The Afikomen Project
Coming Home to Nature's Garden
If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain.
If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees.
If you want one hundred years of prosperity,
educate the people.
The Afikomen Project is a public wild foods education program. Our goal is to have, by 2030, every child in the United States be able to safely identify and harvest the ten most common wild foods in their area. We are moving towards that goal by training schoolteachers across the country to teach foraging.
The Afikomen Project is the first widespread foraging training initiative in the world. It is based on the well-known proverb, “give people fish and they eat for a day; teach them to fish, and they eat for a lifetime.” We believe that being able to feed yourself from nature is, as much as math and literacy, a basic skill. By teaching children to forage “for food and profit,” we are promoting national food security and establishing sustainable local economies in the process. Here's how:
Since hunger is closely related to poverty, The Afikomen Project establishes local markets for surplus produce, and this, in turn, funds the project. These wild foods markets serve as a ready outlet for young foragers' “catch of the week,” building their self-worth and local food independence at the same time. In other words, whatever food the children don’t use to feed their families is sold at market. These local wild foods markets are staffed by project-trained experts to ensure proper identification and quality control. Proceeds from the sale of this produce, in turn, pay for future classes.
This local, closed-loop economy is based on the quintessential renewable resource: the bounty of nature. It offers a lasting, effective solution to both food scarcity and unemployment. Foraging feeds people, not through continued dependence on unsustainable industrial agricultural systems, but through community self-reliance. Foraging doesn’t just create jobs; it creates self-employment. This is true American independence.
The Afikomen Project's pilot city is Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is situated in The Katuah Bioregion, the richest temperate ecosystem on earth. With over one hundred common local wild edibles, all free for the taking, Asheville sits in a veritable “Garden of Eden.” Yet Asheville also has the third worst hunger problem in the country. The Afikomen Project addresses this incongruity with an obvious, permanent solution: by empowering local families to feed and fend for themselves.
The Afikomen Project's initial market is The Asheville Wild Foods Market. The market sells wholesale to over 75 restaurants and retail to the general public. Markets like this one allow children to simply enjoy their “treasure hunt” (see halfway through this interview). When children enjoy their time in nature, then sunshine, exercise, and most importantly, the feeling that this is my home all come naturally. This sense of belonging is the foundation for a sense of ownership, and with it, responsibility. When this land is my land, it's up to me to take care of it. Besides, to feel at home in the world is every child's birthright. Imparting this feeling is the mission of No Taste Like Home.
The Afikomen Project is currently working with The Asheville City Schools Foundation's "In Real Life" program at Asheville Middle School (see photos here). We are seeking funding to expand our program independently to Enka Middle School and beyond. Donations are tax-deductible. For more information, contact us.
Here is more about The Afikomen Project and why we need it. For an interview and slide show about wild foods in general, see here.
The Afikomen Project is endorsed by:
- Dr. Andrew Weil, world-renowned pioneer and best-selling author in the field of integrative medicine
- James A. Duke, PhD, thirty-year economic botanist for the USDA, advisor to The World Health Organization and The National Cancer Institute, and author of over twenty-five books, including The Green Pharmacy and Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants
- Nathalie Dupree, author of fifteen cookbooks and host of nine cooking shows, three-time James Beard award-winner, Grande Dame d’ Escoffier, and 2013 French Master Chefs Woman of the Year
- Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and The Revolution will not be Microwaved
- Amy Padolf, Director of Education, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
- Dr. Douglas Schar, ten-year herbal editor for Prevention
- Dr. Jeanine Davis, the regional authority on nontimber forest products
- Cindy Threlkeld, Executive Director, MANNA Food Bank (which distributes over 10 millions pounds of food a year through 231 partner agencies)
- Kathlyn Terry, Executive Director, Appalachian Sustainable Development
- Julie Mayfield, Executive Director, The Western North Carolina Alliance
- Jeanie Martin, Board Member, Transition Asheville
- Sarah Schober, Operations Manager, BioNetwork BioBusiness Center
- Amber Baker, President, North Carolina Herb Association
- Ceara Foley, Director, Appalachia School of Holistic Herbalism
Mike Keenan, Director,
Hokitika Wild Food Festival
- Andrea Reusing, Chef/Owner, Lantern
- William Dissen, Chef/Owner, The Market Place
- Nan Kramer, President, Slow Food Asheville
- Graham Duvall, Owner, Mother Earth Produce
- Michael Moore, Executive Director, Blind Pig Productions
- Janell Kapoor, Director, Ashevillage Institute & Kleiwerks International
- Stan Cross, Director, Environmental Leadership Center, Warren Wilson College
- Fred Bahnson, Director, Wake Forest Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative
- Joe Allawos, Owner, Mushroom Central
- Darcel Eddins, Director, Bountiful Cities Project (our fiscal sponsor)
- Bridget Kennedy, Program Director, The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project
- Anne Lancaster, Purchasing Director, Mountain Food Products
- Billy Jonas, internationally-known singer songwriter, who is helping to integrate creative arts into our foraging curriculum
- six attorneys at Alston & Bird LLP, working pro bono to register No Taste Like Home as a 501c3 nonprofit and to assist in addressing and resolving any regulatory and liability concerns that may arise
Back to the Garden
In most indigenous cultures, a significant percentage of the diet is wild food. Wild plants and mushrooms, where people are used to using them, are incredibly safe — so safe, in fact, that the ones who traditionally collect them are the children. As ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson reports, “these are the areas where mushrooms are considered friends, where children gather them for fun before they can read and write, where no adult feels the need for a mushroom manual, where immense quantities of mushrooms are prepared for the table in innumerable ways, and where accidents are unknown.” This is the skill set that The Afikomen Project seeks to re-establish across America.
