Armed with pruning shears and a paper bag, Nance Klehm walks along a Chicago sidewalk, pointing out plants and weeds that can make a tasty salad or stir-fry.
She snips stalks from a weed with downy leaves and white powder commonly cal led goosefoot or lamb’s quarters.
“I collect a lot of this,” said Klehm, 43. “It’s indistinguishable from spinach when you cook it. I never, never grow spinach or other greens except kale. Everything else I forage.”
Klehm is among a small group of urban foragers across the United States who collect weeds and plants from city streets and gardens to use in meals and medicines. Some are survivalists while others are environmentalists or even gourmands seeking new flavours for cooking.
Klehm leads small groups of about 20 people a few times a year on urban forages in Chicago. In New York, Steve Brill’s walks in Central Park attract 50 or more people every weekend.
“People have a lot of different reasons,” said Brill, who wrote a book on edible plants and posts information on foraging at www.wildmanstevebrill.com.
“They’re freegans, vegans, foodies, environmentalists,” he said. “It’s definitely more middle class than working class.”
CHOICE RATHER THAN NECESSITY
Urban foraging in the United States is more a choice than a necessity. Most foragers see both the health and environmental benefits to eating a more natural diet.
“I do this to slow down, to not follow the grid, to skip out of technoconsumerism. I do this to realize that the health of my body is connected to the health of the land,” said Klehm, who has a website at www.spontaneousvegetation.net.
She also teaches groups how to compost food and cooks with solar ovens.
Stacy Peterson went on Klehm’s recent forage because she was curious and she loves urban gardening.
“There’s a big movement right now towards urban farming and slow food,” said Peterson, a graphic artist.
“I’ve been trying to eat more local, organic and unprocessed foods. I’m learning how to eat healthier and the urban forage walk taught me about the edible plants and weeds growing wild in my community.”
But urban foraging isn’t without risks. Klehm describes several plants as mild laxatives, while others are psychotropic, or even poisonous.
There are also environmental concerns in the city, such as lead and pollutants in the soil.
Brill advises people not to forage within 50 feet (15 metres) of major roads because that is where heavy metals tend to accumulate.
But urban foragers are quick to point out that food bought at the grocery store may not be without herbicides and pesticides.
“Adjacent to where I was doing a tour was a peach orchard. They came with trucks with nozzles larger than I am tall and clouds of chemicals went onto these peaches,” Brill said.