Cities like Seattle are really good at certain things. Like making widgets and designing spacecraft. Activities that take up a lot of space, like farming, are left to the farmers. For the most part, our food is trucked in from the Skagit Valley, shipped in from Florida, flown in from Chile -- places where land and labor are cheaper. But that divorce – between cities and farms – leaves cities vulnerable. All that movement of food between cities and farms relies on infrastructure. And infrastructure can fail, sometimes catastrophically.
So, ever since 9/11, cities like Seattle have been looking for ways to prepare for unexpected shocks to this system. After all, there’s a lot of food growing here already. But that doesn’t mean it’s lawful to harvest that food. Which brings us to Melany Vorass Herrera – and why she’s about to break the law.
Incident At Golden Gardens Park
Herrera points to her intended crime scene. “Nettles,” she says. “Whole hillside of nettles.”
The forest floor of that hillside is littered with beer cans. People pass by on their way to the beach, just down the hill. But nobody stops on this hillside. Nobody except Herrera.
Herrera is an urban forager. That means where many of us see weeds, Herrera sees food. For many Northwesterners, the sight of stinging nettles brings to mind memories of pain. “Isn’t it amazing?” asks Herrera as she stuffs nettles into her canvas shoulder bag. “I’m wearing rubber kitchen gloves and getting stung right through them.” But Herrera says stinging nettles are worth suffering for. They’re free. They’re super-healthy. And once you get them back into the kitchen, nettles make a great pesto.
A Change In Attitude
Foragers like Herrera have always operated in cities - but on the fringes. Sometimes, they’re even seen as vandals. Melissa Poe is an environmental anthropologist who has studied urban foragers. She says we usually think of parks only as places for recreation. ”So we go there for picnicking,” she says. “We might ride a bicycle or we might just enjoy a walk. So generally speaking, public properties aren’t considered areas that are ripe for foraging.” But Poe says attitudes are changing.
Los Angeles recently affirmed the right to harvest fruit on public land. Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore have planted public orchards, and foragers have played an important role in restoring a forest just outside Tokyo. They’re all part of a shift in cities toward preparing for a more uncertain future.
Climate change, extreme weather events, rising fuel prices, terrorist activity—they all threaten to disrupt the flow of food into urban areas. “We just had to cut off a major interstate for two weeks to Canada,” says Poe. “That’s an important corridor which moves our food.” And that was just from a truck accident.
So local leaders are looking to local resources to increase the resilience of their food supply. That means things like encouraging more urban gardens and farms, allowing chickens and small livestock back into the city limits, and foraging.
Foraging Grows Up
Gail Savina stands under a fig tree on a quiet street in Seattle’s Mt. Baker neighborhood. She points out the ripening figs, figs she intends to harvest later. It’s not her fig tree. The tree’s owners are at work. But they don’t have time to harvest this fruit.
Savina estimates there are 100,000 pounds of unharvested fruit on private and public land in Seattle. Last year, her organization, City Fruit, picked about a fifth of that: plums, apples, cherries and pears. The fruit went to local food banks. Savina says that increases the city’s resilience.
It also helps lower the city’s carbon footprint. “When you fly a pear from Chile to Seattle you’re going to burn a lot of fuel,” says Savina. “And that’s going to have a fairly significant impact on the climate. But when you pick the pear down the block it’s not going to have an impact on the climate.”
An Edible City
Walk around the block with a forager and the city starts to look like a grocery store. Lawns are spotted with salad greens, from fiery wild mustards to sweet, first-year dandelion greens. A mysterious mushroom in a backyard turns out to be edible – and highly prized. Young horsetail and bamboo shoots. Invasive garden snails descended from French escargot. Even squirrels are fair game for some foragers.
And foraging isn’t an isolated activity anymore – it’s a communal activity. Many in Seattle’s Southeast Asian communities gather each fall to collect chestnuts from Queen Anne Boulevard’s stately street trees and a wildly enthusiastic group has planted a new food forest on public land in the city’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Seattle Parks And Recreation Proceeds With Caution
Still, the concern about environmental damage from foraging hasn’t gone away. It remains illegal on much of the city's property. Seattle Parks spokesperson Dewey Potter says there’s a good reason: “We’re engaged in a multimillion-dollar effort to restore 2,500 acres of urban forest by the year 2025. And a tremendous amount of that effort in that situation is done by volunteers. And we had a situation where a newly restored area was stripped bare of its native plants by people foraging.”
But Seattle’s response to a few bad experiences like that has been to engage foragers, not crack down on them. City departments have all been asked to take a look at their policies – and to consider ways to allow food harvesting and even production on public land.
Now in some Seattle parks, Potter says rangers not only tolerate foraging, they actually teach foraging classes. Because, Potter says, “the more people understand about how the ecosystems work, the more respectful they will be of our parks.”
The idea is that educated foragers can help protect urban land. Groups like City Fruit help bring a level of stewardship to the trees they harvest from. Anthropologist Poe says most foragers end up returning to the same spots again and again. "It’s a place where they know the entire plant population and what is valuable to them. And so they end up tending these areas."
A Meal And A Painful Memory
For her part, Herrera is careful not to over-harvest her favorite nettle patch. Back in her kitchen, she stuffs her stinging nettle pesto into the bellies of trout her husband Carlos caught in a nearby lake.
Unlike some here in Seattle, Herrera is no newcomer to foraging. Over dinner, she tells me about her childhood. How she and the rest of her family had to forage for food. How it had embarrassed her because it revealed their poverty. How she’s rediscovered it as an adult.
Now, like Herrera, many cities are also giving foraging a second look.
Want to learn more about foraging? Here are some links:
- US Department of Agriculture | Gathering in the City
- The Urban Forager: Finding Food Where You Live
- Melany Vorass Herrera | The Front Yard Forager: Identifying, Collecting, and Cooking the 30 Most Common Urban Weeds
- Seattle's Beacon Food Forest
- The World | What's for Lunch: Changing Climate, Changing Food (where this story first aired)