Urban Fare

Bain Park. Copyright Kathiann M. Kowalski. All rights reserved.

Bain Park.  Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

A couple of months ago, I chanced upon a couple of women in long dresses and head scarves harvesting food. I wasn’t in a foreign country, and I wasn’t even in a rural area. I was just down the block from my own suburban home, walking by the park my kids played in when they were little.

“What are you doing?” I asked—not to hassle the women, but because I was curious. The overgrown bushes they were picking from were at the edge of the playground, growing by a slope near a curve in the road. Another 100 feet down, the park turned into a woods with trails.

The bushes were actually grape vines, and the women were picking leaves to make stuffed grape leaves. I’d had them at Middle Eastern and Greek restaurants and food festivals, but it hadn’t occurred to me before to wonder where the grape leaves come from. If you’re cooking them at home, you don’t necessarily have a grape vine growing in your backyard.

And while the sight of women picking grape leaves was new to me, gathering “wild” food in urban areas is really not rare. Indeed, a new study confirms that foraging for food is common among different groups in various cities in the United States. The study appears in the current issue of Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability.

The researchers examined urban foraging in New York City, Baltimore, Seattle, and Philadelphia. Foraged foods include nuts, berries, shoots, fruits, and more.

Just as diverse are the people who gather wild foods. Some were relative newcomers to the United States. Others had been born or lived here up to eight decades. Ethnic and national origins included countries from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Annual income levels covered a wide range too—from less than $10,000 to more than $250,000.

Urban foraging wasn’t in the forefront when landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted planned parks in the late 19th and early 20th century. That should change, say the new study’s authors. Gathering wild food can and should be part of our planning for sustainable cities, they say.

And, as some of the subjects of the study noted, it’s one way to get just the right ingredients for prized family recipes.

Have you ever gathered “wild” food in your neighborhood? If so, what did you collect, and how did you use it?

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