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Orlando’s Rob Greenfield survives year of growing, foraging all of his own food

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 11/8/2019 Kate Santich
a man standing in front of a wooden fence © Sarah Espedido / Orlando Sentinel

In Rob Greenfield’s grand Orlando experiment — one year growing or foraging everything he would eat — enemies abounded.

Worms invaded his gourds. Squirrels ravaged his stash of seeds. Someone surreptitiously reported his tiny house — the one he erected in an Audubon Park backyard — to the city’s code-enforcement officers. And don’t get him started on the cacophony of an overhead flight path and suburban leaf blowers.

But as he prepares to cross the finish line Sunday, Greenfield is grateful for all but the noise. “I’m so glad that I did it that I’m probably going to do it again," he says. "Just not right away.”

After a year of no grocery stores, no restaurants, no food trucks, not even a nibble at a friend’s house, the affable 33-year-old has no interest in a fast-food burger or pricey chop house or even a shopping spree at the local supermarket.

“That’s the most frequently asked question: ‘What is the first thing that I’m going to eat?’” he says. “And I just really don’t know the answer to that. But … I have no desire to eat anything from a package or anything that was paid for. I want to go to my friends’ gardens. I want to cook healthy meals with [food from] my friends. And whatever it is, it doesn’t matter as long as I don’t have to do the dishes.”

After a year, he’s happy to bid farewell to eight- and 10- and even 12-hour days in which he would plant and tend and harvest and fish and forage and cook and dry and freeze and filter everything he consumes. If he wanted salt, for instance, he had to collect seawater and let it evaporate. If he wanted tea, he grew the plant, gathered the leaves, let them dry — and then collected honey from the beehive he keeps and rainwater funneled off a neighboring roof.

a man holding a glass bowl © Sarah Espedido / Orlando Sentinel

What he craves most, he says, is convenience.

“The way he has lived the past year is very difficult,” says David Warfel, 30, an environmental consultant and one of the organizers of Orlando Permaculture, a nonprofit devoted to teaching people how to live more sustainably, often as it involves growing your own food. “When I think about what distinguishes Rob from others, it’s his dedication and commitment and discipline. It’s really extreme.”

That extreme approach is both to make a point — that living off the land, even in suburban America, is possible — and to captivate an audience. On Greenfield’s Facebook page alone, he has more than 548,000 followers. He also has a website (, blog, YouTube channel and public speaking schedule that includes the Orlando Permaculture meeting at 7 p.m. on Nov. 12 and the downtown Orlando Public Library at 6 p.m. Nov. 13, both to talk about his what he has dubbed the Food Freedom Project.

Before Greenfield began this venture, he had already made a name for himself diving into more than 2,000 dumpsters across the country to expose food waste and, separately, spending a year bathing only in rivers, lakes and the rain. He had cut up his credit cards, ditched his car, bicycled cross-country three times and endured a month in New York living as “an average American” but wearing every piece of trash he produced in a giant clear suit for visual impact.

The most recent project, though, was his longest, and at times, he admits, he worried it compromised his well-being.

In Central Florida’s unrelenting summer, when he had expected the six gardens he had planted throughout Audubon Park to be less bountiful, he decided to travel north to his hometown in Wisconsin, where his mother needed help moving into a new place after losing her home to a fire in March.

To prepare for the trip, Greenfield worked especially long days — and often nights — harvesting seeds, drying fruit, making flour and shredding coconuts to feed himself for the duration.

“I had at least 100,000 calories, enough for 50 days … but I was really burned out,” he says. That fatigue, the long days traveling in a friend’s car and the worst fishing season northern Wisconsin natives could recall began to take a toll. Though his weight never dropped more than 4 pounds, he looked pale and weak. His brain fogged.

His skin sagged from lack of fat and muscle.

“He was looking a little gaunt when he first came up here,” says his mother, Martha Greenfield, who works with public school children with special needs in Ashland, a port town on Lake Superior. “There were a number of times he went out to fish and didn’t catch anything, and he would be out there all day. I thought it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he ate something [else] …”

But she didn’t try to change his mind. After all, she had raised Rob and his three siblings largely on her own, and she knew his willpower — not unlike her own. Once he focused on a goal, there was no diverting him.

On the last day of August, Greenfield came across a dead deer on the road. It had just been hit by a car. He cradled the creature gently, then carried it off to the woods to butcher it. It would be his much-needed source of protein and animal fat for weeks to come.

“Part of me doesn’t want to share this with you,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “But I think this experience can demonstrate a few things that I’ve been trying to teach. If you want to be the change you wish to see in the world, I encourage you to stop worrying what people think about you. Look, I’m eating roadkill. That’s one of the lowest stigmas that I know of in this society. But … I’m using a resource that makes complete sense to use. This is some of the most sustainable food on earth.”

About 600 people “unfollowed” him. He didn’t dwell on it.

In the following weeks, between the deer meat and better luck fishing, his health rebounded. He returned to Orlando by train on Oct. 4 — just in time to deal with a notice about the 10-by-10-foot house he had built in an acquaintance’s backyard that the city was now saying had to go.

“Any shed, even a store-bought shed from a big-box store, needs a permit, it turns out,” he says.

He decided to donate it to a nonprofit in Sebastian, Sustainable Kashi, that teaches people about healthy environmental practices. He stays there sometimes now, when he can catch a ride with a friend, or he sleeps in a tent in Audubon Park, struggling to cope with the jet noise.

For those rare occasions when he needed money, he used speaking fees, which he lists on his website along with any product donations and their value — such as the Abeego beeswax food wraps (“less than $100 retail”) or the $240 Berkey water filter (although he got the scratch and dent unit). Mostly, he has bartered.

He’ll embark next on the “World Solutions Tour,” leaving just before Thanksgiving for New York City and then traveling the globe for 12 to 18 months, asking sponsors to cover his travel, a guest room in someone’s house and sustainably raised food. On the tour, he’ll talk about what he has learned and the smaller steps people can take to make a difference. He doesn’t expect them to live as he did, but he also doesn’t want the world’s citizens to wait for their governments or corporations to lead the way.

He already has over 30 invitations and a book due out in December 2020 about the year —“Food Freedom” — from New Society Publishers. Where he’ll live after that, and what exactly he’ll do, has yet to be determined. But it likely will be on the West Coast or perhaps Wisconsin or Minnesota or maybe, he says, he’ll hike the Appalachian Trail eating nothing but what he gathers in advance dumpster-diving.

But he’ll leave Orlando with enormous gratitude for the community’s support, a legacy of building small food gardens and giving seeds and plant cuttings to over 5,000 people and, if he’s being honest, a touch of anxiety.

“I’ll sort of be re-entering the world,” he says — a world where people eat food other than what they grow or forage.

“Right now, there are no exceptions. But once you start to make exceptions, then it becomes all too easy to make the exceptions you never thought you would, right? Even that question — ‘What’s the first thing I’m going to eat?’ — it makes me anxious.”

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