Foraging is a revived cultural movement whose members hunt for and consume wild, uncultivated, and local food. The word conjures visions of African savanna dwellers, wild scavengers roaming the steppes on the hunt for munch-able bunnies, or, more locally, indigent people diving through dumpsters looking for makeshift meals. Recently, however, a growing group of people has been looking for answers to their concerns about food quality and security. Their search has led them outside where the look for food that nature provides.
Foraging is different from gardening. Gardening requires fixed space, time for cultivation, viable seeds, care and maintenance, and eventually harvesting and food preservation. Foraging skips straight to harvest. Foraging looks a lot like finding edible weeds and funguses, wild growing grains, nuts, and berries.
In many parts of the world, foraging is still a critical skill for survival. Not so long ago on the evolutionary timeline, humans grouped together in semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes and followed roaming herds and found seasonal plants to meet their dietary needs. People and animals lived off the land sustainably and, when the local balance got off kilter, tribes would move to where there was a more plentiful food supply. In some developing parts of the world, roaming and foraging are still the primary ways of getting food.
People in the developed nations, however, are no longer reliant on foraging skills for survival. They rely on indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and a complex system of food distribution to feel secure, comfortable, and functional. A disruption of any duration to the food supply, waste disposal, water supply, and communication would uncover how ill-equipped most people are to be able to live off of the grid for an extended period. Foragers, however, might be prepared to survive – and actually thrive – in adverse conditions.
Not all foragers are motivated by food security concerns. In 2010, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article featuring chefs from the city who were incorporating foraged ingredients into their menus. Iso Rabins, the founder of San Francisco’s wild food community, said in the article, “If you know that the plants around you have a real value rather than just aesthetic value, it makes you look at your city in a different way.” Rabins says that he feels more connected to his community and the land around him through his foraging experience.
There are other good reasons to learn how to forage. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported that the price of staples like rice and vegetable oil doubled between January and May of 2008. While this price increase is inconvenient for middle class Americans, it is devastating to the poor, both in America and around the world. Assuming that there are edible wild plants available in an area, foraging is one way to access free, nutrient-rich food.
Naturally occurring plants that are found in traditional Native American diets include camas bulbs, acorns, cattail, juniper berries, choke berries, and lamb’s quarters. National Public Radio (NPR) reported that the wild foods that earlier Native communities ate were – and still are – super foods. One cup of wild dandelion leaves, for example, contains 112% of the daily recommended intake of vitamin A and 535% of vitamin K.
A genetically modified organisms (GMO) is an animal or, in this case, plant whose DNA has been genetically altered to contain DNA from other plants, viruses, or bacteria. Generally the justification for modifying plant DNA is that doing so makes the plant more resistant to drought and pesticides. The practice is widely criticized by natural food advocates who blame GMOs for the disappearance of pollinator species such as bees and for ruining the biodiversity of the world’s seed supply. Worse, genetically modified seeds can crossbreed with natural seeds, rendering them infertile, unable to create subsequent crops.
Natural disasters, political turmoil, and drought also put stresses on global food stores. Climate change, mineral soil depletion, increased demand due to population growth, and the rising costs of fossil fuel used to transport food present even more challenges. These challenges are complex and disturbing.
Karen Stephenson is part of the foraging movement. Her book, Free Food From Foraging, tells beginners how to get started as foragers. Instead of rushing online to buy pallets of canned powdered milk and freeze-dried cheese, Stephenson suggests that people to learn to find their own free food. She recommends that new foragers find dependable resource books and experienced foragers so that they can learn how to positively identify edible food.
Stephenson cautions would-be foragers to respect the law by not trespassing, to respect the land by not littering, and to respect the plant life by taking only what is needed for food to keep the plant viable. She reminds readers that it is important to not consume any plant material that has not been positively identified and to be aware of the environment while foraging. She also warns new foragers to be careful to avoid bees nests, animals and their waste, plants in high traffic areas, and environmental pollutants.
Wild food foraging offers a possible solution to rising food prices, the environmental impact of the current food distribution system, supply inconsistencies, and the decreased nutritional quality of food. Uncomfortable with dependence on the system, foragers look to the land around them to provide them free and nutritious food. If the grid goes down, foraging skills could provide true answers to food security concerns.
By Kaley Perkins