March 2, 2011

Finding Food + A New Balance in the City

A growing number of foodies are seeking out new hidden spots in the city that have nothing to do with the café or restaurant scene. From gathering edible greens in a park to digging for clams along the coast, urban foragers harvest a surprisingly diverse range of fresh (and extremely local) foods in cities across North America.

In New York City, naturalist and “Wildman” Steve Brill leads foraging groups through several public sites in the area: including Central Park, and Prospect Park. His tours span from March to December (at a suggested donation of $15 for adults). Finds of course vary by season, and include a huge range of plants – many of which you may not have heard of. More familiar species include: apples, apricots, peaches, strawberries, cherries, plantains, wild carrots, garlic, walnuts, and a variety of mushrooms.

Oyster Mushroom on a New York City park tree. Photo by Ava Chin author and blogger.

But a big part of the adventure is in discovering new edible foods that grow in our local urban ecosystems – in learning the medicinal value of curly dock, or that you can in fact
eat cattail shoots, ostrich fern fiddleheads, and common sow thistle.

Steve Brill, giving a tour of edible foods within Central Park. Photo from

However, urban foraging also raises a host of concerns.

There are of course legal implications in harvesting food from both public and private property. Certainly trespassing for the sake of finding food is illegal. Moreover, even in many public sites – like New York city parks – it is technically forbidden to pick plants. Steve Brill, for example, has been arrested in the the 1980's for eating a dandelion in Central Park.

But assuming that urban foragers pick food only where it’s legal to do so - there also are health concerns to consider. “Accidental” food, not intended for human consumption is often exposed to toxic pesticides and chemicals - a far cry from organic cultivation standards. Those who farm food within cities will obviously produce safer food, with much more active control over the chemicals their crops are exposed to.

Given the huge size of human urban populations in relation to urban plant populations - there are of course significant ecological implications to harvesting wild food within the city. And, with information about where food sources are hidden within the city becoming increasingly accessible, we certainly run the risk of overharvesting edible plants.

iPhone app by Neighborhood Fruit

The growing trend in urban foraging is evident on the web, and people across the US are beginning to share information online about where to find wild food. Some sites are local (like Urban Edibles, that maps wild food in Portland) and others more extensive in area - Neighborhood Fruit (sites across the US recently also accessible through an iPhone app), VeggieTrader (which seeks to create a platform for the barter of food), and communities of foragers and gatherers are growing on Facebook.

In an article by the New York Times, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe is quoted saying that urban farming is “not just illegal, but enormously harmful to the parks.”... If 15 people decide to go harvest day lilies to stir-fry that night, you could wipe out the entire population of day lilies around the Central Park reservoir.”

Responsible urban foragers will be conscious of these concerns. Portland-based Urban Edibles, for example, publishes the following ethical guidelines:

• Always ask permission.

• How much do I really need?

• Will my harvesting leave an impact? This includes visual impact, impact for future harvesters and last but not least the impact on the particular plant you are picking from.

• Consider chemical contamination. Paint chips, pesticides, motor oil spills and even car wash runoff can affect the quality of the sources you pick from.

Ultimately it comes down to quantities. Urban foraging is on the rise in cities across North America – and information about how and where to do so is also increasing. On the other hand, there is no indication that populations of wild edible food in cities is increasing. If urban foraging becomes a widespread and mainstream practice - if demand for wild food exceeds the supply - then even the most “responsible” urban foraging cannot be sustainable.

But perhaps a different approach toward harvesting food from within the city can be the answer. By definition foragers search out food, rather than growing it themselves. But what if their role was more active in maintaining edible plant populations within the city? What if “forager” and “farmer” became more closely related categories?

A study based in Seattle at the Institute for Culture and Ecology has begun to study the role of populations gathering food within the city. Though research has only begun earlier this year, and findings are not yet definitive, the title of the project “Foraging, Gathering and Stewardship in Seattle’s Urban Ecosystems” suggests an alternate view – that urban foragers also have a protective role as “stewards” of cities’ edible plants.

Manawatu Urban Foragers. Photo by Murray Wilson / Manawatu Standard.

Certainly, with an understanding of urban ecology, native plant species, and local seasonal crops, urban foragers certainly have a knowledge base that would be invaluable in the role of environmental steward.

Active urban foragers could help protect local sites from chemical contamination, and try to collectively prevent overharvesting, and maybe even add compost and nutrients to the soil or start to grow additional plants for the next crop. These communities would certainly require the support and/or involvement of city and park authorities.

Such efforts will mean that “wild” food may become more “farmed”- but seem necessary if we’re going be able to consume significant quantities of it in a sustainable manner.

Granted, a city can never be fully sustained solely through foraging, but for those who are interested, it certainly offers a unique opportunity for city residents to connect with their food and local ecosystems.

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