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Study Unearths Vibrant Urban Foraging Community in Baltimore

New Research Offers Fresh Insights on Local Foraging Practices and Wild Foods

Dec 04, 2017

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Baltimore is home to an active community of foragers that collect a wide variety of plants and fungi from the urban environment, according to a new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering and the US Forest Service. The study is the first of its kind to use quantitative and geospatial methods to characterize foraging practices in a North American city.

Foraging involves the gathering of ‘wild’ foods—such as berries, mushrooms, and nuts—that are not deliberately cultivated for human use. To collect data for the study, researchers surveyed 105 persons who had foraged in Baltimore City or County in the previous year. The survey included questions about demographics, foraging experience, motivations for and barriers to foraging, and the contribution of foraged foods to foragers’ diets.

“Public interest in foraged foods has surged in recent years, but the potential health benefits and risks associated with foraging in an urban environment are not well understood,” said assistant professor Keeve Nachman, co-author of the study and director of CLF’s Food Production and Public Health Program. “We’re tremendously grateful to the many foragers who shared their perspectives with us for this study, and we hope it will contribute to greater recognition of foraging as a component of urban food systems.”

Half of the survey respondents were relatively new to foraging, with five or fewer years of foraging experience. The majority of the respondents were white and held at least a bachelor’s degree, with a gender distribution of 59% female to 41% male. Foraging predominantly occurred in green spaces, like forests and public parks, and residential areas. The most frequently reported motivations for foraging were enjoyment, economic and health benefits, and experiencing a connection with nature.

Foragers collected from 140 different kinds of plants and fungi around Baltimore. Fungi such as hen of the woods and chanterelle mushrooms made up 75% of the foraged materials by volume. Commonly foraged plant materials included dandelions, mulberries, garlic mustard, and stinging nettles. The study found that in some cases, foraged foods meaningfully contributed to foragers’ diets. For one-fifth of study participants, foraged foods accounted for at least ten percent of their diets. Lower-income participants were more likely to harvest from a greater diversity of species, and their diets generally comprised a larger share of foraged materials. These findings suggest foraging could be particularly important to lower-income persons for supplementing their diets or saving on food costs. An average of 67% of respondents’ foraged foods were consumed by the respondent, and around 8% of respondents reported selling a portion of the material they foraged.

Commonly cited barriers to foraging included lack of time, knowledge gaps, and safety concerns. Foraging is largely unrecognized in urban policy, planning, and design, except where prohibited by regulations governing public parks and other green spaces. Previous research has documented that concerns about exposure to soil contaminants and other environmental hazards from foraged materials are widespread among public land managers.

“This study lays a foundation for future research that can address foragers’ and public land managers concerns about food safety, and inform policies regarding the management of urban landscapes,” said Marla Emery, study co-author and Research Geographer at the US Forest Service. “This study elevates the voices of foragers, and will be useful for Parks Departments as they consider policy approaches to foraging that support the health of both people and forests.”

Gathering Baltimore’s Bounty: Characterizing Behaviors, Motivations, and Barriers of Foragers in an Urban Ecosystem” was written by Colleen Synk, Brent Kim, Charles Davis, James Harding, Virginia Rogers, Patrick Hurley, Marla Emery, Keeve Nachman and published in the December 2017 issue of the journal Urban Forestry and Urban Greening.