Eating locally means different things to different people, but to urban foragers it can literally mean eating close to home. You may not realize it, but a wealth of healthy -- and free -- food may be growing just outside your front door.
Urban foragers like Ted Purves and Susanne Cockrell live off the land by gathering fruits, vegetables and plants that grow in urban landscapes.
In the case of Purves and Cockrell, they also run The Big Backyard, a crop-sharing program that collects and distributes produce in the Temescal, Oakland, neighborhood.
Italian-American immigrants moved into the neighborhood near the beginning of the last century and planted trees that still bear fruits like lemons, figs and plums. The Big Backyard program helps people reconnect with food and its role in their neighborhood's history.
Though The Big Backyard started as a history-focused art project, it ties into a larger curiosity about global production and the path food takes to get from a farm to our door, Purves said. This is a really simple and direct way that people can think about production in a non-global sense, he said.
We're all really affected by the globalization of industry, but this is the one place where that system breaks down. There's an obvious thing you can do about that, in terms of the globalization of food.
The Big Backyard is also working to bring their project to another demographic: Oakland schoolchildren. The Edible Schoolyard, a project in a Berkeley school, is a model for student participation in local food systems.
At Martin Luther King Junior Middle School, food grown in the school's garden features into their regular course work, but is also harvested and prepared by students and sold in the cafeteria. Other schools around the United States are now working from the Edible Schoolyard model and The Big Backyard is trying to set up a sustainable after-school program, Cockrell said.
The movement is also growing a Web presence to get the message across.
Urban Edibles, an online database of wild food sources in Portland, not only has a map of food-bearing trees and bushes, but also addresses issues of safety and ethics (http://urbanedibles.org/project/ethics) for urban foragers.
Food sources listed on the site are classified as public or private, and users can post about their own trees if they are willing to share its fruits. Michael Bunsen and Bobby Smith, the project's organizers, encourage their users to strike up a discourse with property owners, extending the community-building focus from their online discussion forum back into the real world.
They hope to expand the site to include more cities, Bunsen said.
At a time when most Americans don't eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables, and the Hunger Task Force estimates that 35.1 million Americans experienced food insecurity in 2005, food-sharing programs illustrate that healthy, free food is available and could be going to waste.
I don't think buying vegetables and fruit is a priority for a lot of people, Bunsen said. The cost of these items could be off-putting for families following a strict food budget. Urban Edibles' community highlights the availability of free, healthy food, he said, and helps people who are used to shopping in grocery stores get over the hump of eating an apple that might look blemished, or realize that weeds like dandelion are actually nutritious.
Getting people to look beyond their own prejudices is another hurdle, says Big Backyard's Cockrell, adding that people often don't think of the fruits growing on a tree in their backyard as food. They saw them as things they had to prune and get rid of, a mess, she said.
People have had oranges growing in their backyard, but thought they were only decorative, not edible, even when older family members had originally planted them as a food source, Cockrell said.
Being opened up to the wide variety of produce growing in their neighbourhood -- including citrus fruits, persimmons, walnuts, peaches, apples, avocados and herbs -- makes people realize what was here in the past, and what the potential is for the future, Cockrell said.
That was also part of the impetus for Urban Edibles: to open people's eyes to the cornucopia of food that grows, literally, in their backyards, Bunsen said. At various times during the year, a Portland resident can find chestnuts, berries, pears and cherries free for the taking.
Once people notice something like a plum tree, he said, they'll also start seeing other resources in their community, like a public water fountain they could use to wash the fruit before eating it. That's what's important about this to me -- increasing people's awareness of what's already around them.