancakes and waffles and things like that. I'm going to hopefully start making flour from yam and yucca, so I am hoping they start finally experimenting with some breakfast food type stuff, what Americans consider breakfast food. My favorite meals are green papaya coconut curry with lemongrass and ginger and turmeric, basically like a curry you'd get at a Thai restaurant. I've made some that were just outstanding. The first time I made it, I was yelling in the meal like just, "Oh, this is so good."
Shelby: Wait, I want to dive into that because I think there must be just such a huge satisfaction from eating the food you grew and that your hands touched and spent so much time working on.
Rob: It definitely changes the flavor looking at that food, feeling that food, and knowing where each ingredient came from and just - I'm getting a little wave of it right now. Some of the times when I taste something that I've really worked hard for and it's the first time of the season that I taste it; it sometimes almost makes me cry. I just don't remember buying food at the grocery store and it almost making me cry or make it - It's actually made me tear up sometimes. It's a whole different level of connection with food.
Then, also the other part is because I don't have unlimited tastes, the tastes that I do have can have some very strong associations. For example, the first loquat that I ate this year was at a tree and as soon as I put it in my mouth, my memories just started flashing back to the last time that I was there a year prior, and just the food made me feel that love that I was feeling at that tree a year ago. Yes, these things sound cliché, but it's the reality. When you're this much more connected to your food, it's a whole different experience in a way that you can't know it until you experience it, and I've definitely experienced a lot of that cliché type of thing, but it's a reality and it's a beautiful reality.
Shelby: I think it's so interesting, some of this grows in your garden, some of it stuff you've planted, some of it stuff you forage. For the stuff that you actually planted, what did you plant that you knew you had to plant because you really wanted it?
Rob: My basic game plan - I think a lot of people going into gardening, what they do is they walked on the grocery store aisles and they say, "This is what I love, so I'm going to plant this."
Shelby: That's what I would do, totally.
Rob: That is exactly what I would recommend not doing. What I recommend doing is talking to locals and saying, "What grows so well that you can't kill it? What grows so abundantly that you can't ever eat all of it?" Then, start with that. Start with the easy plants that grow really, really well and are hard to kill, and then that will boost your confidence, you'll feel like a skilled gardener, you don't feel like you have a black thumb. Then, if you can successfully pull that off for a while, then start with some of those more challenging plants. That's really what I did, is I just gathered the local knowledge and said, "What just grows well here and super abundantly?" Sweet potatoes is an example in a small 10-foot by 15-foot area. Just a small patch of a front yard, I grew about 300 or 400 pounds of sweet potatoes in that one little patch.
Shelby: There's three things I'd really miss going to the grocery store for: avocados, chocolate, kombucha. I really like soft toilet paper, but you have a solution for that.
Rob: It’s pretty soft.
Shelby: The chocolate and the kombucha - oh, yes, and coffee, I have a little problem.
Rob: Yes, so I have solutions to all of those in one way or another.
Shelby: Okay talk to me about them.
Rob: All right. Chocolate, actually that one I just had to get over. No chocolate here, I've heard maybe people produce some cacao beans down in South Florida, but I don't think it's on a large amount. Here, no chocolate and surprisingly though, I haven't missed it. It's been all right, I mean having honey as that sweetness has been one thing, so chocolate, no solution there.
Avocados, you mentioned. Summer is coming, hopefully, I can forage those this summer, but basically that's something that I have missed and would love to have. The good news is that if I was doing this project long-term, I could have planted a bunch of avocados and be able to eat plenty of them.
Shelby: Avocado trees just take a long time to start growing. Is that correct?
Rob: It takes a long time and that's one of the big challenges, I've been thinking about that. If I was doing this project long-term, just this would be a whole different world. I landed in Orlando literally having never grown a single thing in the state of Florida, having only had two small raised beds when I lived in San Diego. Then, I took 10 months to go from 0% to growing and foraging 100% of my food, which is pretty insane.
I mean to me that is an amazing example of how we can actually take back the control from these big food corporations that don't really care about our health, that just care about our money. We can actually start to produce our food and not be going back to caveman days or anything like that, and this was just 10 months. If you took years to establish the places and you had these huge fruit trees and your nut trees, then it would be a whole different story. I went from 0% to 100% in 10 months, so imagine what you can do with years of establishing; it's a whole different ballgame.
