Can the pandemic force us to build better food systems?
November 12, 2020
By Lynda S. Ramirez-Blust
Once the coronavirus reached the U.S., vulnerabilities in our food system quickly became apparent: as panicked buyers were picking supermarket shelves clean and grocery stores were struggling to restock, some farmers were destroying large quantities of crops because of disruptions all along the supply chain. In response, people sought some modicum of control by buying seeds and young plants to grow their own vegetables. Still others went one step further—in addition to heading to local green spaces and trails for exercise, they began foraging for food.
Emerging interest in a forgotten practice
You may have heard people talk about coming across morel mushrooms in a park or finding wild blueberries while hiking. In fact, if you know where to look and when, you can find all sorts of edible and delicious wild plants growing in your area, sometimes literally in your own backyard. Wild ramps and ginger, lingonberries and raspberries, rosehip, many kinds of herbs—all can be found in the wild. In fact, some especially delicious mushrooms, like chanterelles, are nearly impossible to cultivate and have to be foraged, which reflects their steep price tag at the store.
In many countries around the world, foraging—particularly for mushrooms—is a popular activity, with locations of especially fertile spots handed down through generations like family heirlooms. It is an activity that many “New American” refugee, low-income, and minority communities engage in on a regular basis. Unfortunately, in the U.S., foraging is discouraged in many public spaces and is often illegal or severely limited through regulation.
Abundance of opportunity
The Metropolitan Washington region, where I live, benefits from thousands of acres of federal, state, and county parks, trails, playgrounds, and other green spaces. Chief among them are lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS). According to NPS.gov, the National Park Service manages 419 sites covering more than 85 million acres (3.4% of all land) in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. Of these, 37 sites are located in the area overseen by Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), an independent, nonprofit association focused on regional issues affecting the District of Columbia, suburban Maryland, and Northern Virginia. One of the oldest and most urban parks, Rock Creek Park, includes 1,754 acres of forested land. Within the George Washington Memorial Parkway (GWMP) system, Turkey Run Park encompasses just over 700 acres. These two parks are but a fraction of the NPS land in the MWCOG region.
In 2015, 5.5 million people lived in the Metropolitan Washington region. By 2045, the population is expected to grow by 1.4 million to nearly 6.9 million, a 26% increase, according to a report by Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. It is imperative that we examine foraging as we consider ways in which to feed our growing population and maintain public green spaces. The increased interest by urban dwellers in the practice of foraging provides a unique opportunity to plan and design sustainable and inclusive urban food systems.
A park as an inclusive ecosystem
In the name of conservation, national parks have been “museumified.” They are places to which visitors are actively recruited, only to be told not to touch. For example, the Virginia native pawpaw (Asimina triloba) looks a bit like a small mango, and has the texture of custard and taste of banana. Unfortunately, it has not proven itself to be commercially viable and is not typically found in grocery stores. It grows in colonies in Turkey Run Park and in several other places along the Potomac River in the lands that comprise the GWMP system. When it is ripe, the pawpaw fruit falls to the ground. The superintendent’s compendium for GWMP does not address harvesting of non-timber forest products (NTFP) and so foraging of pawpaw fruit is illegal (though often not noticed). Wouldn’t allowing park users to pick up and enjoy the fruit do more to further the NPS conservation mission than simply banning all active engagement with the place?
Keeping humans from engaging with trees, plants, soil, and the water reduces ecological literacy and renders the populace ignorant of the value and importance of the very thing to be conserved. Reminding humans of their intimate relationship with nature through food and medicine is critical to the cultivation of a conservation mindset.
A path forward through red tape
Rules and regulations that apply to all NPS sites are written in Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), while those specific to any one site are found in a compendium written and maintained by that site’s superintendent. A park superintendent may define the type of foods that may be harvested, the method of harvest, and the use, quantity, and location of harvest. As such, the rules vary greatly from park to park.
MWCOG works with the NPS on a number of initiatives for the region. It is time for the MWCOG to work with NPS leadership to shift the default NPS position of leaving it up to the park superintendent’s discretion. One-third of all NPS sites are located in urban areas, and such a change in policy would go a long way to decriminalize a practice that has the potential to transition citizens from passive users of green spaces to active co-producers with nature, in Metropolitan Washington and across the nation. This fundamental shift in policy raises key implementation concerns related to conservation, sustainable harvesting regimes, and public health.
COVID-19 has presented the MWCOG a unique opportunity to work with the NPS, one of the largest managers of forested land in the region, to promote ecologically-based food provisioning. The NPS already has the tools at its disposal to facilitate sustainable harvesting regimes and share knowledge to other land managers. The critical first step is to make foraging legal. It is time to flip the NPS default position from one that prohibits foraging unless allowed to one that allows foraging unless it is prohibited.
I love trees and plants, parks, and open spaces. I know the positive effects they can have and know the negative effects if mistreated. I also have a deep devotion to fighting social injustice. Everyone should have access to opportunities to live their best life, however they define it. For more than 24 years I worked with nonprofit organizations on a number of issues—early childhood education, hunger and food insecurity, homelessness, distribution of vaccines, healthcare, etc. Transitioning from a successful career in finance and accounting, I am pursuing masters degrees in both Landscape Architecture and Urban and Regional Planning. Exploring the space where landscape architecture and urban planning overlap, I seek to understand causes and explore solutions to social injustice from a different perspective. Food policy, food systems resilience, and urban agriculture are the areas of deep interest to me.
Note: Lynda was a student in our Urban Ecology course, which is offered as an elective to students from across Virginia Tech graduate programs. Students in our Online MNR graduate program can take the Urban Ecology course as an elective or as part of their Cities and Urban Systems focus area.