Foraging for Wild Foods in the Bay Area

If you want to eat locally, you might need not look any farther than your own backyard.

Over the past decade, Bay Area food enthusiasts and restaurateurs have espoused the virtues of buying local, organic ingredients. But more recently, foodies have taken this movement to the next level, foraging for wild foods in local parks or their own backyards and gardens.

Foraging saw an uptick in popularity beginning around 2009-­­2010 and has been gaining momentum ever since, said local forager Kevin Feinstein. He believes this resurgent interest stems from “people realizing that we’re highly disconnected from our food and from nature.”

“I think it’s one of the best ways to reconnect that there possibly is,” said Feinstein, who lives in Walnut Creek and leads wild food walks in the Bay Area. On his forays, Feinstein leads groups of about 20 around local parks, pointing out edible plants ranging from miner’s lettuce to wild artichoke to mustard flowers.

Many of these tours are provided through the organization ForageSF, which hosts dinners, classes and private events revolving around locally gathered foods. Iso Rabins, the founder of ForageSF, has made it his mission to support local foragers and the local food community.

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By picking greens throughout San Francisco and diving for seafood along the coast, Rabins said he wants to “show people that the world is bigger than they think it is.”

“Nature isn’t just something you should look at through glass, but something that you can actually interact with,” he explained.

Iso Rabins of ForageSF picks nasturtiums in a local park.
Iso Rabins of ForageSF picks nasturtiums in a local park. ( Katie Brigham/KQED)

Foraged Ingredients in Eight-Course Meal

Over Valentine’s Day weekend, Rabins hosted dinners on Saturday and Sunday night, highlighting foraged ingredients in each of his eight courses. From wild mushroom wonton raviolis to eucalyptus Campari Jell-O shots, Rabins explained the unique ingredients to his guests between courses.

“Just helping people make that leap -- to the idea that things in nature can be eaten -- is a lot of what we’re trying to do,” he said.

But while our ancestors foraged freely in the wilderness, today’s urban foragers must be secretive if they plan to gather food outside their own property. Removing plants from public or private land without permission is illegal, so foragers do not reveal the names of the public parks where they gather their food.

As the practice grows in popularity, Feinstein and Rabins hope that parks will find common ground with foragers, who often gather plants that are invasive or overgrown. “Instead of spraying the weeds with toxic herbicides that pollute the planet … instead we can eat the weeds to remove them,” Feinstein said.

Rabins thinks it’s only a matter of time before foraging is legalized and regulated. Feinstein said that the current popularity of foraging is more than a passing trend.

“People have been foraging since 99.99 percent of all human history,” Feinstein said, so he's not surprised such an ancient practice is back in vogue.

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“Time will tell whether it’s kind of a fad or not, but I don’t think so because it’s not new. … I think that people have been missing their connection to their place, and their food and the community that that brings about. So I think it’s here to stay.”

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