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Photo courtesy Karlos Baca
Wildfires, climate change, invasive species, poor air quality and hunger are big-picture structural issues that multiple cities contend with every day. At the community level are public-health challenges such as high rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, especially among the underserved and historically marginalized..
Such a wide range of problems seems not to point to a single solution. Yet in cities across the U.S., and indeed around the world, people are successfully addressing these issues, to varying degrees, with a single, ancient practice: Foraging.
No matter where your ancestors came from, chances are they foraged for food up until 100 or 150 years ago. This shared heritage of foraging — the way people have sourced their food, all over the world, for millennia — has been nearly extinguished in just a few generations.
Today, children are taught little about their natural environment, let alone how to forage for food. What has replaced it? How to get good deals at the supermarket. What holidays are best for buying which consumer goods. In Detroit, for example, children commonly ask each other, “Which gas station does your mommy shop at?” when it comes to food shopping. Kids elsewhere might learn where to find the best pizzeria or sushi restaurant. In other communities, lining up at a local food pantry or soup kitchen, or learning how to apply for SNAP benefits, may be the rite of passage.
But a growing group of practitioners is dedicated to reintroducing the ancestral knowledge of foraging. Connecting to the natural world through foraging establishes valuable ties to the past and urges an investment in our shared future. Once that connection is intimately made, the specter that a natural space may be destroyed — because of climate change, other man-made environmental catastrophe or forced erasure of knowledge — can inspire a shift in the relationship between urban residents and the natural world.
Today, in cities from New York to Los Angeles, this age-old practice has become a thoughtful lens through which some communities address contemporary urban problems — from battling diabetes to tempering wildfires, from improving air quality to managing invasive species, and more. The common thread? A veneration of the cultures that nurtured this wisdom, and a deep appreciation of the bounty that surrounds us.
Pascal Baudar is an author and forager born and raised in Belgium. He’s also a self-described wild food artist who has lived in LA for most of the last 30 years. He started foraging as a child, and after a time working as a graphic artist, he came back to it in the late 1990s.
Today, he gives at least two foraging tours around Los Angeles each week, and is a guest speaker across the L.A. area, teaching anyone who is interested in how to forage for wild edibles.
Urban forager Pascal Baudar makes an “autumn beer” from foraged ingredients which he says will “ferment twice to become a truly unique vinegar.” (Photo courtesy Pascal Baudar)
“You have all this food not being used,” he says on a recent tour of a no-man’s-land corner of Los Angeles County, standing in a brownfield near a freeway, a place where private land and a horse ranch meets utility-owned land meets state and county land. Black mustard and Italian mustard are everywhere here, and Baudar shows how to harvest it efficiently.
This mustard, he explains, is considered invasive. It’s non-native. It’s highly flammable—a problem in wildfire-prone L.A. Multiple local agencies work overtime to eradicate it, dousing it with herbicides. Baudar points to a part of the field that has been sprayed, showing how to recognize and avoid the treated plants when foraging.
Other communities, in their efforts to control the fast-spreading, wildfire-feeding plants, even bring in goats to eat it.
That’s Baudar’s point: This stuff is edible. And it’s delicious.
Baudar pulls from his bag a jar of mustard he’s made from the seeds he foraged, opening it on the spot for the tour participants to taste.
To Baudar, the fact that the mustard — and many other invasive species that feed wildfires — is edible and non-native makes it a prime food source that, to his mind, ought to be harvested and put to work for the hungry, or at least harvested as food for humans simply to prevent wildfires.
Gillian Grebler, an anthropologist who teaches classes in the culture of food and sustainable food systems at Santa Monica College, agrees. Baudar is a frequent guest speaker in her classes, “blowing people’s minds” with his knowledge. Baudar has “an ongoing effect,” she says. “It sets people on a new trajectory of looking at wild plants. It’s a part of being that hasn’t entered their minds.”
“He’s developed such an interesting point of view on invasive species,” and his work influences SMC’s gardens: “Now we know [that] a weed is edible,” Grebler says with a laugh, adding they tend and harvest the dandelions and other “weeds” they now know can be used as food. “It’s such a more expansive feeling of what we can do in the garden.”
To Grebler, foraging should be part of urban agriculture or waste prevention, incorporated by the L.A. Food Policy Council, an organization working to cultivate a “local food system free from hunger, rooted in equity and access, supportive of farmers and food workers, and guided by principles of environmental stewardship and regeneration.” However, according to third-generation Angeleno and executive director Clare Fox, foraging is not something they are currently incorporating.
