Urban foraging is not new, and is gaining ground as a sustainable activity that makes ecological sense. While most people undoubtedly still rely on their cars and the weekly run to the supermarket to buy food, there is an increasing number of urbanites in Kitchener-Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) interested in living right off their neighborhood's backyard.
In many places poverty is looked down upon, and trying to get free food in the city can be seen as a sign of lower social status. However, in Kitchener and many cities across North America, this is starting to change. As the movement to build sustainable settlements has grown, more people from all backgrounds are looking at how their lifestyle choices impact the planet. Foraging and gleaning is a new lifestyle frontier that allows individuals to secure sustenance with a much lower carbon footprint. Simply put, harvesting wild apples from a neighborhood park on a bicycle emits less carbon than buying a banana imported from a plantation in Brazil.
Urban foraging in Kitchener-Waterloo is both informal as well as well organized. It ranges from spontaneous friend-gatherings to organized teams, like the Tri-city Gleaners' Guild, who put their harvests into the local food system through donations. What all circles have in common is the desire to re-localise the area’s food supply and culture.
So can urban foraging really affect local food systems? Well, that really depends on who you ask. Most urban food projects focus on actual production; methods include urban farming, poultry rearing (where by-laws permit) and, increasingly, beekeeping. Technological advances and sustainable design, especially for beekeeping (check out the new Flow Hive), are now making more activities available to the urban agriculturalist. In comparison, foraging for food at wild or stray fruit trees may not seem like an activity that could as easily gain clout. However, such foraging is important enough for people to run formal courses on them.
At the University of Waterloo's Faculty of Environment, there are now edible landscapes workshops, many of which focus on the urban environment. At home-stead level learning centers like the Little City Farm in Kitchener, facilitators offer specialized courses on urban foraging. On top of these knowledge centres, there is a local network of individuals who hold years of practical knowledge in the practice. Many of them can live completely off plants, fruits and roots found in the urban wilds.
The true potential of urban foraging, once paired with other urban food movements, is its ability to change the built environment. Land value in the province of Ontario is currently measured by its ability to sell real estate or its aggregate mining prospects. However, with the introduction of the Provincial Policy Statement nearly a decade ago, Ontario is more assertively changing it's relationship with agricultural land. It is possible that in the future urban agricultural practices will be more recognised, and existing foraging traditions may find greater importance in food security of the future.
Whether or not urban foraging and gleaning add substantially to the food system, they are doubtlessly considered a part of an emerging movement towards changing it. Urban foraging groups are part of the Waterloo Region Food Systems Round Table. They also participate in groups like Transition Kitchener-Waterloo, a chapter of a global movement exploring ways to make communities and bioregions more resilient in the face of environmental shifts, like climate change. A reemerging ancient practice may now be one of the keys to a sustainable and food-secure future.
Is urban foraging happening where you live? Is your city working to develop resilient food systems? Please share your thoughts and stories below.
Credits: Data linked to sources. Images by Michael Hood (first and second images) and Kristen Giesting (third image).