Urban foraging: health, cultural ties and food justice.

Author and forager Ava Chin (Credit: Owen Brunette)

Over the past few years US cities have seen a rise in urban foraging– the act of searching for and gathering food in an urban landscape. In cities across the country, people from varied backgrounds, such as Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese, Korean and Latino/a immigrants, have been partaking in this practice of finding edible food amongst their urban landscapes. Attempts to find when urban foraging first started prove to be fruitless. The practice “remains without a lineage and without a shared history” (Cryptoforestry). People and communities around the world have been practicing foraging in both rural and urban areas for centuries and for various different reasons.

Today, the typical image of those that forage are people that are finding ways to “live off the earth” and embrace a sustainable way of life. For many, this practice has been popular as a way to move toward a sustainable and low-impact life, while for others, specifically recent immigrants to the US, it has more deep social and cultural implications. Amongst the motivations for foraging are a source of food, means of income, connecting with nature, cultural tradition, or transmitting “local ecological knowledge, and a means for stewarding local and native plant populations” (McLain et al. 2012, 13).

While growing in popularity, the practice of urban foraging is still on the fringe in terms of food provisioning, and the academic and political world have just started to explore the benefits and challenges of urban foraging. However, there are numerous books, classes and websites devoted to urban foraging for those that see this practice as a hobby. In some cities, there are even “urban foraging experts” that take interested individuals on urban foraging tours in urban nooks and crannies. Books are emerging such as David Craft’s Urban Foraging – finding and eating wild plants in the city and Ava Chin’s Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal. There is even an Annual Foraged Banquet at Gallery263 in Cambridge MA.

Benefits of urban foraging: health, cultural ties and food justice

Urban foraging has been viewed as a source of food, means of income and way to connect with nature. In addition to these benefits, urban foraging has been seen as a practice that “appear[s] to be important for maintaining cultural identities and have the potential to contribute to food security and human and community well-being…” (McLain et al. 2014, 236).

As discussions of health and nutritional security have become increasingly popular in the United States, urban foraging could be seen as a complementary food provisioning strategy that works toward a more just food system. In a study conducted by researchers at Wellesley College, it was found that “urban fruit contains a wider range of micronutrients than the fruit available in most stores” (Boyes 2015). In Berkeley, CA, professors from UC Berkeley have been documenting the availability of wild edibles in food deserts, and have found that there is a bounty of free, nutritious greens in areas where access to nutrient dense food is scarce (Kell 2014).

Not only does urban foraging provide free, nutrient rich food for all, especially to low-income communities, it also allows for the collection of culturally appropriate food that may not be available at a mainstream grocery store or local farmers market. As one study found, those that are living in a place that is unfamiliar are able to connect with their homeland through the foraging of recognizable flora. For example, Chinese immigrants gather Ginkgo, Koreans gather White Wood Aster, American Indians gather Evergreen Huckleberries, and African Americans forage young Pokeweed shoots (McLain et al. 2014, Foderaro 2011) Additionally, as many cultures around the world practice forms of foraging, continuing this practice in their new home allows recent immigrants to connect with the community, their culture and nature (McLain et al. 2014).

Potential and issues surrounding urban foraging

As urban foraging gains popularity and starts to be viewed as a sustainable and healthy complement to other forms of provisioning, both benefits and challenges to this practice need to be explored. It has been found that urban foraging has many benefits and its potential goes further than just being a food source. This practice can provide raw materials for “pharmaceuticals, health and beauty products, crafts, and the food and beverage industries” (McLain et al. 2012, 1). Other, environmental and social benefits include “better air quality, lower summer temperatures, aesthetics, and improvements in psychological well-being” (McLain et al. 2012, 1).

While benefits are evident, there are many people that hold a negative view of urban foraging. There are those that are worried this practice is not sustainable. Parks managers are worried that areas will become over-foraged and will decline in biodiversity. Additionally, there are legal barriers surrounding foraging such as where foraging is allowed, whether it be private or public land, as well as whether or not these foraged products will make people sick. This question of who is liable for these products creates a huge barrier as cities are concerned that people may become sick from a poisonous plant, or environmental pollution will negatively affect the quality of plants as they are in urban areas.

However, “documented evidence that gathering negatively affects urban ecologies is nonexistent” note McLain et al. (2012, 14). Many urban gatherers see themselves as environmental stewards, and “[employ] a system of ethical norms in their gathering practices and sometimes directly tending to species and habitat health” (McLain et al. 2012, 14). Additionally, there are available resources to check whether or not a plant is poisonous, and those that forage are usually familiar with the plants they are collecting.

Urban foraging in the future

It is clear that urban foraging has many benefits, however there are also many obstacles the practice faces before it becomes mainstream. With the term ‘food deserts’ fast becoming a household phrase and food and nutritional security, and food justice becoming increasingly popular agendas at the local level, and with urban foraging as a potential solution to some of these issues, these obstacles must be confronted by activists, academics and policymakers alike. Moving forward, in our cities of increasing cultural heterogeneity and difference, politicians and parks managers should begin to acknowledge urban foraging as both a free complimentary food source and a way to foster sharing and intercultural relations in cities

Laura Flagg and Julian Agyeman.

Laura Flagg is an MA Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Student at Tufts University.


Boyes, Christina. “Is Food Foraged in Cities Safe to Eat?” Civil Eats. Last modified November 11, 2015. http://civileats.com/2015/11/11/is-urban-foraging-cities-safe-to-eat-boston/

Kell, Gretchen. “Foragers find bounty of edibles in urban food deserts.” Berkeley News. Last modified November 17, 2014. http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/11/17/urban-foraging/

McLain, Rebecca J. et al. “Gathering in the City: An Annotated Bibliography and Review of the Literature About Human-Plant Interactions in Urban Ecosystems.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012. Accessed October 16, 2016. http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/pnw_gtr849.pdf

McLain, Rebecca J. et al. “Gathering ‘wild’ food in the city: rethinking the role of foraging in urban ecosystem planning and management.” Local Environment 19, no. 2 (2014): 220-240.

“Outlines for a History of Urban Foraging in the English Speaking world.” Cryptoforest. Last modified March 3, 2014. http://cryptoforest.blogspot.com/2014/02/outlines-for-history-of-urban-foraging.html


  1. Russ Cohen on January 5, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    Good article, but much of what is said here is relevant to foraging anywhere in settled areas (the suburbs,e.g.), not just urban areas. BTW – while the article doesn’t explicitly mention this, I am sure that many people (including myself) like to gather wild edibles for fun (i.e., the gathering, processing, eating and sharing of wild food is an enjoyable activity).

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