Recently I was invited to an Eat Your Sidewalk Showdown event in San Francisco. Eating your sidewalk – that either sounds like a lot of fun or a very scary proposition depending on how familiar you might be with the term urban foraging. This event co-sponsored by Spurse, a research and design collaborative, and AECOM, was held in the SOMA area of San Francisco. It brought together farmers, chefs, environmentalists, developers, designers, city staff, and various intrepid urban adventurers to participate in a foraging cook off and discussion on the urban agriculture issues raised over the course of the all day event.
The day-long event was broken into three parts: Forage, Cook and Discuss. Led by Iain Kerr of Spurse the group of foragers were tasked with finding ingredients in the surrounding city neighborhood to add to the fresh ingredients for the cook off challenge later in the day. Spurse calls this the “MacGyver the World” mentality of taking nothing at face value. The experience was definitely enlightening and what at first seemed almost impossible that anything other than dandelions would be found turned into a unique change of perspective on how a person could actually live off the land even in an urban forest when you discover that nature is urban. The simple act of looking for food in the city makes you look at the city differently and feel like you are a natural part of the city’s systems just like the food you find on your journey. The city is a complex ecosystem.
The rules of the cook-off part of the event were that the chef’s could use only the foraged materials, the fresh farm ingredients supplied by the local farmers and they could bring 3 of their own ingredients. A surprise mystery protein would also be supplied by a local hunter that had to be used. The chef’s were SF based Chef Takumi Abe and the Spurse team. The food that resulted from this challenge was deemed “earthy” and “tasty” and “I’d order this in a restaurant” worthy by the three judges. I happened to be one of them!
The discussion afterwards led by Stephen Engblom, and James Haig Streeter of AECOM, ranged from the plight of food deserts and food justice to food security and food waste, the “Tragedy of the Commons” argument of whether a community can self regulate or not, and much more. James presented his idea on The Urban Food Jungle, a prototype he believes can be adapted to city cores. The group agreed that there was a critical need for a paradigm shift in society on how we grow, consume and manage the food system in the city. Asked what do you think is the most important thing that needs to be done most people said “more education on the connection between food and health” and “making healthy food more convenient to all”.
I believe that this paradigm shift will require our relationship with food to change to one that sees food as an integral part of the web of the city fabric that is connected on a daily level to our own lives. The need for an ecological food model has never been more needed in our cities than now. The intersection of design, ecology and community that is part of urban agriculture calls for a new systems thinking approach in design and planning. Let’s decide to invite food back into our cities and forge a path towards creating healthier communities and a healthier environment.
Check out the eat your sidewalk blog for more information on their organization and this book ” Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast” that Iain recommended on the urban foraging movement. Though this book focuses on the plants found in east coast cities, most urban biomes in the United States will be fairly similar. Another book to consider is “The Bay Area Forager” by Mia Andler and Kevin Feinstein.