The word afikomen (pronounced "ah-fee-KOH-muhn") comes from the springtime holiday of Passover. Around the same time that Christian children are looking for Easter eggs, Jewish children search for a piece of special flatbread called the afikomen. In both cases, the children are foraging.
The best foragers in the world are children. They are literally and figuratively closer to the earth. They notice what most adults overlook. They don't know not to take food from strangers, now that nature has become a stranger to us. The afikomen symbolizes salvation, and it is the children who find it.
With proper public education, foraging can become a major green “industry.” Wild foods are one of our most plentiful and renewable resources. These forest-based commodities provide the economic incentive to keep our natural areas intact while creating lasting employment at the same time. Many of the top-selling gourmet mushrooms cannot be cultivated: they can only be foraged from healthy woods, and picking them does no more harm to the forest than picking berries. Local “forest-to-table” ingredients like these make a case for conservation and the air quality that our ecosystems need. They are a “win-win-win” solution, benefiting business, people, and the environment.
Our Eden Disorder
Many areas in the United States are plagued by a severe hunger problem, particularly among rural children. The obvious, natural, permanent solution is to empower children to feed themselves. Children around the world gather wild food safely to feed their families, and Asheville, in particular, is richly blessed in this regard. The city is surrounded by the richest bioregion north of the tropics. And like any other city, Asheville actually has more wild food in cleared areas than in the woods.
There is no shortage of wild food, one of our most renewable resources. Yet, in our modern American biophobic culture, most people will not eat wild food, even if they're hungry. That's because, for one, it is generally believed that eating wild food will kill you.
Even those who recognize the value and relative safety of wild food don't necessarily avail themselves of it. That's because most people don't have the time, the knowledge, or the desire to prepare even the simplest meals. We are too busy working to pay the bills.
With hunger, it's not the food that's scarce but the money to pay for it. Low income populations may not readily embrace free, fresh, local, and organic wild food, but the affluent already do. Wild foods are the cutting edge of the local food movement, a rapidly growing "industry." And poor populations can begin to profit from this with minimal training. This is how foraging, albeit indirectly, can address the hunger problem.
Foraging is easy money. I made a living, largely by foraging, for over fifteen years. People in Appalachia have been foraging at least one wild plant for a lot longer than that: ginseng. That's why it's endangered. Fortunately, most other wild foods, including mushrooms, are far more renewable.
Generally speaking, we couldn't make a sizable dent in the wild food supply if we tried — that is, if we tried to do it right, i.e., through permaculture. That's what The Afikomen Project is designed to teach. Because very soon, we may not have any choice.
Foraging introduces people to natural, nourishing food. It's an invitation that few are ready to accept. But as the culture shifts, so will our diet. That shift is happening among those who can afford to think about it. And these are the same people, the ones with money to spend, that we're connecting to those who need it. Low income adults may not have time or inclination to forage, but their children do.
We live in a Garden of Eden. Yet every year, billions go hungry. What's wrong with this picture?
I have lived in Asheville, North Carolina since 1995. For me, it's an easy place to be. Food and friends are plentiful. Potlucks and other gatherings fill the week. Back when even the now-upscale neighborhood of Montford was affordable, I had a neighbor so tired of socializing that she literally fled to New York City.
It came as a shock to me, then, to learn that Asheville ranks third in the country in hunger. According to the Food Research and Action Center, more than one in five people in the Asheville area struggle to afford food. And that's with MANNA Food Bank delivering over ten million pounds of food a year. The figures are even worse outside the city, where unemployment are significantly higher. Is it any coincidence that this is where they filmed The Hunger Games?
