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 food 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 report 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.
According to him, there's an ingrained prejudice about weeds covered in dog pee, or a general "ick factor", that stops people from seeing them as a potential food source. So to change attitudes and glamorise these weeds, he enlisted the help of what he dubbed the "food clergy"—high end restaurants—to take part in "Wild Food Week" earlier this month. The event proved a success, and for phase two, he plans on rolling out to more US states and exploring how weeds could be integrated into crop rotation cycles by local farmers.
Many plants deemed "weeds" in America were first brought over in the 15th century when European settlers crossed the Atlantic. "People wanted to bring familiar food and medicine plants with them as they explored new worlds," Stephen Harris, a professor in Oxford University's plant science department, told me over the phone. He described the weeds that had proliferated in the US as "biological opportunists", given their ability to grow just about anywhere. Harris said that chickweed, purslane, plantain, and gorse were among the most common species to be brought over.
When we buy food at the grocery store, we seldom reflect on the where the item came from, how it was produced, and how it was delivered to our supermarkets. "If you're concerned about carbon footprint or global warming, you could say I'm no longer going to buy vegetables fertilised by petrochemicals that have been shipped 100,000 miles to my door," remarked Stark.
With BOSF, Stark and his team are joining a pre-existing green food movement including everyone from organic farmers, community gardens, and other foragers, who advocate healthy eating and sustainability. "The main goal is that people pick their own stuff. That reduces their carbon footprint, and gets weeds eaten instead of wasted," said Stark.
Ultimately, the discovery of so many edible weed species has changed Stark and his team's perception of their environment. "My colleagues have become botanical rubberneckers. It changes how you move through the world," he said. "Instead of being a world of poverty and strife, you feel like you're walking through the Garden of Eden."