UC Berkeley professors Philip Stark and Tom Carlson are self-proclaimed botanical rubberneckers. When both of them walk their daily route to campus, it’s rare that they’ll take a few steps without stopping in their tracks, bending down, and finding some food to snack on. Their wild snacks are what most people would call weeds.
Weeds, they say, get a really bad rap. Instead Stark and Carlson want people to think of them as wild edibles, underprivileged plants, or forgotten foods. “They’re just an incredible resource and we're not using them,” Stark says.
Carlson and Stark are researchers funded by the Berkeley Food Institute studying the abundance, nutritional value, and potential toxicity of these wild edibles, or weeds, in the East Bay’s food deserts. A food desert is typically a place in a low-income urban neighborhood at least half a mile from a supermarket. They’re also creating an interactive map, so the public can log on and see exactly where they’ve identified a patch of edible weeds. Already their project, called “Reaping without Sowing,” has confirmed that there are “mountains” of wild edible plants growing in the Bay Area’s urban food deserts, even at the end of 2014’s record drought.
These edibles are actually most abundant in places where grocery stores are not, where fresh produce is difficult to buy, and where people don’t weed. Stark and Carlson explain that because people in wealthier neighborhoods tend to spray their lawns with pesticides and fertilizers, or hire gardeners to trim back any unwanted plants growing in their gardens, there are actually fewer sources of edible food in these places. The food deserts, the places where lower income families live, actually have more food growing between the concrete.
Take for example the blocks between 13th and 19th Avenue in West Oakland. In this small section of the neighborhood, Stark and Carlson identified over 10 different species of edible plants. Zooming in even further, at one spot near the corner of 15th and Campbell in Oakland, Stark notes there are 15-20 servings of dandelion. As well as recording the type of edible plant and its location on the map, Stark, Carlson and their students also identify things like how many people it would serve and how many servings are accessible.
Since they started, Stark and Carlson have identified over 90 different edible species in the East Bay’s food deserts. However, low-income residents in food deserts are less likely to be exposed to urban foraging trends. The challenge, they explain, is changing the perception of eating things from the ground.
“Eating anything that comes from the ground, comes from the dirt, gets a bad rap,” Stark says. He says the most common question people ask is, “what about dog pee?” Quite harmless even without a quick rinse, he tells me. After all, organic foods are grown in cow manure. Their project is also testing the soil toxicity where these plants are growing. So far, they’ve found nothing out of the ordinary.
“People respond to eating so-called weeds with a big “ick!,” Stark says. They would much rather buy their dandelion greens from the produce section at Whole Foods, rather than pick them out of sidewalk.
“That’s because we blindly trust the food clergy (grocery stores, food corporations, restaurants) to tell us what is safe to eat or not. But, we know very little about the days-old produce sitting on the shelves. Not only does it also come from the dirt, it’s been sprayed with who knows what, handled by many different processors, and picked over by people looking for the perfect bunch,” Stark says.
Even urban farms around the Bay Area are throwing away edible weeds, Stark and Carlson say. 11 of the top 15 “pest” plants identified by urban farmers are actually edible.
“These nutritious, delicious, self-propagating, sustainable, and drought tolerant foods are watered, fertilized, picked, and then discarded as “weeds,” Stark and Carlson write in their project proposal.
They want to get these weeds on people’s plates by working with the food clergy. They hope to teach urban farmers at places like Say Hay Farms in Woodland, CA, and Gill Tract Community Farm in Albany, to identify these edible weeds and properly harvest them. After they are harvested, Stark and Carlson want to make sure they are sold at farmers markets. Finally, they are partnering with restaurants like Chez Panisse and César to develop recipes that highlight and showcase these wild edibles.
Stark and Carlson say if they introduce these plants to people’s palates at high-end restaurants and farmers' markets, their acceptability will trickle down to all different types of communities.
“We hope people will go to the farmers' market and say, ‘Oh, there’s that stuff I was served the other day!” Stark says.
“All we want is for people to experience the flavors of these foods, and then they can decide for themselves. I think the majority of people when they experience these wild edibles they’re going to think ‘Oh, I like that,’” Carlson adds.
I admit, I was hesitant at first to bite into some of these plants when I met Carlson and Stark on a wild edible tour through their neighborhood. The piece of bristly ox-tongue that Carlson handed me and encouraged me to start eating, felt, and looked, like sandpaper. Its spiny, tongue-shaped leaves are not something you usually find in a salad. But, when I bit into it, it really wasn’t that bad -- juicy, milky, with just enough bitter flavor.
My favorite weed of the afternoon is called chickweed. The bright green plant with stemmy leaves is mild, and taste like spinach or mache lettuce.
We found “well-known” types of edible weeds, too. Fennel, purple sage, rosemary -- all in a public space. On one small street corner, we found over 10 species of wild edibles.
Not only are these plant species abundant, they are also healthy, Stark and Carlson say. Tom Carlson works as a pediatrician part-time and says he has seen firsthand the effects “food desert” diets have on people’s bodies.
“There's evidence that people on Western diets, the diversity of the gut microbiome is lower than it is in third world countries, substantially lower than hunter gatherer societies, and its hypothesized that it is largely due to the diversity of plants they consume,” Stark adds. He guesses that adding foraged plants to someone’s diet will be much better than just eating domesticated leafy greens.
“There’s a lot of mounting evidence that the health of your microbiome determines your general health to a great extent, including your mental health.”
An extension of their original project will look at the impact of eating these types of edible weeds on the gut microbiome by scientifically measuring the changes in a sample of about 50 people.
Stark, Carlson and their team are also working on a field guide to the top dozen edible plants in the East Bay. They want to include things that are abundant enough to be interesting, but also least likely to be confused with something toxic. The list includes fennel, dandelion, dock, sow thistle, chickweed, oxalis, mallow, plantago, and others. They specifically decided to not include wild berries, which you can find growing wild in almost every season in the area. A record of what and how much they’ve found so far can be found on their website.
Carlson says another future plan is possibly going into some of the local schools in the food deserts and integrating this knowledge into the classroom.
They also want to work to change public policy regarding weed maintenance. On their second day in the field in West Oakland near Nelson Mandela Parkway, Stark and Carlson saw two city workers in hazmat suits spraying pesticides in the weeds that would otherwise be food for people living in the area.“I really think we need to let the city know that parks should be habitat or food or both,” Stark says.
“People do everything they can to get rid of them, and they keep coming back. If you can’t beat them why not eat them?”