Last thing that you mentioned is coffee, so coffee doesn't really grow in the United States-- well, not in the continental United States. It does out in Hawaii I believe, but here in Florida, we have a plant called yaupon holly, which is North America's only caffeinated plant I believe. It is basically the North American version of yerba mate, which goes down in South America. It's just as caffeinated as coffee and it's similar to green tea in the sense that it has all the antioxidants. I forage that, it grows all over. It's a native to Florida, so I do have that.
Shelby: Can you spell that?
Rob: Yaupon is Y-A-U-P-O-N and then Holly, H-O-L-L-Y, and it does grow in many places. It's possible that would grow out in California even, but it is pretty amazing. I mean all the yerba mate we get is shipped from of long-distance. When we have a plant here that's super hardy, we wouldn't have to ship it from another continent. There's so many plants out there.
Shelby: There's so many things that people are starting to grow that you aren't supposed to be able to grow though. Even in California, we know people growing coffee on a huge plantation in San Diego, which is rare, but you also have a solution to kombucha.
Rob: Kombucha. Yes. I would have a hard time without kombucha, but I have Jun, which is instead of sugar, honey. You make kombucha with a SCOBY, which is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Honey, green tea and that SCOBY and ferment it for about 5 days, and then I have Jun. Then, you can do a second ferment which you can flavor it, add more honey, add some berries, seal it in a bottle and then you'll get carbonation.
I'm able to make that which is pretty exciting. I grow my own green tea and then I think I could probably use the yaupon holly as well. That, and then I also make honey wine and then I make vinegars, I made vinegar that's banana, mango and then apples that I foraged when I was in Wisconsin, which is the only thing from outside of Florida that I've had in the last 187 days and those where I brought 10 apples back with me to make apple cider vinegar.
Shelby: What's the deal with foraging, like how do you know how to forage? How do you know where to find things?
Rob: That's something that we're pretty disconnected from today - that food grows for most of us. We just go to the grocery store and we buy it and we know it's not poisonous because it's in a package at the grocery store and they wouldn't sell us something poisonous, whereas I can't tell you the number of people who are afraid of the idea of eating anything growing.
Now, I grew up in Wisconsin where at least pretty much everybody knows blackberries and raspberries and blueberries are not poisonous and you can eat those, we still had some level of connection, but like down here in Florida, I can't tell you - Surinam cherry is growing everywhere and almost everybody thinks it's poisonous and it's a delicious and nutritious food. The level of disconnection is huge. That question of, "Well, how do you forage?" Yes, I understand that question. We're just so removed from it. We're not taught that.
The best thing to do is find someone else who does it locally and knows what they're doing. I would say with foraging, you basically want to triple check anything that you don't know, so find three resources that say that it's safe food to eat, look up and find out if there's any local foragers, any local books, like you could - if you live in California, type in to Google "foraging in California", and you'll find a whole bunch of resources. Might find a Facebook group, like "foraging in Wisconsin". I type that in and I found a group because I'm going up there this summer.
Finding local resources and a great local resources is just the older people, elders were more likely to have been connected to the food, so the amount of knowledge that they have. Books, go to your local library and check out books there, they'll often have books on foraging. That would be some of my suggestions and it's not as complicated as you would think. Don't try for the advanced stuff that's hard to identify, starting with the easy ones, picking 5 or 10 easy things. Mushrooms, not the easiest place to start, although there's some very easy to identify mushrooms. Yes, start with the easy ones. Just like with growing food, start with what grows really well. With foraging, start with a handful that are really easy to identify, like blueberries and blackberries would be a good start.
Shelby: What's the easiest thing about this whole lifestyle that you thought would be hard?
Rob: Well, I do have to say that overall it is going a little easier than I expected. Before doing this, I was worried. I remember I was in Europe, I was riding the train. This was a couple months before we recorded our last podcast and I was having a heck of a time. I was just so sick of this, of like all this technology and this sort of complicated life. I was so frustrated and so ready, I was preparing for this project and so ready, but at the same time I was so overwhelmed. I was on the train googling like how do you make your own salt, how do you make your own oil and just being so clueless.
I was pretty lost and overwhelmed, but knowing that I wanted to do this and just settle down and stop traveling for a while. Looking back that day to now, I have to say that the answer is that, overall, it was fairly easy to just immerse in this and be at the point where I don't have grocery stores or restaurants or cafes or dumpsters or any of that, and it's just all coming from the land.
Shelby: It's so amazing. I'm really impressed and congratulations, because I remember when you said you had this idea and I was like, "Wow, that sounds incredible." Not many people have done that, lived the entirely - Because in the olden days, that's just what we did, but not many people today in our culture have done this and it's really interesting. Let's break down the reality though, like what has been actually pretty hard about it?
