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The Ultimate in Eating Local: My Adventures in Urban Foraging

As money has gotten tight and the local-foods movement more popular, urban foraging has become a hit. I spent a day with one forager in San Francisco.

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Getting the Goods for Free

That's the beauty of foraging. It's like getting a new lens on life. All of a sudden, you can see things -- food -- where there wasn't any before. The weed you might be stepping over on the sidewalk with out even noticing -- that's purslane, and its stems and leaves are great in salad or you can cook it up. It's packed with iron, beta carotene, Vitamin C and other healthy stuff. It's also a secret source of omega-3 fatty acids. Forget fish pills, just look beneath your feet.

Foraging has its benefits for sure and beats the supermarket in many ways.

"It's a lot more fun, it's less expensive, the food tastes better, and there are more nutrients," Brill said. "It is also a good way of getting in touch with your planet, especially if you have kids who love learning about nature."

Urban foraging has become a nice complement to the "freegans," who popularized Dumpster diving and have reminded us that one person's trash is another's dinner.

"Freeganism (a conjunction of 'free' and 'vegan') is the philosophy that participation in our capitalist economy makes a person complicit in the exploitative practices that are used to create consumer goods," Becca Tucker wrote about her exploits living off what her fellow New Yorkers had tossed.

Of course, when I think of Dumpster diving, I think first of the folks whose association with garbage isn't a philosophical arrangement, but a necessity. Having the skills to get by on the streets when you're homeless or jobless or both is quite a feat.

But over the years, as our society has grown more and more attached to "more," we've created a consumer culture where most of the stuff we kick to the curb is totally usable -- from TVs to shoes to muffins. So why not live off the bounty of discards?

The same is true for food that's growing in our midst. While I imagine that finding still-edible cheesecake in a Dumpster behind a bakery feels like an incredible score -- probably even topping my glee at finding my first snail -- foraging offers food that is super-fresh and nutritious. And well, clean -- that is, if you're foraging in the right places (like not beside highways and railroads, Brill warns).

Even in our most populated urban environments such as New York City or Los Angeles, as people hurry to Whole Foods or Safeway, they're passing by food as they go -- things that can fill their plate for free.

Thankfully, more and more people are seeing the beauty of foraging.

"Urban foraging in the United States is more a choice than a necessity," Reuters reported. "Most foragers see both the health and environmental benefits to eating a more natural diet."

Of course in a tight economy, where clipping coupons has fallen back into practice for many, the free aspect doesn't hurt either. And lots of people are also experiencing a cultural shift when it comes to their food.

The backlash to fast food and processed food has grown as people are embracing not just organic, but locally-grown food. And increasingly, people have a desire to not just understand where their food comes from, but to actively participate in that food system.

Growing Community

Where I live on the West Coast, the trees are heavy with fruit, so much of which goes to waste, even while people in the city go hungry. Thankfully, several groups have stepped up to help with this problem.

 
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