Embracing Invasivery

The Function of Foraging for Humanity

Words
Philip B. Stark & Sabine Dabady
Researcher
Philip B. Stark & Sabine Dabady
Photography
Bryony Caldwell

Philip B. Stark is a Professor of Statistics and Associate Dean of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He works on inference and uncertainty quantification in applications including astrophysics, cosmology, climate, ecology and wild food foraging in urban ecosystems.

He also studies foundational questions in the philosophy of science and statistics. Philip currently serves on the Board of Advisors of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and he has testified as an expert witness in a range of civil and criminal cases on issues including antitrust, employment, equal protection, food safety, intellectual property, and vaccines.

The Perception Problem

Dandelions that spring up from yards, sidewalks, schoolyards, municipal parks, and open corner lots are commonly viewed as resilient weeds. To an urban forager, they are a prime example of edible, fresh, nutritious, free foods. US Forest Service research has found that harvesting wild foods in public spaces, specifically plants and fungi, already contributes (and could contribute more) to the nutritional needs of city residents. By supplying accessible, nutritious food, foraging could provide a supplementary food source within the urban and peri-urban landscape as part of a multi-pronged strategy to help address socioeconomic inequities in access to nutritious foods.

The success of foraging in the urban ecosystems of California depends on enabling city dwellers to safely and freely harvest plants in their local environment. Currently, urban foraging is often prohibited. In some places, it is unsafe due to soil contaminants, including metals and pesticides. Focusing policies on foraging on land that is under active public management, such as city parks and public schools, offers an immediate opportunity to increase access to wild and feral foods, to ensure the safety of harvested food, and to educate the public and land managers alike. Foraging is already practiced in both urban and rural settings, and is increasingly the focus of attention within urban green space planning. Urban foraging is now at the periphery of the food system, much like farmers markets and community gardens once were. However, with state support for institutions that make it safe and accessible in municipal parks and public schools, partnered with citizen education, foraging has the potential to become much more widely accepted and valued.

We don’t have a problem with food, we have a problem with the public perception of what is edible.

Nutritional Benefits of Urban Foraging

Berkeley Open Source Food (BOSF), a research group at UC Berkeley that promotes the consumption of wild and feral foods, maps the availability of foraged foods, measures their nutritional content, and tests them for environmental contaminants. BOSF has identified more than 100 wild and feral edible foods in the East Bay Area, and many more can be found throughout the state. Over the past three years, BOSF team members have conducted on-the-ground surveys in three “food deserts” in Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland, estimating that, depending on the season, up to several thousand servings (each serving being half a loose cup) of culinary quality greens are available at individual urban residential addresses.

The nutritional density of wild and feral foods can be greater than that of their domesticated counterparts. For instance, nutritional tests show that foraged dandelion has twice as much calcium and fiber and 2.5 times as much iron as store-bought dandelion. Mallow has more calcium than milk and eight times as much iron as spinach, by volume. Given the concentration of micronutrients in wild plants, policymakers can help advance food security by looking at how populations with poor access to nutritionally dense foods can get better access to these foods.

An extract from Philip B. Stark & Sabine Dabady’s article: ‘Urban Foraging in Municipal Parks and Public Schools: Opportunities for Policymakers’

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