Rob: The hard part is the time element. It's very time-consuming. In the average week, I probably spend 40 to 60 hours a week on food and some weeks, it's probably more and there's been so many days where it's been - I open my eyes and I'm working on food and I'm doing it all the way until bed, whether it's being in the garden planting, weeding, harvesting. Whether it's in the kitchen or in my tiny house processing foods, that could be chopping things up, dehydrating, making fermentations, cooking.
Many of the days, I cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. I'm getting better at meal prep but it's just so time-consuming. Then, there's still research. I'm still figuring out what I'm doing. There's an incredible amount of that. On the bike ride over, I found an abundant fruit tree that I actually don't know what it is. Now, I have to do the research to figure out if that's something edible, which I'm pretty sure it is. It’s just incredibly time-consuming and I'm still doing a lot of other things. Some days I get home, it's ten o'clock. All I would love to do is have some convenient, comfortable food, like bread and peanut butter and just be able to throw together a sandwich. I don't usually have that. I might come home at ten o'clock and I'm hungry, so I'm in the kitchen for an hour making a meal from scratch so I can eat. That's really the most challenging part. I am happy to report that the spring season was a super busy one. Our spring is super abundant, because we don't have the winter snow. Our summer is actually the time where most gardeners take off in the summer here. I'm actually coming into the difficult time in many ways.
I'm happy to say that just as of this week, I've gotten past that, but that's really the difficult part. Then, the isolation. A lot of times I'd like to be out doing things, but instead, I've got 75 pounds of yucca, cassava to deal with. Then it's like, if I don't do it, it's going to go bad. Isolation and I haven't had nearly as much of a social life for the last couple of months because of this.
Shelby: What Rob is doing is really intense, but the reason he's doing it, it's something I really admire. I'd like to adapt some of his philosophies and strategies and fit them into my own life. It can feel hard to make an impact when it comes to giant problems like food waste, but Rob has some great ideas for how you can start.
I want to talk about what we can do to eat more sustainably, but how can people do a less intense version of what you're doing and still make an impact?
Rob: If you want to do something that's really immersive and extreme but much more attainable, there's something that I see people do, it's called the 100-mile diet. You could do it for a day, you could do it for a week, you could do it for a month. For that period of time, you can only eat food that comes from within 100 miles of where you are. That is amazing. It's an opportunity to really learn where the local farmers are. You'll start to see your area in a different way; you'll start to know what grows in your area actually.
The reality is that there may be a lot more than you think out there. Whether you're up in the north, down the south or the east or the west, in a lot of places maybe it's not possible to get 100%, but it's definitely not in many places, but you'll learn that. Then, you'll learn the alternatives. For example, if you're an Arkansas, you probably can't get salt. Salt is a pretty lightweight thing that can be shipped that makes much more sense than just - imagine a bag of salt versus an apple, you can eat that apple, but that much salt could last a year in the same volume, so it makes sense.
The 100-mile diet's a really cool one. You could also - if you are someone who grows food or foraging, try to do one day of only eating food from your garden or foraged or if you're a little more advanced a week or a month or something like that. That's another bigger immersive type thing. Then, there's a lot of smaller things. A challenge you could do is no buying food for a period of time. There's something called like the pantry challenge, where you actually have to use only the food in your house for a period of time.
That can be a big wake up to see, "Oh, wait, I do have-" I can't tell you the number of times I go to people's houses and they say, "We don't have anything." Then, I look in their pantry and I'm like, "What are you talking about? You've got like a four-month supply of food here. How can you say you don't have anything?"
Shelby: Yes. It's so true. We probably all have a lot more food than we think. I also thought that - it depends where you live. I'm really lucky. I live in Southern California where there's an abundance of farms and food and it's really fresh and really good. I thought of just trying like eating only-- and it would be an expensive challenge, but eating only what I would buy at the farmers market.
Rob: That'd be really worthwhile. A lot of people listening to this could do that. I would say that could be a life-changing project to do that.
Shelby: It's actually not that expensive. If you buy mostly fruits and vegetables, it's not that expensive. I think there's this thing that we think that food is so expensive, but I don't know. When I go to the grocery store and just buy fruits and vegetables, it's dirt-cheap. It's just that when I put like the kombucha and like the bottled stuff, which is packaged and adds to waste, that's where it adds up.