The idea hasn’t caught on with food policy people or those tasked with eradicating invasive species, but more people, inspired by Baudar, are asking “why not?”
Beyond Los Angeles, Baudar raises awareness of the natural world and cultivates a foraging community and a strong national and international following of like-minded wild-food enthusiasts. His magazine-quality photos of gourmet foraged food have garnered more than 50,000 followers on Instagram.
When Baudar first started to study the history of wild food in Europe, he realized much of the knowledge had been lost. “It’s a story of invasion. I have an interest in the Celtic culture. That’s where I come from. Fermentation was a part of that culture, [as well as] the knowledge of plants and herbs. A lot of the culture has been erased — the Romans brought with them modern agriculture, and they suppressed the original cultures, religions and ways of life.”
Baudar speaks passionately about a time, pre-Roman Empire, when the land we know today as Belgium was the source of wild-crafted beers, potions, and other elixirs. That knowledge, he says, was regarded as witchcraft. Men and women alike were killed for not doing things that aligned with conventional church teachings. Traditional beer recipes were either destroyed or kept under strict control by the church, which prohibited anyone outside the institution from making the brews.
Baudar looks back at the knowledge that was lost as the church marched across Europe — knowledge that can be reclaimed here in the United States because when colonizers arrived here, they brought their invasive species with them, too.
These wild seed crackers are made with local invasive grains such as wild oats and curly dock. (Photo courtesy Pascal Baudar)
“The way we used to interact with nature has been lost,” Baudar says. “We used to be a part of nature. If you don’t understand nature, you will look at it as something not that valuable,” he says. What he sees as food, many people too often see as a nuisance to eradicate.
Baudar’s mission is to raise enough awareness about the natural world to stop the poisoning of it and start appreciating what’s there.
“Why don’t we look at solutions?” he asks, rather than, for example, dousing wild mustards with weed killer. “Why don’t we do something that will be beneficial to people, instead of killing the plant and wasting it? It can be food if you know how to prepare it properly. Foraging is really about food preservation.”
In addition to foraging, Baudar also teaches more than 30 ancestral methods that Europeans once commonly employed to preserve foods, including lacto-fermentation, pickling, jugging, potting (preserving in fat), vinegar making and others. He calls these methods “primitive,” in the sense of “relating to the earliest age or period,” and says these preparations are still highly effective.
“Most of my job is to bring back the things that have been forgotten,” says Baudar.
Karlos Baca, Indigenous food activist and Tewa/Diné/Nuuciu, strolls through Albuquerque, New Mexico, pointing out amaranth, prickly pear and sumac. This is desert land, but Baca can — and does — feed thousands each year with the food he forages here. To him and other Native Americans whose families have been living in the desert for thousands of years, the desert is filled with food. Only through eyes that don’t see that abundance did the phrase “food desert” come to describe areas with no grocery stores, or to say that healthy food doesn’t exist in a place.
For those situations and power dynamics, Baca prefers the phrases “food apartheid” or “food equity.” Food sovereignty is another: How can a tribe be sovereign if they must rely on the government for food? Especially when the knowledge of pre-colonial food has been — almost — eradicated?
Forager Karlos Baca and a seriously large wild mushroom (Photo courtesy Karlos Baca)
Albuquerque is in an environment encircled by tribes, surrounded by pueblos and Navajo Nation. Even on the reservation, there is information loss. “It’s been so drastic,” Baca sighs. The genocide of the mind that has occurred on this land since the early 1500s echoes into the present with all the subtlety of a sonic boom.
He fights this forced erasure of knowledge, and the replacement of traditional foods with highly processed, unhealthy colonizer foods — think canned fruit in syrup and processed white flour — by teaching Native Americans about their ancestral foods, how to find and forage for them, how to prepare them, and how to integrate them with modern foods. He also teaches cooking techniques new and old.
Baca’s role is to revive the pre-colonial diet for people whose ancestors thrived on it for thousands of years.
Baca leads groups of elders and young people together on foraging walks and in foraging and food preparation workshops, cultivating and reintegrating the information that has been lost, carefully and gently reminding Native Americans of their birthright to collect and care for the food of this land.
