Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Can Urban Foraging Actually Feed Poor People? A Response

Mallow, one of the most time/energy
efficient plants to forage
My friend Kelly sent me a link to an article, talking about whether or not urban foraging can actually be used to help working poor not starve; she thought I might have a good answer to that. I certainly do.

I not only enjoy foraging and extol the virtues of foraging on my blog, I also recommend foraging to others and teach classes on foraging, specifically with a focus on how it saves you money.

Can Urban Foraging Actually Feed Poor People? Yes and No

The questions the article poses are as follow:
  • Yes, you can forage if you have lots of extra time on your hands (and I'll admit as a stay at home- homeschooling mom of four I do have a decent amount of spare time on my hands), but if you're working full time, possibly at two or three jobs even, is foraging a viable option even if you can't dedicate lots of time to it?
  • Can foraging even fill your belly to stop you from starving? How viable is it as a food source, especially if you can't dedicate lots of time to it?
  • And can foraged food taste good or do you have to like bitter food for foraging to be worth it?

These are questions I deal with a lot. And to be honest, they apply to me too- since I don't care much for bitter and having 4 kids at home with me every day means that I am not going out to forage every day for hours on end- I have other things to do than dedicate all my hours/life to foraging- and my kids don't necessarily want to be going out foraging all the time.

So to answer those questions in short- yes, foraging is doable for everyone, even those short on time and not fans of bitter. No, it's not doable as a sole source of sustenance, but it is a great way of adding important nutrients to your diet without increasing your grocery costs, and if you're currently spending a lot of money on produce, of lowering your grocery bills.

Plants Worth Foraging When Short on Time

As I explained to a CSA farmer yesterday to whom I gave a private wild edibles lesson, while there are a whole slew of wild edibles growing in a certain area, there are ones that are more time efficient and therefore more worth your while to forage. Large fruit are worth foraging, so are large leaved plants, and plants in which the whole thing is edible, especially if they grow closely packed together.
Examples of plants I find worth foraging:

Most Worthwhile
Mallow. These often grow to very large sizes- locally, if left to grow long enough, each leaf can be the size of a small or even large plate- so in two or three minutes, enough can be picked to fill a good sized shopping bag. And each plant has many leaves so just one or two plants can give you a large bounty.
Wild Mustard. Ditto on the large leaves. And each plant also has many leaves, so much bounty from one plant. These are a little on the bitter side, but I don't find it a big deal to blanche them to remove much of their bitterness.
Sow Thistle. Again, large leaves. I use most of the plant, so one pluck at the base of the plant leaves me with most of the plant usable, so picking this is very quick. These are a little on the bitter side when they're older, but I don't find it a big deal to blanche them to remove much of their bitterness.
Purslane. Same as sow thistle (only without the bitterness).
Chickweed. These are smaller plants, but are usually growing in a thick mat, so in one snip of a scissors I can pick 20 or 30 plants, and fill up a bag quickly.
Wood Sorrel. Same as chickweed.
Rosemary. Same as chickweed.
Lavender. Same as chickweed.
Wild Onion/Garlic. Same as chickweed.
Wild Fennel. Same as chickweed.
Olive Leaves. These have small leaves but one snip gives me a lot with which to make tea.
Grapes. Quick and easy to pick, not much work to use.
Lemons. Same as grapes.
Oranges. Same as grapes.
Figs. Same as grapes.
Apples. Same as grapes.
Pomegranates. Same as grapes.
Carobs. Same as grapes.
Plums. Same as grapes.
Loquats. Same as grapes.
Passionfruit. Same as grapes.
Pears. Same as grapes.
Apricots. Same as grapes.
Nectarines. Same as grapes.

Second Most Worthwhile
Lambsquarters. One pluck at the base of the stem leaves me with a very large plant I can take home, after which I pull off the leaves and use them in dishes. Outside foraging time is quick, but this takes a little more work at home.
Nettles. Same as lambsquarters.
Sage. Same as lambsuarters.
Yucca. One snip at the base of the flower cluster gives me a large bunch to take home.
Cactus Paddles and Prickly Pear. These are large and pretty quick to pick, but they take more work at home to de-thorn.
Sumac. One snip at the base of the fruit cluster gives me a large bunch to take home. Then they just need to be processed at home, which isn't such a huge deal, but its less worthwhile than the first category for this reason.
Pink Peppercorns. Same as with sumac.

