Sustainable Foraging Starts with Learning

At first glance, foraging seems like an easy solution to a host of problems within our food system, including sustainability, nutrition, and access. Eating wild is a reliable way to eat sustainably (if done responsibly), and foraging is by definition free, so anyone can do it. What’s more, it gives urban communities access to nutritious ingredients of reliably high quality and taste. So why are edible weeds often a hard sell to those who could benefit most from them?

One problem, Stark admits, is an aversion to eating things from the ground. There’s a certain “ick factor” for some people to overcome, and bit of education about which plants are edible and where they grow could fix that. “Are they starvation foods or legitimate foods?” Stark asked, highlighting the stigma that often comes with foraged plants. “There tend to be very different reactions, from ‘this is empowering’ to ‘I’m not going to pick food out of the dirt.’”

Regulations Associated with Foraging

But the lack of information isn’t just a top-down problem; local governments also have a lot to learn when it comes to the viability of foraging. That’s why Berkeley Open Source Food has introduced policy briefs for legislators on how sustainable foraging might supplement governmental assistance. A 2017 brief advocated for the government to open public lands to foraging and provide training to help residents of low-food-access areas or “food deserts” identify and harvest plants correctly. “If the plants are growing there and safe to eat, then it isn’t a food desert,” he said, “it’s an information desert.”

For Jeremy Umansky, the chef at Cleveland’s Larder, an Eastern European-inspired deli and restaurant, and a licensed mushroom hunter, foraging contributes to his business, and foraged items make up a large percentage of his daily menu.

He is quick to point out that anyone can forage; it’s only when you plan to process, sell, and serve your finds that a license becomes necessary. “It doesn’t mean someone who doesn’t have a license doesn’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “You can have a chef who never went to culinary school, and they’re just as good as anybody else.”

Tips for Responsible Sustainable Foraging

Along with Leda Meredith, who leads frequent foraging tours in New York and has written several books on the subject, Stark and Umansky advised FoodPrint on foraging best practices, and helped build a bibliography (see below) for anyone with the courage to forage.

Know Your Plants

Newcomers to foraging should take time to familiarize themselves with their plants, says Meredith. “Get a field guide or go on a couple of tours and take some classes. You start with ‘it’s this type of leaf and this color flower’ and just go down the checklist to make sure everything matches.”

A basic level of knowledge in local plants also goes a long way towards clearing up misconceptions, Umansky admits: “People are really, really afraid of mushrooms,” he says, perhaps because they have so many “copycats”—different varieties of fungi that mimic the edible ones closely. But mushrooms need to be ingested to have any negative effect, he says: “You could pick up one of the most toxic species […] and it won’t do anything unless it gets into your bloodstream. Plants, on the other hand, have sap that can cause skin problems, and they’re covered in thorns and burrs.” Anyone who has had a brush with stinging nettles will know exactly what he means, but in each case, a little knowledge goes a long way.

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