Interest in Foraging Is Booming. Here’s How to Do it Right

Twenty years ago, Samuel Thayer, a rural Wisconsinite who grew up foraging on the side of the road on his way to school, started teaching classes on how to find, recognize, and collect edible wild plants in yards, urban green spaces, and woodlands. Since then, he has produced widely read field guides and is frequently mentioned in articles—leading him to become one of the more visible foraging educators and advocates in the United States.

Over the last decade, interest in foraging has grown as people seek new, nutritious, and flavorful ingredients, as sustainability advocates explore ways of breaking their dependence on industrial agriculture, and as Indigenous communities and other groups work to revive traditional practices.

For all these reasons, Thayer has always had plenty of students in his classes. But he has “never had an easier time filling workshops,” he says, than over the past few months of the pandemic.

Thayer’s not the only one who’s noticed a spike in interest in foraging during the lockdown era. Researchers, educators, and advocates across the nation have seen similar upticks.

Patrick Hurley, an environmental social scientist at Ursinus College who studies foraging, says no one has been able to study systematically how the pandemic is affecting the practice yet—although he and his colleagues recently started a new research project to do so. But anecdotally, academics like Philip B. Stark, a U.C. Berkeley statistician who co-runs the Berkeley Open Source Food research and education project, say they’ve recently seen up to three times as many people as usual seeking information or sharing experiences about foraging on social media.

Ten prominent foraging educators and advocates surveyed by Civil Eats also said they’ve seen between 25 percent and 500 percent bumps in traffic to their sites and digital classes. And these figures may actually undercount the growth in interest, as Hurley notes that many foragers, old and new, don’t leave digital footprints to track.

The number of Americans now exploring foraging is still likely fairly small, given the level of biases against wild foods—including widespread beliefs that eating them is dangerous or shameful, Hurley says. Experts also aren’t sure how much of the current spike in foraging interest is driven by newcomers, and how much of it comes from people finally acting on already-held interests in foraging. But this trend pales in comparison to the number of people turning to home gardening during the pandemic.

Still, experts largely agree that this pandemic-era trend—and the informal conversations and media coverage it will spawn—could shift popular dialogue, raising the profile of wild foods, pushing back on biases against them, and forcing developers, land managers, and policy makers to factor foragers and edible plant species into their plans.

A Sense of Security

Not everyone has turned to foraging for the same reasons. Some folks are likely drawn to it out of pure boredom, says Minneapolis-based foraging expert Maria Wesserle. They just want an activity that will get them out of the house; something to do at a safe distance from other people, in their yards, parks, or nearby woodlands—a way to kill time constructively in nature.

Maria Wesserle. (Photo courtesy of Four Season Foraging)

Some folks also see foraging as a good, if short-term, solution to the anxiety they feel going to crowded supermarkets during the pandemic, especially if they have conditions that put them at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19.

However, researchers, educators, and activists all largely agree that the vast majority of newfound interest seems to be driven by more fundamental concerns about the stability of modern food supply chains. “We’ve all seen the bare shelves at the grocery stores,” says Eric Orr of Wild Edible, a foraging education hub focused on Appalachia.

“I’ve been pointing out that the pandemic has shown how fragile our supply chains and food systems are in my advertising” for classes, adds Illinois-based forager David Odd.

Most people haven’t actually felt a crunch because of supply chain breakdowns in recent months, Orr says. But the empty shelves in the early days of the pandemic sent a strong message, and many people are trying to prepare for “the gloom and doom of what could be coming.”

As one novice forager recently noted in a public forum, “I have been interest[ed] in foraging since before the pandemic, but the COVID [sic] definitely made me think about how I would feed my family if the grocery store shelves ran empty.”

Some people who rely on specific herbs have seen shortages. Reacting to that acute sense of loss, they have turned to foraging as a way to fill a gap in their lives, says Kathryn Blau of the North Carolina-based Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. And Russ Cohen, a Massachusetts-based foraging educator, notes that the pandemic has thrown some people—especially marginalized populations—into enough of an economic crunch that foraging has made a difference in their budgets.

No matter how acute or immediate their sense of food insecurity, “people feel helpless and want to regain control over their food,” explains Bill Schindler, an anthropologist at Washington College and a foraging educator. “There’s a significant sense of security that comes from knowing how to source our own food and herbs,” adds Blau.

The Dangers of Irresponsible Foraging

Candace Thompson of New York’s Collaborative Urban Resilience Banquet (CURB) project says she’d “love to see people foraging as a means of connecting with their local environments.” But she worries about the potential side effects of “people, particularly white settler people such as myself, [treating] the forest like the toilet paper aisle at their local Kroger. Clearly, we can’t be trusted with [foraging] as long as we are operating from a scarcity mindset, fueled by extractive capitalism.”

“We can’t be trusted with foraging as long as we are operating from a scarcity mindset, fueled by extractive capitalism.”

Some established foragers have acknowledged that they are harvesting far more from their local green spaces than they did before the pandemic. “But the vast majority of foragers care deeply about the environment,” says Schindler.

In fact, many argue that a closer awareness of the natural world is both a requirement to, and one of the reasons why people, begin the practice in the first place. So, they do their best to only harvest abundant plants, and avoid taking more than 10 percent of the patches they find. They also tend to focus on harvesting weeds, mostly invasive species (like garlic mustard), which even aggressive landscaping can’t deplete, while promoting the preservation and cultivation of environmentally sensitive or at-risk species.