Less Worthwhile But I Still Do It Occasionally
Capers. These take more time to pick, but their flavor is just really special, and a little bit goes a long way, so I find it worth the while.
Eryngo. Same as capers.
Mint. Same as capers.
Fennel Seeds. Same as capers.
Mustard Seeds. Same as capers.
Shepherd's Purse. These are super medicinal, so I pick them for that purpose- better than buying them in the health food store!
Plantain. They are a little more bitter than I like, but their medicinal properties are so beneficial that I pick them anyhow.
Dock. These taste great, and you can make some delicious dishes with them, but I usually find them few and far between, so I don't do it a lot...
Mushrooms. Mushrooms are super expensive round these parts, so that's one thing. And the thrill of finding them is awesome. But they aren't easy to find- you can come home empty handed. So looking for mushrooms is more a hobby than a sustainable food source in my opinion.
Black Nightshade.  These taste great, but they're really small, so I usually just pick these as I see them and eat them but don't take them home with me. They get squished easily, another reason I don't generally bother.
Mulberries. Same as black nightshade.
Raspberries/Blackberries. Same as black nightshade.
Milk Thistle. As much as these taste good, their thorns bug me, so I don't typically pick these. Though I sometimes do.
Pine Nuts (and other nuts). These taste awesome and are exciting to use, but they are pretty time consuming to forage and de-shell, even if you do them the right way. So this doesn't happen often.
Silverberry. These grow all over, but they're small, and they leave my mouth feeling chalky, but my kids enjoy them, so they pick them as we pass by.
Dandelion. I don't care for bitter, and the plants aren't very big, so I can't pick a bunch in one go. I occasionally do pick these, but they're low down on my list- other things usually end up getting picked first. Though I might throw one or two into my bag if I'm picking things in the area.
Wild Carrots. Even though I know how to tell it apart from poisonous look alikes when older, I still get nervous when its younger because there are fewer markers, so I rarely pick this, and when I do, it's older.

Plants I Don't Usually Bother With (but can't say I never do)
Callendula. If you just are picking the flower of something- it takes a long time to make it worth your while. I usually don't bother with plants in which I just use their flowers.
Chamomile. Same as callendula.
Wild Lettuce/Chicory. Did I mention I dislike bitter? I think these taste nasty and they leave a gross taste in my mouth for a long time after. And even after doing what it takes to make them less bitter, they're still bitter...
Henbit/Deadnettle. I have no problem with these, but I rarely see a large patch together, so I don't bother because they're usually few and far between.
Myrtle Berries. They're small and make my mouth feel chalky. Not worth my time.
Rosehips. Processing these to take out the hairy seeds inside isn't worth the bother.
Cleavers. They have small leaves, don't feed good raw in your mouth, so using them for soups, etc... doesn't seem worth the bother for me.
Olives. I find that it takes so long to pick them, and then often they are buggy, so more than half ends up getting thrown out. And then, even after that, the green olives I make don't taste as good as the store bought stuff. The black olives are easier to make and taste better, but still are a lot of work, so I'll do them rarely, but certainly not often.
Pine Needles. I dont like eating/drinking things that taste like cleaning fluids when there are other plants that taste nicer and do the trick medicinally.

If someone is poor and short on time, I definitely recommend that they forage items in the first category for sure, and quite possibly in the second category as well. Plants in the third and fourth categories are ones that I wouldn't recommend to people short on time.

In sum- if you're busy- pick large leafy plants in which as much of the plants are edible as possible, and/or large fruits, but leave the more time consuming/smaller yield plants for people with more time on their hands/the hobbyists. My list only covers things that grow in my area, but if you have different plants in your area then use this rule to see what is worthwhile for you. (Persimmons, pawpaws, and crabapples are examples of things that don't grow around me, but would be worthwhile picking even if you're short on time.)

