7 Places to Find Free or Cheap Groceries

It turns out, almost 40 percent of wasted food in the U.S. is tossed by consumers, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. This waste comes at a huge cost to our environment and to the budget of the average American. Luckily, we can help stop this waste by salvaging perfectly edible, delicious, and occasionally gourmet food with some minor tweaks to our shopping habits.

But why stop at saving the planet when you can also save hundreds of dollars a year on dinner? Here are some of the best places to find salvage groceries.

1. Salvage grocery stores

Salvage grocery stores, also known as discount grocery stores or grocery outlets, stock merchandise that other food suppliers cannot sell. This includes packaged foods with dents and dings, food that is close to its expiration dates, overstocks, and seasonal items that are no longer in season.

Typically, salvage stores offer a 50 percent discount on name-brand items, but some stores offer even steeper discounts depending on the package appearance. My local salvage grocery store even accepts coupons that give me additional discounts. If you're new to salvage grocery shopping, be sure to talk to the store staff about how to maximize savings.

While I have some neighbors who shop exclusively at our local salvage grocery store, the double-edged sword of these establishments is the constantly shifting inventory that can vary from day to day. The store staff can give you the lowdown on delivery schedules so you can grab the freshest produce or the rarest snacks.

Salvage grocery stores buy their merchandise from grocery reclamation centers — both places are regulated and inspected just like regular grocery stores, so the food you buy at a salvage store is just as safe to eat. (See also: 10 Affordable Alternatives to the Grocery Store)

2. The markdown rack

Many regular grocery stores have a discount rack of merchandise that can range from almost expired milk to mint condition product closeouts. While this rack is generally hidden at the back of the store, post-holiday, this discount rack can extend to several aisles of goods. I always purchase a metric ton of Easter candy the day after Easter. No one who eats my cookies or brownies has to know that the dark chocolate chunks are chopped up chocolate eggs or Easter Bunnies. The discount rack discount at the national chain stores is typically 30-50 percent off the regular price.

3. Imperfect produce

Imperfect Produce is a weekly farm box service that delivers to subscribers' front doors. What do stores consider imperfect produce? Items such as curved cucumbers that don't stack easily, gigantic or tiny avocados — really any fruit or vegetable that lacks uniformity qualifies as imperfect. Cost-wise, you will pay 30-50 percent less than what you would pay at a grocery store. Also, unlike most Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm box programs, Imperfect Produce allows subscribers to customize their boxes, so you will never get fruits or vegetables that you hate with your order.

4. The farmers market

It costs farmers time, money, energy, and gas to transport their goods to the market, and then it costs them additional time, money, energy, and gas to transport the unsold produce home or to dispose of it. To get the best discounts at the farmers market, go at the end of the day. Farmers would rather sell their food at a loss than not sell it at all.

As a regular market customer, I get a lot of free produce from several farm stands at my local market. Rather than throw away unsellable, bruised produce, the farmers give me their damaged goods to turn into jams, pickles, and salads. (See also: Buy This — Not That — at the Farmers Market)

5. The farm

If you live in a rural area, you can skip the farmers market and go directly to the source. Farms will often give produce to farm staff as a perk of the job, which is why I work for four hours every week as a beekeeper at a local farm.

Last year, at the height of the avocado shortage, I ate approximately $350 in free avocados that had fallen from the trees during a windstorm. I also took home hundreds of pounds of "squirrel kissed" plums that I converted to jam. This month, I've been enjoying tiny lettuces and really baby carrots in my salads, produce that was too small to be sold at the farmers market.

Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF-USA) maintains a list of organic farms worldwide that provide food (and lodging) in exchange for work.

6. The refrigerator

The average American family throws away more than $1,500 in food each year. What could your family do with an extra $1,500 of tax-free income per year?

There are many ways to manage your food inventory to save money. Even if you hate menu planning or meal prep, you can salvage your random leftovers by using an ingredient calculator to find recipes that will maximize the food your already own. Or, you can just commit to eating last night's leftovers for today's lunch. Or, if you are a thrill seeker, make Thursday Night Soup.

To remind my husband to pack leftovers for work lunches, I put everything that is approaching its "eat by" date on the top shelf of the refrigerator. This shelf is clearly labeled "Eat Me First." This simple hack has dramatically cut down on food waste in our house. (See also: 11 Ways to Turn Leftover Sweet Potatoes and Other Starchy Foods Into Something Special)

7. The dumpster

Dumpster diving is the new recycling. Actually, it's an old, barely hidden secret activity enjoyed by TED Talkers, professors, and activists who have figured out how to eat like royalty on the budget of paupers. (See also: Dumpster-Diving 101: 6 Strategies for Success)

Dumpster diving for food is actually less disgusting than dumpster diving for anything else. For one, most of the garbage found in most grocery store dumpsters is just food, and much of it is at least protected from the elements and from cross-contamination by a plastic bag. (You won't find super gross stuff like medical waste in grocery dumpsters.) Also, because food sellers have to be super-vigilant about vermin, your average store will take the necessary steps to protect their garbage from rats.

Rob Greenfield, a sustainable living activist, biked through cities around the United States, eating food from around 300 different dumpsters. His blog features a decent photo representation of the quality and quantity of food available for the taking behind your local grocery store.

Dumpster diving, just like every other variety of foraging, has a learning curve. If rescuing food all by your lonesome seems daunting, there are Meetup and Facebook groups full of salvage foodies who regularly run dumpster tours and rescued food dinner parties. It has become a much more common and accepted practice than most people would think. Even I, who thinks of herself as a seasoned urban scrounger, was shocked to discover Yelp reviews for dumpsters in my area! And New Yorkers actually have a directory of dumpsters by borough on the freegan.info website.

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