Today, a large majority of the food we consume comes from stores, produced on a commercial farm halfway across the world. If you prefer to source some of your food a little closer to home, you might be surprised to find out that no matter where you live, there is an abundance of edible greenery free for the picking. Here are five easy ways to start urban foraging in your neighborhood today.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
#1. Know Your Local Bylaws
Before you start foraging from any plants or trees you see, double-check your local bylaws. Some municipalities don’t allow foraging on city property like parks or ravines. For example, New York City can be especially restrictive to urban foragers looking for edible treats on city property.
Unfortunately, anti-foraging laws were one of many tools used to oppress African-American and Native American peoples through the centuries. These laws were implemented at the Federal, State, and Local levels through the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Their intention and result were in making it more difficult for people to "live off the land" and forage in traditional ways.
Many of these laws have since been repealed, but remnants of some of these laws may still be in effect in your area. To learn more about the historical legal issue regarding foraging in the United States, check out this paper from the Fordham Urban Law Journal titled "Food Law Gone Wild: The Law of Foraging".
If you do have permission to forage in your area, find out whether your city sprays any pesticides or other chemicals. This will give you a better understanding of areas to avoid or whether a simple rinsing will get rid of any pesticides. Either way, remember to always wash your harvest before you eat.
#2. Know What You're Gathering
Make sure you always know what you are foraging. Numerous plants, mushrooms, and fruits can make you very sick, so always be absolutely sure what you’re picking is edible, safe, and in season. It's also a good idea to have a plan of how you will harvest, store, and use your foraged edibles.
While out foraging, carry an identification book for your local plants and trees to double-check what you plan to harvest. If you don’t want to carry a book with you, just take a small sample of an unidentified plant home with you and do some research so you know for next time.
#3. Know Where to Look
In any urban area, you will find a wide variety of edible greenery. However, knowing how to forage won’t do you much good if you don’t know where to look.
A great resource at Falling Fruit allows users to map the exact location of edible finds in urban areas for others to find. If you want to discover some on your own, ravines and wooded areas or parks will definitely have some hidden gems.
One of the most popular forageable items, wild mushrooms can be found in most U.S states. However, if you've never foraged mushrooms before, make sure you know what to look for. Ideally, have an experienced mushroom forager teach you some identification first, or bring some guides for reference.
For those that live in the U.S Northwest, David Arora's "Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms" is regarded as one of the essential mushroom identification guides. Alternatively, apps like INaturalist help you identify, catalog, and record the location of each foraged item.
#4. Join a Local Urban Foraging Group
In recent years, urban foraging has gained quite a following in many of the metropolitan areas of North America. Cities like Portland and Seattle have organizations that teach beginners how to start urban foraging in a sustainable way.
Do some quick research and find out if there is a local foraging group in your city to join. The Meetup website has foraging groups from dozens of cities and over 53,000 foragers for you to join. These groups will allow you to ask more experienced foragers questions regarding ripeness, edibility, bylaws, and possibly some secret spots!
#5. Be a Conscientious Urban Forager
While you can find a vast supply of edible plants in any urban area, be certain to responsibly harvest them. For example, only take about one-third of anything you find so that other foragers have a chance to harvest that plant, as well as giving it a chance to regrow.
Overharvesting can ruin great foraging spots and even affect food resources for some wildlife. When exploring your city for foraging options, remember to always ask permission before harvesting something from private property. If they haven’t already been harvested, most people will let you pick a few berries or leaves from their plants. This helps them keep rotting fruit off their lawns and little critters out of their yards.
As a new urban forager, remember to always be able to identify what you want to harvest. Better yet, always remember the old adage "when in doubt, throw it out". But don't throw it out, just leave it where you found it and let nature do the rest.
If urban foraging sounds like something you want to try this spring and summer, finding other like-minded people will be the easiest way to get started. Joining a local foraging group to learn from more experienced foragers, as well as finding good areas in your city to explore for edibles.
Have you gone foraging in your neighborhood? Let us know some of your favorite finds in the comments below.
Looking for more foraging posts? Read on below.