Let Them Eat Weeds: App Helps People Forage Their Way out of Hunger

Wild plants can be highly nutritious, but are they a reasonable solution to feeding the poor?

A side street in Oakland, California, teeming with the edible weed mallow. (Photo: Philip B. Stark/Urban Foraging and Berkeley Open Source Food)

Feb 19, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Beyond crowning new billionaires and disrupting the way we share photos, mobile apps are harnessing smartphones to solve myriad social and societal problems. There are apps to help blind people navigate the world, and to show consumers how to buy products according to their politics; not everyone peering at an iPhone screen is checking Facebook. In the realm of feeding the hungry, apps such as Food Cowboy and PareUp both splashed onto the Internet with plenty of buzz and a twofold promise: to reduce food waste and hunger. Now, a new project has joined the help-the-hungry app brigade—but it has something of an image problem.

In the eastern stretches of the Bay Area, where supermarkets are scarce, incomes are low, and families rely on ever-dwindling food stamps to feed themselves, two UC-Berkeley professors want residents to rethink the very idea of what’s worthy of the dinner plate. With the area’s vacant lots, overgrown lawns, and sidewalk cracks, Philip Stark and Tom Carlson argue that urban food deserts are lush with dandelion greens, chickweed, and mallow—what the rest of us would call weeds—and host an untapped well of nutrition.

With a $25,000 grant from the Berkeley Food Institute, Stark and Carlson launched Reaping Without Sowing, an open-source project to study the availability, nutritional value, and possible toxicity of wild edibles that grow in urban food deserts. They have identified more than 90 edible species at three different research sites, in Richmond, Berkeley, and West Oakland, California. The idea is that when foragers hit pay dirt (get it?) and find an edible weed, they can use a mobile app called iNaturalist to post photos of the location, estimate the number of servings, and record the location of the bounty on a publicly accessible interactive map.

Some critics say the project has all the sensitivity of Marie Antoinette’s famous (mythic) reply to complaints that the French people were starving, with the spin of “Let them eat weeds.” Focusing on garden undesirables or “rescuing” rejected or soon-to-be-discarded food suggests that poor people should eat at the lower end of the food chain, according to Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty and a senior advisor for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. While there’s no denying that lamb’s quarters are packed with vitamins A and C or that wild fennel is supremely delicious, an app such as iNaturalist promotes gathering food in ways that most people wouldn’t bother with—or, worse, would find unacceptable.

“It’s a distraction from creating a solution to the problem, which is to make sure there is good quality food access in all neighborhoods and not an expectation that people should be foraging or dumpster diving or eating seconds,” Winne said.

For starters, neighborhood residents don’t necessarily want to snack on greens after seeing what happens in their front yards—“What about dog pee?” is one of the most frequently asked questions—and are quick to associate foraging with being down and out.

“For folks to go down to the ground, it’s saying, ‘I’m broke, I don’t have, I’m less than,’ ” explained West Oakland permaculturist Brandi Mack, who once led her own youth-focused foraging expeditions called Herbs in the Hood.

And then there’s the opposite problem. Presenting foraging as a solution to hunger is, in the view of skeptics, out of touch and impractical, associated with provenance-specific restaurant menus, overeducated freegans, or unhurried home cooks with the time to braise milkweed shoots for two hours.

“My biggest fears in all of this is that the news story is ‘Two White Berkeley Professors Tell Poor People to Eat Weeds,’ ” Stark said. “We’re not saying this is a substitute for food banks and grocery stores. We just want people to know there’s a resource there, and it’s free.”

Stark admits that for a variety of reasons, including the “ick” factor and cultural resistance, there are hurdles to clear, and he doubts neighborhood tastings and local in-school teaching programs will get entire neighborhoods making salads from sidewalk greens. Local reactions have been mixed, ranging from grossed out to laughter to leap-out-of-the-car enthusiasm.

“I’m just not terribly hopeful that this will ever be widely adopted” in poor neighborhoods, he admits. But that’s not the project’s only focus—Stark and Carlson want farmers to take advantage of it too.

Organic farmers end up watering and fertilizing weeds along with their crops, then deliberately pick them, only to end up tossing them. But they could be taking them to market. For that reason, Stark and Carlson are working with local organic farms, the distributor Good Eggs, farmers markets, and local restaurants, including Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse, to create a local market and supply chain for edible weeds. Conservative estimates say bringing the nuisance plants to market could increase farmers’ salable output by 20 to 40 percent, Stark said. He and his co-researchers are also conducting a survey at five farmers market locations, including some in lower-income neighborhoods, to better understand some of the resistance around eating weeds.

“I’m not claiming that Chez Panisse serving a fancy dinner of volunteer edibles is going to make any impact on the West Oakland food desert,” Stark said. “The strategy is to do as much as I can on every front to try to get people to use this resource and recognize food as food.”

Winne thinks foraging is great for those who have the interest, inclination, and even the cultural culinary tradition. “It’s good for us to know about the botany of our neighborhoods, and there’s value we can all gain from that knowledge and occasionally dabbling in that kind of food sourcing,” he said. “But the idea that it would be an intervention for lower-income people who are food insecure living in communities that are underserved by quality retail food stores is just a silly notion.”

“The fallacy is that there is a single intervention that’s going to work when, in fact, the approach that’s going to have the most impact will be a comprehensive one employing multiple interventions,” Winne continued. “That’s where we need to be putting the focus, not on these slightly clever but off-the-charts approaches.”