Philip Stark is a keen urban forager, and he sure loves his edible weeds. Over the years, he’s discovered that they’re everywhere, free, and tastier than packaged supermarket greens. And now with the longest drought going on in California, he wants to make it known that weeds are the survivors, and that we should be finding ways to integrate them into our diets.
“We’re in the middle of a record drought in California and these weeds are still exuberant,” Stark told me over the phone. There are strict regulations on foraging if you are not on your own property; for example, it is illegal to take plants from state parks in California without permission.
Stark aims to increase understanding about the breadth of edible weed species existing in California with mapping and education activities, and to exert pressure on public policy, with the Berkeley Open Source Food Project (BOSF).
“We think it should be legal to forage invasive, non-native species in parks and on public lands,” Stark told me. He explained that perceiving weeds as a potential food source would prevent municipalities from using herbicides, which also have adverse effects on the environment.
In 2013, Stark drew up a proposal—which got funded by the Berkeley Food Institute—to map three urban food deserts in Richmond, Oakley, and Berkeley. An urban fo od desert is a region that is urban, low-income according to the US Census, and at least a mile away from anywhere you can buy fresh food. His project firstly aimed to investigate the abundance and availability of wild foods in these areas, and to test the soil and plants for nutritional value and any toxic content. Secondly, it had the aim of spreading the word about the accessibility of edible weeds to underserved populations.
“The majority of nutritional problems are not want of calories, they’re want of fibre and vital nutrients. That’s exactly what these plants provide.”
So far, Stark and his team have identified over 100 edible weed species in his survey areas, which he said used to be part of an average American’s diet. He lamented, however, that nowadays, “We only recognise as food things that come to us through commercial channels.”
Issues around food and health have long been a matter of debate in the US.
In 2012, a repor t released by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicted that half of US adults would be obese by 2030 if they didn’t change their ways. Documentary films such as Food, Inc. (2008), have explored the monopolisation of the agriculture sector by massive corporations, and the mass production of unhealthy foods. So now seems like a good time to be taking on board the health benefits that the weeds on our doorstep may bring.
“In the US, there are definitely people who go hungry, but the majority of nutritional problems are not want of calories, they’re want of fibre and vital nutrients. That’s exactly what these plants provide for free,” said Stark, who, though a professor of statistics, cares a lot about health and gastronomy.
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