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The food that grows from concrete

Olivia Cueva
Philip Stark looks at mallow growing in West Oakland with leaves as big as his hand

Imagine eating at your favorite restaurant and being told that the salad on your plate was harvested from the cracks in the sidewalk in West Oakland. Would you eat it? Two professors from UC Berkeley think you should. Their project is called Berkeley Open Source Food. To get these weeds from the ground to your dinner plate, they’re commissioning high end restaurants like Berkeley’s ChezPanisse to use these greens and show the public that they are not only safe to eat, but have lots of nutritional value.

Searching for greens

“That's really good mallow,” says  Tom Carlson, a physician and ethno-botanist of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley. He’s crouched on the ground staring at a group of weeds with urban food forager and statistics professor Philip Stark. They’re munching on the edible and nutritional weeds that grow wild in this West Oakland neighborhood.

“Everything here is so lush. We’re seeing catsear the size of basketballs,” says Stark who is talking about the abundance of greenery around us. As we walk around the neighborhood, every few feet they stop and point out a new patch of edible weeds.

“I mean look at these...they’re extraordinary. Oh! We got some doc down here too! Yes! Mmmm,” says Carlson excitedly. The two are snacking away, even though this area isn’t known for it’s access to fresh veggies.  

“We are technically in what the department of agriculture calls a food desert, in that it is low income according to the Census bureau and more than a mile from a place that you can buy fresh produce,” Stark tells me as he looks around at the graffiti on the walls and barbed wire around the buildings.  

With a $25,000 grant from the Berkeley Food Institute, the professors are researching the edible vegetation that grows in food deserts. They have three research sites: in Richmond, Berkeley, and West Oakland, an area that doesn’t have a full-sized grocery store.  

“Yet, you look around you on the sidewalks, in peoples yards, in the medians and you see lots of available food and that’s what we’re out here understanding and enjoying,” says Carlson.   

When the professors find a patch of weeds, they estimate the serving size, take a photo, and record this info onto an app called iNaturalist, so the public can access the information. They also test the soil for heavy metals and test plant tissue for environmental toxins in a lab at UC Berkeley.    

So far they have identified nearly 90 different species of edible weeds, many of which aren’t native to the area: they were brought here by European explorers back in the 1600s because of their nutritional and medicinal qualities.   

“But they keep coming back, without watering them. If you can’t beat them, why not just join them?” Carlson smiles.

A little further down the street, we approach a white Victorian house with a picket fence and perfectly trimmed lawn -- it stands out from all the other yards we pass because there were no weeds in sight.

“This is what has happened. Now when I go to a nice neighborhood where people have manicured lawns they look like deserts to me because there is no food growing,” says Stark.

In contrast, when Carlson and Stark see neighborhoods like this one, which has been neglected by city government, they don’t pay much attention to the barbed wire and graffiti on the buildings. They look at the weeds as high as your chest and see a Garden of Eden. I ask them if they worry about dog pee or other contaminants.  

“Wash them, okay?” says Carlson,  “You buy vegetables that could have cow manure on them at the store and you take them home and wash them. And so likewise, when you collect these, you can just wash them.”

The professors want people to recognize weeds as food, even though they are not in a package. But the goal of the project is for the community.

“To let these community know of the availability of free foods that can enhance their nutritional status,” Carlson says.

Will neighbors bite? 

After we said goodbye, I stick around to see if anyone from the neighborhood would actually try the edible weeds.  

Ike Forrest lives in a house with bunches of mallow growing outside. When I tell him about the UC Berkeley project he doesn’t believe me.

“No, I don't think they’re edible. If you see what pass through, you wouldn't say so,” Forrest says.

I told Forrest that he could rinse off the weeds to see if that would change his mind.

“Well I’ve got a son that's a chef and I'm going ask him about that. But no, I ain’t going to eat that,” he laughs.  

Forrest isn’t the only one from the neighborhood that feels this way. Even people who specialize in permaculture are skeptical.

Brandi Mack is a permaculturalist from West Oakland. A few years ago, Mack led her own edible tours in the neighborhood called Herbs in the Hood, to teach black youth about urban foraging and plant resiliency. Mack hadn’t heard about the UC Berkeley project to forage edible weeds but I ask is she would eat the weeds growing from the ground.

“Because I’m well trained ,I would. But would my community, the people I’ve know for years, do it? No. Because of there’s probably some kind of needle in there,” she says.

It’s not just the garbage that’s makes it unappealing to eat from the ground. Eating from the ground has negative connotations for many people in her community.  

“My folks will not look in the ground for healthy food, though this is where our ancestors planted everything. For folks to go down to the ground it’s saying, 'I’m broke, I don’t have, I’m less than,'” Mack says.

And that’s why Mack doesn’t think the edible weeds project will be successful in her neighborhood.

“Are we saying this is an alternative for another food bank in the community? Is it an alternative to no grocery store in our community? Is it going to  feed the many people here that still are hungry?” she asks.   

Stark and Carlson want to have tastings in the community and they’re involving local residents in helping to map the edible weeds across the East Bay.

But when I walked around the neighborhood, was I ready to reach down for a snack? Not yet.

This story originally aired on February 12, 2015.