Rob: Yes. Definitely, there is the idea that eating healthy and sustainably is expensive and it depends on how you do it. If you're switching over to all organic food, but you're going to go with all processed food, then you're going to see a big jump in price, like if you're buying frozen pizzas and things like that. But the key is a mostly whole-foods diet. Then it's not more expensive if you're doing rice and oats and lentils, beans. If you can buy your food in bulk like at a food co-op, or many grocery stores have a bulk food section where you can fill up your food, you can actually eat much healthier, more sustainably and it can be a lot less expensive.
The other part is meat. Meat is I found - generally, if you want to eat a good locally sourced healthy meat, that's more expensive. That's where it comes down to cutting back to eating really only as much meat as your body really needs. I'm not vegan myself. I found that for me, the healthiest diet is having some meat. Right now, I probably eat fish three to four days a week and my body feels pretty good on that. Now, of course, that doesn't cost me anything because I’m catching it. Eating fish three to four days a week like a 3-4-ounce serving is going to be way less expensive than if you're eating meat as a part of every meal, which is what a lot of people are doing.
Shelby: What's a way you've involved the community? I mean, it sounds you're doing so many things with the community and they're pretty excited about having you as their neighbor.
Rob: Yes. It's been really nice to be in this community. I think the big thing is to look at the world with a service mindset. Instead of looking out and asking what your needs are, look out into the community around you and ask what the community's needs are. In doing so, you will meet your own needs, but you'll be doing it in a way where - If you're coming to help others, then they'll have arms wide open waiting for you, because there's so many people who need that.
That's what I do. I try to live my life in service. In no way, shape, or form do I consider myself selfless because making other people smile makes me smile, making other people happy makes me happy, making my community a better place makes my community a better place. That is really the big one. I find that things will come to you a lot easier if you look at the world through, how can I be of service to my community?
The idea of this is all about being involved with my community and that after the two years that I'm here that I'll really have left this place better than when I moved here. That's the goal. I've started three community initiatives. There's Gardens for single Moms and we planted five gardens for single-parent families to help them grow their own organic healthy food, that's turned into Gardens for the People. This year, I'm planting 10 small gardens for people who can't otherwise afford or access a garden. Then, there's Community Fruit Trees. We planted over 200 fruit trees in Orlando that are publicly accessible, so whether it's on the medians, in people's front yards, along the sidewalk, businesses along the sidewalks, churchyard, schools, places like that where anyone can access them. We're talking about 200 fruit trees probably was 10-- let's see $10,000 maybe in money and that's from grants, but that's going to produce hundreds of thousands of dollars of the fruit for these communities for the years to come.
Then, Free Seed Project. We've sent out 5,000 garden starter kits to people in all 50 states across the United States. Basically, it has about 30 or 40 different seeds, greens, veggies, herbs, flowers to help people grow their own food. Then I also teach free classes. I'm one guy doing this, but I always do these extreme things to get people involved and to inspire them and for them to say, "Holy crap. If that guy can do that, then what can I do?"
Shelby: This planet is a pretty magical place, especially when you think about the fact that it has the ability to provide us with all the sustenance we need to survive. As Rob said, our globalized food system, it's in crisis, and a lot of it’s impacting our planet negatively. It's time to act now. The amount of energy used to produce massive amounts of food that ends up getting thrown out, it's a waste of resources.
This summer, my goal is to do more of my grocery shopping at the local farmer’s market and to buy more locally overall and just to buy less. I'm lucky that I'm in a position that I can do this. If you are, well, maybe you can do something like this too. I know it doesn't always feel like a small change like this will make a difference. If a million of us did that, well, maybe we can all start making more of an impact.
This podcast is produced by REI with help from Annie Fassler and Chelsea Davis. Thanks so much to Rob Greenfield. Find more about him on Tune in the week after next for fun episode about cooking over fire. Just in time for 4th of July and those summer camping and backpacking trips. This week, I hope you think a little more about where your food comes from and how much of it you're throwing away. Maybe it's time to start shopping at your weekly farmer's market if you can, or maybe it's time to start a little garden.
As always, we appreciate when you subscribe, rate and review the show wherever you listen. To all of you who review the show, thank you so much, it means a ton. I read them all and we really appreciate it. Remember, some of the best adventures happen when you follow your wildest ideas.
[00:51:26] [END OF AUDIO]

