Saving food from the lawn mower: eating your own backyard can help the planet

Saving food from the lawn mower: eating your own backyard can help the planet

“There’s so few things you control in life and food is one of them, and you can’t get more local than your backyard.”

It’s estimated that 35 million people visit New York City’s Central Park each year, making it one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions. With that many people, about four times the city’s population, it’s common to see visitors traversing the park in groups.

However, on a Saturday in March 1986, something set one group apart from the rest. Among the group of 14 were two undercover park rangers. 

This story has all the basics one might expect from a sting operation, the park rangers wore plain clothes and carried radios– ready to call in backup at a moment’s notice.

But their target, naturalist Steve Brill, wasn’t the type of criminal you might expect to be the focus of an undercover investigation. Brill had become a bit of a staple in Central Park, and had no prior convictions to land him on law enforcement’s radar. 

While listening to Brill discuss the flora found in the centre of Manhattan, the two undercover agents were waiting to make their move. Their guise as a couple taking a plant walk allowed them to blend in with the group, Brill was never expecting to end the day in handcuffs.

As the tour came to an end, Brill bent down to pluck a dandelion. He grabbed a leaf off and popped it in his mouth.

This was what the undercover couple had been waiting for.

They revealed their true identities to Brill, handcuffed him and called the arrest in to their superiors. Brill was told he was being charged with criminal mischief for taking plants from the city’s parks.

But, in Brill’s opinion, all he was doing was saving the plants from the blades of a lawn mower, and adding nutrients to his diet.

Brill is an urban forager, which means he prepares and eats weeds that grow in the city.

In the age of super-sized grocery stores and imported produce many have come to exclusively purchasing their fruits and vegetables. It can often be seen as the more convenient, clean and safe option. 

For urban foragers, collecting plants that grow wild is a way to eat local food and get into nature, while not contributing to the industrial agricultural industry. Urban foraging is gaining popularity amongst those who can overcome the barriers that come with collecting plants in a city.

 “There are plants that can kill you, and plants that taste really good,” said Brill’s 14-year-old daughter Violet. 

“You could just go to your front yard and pick, but people don’t know about it,” she said.

Brill said his favorite edible plant to pick in the city are the violets. 

In addition to his daughter’s name-sake plant, they also collect seaweed, pick mulberries, mushrooms and, of course, dandelions. 

“There’s tons of culinary possibilities,” Brill said. 

Naturalist Karen Stephenson said that one of her favorite way to eat a foraged ingredient is in dandelion cookies. 

“Many are going to think foraged foods taste horrible, because the food industry has over-salted, over-sugared and over-fattened us,”she said. That’s why she recommends masking the flavour in recipes.

Amber Westfall, an urban forager who leads her own plant walks, said pretty much everyone finds something they like if they’re willing to try a few things. She said most people like lamb’s quarters, a leafy green that can be added to salads. 

Lamb’s quarters are common in many gardens, and grows in most climates, making it easy to cultivate locally. Eating locally can be a driving force for people to start foraging.

A study by the University of Toronto said that imported food travels an average of 2,500 km before reaching a plate. The same study found that between 44 and 57 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are created by the agriculture industry. 

When pollution leaches into the soil, portions of it can be absorbed by plants. This leads some foragers to avoid plants that grow in urban environments, where pollutants tend to be found in higher concentrations.

Dyson Forbes, of Forbes Wild Foods, said that, “contaminants are always a concern.” 

Forbes Wild Foods works with a network of foragers to bring wild ingredients to consumers. But, he said he tries to avoid working with foragers who live in cities. 

“There are things you can pick in a compromised environment, but you may want to stick away from them if it’s a big part of your diet,” Forbes said.

David Craft, Harvard Medical School professor, said contaminants are a bit of a misconception.

“The body can handle a lot, and I don’t eat enough foraged foods to be concerned,” Craft said.

He said it would be difficult for someone to be able to collect and eat enough foraged ingredients for it to be dangerous.

“As long as you don’t pick near heavy traffic and rinse everything off when you get home, you’re safe,” said Brill.

Even for foragers who have been picking for many years, like Brill, only about 10 per cent of their diet is foraged. 

“Going strictly a wild food diet is not feasible for 99.9 per cent of people,” said Forbes.

According to him, it would be too expensive to buy all foraged ingredients, and too time consuming to pick them yourself.

Sharon Boddy, researcher and urban forager, began foraging as a way to eat more local food.

“There’s so few things you control in life and food is one of them,” she said. “And you can’t get more local than your backyard.”

A local food movement has become mainstream in the past few years. Buying local food reduces the distance produce travels—therefore reducing the amount of fossil fuels needed to get from farm to plate.  Local food advocates also say it provides fresher, more flavorful food.

 “A lot of people don’t think of hunters and foragers or people who capitalize on nature as environmental stewards, but they’re the ones going into the bush and can keep track of what’s dwindling and what’s springing back,” said Forbes. 

He said he sees foraging as a reciprocal relationship, it wouldn’t benefit the environment or his business if a forager over-picked. Enough plants need to be left behind to ensure they come up the following year.

Westfall said she sees foraging for profit as problematic. 

“A lot of the responsibility tends to go out the window,” she said. “Foraging is about stewardship and a relationship with the environment.”

For Westfall, foraging is about eating healthy, locally and giving back to the natural world.

“I have the ability to eat three times a day, that’s three times I can make a positive impact on the environment around me,” she said.

Although she educates people on the wild food around them, she said that, “there are not enough healthy green spaces for everyone to go out foraging.”

Craft said that more parks would have to be created to sustain a larger foraging population, but he sees that as an unrealistic problem.

“We’re in a culture of fear and panic and no one wants to take a risk, especially with their food source,” said Craft.

Even if people aren’tconcerned with the safety concerns or legal implications of picking wild food on city property, an illegal act in many urban centres, Craft said the culture around how people perceive urban foragers still deters some.

Simply put, people are concerned with the bizarreness of foraging.

This idea is not new to Brill. After his arrest in 1986, he gained international media attention as the man who eats weeds in the city. Eventually, the charge against him was dropped, and the New York City Parks Department hired Brill to lead foraging tours. 

He left that job after four years, but continues to offer plant walks privately. These days, he and Violet do them together. Although he still gets many questions from people confused as to why he’s picking weeds, he said he has seen an increased interest in urban foraging. 

Although Brill is most known for being arrested after eating a dandelion, he said his greatest legacy will be passing on the tradition of foraging to Violet. 

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