Today marks the beginning of wild and feral food week, an initiative started in 2014 by the University of California Berkeley open source food programme. They are interested in soil, they are interested in biodiversity, they are interested in reducing waste, and in feeding people well. Their projects include a scientific nutritional assessment of wild foods and weeds from even the most innercity areas of wasteland. Download their recent paper about that here: Open-source food: Nutrition, toxicology, and availability of wild edible greens in the East Bay.
Philip Stark is one of its spearhead researchers, a statistician by training, and associate dean; he matches his academic prowess with extremely practicality, and an infectious enthusiasm for flavour. He explains what is meant by feral foods.
“The aliens have landed–and they are delicious!” He says.
“These volunteer foods are virtually everywhere. Many are non-native invasive species, but they have been part of human diet for thousands of years: humanity bred them, deliberately or accidentally, as we developed agriculture. They grow without being planted or watered. They grow in sidewalks, industrial zones, urban and suburban yards, medians, community gardens, parks, urban farms, and commercial farms. In the areas we’ve surveyed — and in much of the world — there’s enough food volunteering to make a meaningful difference to the nutrition of local residents. Wild greens are not a large source of calories, but they are a great source of phytonutrients and dietary fiber.
“Re-introducing these plants into our diets could reduce the water and carbon footprints of our food system. It could improve drought and disaster resilience. It could increase urban and commercial farm yields. It could decrease the use of herbicides on public lands. It could improve soil health, decrease erosion, and nurture pollinators. And many of these plants are intensely delicious, with flavors that range from mild to aromatic to tart to savory to bitter: far more interesting than the narrow spectrum of commercially cultivated greens. Wild and feral greens are a cultural resource, part of our shared heritage as humans. Embracing them is a win for nutrition, for food equity, for sustainability, for resilience, for the environment, for our connection to the environment, for our palates — and they are essentially free. There’s just no downside.
“Not eating these plants is food waste. On farms, they are watered and fertilized accidentally, picked deliberately, then composted or discarded. They volunteer everywhere humans disturb the soil, and our typical response is a futile attempt to eradicate them, often resorting to chemical weapons that harm soil, water, pollinators, and so on. Instead, let’s eat them alive!”
All the 22 foraged botanicals in The Botanist are found in abundance in Islay, but some are technically kitchen garden escapees rather than endemic species – applemint for example. We’re also very open to eating and drinking plants that are domesticated, but not conventionally considered food: begonias, pelargoniums, hosta shoots, monarda (bee balm), young lime and beech and hawthorn leaves…
To celebrate the Berkeley initiative we want to find out what our network’s five favourite feral, wild, or free foods are. It is the fifth year that they’ve encouraged participation in the week long event to raise awareness, after all. Tweet us your top five with the hashtag #fivefaveferal and we’ll start a league table here. We’ve got some pocket sized gins to send out to contributors. Find us on twitter and we’ll take it from there.
Follow Berkeley Open Source Food on Twitter // instagram And find Philip himself here. If you’re out there getting edibles at all this week, 24th to 31st May, join the conversation using #wildfoodweek.