Urban Foraging Is on the Upswing

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Close-up of a dandelion and a green plant being picked.
Some cities offer classes for prospective urban foragers to make sure they know what they're doing and its effect on the environment. Elephant Journal/YouTube

Why do people still forage for edible plants? Is it a way to reawaken their hunter-gatherer instincts in the age of corporate farming and supermarkets? Are they attempting to eat healthy on a tight budget? Or is foraging merely a convenient excuse for spending time outdoors?

Some media outlets have tagged the modern foraging trend as "strange," while others worry that it could cause environmental damage as its popularity grows. The only thing the two sides have in common is an agreement that the practice is growing. According to a recent study by the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins, not only is foraging on the rise, but it's thriving in the last places you’d expect: major urban centers like Baltimore.

Big city foragers

What do these prolific urban gatherers pick? According to the study, 75 percent of the harvest (by volume) collected by Baltimore-area foragers was fungi, such as mushrooms. Much of the rest consisted of common plants like dandelions, nettles and mulberries. In all, the study found 140 species of plants and fungi in urban foragers’ collections.

John Hopkins researchers also found that most foragers were college educated, but those with a lower income level were more likely to make foraged foods a larger part of their diet and to forage for a greater diversity of plants.

On paper, this sounds like a welcome trend. People are eating plants that would otherwise just sit there unnoticed, and they are getting more greens and vegetables without stressing their wallets. But one data point in the Johns Hopkins study was concerning.

More than half the foragers surveyed were new to the practice and had been doing it for five years or less.

Education for safety, health and conservation

Without the right knowledge set, it would be easy to mistakenly pick toxic or poisonous plants or fungi. Furthermore, contamination from pesticides and/or fertilizers is more likely in urban areas. Repeated ingestion of non-toxic chemicals could have a negative effect. This could be especially dangerous for the 20 percent of foragers whose harvests make up 10 percent or more of their diet.

The other major concern is that people will overpick certain popular plants or trample other fragile species while hunting for edibles. Commercial foraging, usually for rare mushrooms and roots like wild ginseng, is another problem. However, these generally grow in rural regions, not urban environments.

How are cities responding?

New York City responded to the growing foraging trend in its city parks by outlawing the practice. Several groups have responded by urging the city to make forage-friendly rules, such as installing signage by edible plants and stopping the use of toxic pesticides in city parks.

An ingenious permaculture "barge" has found a way around the Big Apple ban. The project, called Swale, circumvents NYC’s no-foraging rule because it's floating on the city’s riverways and is, therefore, not covered under the law as it is currently written. In addition to picking for free, the barge’s operators seek to teach people about the practices in a way that could lay the groundwork for future foraging and growing of edible permaculture plants.

There's an app for that ...

Another sign of the rise of urban foraging: there’s a smartphone app for it. Falling Fruit is an app that helps would-be pickers find places to forage in their city. The app’s tagline, "map the urban harvest," further underlines its focus on city-based foraging. Users can add new sites to the map, provided they're on public property.

Embracing the trend

Some cities are embracing the foraging trend and making it easier to pick on public property. Public orchards have sprung up in Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and even in smaller cities like Madison, Wisconsin and Asheville, North Carolina. These planned foraging areas give people a chance to take part in the urban harvest in a semi-controlled way.

Seattle, which has had concerns about its active foraging community doing harm to its efforts to restore 2,500 acres of urban forest, is trying to engage with foragers rather than outlawing the practice completely. Park rangers have even offered classes on foraging so that people have a better understanding of how the ecosystem works.

Could foraging solve food-access issues?

Some see possibilities for urban foraging that go beyond merely supplementing your diet and appeasing the remaining hunter-gatherer portion of your DNA. Swale, the New York City foraging barge, moors near urban food deserts where locals have little access to fresh produce. Others suggest foraging education could give people the tools that they need to overcome diet-related diseases, many of which are highly correlated to poverty.

Whether foraging develops into a cure for diet-related health issues remains to be seen, but based on recent studies and efforts by cities like Seattle, it seems that foraging is already much more common in cities than many think.