Here’s the Wild Idea

Can you imagine eating only what you grow or forage for an entire year? Rob Greenfield, a previous guest with a lot of wild ideas, is doing just that. He’s living in a tiny house on a plot of land where he’s planted an elaborate garden in the backyard of a neighborhood where he’s also teaching others to garden.

Rob goes into detail about his 200 plus days living solely off of food he’s grown or foraged himself. We talk about what he grows, what he eats, what his favorite meals are, how he built his own shelter on borrowed land, and the highs and lows of doing a challenge as big as this. He also shares how you can grow your own food and reduce your environmental footprint by how you eat.

If you’re a longtime listener to the show, you’ve heard the activist and adventurer talk about some of his previous wild ideas on episode 47 of season one. Rob has biked across the country on a bamboo bicycle creating zero waste and drinking only from natural resources more than once. He’s worn all of the trash he produced in a month around his body in Times Square in New York City to show how much waste the average American creates. He’s gone dumpster diving in over 2,000 dumpsters for perfectly good food. He has traveled abroad with no money, relying only on the kindness of strangers. He’s given a TEDX talk, written a book endorsed by Jerry of Ben and Jerry’s, and he’s a man who practices what he preaches.

His latest experiment is bigger than anything he’s done before, and he’s doing it to not only raise awareness about food waste and our challenging food system, but to prove it can be done.

Presented by REI

Listen to this Episode if

  • You want to know what you’d eat if you could only eat food you grew or foraged for the year.
  • You want to grow your own food or love to garden.
  • You’ve ever wanted to live in a tiny house.
  • You care about the food system in the U.S.
  • You are looking for ways to make your lifestyle more sustainable.

Key Takeaways

  • 3:00 – How the first half of Rob’s experiment has gone.
  • 5:40 – Rob has a lot of privilege that allows him to do the projects he does.
  • 10:30 – The inspiration behind growing and foraging all of his own food.
  • 16:00 – How Rob found land to grow and build on.
  • 25:00 – What Rob actually eats.
  • 29:10 – Rob’s gardening strategy is pretty unique.
  • 35:15 – How to forage for food.
  • 42:00 – What you can do to reduce your food waste.
  • 46:40 – Rob’s outlook on having an impact in his community.

Episodes to listen to

Rob Greenfield in Season 1


Food, Inc. Film
Ron Finley, The Gangsta Gardener
Ron Finley’s TED Talk
Tour Rob’s Tiny House
Bikes at Work trailers
Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Free Seed Project
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Niki Jabbour
Humans Who Grow Food

Connect with Rob




Wild Ideas Worth Living on Facebook
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Wild Ideas Worth Living on Twitter