Cerese Martinez, Santo Domingo Pueblo, attended one of Baca’s educational workshops in Albuquerque in October, where Baca taught both how to forage and prepare the foraged foods. Martinez says she had no idea that the plants she thought were weeds were food that her ancestors ate for thousands of years — foods that are actually healthy for her.
“It’s really important to learn things like that, so we can teach our children, teenagers and adults about these things,” says Martinez. “There should be more people like Karlos, so they could teach other people or families that want to learn more about the plants that grow on our lands.”
“There’s an insane amount of foraging in Albuquerque,” says Baca. “But you have to know your place.” That local knowledge — what Baca calls the “intimacy of place” — must be developed: A relationship with a place, its plants, its landscape, its history. That knowledge doesn’t just happen. While Baca might be able to teach some things, people must develop those relationships for themselves. The knowledge of what a place is, what it has been and how it is changing, happens over time.
Building community and relationship with foraged food is important, he says. “What do you do when you build community?” he asks. “You go into a space, acknowledging you all carry a bit of something.” As knowledge is shared and information respected, foraging becomes a pathway to build trust and community. “We don’t go in and say hey! You need to be doing this,” he adds. “We present opportunity for people.”
Only through eyes that don’t see the abundance that Karlos Baca sees, could the phrase “food desert” come to describe areas with no healthy food. Baca can feed thousands on the food he forages here.
Photo courtesy Karlos Baca
Expanding opportunities is also something Baca works towards with a winter community supported box of wild crafted food and medicine. At $250 for the winter season or $75 for one month, the box is an opportunity to nurture equity: if you are “committed to disrupting systemic oppression,” you can buy a share for someone in the community who might not otherwise have financial access to the program.
Salves of arnica, pine needle syrup, vinegars, amaranth, fresh blue corn tortillas, seed crackers and more are included, along with instructions on how to use them. If that sounds gourmet, it is. Baca jokes he is “de-bougie-fying” the monthly box, because this one isn’t made for the rich. “They’re for nourishing our community.” It’s about providing accessibility for those who have been denied access to these traditional foods over centuries of food warfare.
“You don’t have to get into the buffalo getting slaughtered or the Spanish outlawing amaranth,” to talk food warfare, says Baca. Examples of food warfare are happening right now, from cultural appropriation to the rewriting of food history.
For example, PBS calls fry bread an “ancient Navajo house blessing.”
In reality, fry bread is about as ancient as what colonizers gave Native Americans to survive on less than 160 years ago, after centuries of genocidal enslavement, torture, and murder. It’s made of processed white flour, sugar, and lard — a recipe of bad health for Native Americans, who had none of that in their diets for thousands of years prior. Through the perversity of colonization, fry bread became a comfort food, and helped to lay a foundation for the health crisis in Indian Country, a crisis that includes high rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease
“Our bodies aren’t built the same,” as white bodies, says Baca. “We grew for thousands of years on a different diet.” The diets of colonization he says, are killing people.
“There is no quick fix,” he adds. Something that took hundreds of years to destroy won’t be undone overnight. Restoration of the pre-colonial diet will take time, and Baca is preparing for that.
“We’re looking to the future and the past,” says Baca. “I’m doing stuff to build conversations that I won’t take part of,” and will last for multiple generations.
Sometimes the seeds we plant in others take root, and we get to see the fruit of our work in our lifetime.
Such is the case with “Wildman” Steve Brill, an author, illustrator, forager, and storyteller. Brill has led foraging tours in New York City and the surrounding area since 1982. More than two decades ago, he gave a foraging tour to a group of elementary school students. A young boy named Ruben Ramales was on that tour.
“Wildman” Steve Brill has been leading foraging tours of Central Park and other New York City parks since 1982. (Photo courtesy “Wildman” Steve Brill)
Ramales is now an architect and the executive director of the AIA Chapter in Queens, as well as an enthusiastic volunteer and promoter of Friends of the QueensWay, a community group that seeks to transform an abandoned LIRR rail line into a park, similar to Manhattan’s High Line, (only, Ramales clarifies, without the mass displacement and other shortfalls that the infrastructure-reuse project has wrought).
It was in his work with the QueensWay project that Ramales thought he could use foraging to activate Central Queens urban parks and natural environments with community residents and organizational partnerships. When he started investigating his idea, memories of foraging as a child with Brill came flooding back.
