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Foraging, an educational skill set that could one day be taught in public schools

Children who learn to identify edible weeds and other local wild foods can help to combat food scarcity and malnutrition for their families.

May 17, 2017

Our society’s current struggles with obesity, malnutrition and food scarcity may have found a solution in an unlikely group of individuals…school children.

            Alan Muskat is the founder of the Afikomen Project, the first wild foods public education program in the country. As a wild foods educator, Muskat has set a goal to teach all school children in the U.S. to be able to safely identify and harvest the 10 most common wild foods in their area, by 2030.

            Afikomen’s pilot program is based in Asheville, North Carolina.

            Asheville has one of the highest childhood hunger rates in the country, according to the Food Research and Action Center.  The local food bank delivers over ten million pounds of food a year to locals, and even with that assistance, more than one in five people in the Asheville area struggle to afford food, and the problem is even worse in the outer city limits where unemployment is higher.

            In a striking contrast, Asheville is also home to one of the richest temperate ecosystems in the country with over 100 wild edibles growing freely at various times throughout the year, according to Muskat, who has been in the business of harvesting wild foods for over 20 years.

            “We are training kids in public schools to forage as a basic skill,” said Muskat. “The children are able to take the wild foods they harvested home to their families and any excess harvest is sold to local markets and restaurants, where there is a high demand for such ingredients. The profits from those sales fund the Afikomen Project and its educational classes.

            By teaching children to forage for food and profit, we are promoting national food security by empowering local families to feed and fend for themselves and establishing sustainable local economies at the same time.”

            Ironically, what seems like a potential solution to ease hunger among poverty stricken areas has become popular among the affluent. Time magazine reported in a 2010 article “the ingredients that many chefs seek are not the ones that can be ordered…they are traveling from the forest floor to the thin porcelain plates of Michelin-star restaurants throughout U.S. cities.”

            One such restaurant, Noma, is located in Copenhagen, is considered by many to be the pioneer of this wild foods trend. Noma has been voted the best restaurant in the world four times in recent years and much of its menu is freshly foraged local foods. Noma’s chef, René Redzepi, has also planned an educational program in Denmark that will teach children “to explore their local landscape and taste the abundance of flavors around them.” He hopes that one day schools will teach children about natural food the same way they do about reading, writing and math.

            While both Muskat and Redzepi have a passion for wild foods, they both also view school children as the beneficiary of this important knowledge.

            Malnutrition is a key issue that the Afikomen program aims to combat. “Fresher foods are shockingly more nutritious,” says Muskat.

            Take weeds for example. By definition a weed is something that grows where we don’t want it and while we may not want them, “these plants are some of the healthiest foods in the world. They are so nutritious that many are medicinal,” (according to the website notastelikehome.org, a company also founded by Muskat that offers foraging tours and classes). Nettle, for example, has over 125 documented health benefits (Duke phytochemical database, 2011).

            But can teaching children to forage for nutritious and free foods help people who live in inner city areas identified as “food deserts?” (A “food desert” is typically a low-income area with limited or no access to affordable and whole fresh foods).

            Professor Philip Stark of UC Berkeley is attempting to answer this question and has put together a team to investigate urban foraging as a potential solution to malnutrition.

            Stark has started the Berkeley Open Source Food Project, a website identifying edible wild plants and maps where they can be found in three east bay “food deserts” and is testing samples for nutritional content and toxic contamination.

            “We have already found vast quantities of delicious fresh wild greens in economically challenged parts of Oakland, Richmond, and Berkeley,” according to Stark’s website at: www.inaturalist.org/projects/berkeley-open-source-food.  “Overgrown yards and empty lots are places where we are finding the most edible weeds. The food is there, it’s just not recognized as food,” said Stark.

            In a 2015 interview published on grist.org, Stark tells the story of spotting a triangle of dirt between someone’s driveway and the road. He identified over 10 edible plants there, “more than what you would get in a mixed mesclun bag at a farmer’s market...and it’s free.” Not long after, Stark runs into another team looking for precisely the same plants. They were city workers in hazardous-materials suits spraying herbicide to kill these same greens. He remarked, “Here were two problems - people in need of free health food and weeds in need of removal - might they be combined to form a single solution?”

            Stark recalls teaching his 3-year old daughter to find edible plants as a game. “I sent her off to search for oxalis and a few minutes later she came back with a piece in her hand. Normally, she didn’t like to eat greens that we served at dinnertime, but there was something about finding it herself that made it alright to munch on the freshly picked weed.”

            While Stark admits that having the free time to stroll and pick edible weeds is a luxury not afforded to most low-income families (and especially single parents) who are working a couple of jobs and hustling to get their kids fed and to bed. He suggests “I might, however, have the time to forage if I were the child of that single parent and knew how to do it.”

            One person who experienced this lifestyle firsthand is Euell Gibbons, a famous naturalist and outdoorsman. In the same interview on grist.org, Gibbons tells his story as a child in rural New Mexico in 1922. His father left in search of work. He and his three siblings along with their mother were alone, without money and starving. At age 11, Gibbons went out looking for food. He foraged for prickly pears, mushrooms and berries and fed his family every day for a month until his father returned. He never stopped foraging; it stuck with him for life. Forty-years later, Gibbons wrote a book titled Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which was a best seller.

            “By foraging, children gain sunshine, exercise, wholesome food and a sense of home while contributing to their family and sometimes even to their local economy,” said Muskat. This project is based on the well-known proverb, “give people fish and they eat for a day; teach them to fish, and they will eat for a lifetime.”

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