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In these days of shortages and rising inflation, it can really be a challenge to feed ourselves and our families. In the city, space to grow food is a bit limited, and farmer’s markets only happen during the summer. Everything needs to be brought into the city and, given our JIT (Just In Time) supply chain, it’s no wonder that store shelves have emptied very quickly over the past two years.
Take heart, however!
There are many things we can do to help ourselves and feed our families. We can start with The Pantry Bundle Plus, which teaches us how to build a stockpile using just our grocery money.
Another method we can try is urban foraging.
The art of identifying and collecting the wild foods growing freely around your city can be an excellent means of cutting costs at home. Think tree nuts/fruits, plant roots, even flowers, and mushrooms!
You’ll want to do some careful research and consult several region-specific field guides in order to be able to identify the edibles and, most importantly, the non-edible to poisonous! If there’s a wildcrafter in your area, paying for lessons might be an excellent investment as well. This is very important because eating the wrong thing can make you sick or even dead!
Remember the old adage: when in doubt, throw it out! This applies to foraging as well as to the food already in your pantry. So, if you decide to give urban foraging a try, do your research first. Another good strategy would be to start with the things you know, such as dandelion, hickory nuts, crab apples, or turkey of the woods, and work your way up from there. Learn about one new tree, flower, or fungus every day, and your knowledge will grow over time. There are various plant ID mobile apps available as well.
Before you take one step outside, take a look at your city’s regulations.
For example, it’s generally illegal to forage in national parks. However, where I live, the rules are slightly different. Foraging is allowed on federal and state lands, but counties and municipalities are allowed to set their own rules. If you’re on private land, you’re required to ask permission. So always research the regulations applicable to your specific situation before going out.
There are a few other rules to follow when foraging. In addition to knowing what you’re gathering and your local laws, a good rule of thumb is to take only about 1/3 of what you find in any given spot. By leaving some behind, you allow the patch to grow back for future harvests. If the patch is very small, passing it by isn’t a bad idea. Someone may have beaten you to it, and taking the last of it helps no one in the long run.
If you have children, take them along! In addition to being a Frugalite cheap activity, urban foraging can be very family-friendly and educational. Your children will learn about plants and nature, as well as many pro-social behaviors that will serve them well in later life. As an added bonus, they’ll get plenty of exercise and fresh air!
So how might you find foraging locations?
There’s a map for that! Falling Fruit is an interactive map showing urban foraging locations all over the world. It’s a relatively new project, so not every location is covered, but it’s growing daily. Anyone can add locations, and the data is downloadable with some caveats. Those are listed on the site.
Still feeling overwhelmed? Start in your own yard! That’s what I did in 2017 when my back went out to the point that I couldn’t maintain my usual garden. I harvested & cooked my first dandelion greens, discovered garden sorrel and garlic mustard, and learned that the wood violets I so love are actually edible!
One day I’m going to have to give the ox-eye daisy a try! My cats love the free catmint that showed up one day and has grown every year since, and I have a perennial oregano as well. Check out this article on edible plants common in the average yard. In my case, my city considers many of them noxious weeds and insists that I keep them trimmed below a certain height. I’m happy to comply! Another favorite resource is Midwest Foraging, a field guide specific to my area. Perhaps your area has one as well.
The benefits of urban foraging are many!
Who doesn’t want a reason to get out and explore the neighborhood? In addition to finding food, we better learn what’s going on and something about who our neighbors are. We interact with our neighbors and our environment. Isn’t that better than sitting around on (anti-)social media?
While foraging isn’t likely to replace the grocery store or the garden, it can add some food security to our lives and diversity to our meals. Every little bit adds up, right? The food is higher in nutrients than the stuff that was harvested too early and shipped a long distance to your table.
Be sure to wash what you harvest, however! Chemicals are everywhere. Many parks are sprayed with various pesticides to keep diseases under control. While these treatments do kill pests, they’re not good for you either. Soil contamination is a thing in the cities. Roadsides, railroad sites, industrial sites, and golf courses can be very contaminated.
Your city might even have a Superfund site or toxic waste dump to avoid! Some mushrooms absorb these pollutants and become dangerous to eat. In addition to washing, removing the outer layer of greens and peeling roots can reduce your risk of exposure.
Urban foraging is a Frugalite-cheap way to stretch your grocery dollar.
While it might seem a bit overwhelming at first, starting small and learning something new every day can really help. You’ll add nutrition to your diet and knowledge to your toolbox! If you find enough herbs around town, you might even want to become an herbalist! The Herbals Skills Intensive course can help you turn common “weeds” into medicine. What’s not to love? Do you forage in your city? Let us know in the comments below!
About Amy Allen
Amy Allen is a professional bookworm and student of Life, the Universe, and Everything. She’s also a Master Gardener with a BS in biology, and has been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010.