Food is central to our survival. However, with more than 50% of people living in cities, our immediate connection to food is dwindling as a species. Without immediate access to fresh food, much of the produce we eat in the U.S. is grown in other countries and picked underripe. However, even in cities, folks are finding their way around these issues and eating food straight from the source in a variety of ways.
Foraging does not require your own space
“The connection between foraging and food is a pretty linear one,” said Gabrielle Cerberville, Michigan forager and science communicator, also known as Chaotic Forager on social media. “You can certainly forage things that are not food, but most of what we forage is for food.”
Foraging can be simple, but it requires an abundance of knowledge. Cerberville suggests first becoming well-versed in the edible plants around you. Go to your backyard, city park or national forest and identify the plants you see on a daily basis. Getting to know your surroundings is extremely important because, even though rancid smells can be a sign of poison, they are not always present.
“I take a three-times rule for myself. I try to identify something three times before I eat it. If I can’t find something three times, it probably means it’s really rare and I should leave it alone. If I find something three times, I take it home, stare at it, draw it [before eating it],” said Cerberville.
When Faith Kuzma, a master’s student at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, was working in the field at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute during the summer of 2019, she too began to forage.
“Previously, I had only heard about mushroom foraging, but learning that there were so many other edible plants around us inspired me to really dive into the topic,” said Kuzma.
After you have studied up on your region, it is time to go out and pick the plants.
“When I go foraging, I tend to only take a small amount of whatever I find…There are two exceptions to that though,” said Kuzma. “1) I’ll often collect more [berries] since I can make jam with them. 2) When I forage for invasive species, I’m also a little more liberal in the amount I collect.”
That, too, takes practice, because you do not want to over-pick an ecosystem and leave creatures such as fungi and deer without nutrition. It is not just about your home either. When Kuzma travels, she often learns about those environments too. In West Virginia, she and some friends found chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, and in Alaska, she picked wild blueberries while hiking.
Snacking, cooking, passing time and learning about your environment are all great reasons to learn about and begin your own foraging journey.
Gardening does not have to be in your backyard
Balconies, potted plants and raised beds are enough to get you started with your own vegetable patch.
“One of the greatest things about be[ing] a gardener is that we’re always learning, and that keeps it interesting and fun,” said Kyle Hagerty, a Sacramento-based firefighter and urban farmer.
Hagerty started his vegetable garden after sharing a plot of his mom’s garden as a kid. Now, he runs Urban Farmstead, which began as a donation-based community produce stand. It has since become both an Instagram and YouTube page.
For Hagerty, “Gardening is the perfect hobby…Being outside cultivates a connection with nature that serves as a type of meditation, whether you’re sowing seeds, pulling weeds or just sitting in the garden watching the bees pollinate the squash blossoms.”
But it is work too.
Australian gardener Lee Sullivan began her vegetable garden endeavors when her oldest son began eating solid food and she wondered exactly how clean her produce options were. Now, she runs Urban Veggie Patch Market and its accompanying Instagram page. Her garden has grown with her following.
According to Sullivan, you need sunshine and a spot for your plants to receive at least six hours of sunshine a day. Hagerty adds that soil is extremely important. If you can send your soil to a professional lab to really understand its composition, you are going to be better off. To that end, both Hagerty and Sullivan mentioned including compost in your garden to provide nutrients for the plants, so even if you do not know the exact makeup of your soil, you are still providing your veggies with plenty of food.
Like Kuzma and Cerberville’s foraged finds, Sullivan and Hagerty have learned to cook with their harvests too. When they cannot, they pickle and jam the produce for another day. For reasons from zero waste to simple pleasures, gardening can help you reconnect with your food.
What else can you do?
Neighborhoods and cities often have community gardens as well. There, you can often claim a small plot of land or a raised garden bed for a maintenance fee or for no cost to you. You have the freedom to plant and pick whatever you like while building friendships and skills. The downside to community gardens is that there can be long waiting lists, delaying your ability to start a garden, but that should not deter you.
Indoor plants and windowsill herb gardens are other easy solutions. If you have a window in your kitchen that gets sunshine for much of the day, you already have available space. Most herb gardens need only a few pots, seeds and soil, and if you pair herbs together, you may only need one pot. Similarly, Meyer lemons and tomatoes are amicable inside, with the right conditions of course.
Whether you have a balcony, a small backyard, a corner of your bedroom or a windowsill, planting your own food is possible. Not only is it cathartic, but it also reduces pesticides in your food and helps you learn how to use every part of your plants. Read some books about wild edibles and others about gardening. See what grows best in your climate, and then try your hand at growing something. Anything. And learn from others doing the same.
Connecting with your produce is an oft-forgotten habit in the 21st century, but Hagerty said it best: “By growing your own food, you’re reducing your carbon footprint by skipping the transport, packaging and everything else that goes into the food you’d be buying at a grocery store.”
Images via Lee Sullivan, Chaotic Forager and Faith Kuzma