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The City Has Food to Share. Do You Know Where to Find It?

CityLab logo CityLab 9/9/2019 Karen Loew
an apple hanging from a tree © Heather Ainsworth/AP

On a sunny day in late June, I found myself deep among the branches of a mulberry tree at Stuyvesant Cove, on the East River of Manhattan. I had spotted the tree in past summers—or at least I had spotted the purple splatters of fallen berries on the stone walk—and resolved that the next time the mulberries ripened, I’d stop by for a taste. As I circled the trunk picking low-hanging fruit, other folks stopped, whether for a berry or just to ask what I was doing.

While foraging is a basic part of human nature, it has mostly been superseded by other food sources in the built environment. Modern agriculture systems and supply chains put practically any food you want just a grocery store away, so who needs to know if that tree on the corner has something tasty to share? Still, there’s plenty of food growing in cities—berries, apples, citrus, leafy greens, and more, depending on where you live and the time of year. And despite some online tools and awareness efforts that aim to boost the popularity of urban foraging, your average eater has yet to go picking.

For Yvette King and Ayodamola Tanimowo Okunseinde, that disconnect presented an opportunity. What if someone passing by that mulberry tree could tell right away that, for a few weeks in June and July, those berries were ripe, available, and safe to eat? The New York-based design and technology duo is developing a “forage beacon” to communicate just that.

a sign on a pole: A forage beacon alerts passersby to an Amelanchier plant. (Courtesy of Ayodamola Tanimowo Okunseinde) © Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. A forage beacon alerts passersby to an Amelanchier plant. (Courtesy of Ayodamola Tanimowo Okunseinde)

The beacon is relatively simple: A metal pole holds up a sign and a light. The sign explains the plant and its food, and when its food is ripe for the taking. The light shines when there’s something to be had. King and Okunseinde hope that it might help more people give foraging a try—and that less food might be wasted—if there’s a clear signal that food is available. And maybe along the way it could spark curiosity, personal connections, and education about the local ecosystem.

“People are detached from what they eat,” said King, who grew up on a farm in Australia. On the farm, “there were very direct causal effects between what you wanted to eat, and how to go about it.” That’s why she supports and wants to develop “any tools that can help people have connections with what they eat.”

Popularizing unconventional food sources seems like an idea worth exploring in the U.S., a country where nearly 50 million people are at risk of hunger, according to the hunger relief organization Feeding America, and 40 percent of all food is never used. It’s an idea that has particular resonance now that we are facing our century’s uphill challenge to secure enough water and food for Earth’s 7 billion humans. We may be turning to local seaweed, pecans, or mushrooms more than ever before.

“It’s very much so an educational project. It’s tricking people to say, ‘hey, what’s this?’” says Okunseinde, who is also an assistant professor at Parsons, and tends to think in terms of learning exercises and outcomes. “We try to not only create the project, but also think about supporting the community.”

The pair’s current goal is to build four functioning beacon prototypes, and use the coming winter to build relationships with organizations, such as community gardens and schools, that would agree to host a beacon and descriptive sign next summer. For example, one could be placed next to a shadberry bush in a community park that agreed to participate. The sweet Amelanchier is also called serviceberry or juneberry, because it ripens in June in the eastern U.S. It’s a common shrub, but not many urbanites know it’s safe to eat, though it was a staple for Native Americans. Once you start looking, edibles are everywhere, whether wild cranberries in New England, mustard greens in San Diego, or chestnuts in Mumbai.

The pair acknowledge that there are legal and practical issues to work through as they refine their prototype and try to get beacons placed. For one thing, in parks that are part of NYC’s Department of Parks and Recreation, foraging is illegal: city rules say it’s illegal to remove edible park property, just as it is to remove a blooming cherry branch or resident bunny. Rules differ between cities, and vary by land ownership within any one place. Prohibitions result from concerns that people could be sickened by eating something that’s polluted or toxic, or that animals could be deprived of sustenance.

Under the mulberry tree by the river, my hands got more stained as I plucked the “sun-ripened fruit”—which I learned is a real, delicious thing, not just an advertising slogan. A young chef biked by, and said he was going to come back and pick something for himself. An older man came over and calmly enjoyed some berries, and told me that drinking boiled mulberry leaf tea is good for the stomach. His young granddaughter walked under the branches, entranced by a miniscule bug exploring her arm.

a plate of food: Mulberries, from tree to scones. (Karen Loew) © Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. Mulberries, from tree to scones. (Karen Loew)

I was excited about the mulberry scones I was going to bake (which, with my free berries and pantry supplies, cost only $1.30 for a pint of cream). I was excited to perform the activity of gathering, inspired by author Yuval Noah Harari, who speculates in his bestselling nonfiction book Sapiens that hunting and gathering may have been a better fit for our human ancestors than agriculture and capitalism has been for us.

The forage beacon may light a path back in that direction. “A lot of the work that I do is within the speculative realm,” Okunseinde told Citylab. “It’s about changing the perspective of the problem, so that over time, we get to new solutions. It functions as a narrative for future possibility. If it’s able to do that, then over time, societal perception changes.”

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