Market Foragers, Down And Out In Paris

Paris is famous for its open-air food markets. i i

Paris is famous for its open-air food markets. But difficult economic times are turning them into giant foraging sites — and not just for the poor. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
Paris is famous for its open-air food markets.

Paris is famous for its open-air food markets. But difficult economic times are turning them into giant foraging sites — and not just for the poor.

iStockphoto.com

Until recently, only the poor and homeless turned up after the street markets closed, foraging through discarded fruit and vegetables. Now, in a stark sign of the times, it's not unusual to see ordinary, even well-heeled Parisians looking for free food.

The street markets of Paris are like a window on France's gastronomic soul.

From the abundance, freshness and variety of food, it's clear what makes this country tick. Glassy-eyed fish stare up from the ice of a fishmonger's stand, nestled between scallops, stingrays and live crabs. Produce vendors bark out the prices of their colorful fruits and leafy vegetables. And dried sausages hang alongside rabbits, chickens and even wild game at the butcher's stall.

But like the rest of Europe, France is in a recession.

When the market closes and the vendors begin to pack up their stands, a different kind of consumer arrives. They are the gleaners, named after those lowly souls in past centuries who followed the field harvest, scavenging what was missed the first time around. These urban gleaners slowly pick their way through the market refuse, hauling away their finds in sacks or rolling them away in shopping bags on wheels.

Renee Dubois, 60, is quite happy with her bagful. She says she has fruits, vegetables and some sardines.

Dubois lost her office job last year and says she can no longer afford the market's prices. So she now comes twice a week after it ends, before the garbage men arrive, to pick through the remains.

"I have no salary, no retirement, nothing. And there are plenty of people like me. We do this to make ends meet," she says.

Dubois is neatly dressed, her hair tidily swept up in a bun. On this block alone, there are at least eight or nine women and men just like her, rummaging through the stacks of balsa wood crates.

Many clearly don't want to talk about what they're doing.

But 65-year-old Nadine Moreau willingly opens her bag to show her tomatoes.

"You have to eat them fast, or make a sauce with them," she says. "They won't keep."

Moreau has several children who are living at home because they can't find work.

"I have to feed them," she says.

Leon Cohen has been bringing his produce to Paris markets for 40 years. He says he is ashamed of what he sees today.

"A few years ago, you never would have seen that here. It's ugly for the neighborhood and it's shameful for France. Can you imagine, in a rich country, the world's fifth economic power, you have people eating out of the trash?" he says.

In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, city workers take down the poles and awnings after the biweekly market on the fashionable Avenue de Saxe.

While seagulls fight over fish heads, about a dozen people rummage through what is admittedly nice-looking, discarded produce.

Dominique Selse, a passing writer, observes the scene.

"I was going home and had to come back and watch this. It's striking: We've got seagulls and pigeons and human beings who are hungry, too. And here we are on one of the richest avenues in France," she says.

Analysts say the French social safety net has helped buffer most people from the effects of the economic crisis so far. But with the French economy now grinding to a halt, the cracks are starting to show.

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