Open Your Eyes: A Responsible Guide to Foraging

by Giulia Pines


The first rule of foraging might be to keep your eyes open, at least according to Philip Stark, UC Berkeley Professor and founder of Berkeley Open Source Food. Stark works to promote and normalize foraging in California and across the US through interdisciplinary research, farm outreach, advocacy, and public walks. “When I travel, there’s always an old friend waiting to feed me dinner,” he mused. “All you have to do is open your eyes, and there is food.”

He’s not the only one who sees something special every time he glances down at the ground. The appeal of foraging —seeking out, identifying, and harvesting wild foods that grow without human intervention—seems to be growing these days. Armed with some basic information, anyone can venture out to a nearby forest, city park or even parking lot, and come back with dinner.

Chefs Love Foraged Foods

But interest at the restaurant, chef-driven level has also given foraging a boost: lately, restaurants have used foraged foods to supplement their menus, enhancing dishes with hyperlocal ingredients to make them stand out. Farmers’ markets fill with delicacies like garlicky ramps or morel mushrooms, as well as common edible weeds like dandelion, nettles, and lamb’s quarters. But Stark and others like him are working hard to spread the word about how easy it is to find these goodies away from the greenmarket.

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 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 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.

Wrongly identifying and ingesting certain mushrooms can be deadly. As a strict rule, if you're not completely sure of a mushroom’s identity, do NOT eat it.

Know Your Urban Soil

There’s a presumption that urban soil can be laced with all sorts of contaminants, including problematically high levels of herbicides, pesticides, and PCBs, worrying some potential foragers that the food you find could be hazardous to health. When they wanted to know more about local soil conditions, Stark and his colleagues tested three sites in the Bay Area. Two of them “were selected deliberately because we expected the soil to be challenged,” Stark explained. What they found surprised them: although higher-than-normal levels of lead and cadmium were present in the soil, these had not transferred to the plants.

“The plant tissues were not accumulating heavy metals […] and were safe to eat,” Stark declared. This is typical of plants that grow wild, which have to build up more resistance to their harsh environments and are often more nutritious than their farmed counterparts: they develop their own detox mechanisms.

All the same, if you don’t have access to testing equipment, Umansky says a simple phone call will do just fine. “Call the city and talk to the parks department. You can find out if they use agrochemicals in the area, or if it’s a reclaimed parcel.”

Access Your “Newborn” Stomach

Identifying a plant in the wild for the first time can be exciting, but Umansky urges restraint. “If you’re going out and foraging foods you’ve never eaten before, you need to treat your body the same way you would treat a newborn,” he said. “Try a couple of ounces of something, then wait a day” and see how you feel.

Apart from being a precautionary measure, taking it slow can also have positive environmental consequences: if you aren’t grabbing bucketfuls of something or stuffing it in your mouth with glee, but instead really thinking about how you’ll use and store it, you’ll be less likely to overharvest.

Don’t Overharvest

Beyond protecting your health and going easy on your digestive system, exercising restraint is also one of the primary tenets of foraging everywhere. “Imagine the land you are taking from is yours,” says Umansky. “Don’t take more than you need or more than you’re going to use.”

“There are many wonderful edible or medicinal plants that are considered invasive weeds,” says Meredith. “Things like dandelion, burdock, and Japanese knotweed tend to be bullies that crowd out other plants, so you can harvest them freely without doing any damage to the native ecosystem; in fact, you are helping native plants.”

In the case of greenmarket favorite ramps, however, foraging not just sparingly but also correctly can ensure there’s enough left over for next season: “When ramps are in season we only cut leaves [in spring] and don’t dig the bulbs until now,” says Umansky. “Each part of the plant has a different season, and if you treat the plant right you can experience it through many seasons.”

Books to Dig Into

Author(s) Title
Title Ava Chin Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love, and the Perfect Meal
Title Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus
Title Gary Lincoff and Giovanni Pacioni Simon and Schuster’s Guide to Mushrooms
Title Daphne Miller The Jungle Effect: Healthiest Diets from Around the World
Title Daphne Miller Farmacology: Total Health from the Ground Up
Title Samuel Thayer The Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants
Title Mia Wasilevich Ugly Little Greens: Gourmet Dishes Crafted from Foraged Ingredients

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