According to Brill, “Kids develop knowledge and emotional connection to the ecosystem.” Foraging helps them to learn to “live ecologically sound and healthy lifestyles,” and will help them become responsible citizens, who, in Brill’s words, will engage civically to “put responsible people in office, who will curb destructive industry and the harm done to the environment and animal suffering.”
“People need to make good choices in their personal life,” says Brill, and getting kids started in the natural environment with foraging is an important step in that direction. The kids he teaches “are growing up and doing great things for the environment.”
Kids, he says, like Ramales.
“When we looked at … Forest Park [in Central Queens], there was poor access,” explains Ramales. “So we used [Brill’s] foraging tours to introduce [nature] to the community.”
Ramales explains that residents who attend Brill’s Forest Park foraging walks are then inspired to learn more and be in nature more, and are more likely to promote natural green space as a result. Ramales calls Brill “a conduit to other programing” — meaning that after taking his classes, many Queens residents are more likely to seek out other nature-focused groups, such as the local community of bird watchers.
Foraging “promotes a healthy lifestyle,” says Ramales, something he says is important, that leads to the preservation of the natural green space and its health benefits, such as greater oxygen levels in the neighborhood.
Simple access to oxygen is important for city residents, says Ramales, along with minimizing carbon dioxide exposure. As an architect, he understands that it’s not just the roads and vehicles that generate CO2 in an urban environment. “We get it from buildings too,” he says. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, buildings account for 40 percent of all CO2 emitted in the U.S. Access to parks and the ability to preserve green space in an urban environment is essential.
Brill’s work helps urban residents cultivate that intuitive understanding. In addition, Brill’s walks have helped to foster a “giant community that’s accessible and informative.” One outcome of this shared connection might best be described as crowd-sourced identification of the natural world of Forest Park, leading to the creation of data- and graphic-driven reports the community contributes to.
“There are a lot of studies that support the healthy access to nature,” says Ramales. “The numbers support it, and I think that visually, when you can identify what you have — and the possibility of losing it — that terrifies people.”
The fear of losing something personally valuable — to climate change, wildfire, or other ecological disaster — inspires people to take action, along with the recognition that our shared histories, whether from Europe or Native America or elsewhere, are rooted in survival, environmental awareness, and concern for the future. It’s inspiring foragers and those learning nationwide.
“In Europe when I grew up in the 1970s, a lot of the elders still had knowledge of wild edibles,” Baudar says. “My grandpa, in World War Two, was looking for any food resources available, and if you knew about the ‘weeds’ you could feed yourself,” he says — an important skill to have in wartime.
The crowd-sourced results of the 2018 City Nature Challenge, to identify the wild elements in Forest Park, Queens. (Graphic courtesy Ruben Ramales)
Foraging, he points out, is “still an oral tradition,” he continues. “You can go to college and study botany, and still have no idea what’s edible.”
“It’s so dangerous,” Baudar continues. “You don’t know how to survive. Three generations ago, they knew. It can be forgotten so easily.”
“It’s information for survival,” Baca says. “Having those skills is super important.”
Brill agrees. “It’s sad [that] schools emphasize test scores so much. The elements of the environment are really important to bring in to public consciousness.” He notes the students he teaches in the field develop a deeper relationship with the natural world than students who only learn in a classroom setting.
“We are going through fires, through climate change,” says Baudar. “We need positive solutions, a positive narrative. Wild food should empower people to get their own food. Yet, the common people have been conditioned not to use it… [people] have been told wild food is bad, or polluted, or otherwise dirty or unclean.”
“You go to the store, and you think you have food freedom,” continues Baudar, speaking to the illusion of choice that grocery stores present. “There are five different types of potato [at the store],” whereas in the natural world, there are hundreds of kinds of potato to eat.
Of course, foraging is a skill that takes time to learn and learn with respect, so as to preserve the plant, preserve its presence, and ensure a healthy future for the plant and the planet. Foraging has no space for greed and free-market capitalism.
“There is a whole country that exports everything [they farm] to the United States,” says Baudar. “Then their beef goes to China, and they buy their beef from Venezuela because it’s cheaper. This is the modern food system. I’m saying, fuck capitalism. We’re surrounded by food locally.”
This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.
Valerie Vande Panne is a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow and a freelance writer. She travels extensively throughout the United States. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, Columbia Journalism Review, In These Times, and Politico, among many other outlets. She is a former news editor of High Times magazine, and the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times.