“There’s a way to forage that’s really good for the environment,” stresses Wesserle. “For example: There’s so much garlic mustard that it grows everywhere, all over North America. It’s invasive and actually harms the native ecosystem and needs to be pulled up anyway . . . Why not just eat those plants?”

Yet, “a lot of new foragers make a lot of mistakes,” says Odd, adding that, “naturalists I know seem irritated with the influx of people coming to wildlife areas, being generally a nuisance and trampling everything” during the pandemic. Ill-educated enthusiasm can be detrimental to sensitive plants, he says.

“There’s so much garlic mustard that grows all over North America—it’s invasive and actually harms the native ecosystem. Why not just eat those plants?”

“I personally have observed places where wild plants like ramps used to grow, where they’ve been made locally extinct,” leaving space for invasive species to creep in, notes Cohen.

Dire crises in the past have also spurred widespread, destructive overharvesting. Texas-based foraging educator Mark “Merriwether” Vorderbruggen points out that “Russian and Eastern European cities were wiped out of plants for food and firewood” during the prolonged economic scarcities brought on by chronic mismanagement under Communist rule.

“With the financial strain a lot of people are getting into, there could be a risk that some people are going to go out to gather plants not for themselves, but to sell,” Cohen worries. Commercialized harvesting, he adds, often targets environmentally sensitive species sought for their rare flavors and medicinal properties—like goldenseal, American ginseng, and the aforementioned ramps—leading to overharvesting and localized extinctions far more often than ill-informed over-enthusiasm.

Cohen acknowledges that restaurant and market closures during the pandemic, and consumers’ budgetary constraints, may limit the market for this kind of commercialized foraging. However, a number of companies that buy foraged ingredients are still delivering. And more could start to reopen in the coming months.

Cohen also worries about what he calls forcing, the impulse that over-eager neophytes often feel to harvest and eat plants they can’t definitively identify, or from patches they don’t know well. Due to the risks of ingesting unknown plants, experts say it’s a good idea to start out focusing on one or two easily identifiable plants that grow abundantly in safe areas. Leaning in to foraging too fast, with too little practice and education, may elevate the likelihood—and risks—of forcing.

Samuel Thayer. (Photo courtesy of Forager’s Harvest)

And yet, “the overall contributions to ecology and conservation of foraging, as a whole, vastly outweigh the occasional negative acts of a few bad actors,” argues Thayer. The practice cultivates a deep familiarity and personal connection with one’s local green spaces. It often turns people into vocal advocates for undeveloped lands and vulnerable species. It teaches many the virtue of, as Thompson puts it, “eating nature back into balance” by targeting invasive species. And, adds Schindler, the risks newcomers pose to sensitive species certainly pale in comparison to those posed by agricultural, industrial, and residential developers.

Eating misidentified plants is also usually not very dangerous, says Wesserle. And several studies suggest that most green spaces have not been contaminated by toxins, or to dangerous levels, even in relatively polluted urban environments.

Still, just a few cases of local extinctions or poisonings tied to pandemic-inspired foraging could feed into anti-foraging biases, potentially alienating new or would-be foragers.

Regulations on foraging also vary wildly from one plot of land to another, and one plant to another—a patchwork system of permissions and prohibitions that can confuse interested parties. That’s why guides often advise newcomers to stick to private lands whose stewards or owners have given them explicit permission to harvest.

It’s also why an influx of desperate or overzealous new foragers is worrying: It could lead to more foraging in prohibited areas, landing some people in trouble, potentially triggering harsher restrictions, and ultimately further limiting the spaces available to established harvesters and alienating future foragers.

A Long-Term Shift in the Foraging Dialogue?

Most foraging experts doubt that the current foraging spike will outlast the pandemic. “I have seen the rise and fall, and rise and fall, of interest many times” since 1974, says Christopher Nyerges, a Southern California foraging educator and advocate. “Most people have short attention spans and are interested only in the moment.”

“If foraging isn’t needed,” adds Vorderbruggen, “it probably won’t be practiced by most of those who jumped on the bandwagon—because [serious] foraging is hard and time-consuming.”

It is also possible, Hurley adds, that some people acting out a sense of acute or potential scarcity, or who thoroughly associate their time foraging with a difficult period in their lives will be loath to keep it up—to be reminded of trauma—once the crisis ends.

“If foraging isn’t needed, it probably won’t be practiced by most of those who jumped on the bandwagon—serious foraging is hard and time-consuming.”

However, at least a few people will likely keep their pandemic pastime going. Based on his experiences with previous bumps in interest, Nyerges suspects that about a third of those who get into foraging now will maintain some practice. “Those who really need this the most will probably improve their lifestyles and live better on less,” he adds.

And regardless of whether they maintain an active foraging practice, many folks experimenting with foraging for the first time now will look at the world around them a bit differently. They may start to question the nature of existing food systems or the biases many people hold against wild plants. Many of them may then start advocating for people’s rights to access green spaces for food, and for the value of incorporating edible plants into new developments.

Because we’re still in the depths of the crisis, we can’t be sure how broad or deep this new visibility and dialogue will be. But academics like Hurley and educators like Thayer are certainly hopeful. As Thayer puts it, “perhaps this can be a historical moment for a cultural conversation about the place of foraging” in the modern world.

Thanks to Debbie Naha-Koretzky, Marta Hanson, Melissa Poe, Melissa Price, and Steve “Wildman” Brill, who also contributed thoughts and insights that informed this article.

Mark E. Hay

Mark Hay is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor.

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