Adapted from a talk to Sustainable Kirtlington, May 2017
We’re here as guests of a sustainability group, and it seems important to consider how ‘foraged food’ can play a part in ‘sustainability’. I’m not going to suggest that we can live exclusively on nettle soup and blackberries – I’m not even going to suggest that they should be a main part of out diet. We’ve got busy lives, we’re living in a farmed landscape, – and foraging takes time: the effort of gathering enough would be very difficult, especially through the winter. And it wouldn’t be sustainable for a townful of people to try and live from the current verges and hedgerows. However, it does have a part to play.
The most important thing about foraged food is that it changes the way that people perceive the world around them. My knowledge of the city improved as I gained an awareness of the landscape and what it grows. Urban spaces stop being a series of roads and roundabouts, but becomes trees and plants. It’s this change of attitude that can wake people up to wider issues of sustainability, climate change, and the unsuitability of current food systems. To some extent, it also brings people together – there’s something wonderful about sharing food, and being able to hand out free-plums freshly picked from the hedgerow is wonderful – that’s what’s there, it’s springing up on your doorstep and it’s free.
The ‘free’ element of it is important. When the food map was reported in the Oxford Mail, it was under a headline ‘Cash Strapped Shoppers Go Wild for Foraged Food‘. However, that shows a misunderstanding – we’re not eating the food because we can’t afford to go to Lidl. We’re not trying to save money. We’re eating it because it’s better than what we can get at the supermarket. I can pay money for a salad that’s been grown on a farm and flown here from Kenya. Or I can wander up to the golf course and pick something with food-paces rather than food-miles, zero carbon-footprint, and as freshly picked as the speed I can cycle home with it.
It’s a reminder that the world is bountiful and generous – it provides the abstract benefits (like oxygen, water, and a temperate climate), which are very easy to lose sight of. But eating wild food is a reminder that the natural world isn’t scary and alien, but something that we’re all a part of – we’re not in a battle between dangerous Nature wanting to kill us and Civilisation trying to keep us alive. That’s the message in a bag of wild garlic or a pannier full of apples, it’s a connection.
It also helps to build an awareness of the seasonality of food. The supermarket shelves might look the same all year round, but foraging (like gardening) is a reminder of the seasonality. When it’s September, I walk past three heavy-branched apple-trees on my way to the Co-op, and then see apples from New Zealand on the shelves – it makes us stop and question how sensible the food systems are, and how sustainable.
By foraging, we are reminded of what there is growing (perhaps literally) on our doorsteps, and can celebrate the fruitfulness of the world.