Finding Time To Forage

Ok, so now that we covered what you can forage if you're short on time- the question is- how do you find time to forage even those faster to forage items?
So, here's the thing.
You don't need to, as long as you're aware and keeping your eyes open.
I rarely ever go out of my house to forage. I mean, every one in a while I go out with the intention of foraging, but usually I don't.
Then how do I forage?
I don't have a car, so when I'm heading from one place to another, I often see wild edibles growing right along where I'm walking. I find near bus stops. I find in abandoned lots. I find in courtyards of buildings, I find along walking paths. I try to always keep bags with me in which I can collect what I see as I'm walking by. Depending on how dense the foliage is, and how much is growing, I stop sometimes for 10 seconds, sometimes for 2 minutes, and on a rare occasion, 5 minutes. Most of the time, though, my foraging is completed in under one minute. And then I continue along my way. I rarely actually spend a significant amount of time foraging, and by focusing on the most worthwhile plants, I fill up my bags very quickly with large amounts of free, uber nutritious foods.
Occasionally I do go out specifically to forage, but most times that I do that, I stay within 100 feet of my front door, and just pick what I can find.
If you have kids, you can also teach them to identify a few specific plants, and send them out to pick those plants, since kids generally have more spare time than their parents do.
The thing is- when you forage and you're short on time, you forage what there is. You can't say "I'm going out to pick lambsquarters" (unless you happen to know where to find lambsquarters easily) and then come home specifically with that- you go out to pick plants, and you may come home with lambsquarters, may come home with mallow and mustard and chickweed, etc... And then you work with what you have.
This is similar to how I suggest shopping. I rarely ever shop from a grocery list (other than a few basic staples like peanut butter, salt, rice cakes, and rice)- I typically go to the store, see what is cheap (generally what is in season for produce, and on sale for everything else) and buy that, and prepare that. If you work as a professional forager, or do this as a hobby, and have the time to hunt specific plants, not coming back until you've gotten your fill of whatever it is you were looking for- then great. If not, I suggest not going out in search of something specific, but instead learn to appreciate the variety that grows and that you stumble upon.

In terms of time spent and calories received, no, foraging on its own certainly won't get you very far. To get enough protein and calories, not to mention carbohydrates, from foraged items would take so much energy. People like the guy from "Into the Wild" tried surviving "off nature alone" and started starving. So no, foraging won't "feed the poor" entirely on its own.
But these little plants are often super nutritious and pack much more of a nutritional punch than a cheeseburger from McDonalds. So even if you do rely on fast food because of being short on time and cash, I suggest, at the very least, adding wild greens into your diet, since it doesn't take much time at all.
(P.S. I do have another post coming up on healthier, cheaper, and faster alternatives to fast food for people short on both cash and time.)

If you're a forager- are you short on time or not? If you are short on time, what do you find to be most worth your while to forage? If you're not short on time, do you tend to forage more for specific items that give you more bang for your buck time and energy-wise, or forage according to what you're more interested in eating?
If you don't forage, is it because of time constraints? Does this post change your thoughts on the topic?


  1. I haven't really tried foraging here (except citrus -- it's the zucchini of the American Southwest and is easily found in boxes marked FREE FOR ALL PLEASE PLEASE TAKE.)

    Though when I walk past the prickly pear I'm tempted...there are still fruits as well as the plant itself though you might have to fight the roof rats for them.

    Otherwise I'm leery of the pesticides that are sprayed liberally around here. I know you can wash the plant, but the ground is soaked in them. Not that it does anything about the roof rats.

    1. If you go a little further out, you might be able to find stuff without pesticides...

  2. The Into the Wild guy was apparently poisoned. Really fascinating:


    1. So I've read. But it was a combination of that and lack of calories, from what I read.

  3. penny, you can still use unprocessed rosehips (with the hair). you dry them and crush them to add to plant teas (like linden, chamomille etc). they give a nice rose colour and a little sourness (like adding lemon) to the tea. i forage lots of rosehips in autumn (before they are touched by frost as they should be), dry them and use all winter for vitamin C.


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