The problem's not new; the figures were the same the year before. Note that the problem isn't the food supply but paying for it (more on that here). Even in Asheville, which bills itself as a "Foodtopian Society," there's no free lunch: not enough caring community to keep everyone fed.
What a shock. I've always had far more food than I can handle. I feed myself directly from nature, where produce is always local, organic, fresh, and free. Where I shop, you get what you don’t pay for.
The word manna comes from the Bible. During the Exodus, the Hebrews found food in the desert. In other words, they foraged. Their "manna" came from God, or maybe Mother Nature; either way, there was enough.
I have been teaching foraging for nearly twenty years. For most of that time, I also harvested and sold several hundred pounds of wild mushrooms and other wild foods each year. I supplied over thirty restaurants and hotels in Western North Carolina and the Piedmont, including Lantern, The Grove Park Inn, and Biltmore Estate. In 2008, I was contacted by The Compass Group in Charlotte, one of the largest food service companies in the world, asking about setting up a standing order for as much wild mushrooms as I could give them.
Clearly, despite a superabundant supply, like MANNA, I was meeting only a small fraction of the demand. And so I shifted my focus from "fishing" to teaching people how to fish – or forage – for themselves. Since then, I've taught thousands of people how to go out to eat. I founded No Taste Like Home, the first and largest "forage-to-table" wild foods program in the country. I've also been on several TV shows, urging millions more to go "off the eaten path." The Afikomen Project is the next step. Foraging is local food taken a step further – or rather, back – all the way to "paradise."
Wild foods have recently become all the rage – at least, ironically, among the affluent. For the past three years, Noma in Copenhagen has been voted the best restaurant in the world, and much of its menu is foraged food. As Time reported in 2010, foraging is “the latest culinary obsession.” A couple weeks later, the AP ran the story, “Foodies turn to foraging to connect with nature.” Dozens of articles, books, and even TV shows on foraging have appeared since, with many more on the way. I've been invited to star in two different upcoming shows about mushroom hunting.
This upsurge of interest in wild food is not that surprising. After all, wild food is the ultimate local, sustainable food. The truth is that 90% of what we consider local food is not local. It may be grown locally, but it does not grow there naturally. Only the food that grows naturally in an area, i.e., wild, can be considered truly local food.
Unfortunately, the first thing most people think of when you mention wild food, particularly wild mushrooms, is DEATH. Take, for instance, the bestselling book and motion picture, Into the Wild. This is what kept me in business all those years. I had a niche market: everyone else was afraid to do it!
Are wild foods really so dangerous? Ask most of the world for most of human history. Our fear of wild food, particularly mushrooms, is as irrational as it is unique. It's not the food that's bizarre; it's our aversion to it. This fear factor is all American, and while it makes for great TV shows, it leaves millions of us hungry. For more on this exceptional fungophobia, see "Why don't I just be normal and stay away from wild mushrooms?"
The second most frequent objection to a mass movement towards foraging is that people will destroy the woods. I posed this concern to Steve Brill, one of America's most well-known foragers, and he said that this is like saying that we shouldn't promote bicycle riding because if everyone started riding bicycles at the same time, the streets would be impassible. We can only wish we had that problem!
The fact is that right now, people are driving instead. Similarly, even if everyone suddenly started foraging, even doing it with no concern for the environment, we would still do less damage than we are already doing now. Humans have destroyed 90% of the Earth's forests, mostly by removing them entirely for agriculture. In other words, farming is far more destructive than foraging could ever be (more on this below).
The third main objection to mass foraging is that there just isn't enough food out there for all of us. Whether or not this is true, what we're doing now cannot continue. We must find a middle ground, working with nature instead of against it. That middle ground is called permaculture (more on this also below).
One of MANNA Food Bank's slogans is "many hands move mountains." To feed people, we don't have to move mountains. There are mountains of food right in front of us. Communities don't need to depend on the discards of corporate agribusiness; we are entirely capable of food if not economic self-sufficiency. Regular people can feed each other; we can feed ourselves. And we can make money doing it.
Weed it and Reap
A few decades ago, a well-known Indian spiritual leader decided to build a medical center. His staff knew it would cost millions of dollars. They asked in astonishment, "but where will the money come from?" He replied, "wherever it is now!" The way of the forager is one of trust in life, that "the Lord will provide." Life has always "done great things" for us; we just have to notice. Here are just a few examples.
This is a friend of mine gathering the chickweed that covered half my yard last spring. In three months, that one patch produced more fresh greens than most people eat in a year. I never planted it, I've been picking it for years, and the more of it I gather, the more of it that grows. It has overtaken the grass and the English ivy. That June, there was an even bigger bed of chickweed behind Pisgah House, the new chancellor's residence carved out of the woods across from UNCA. Dropping by on my way home one day, I literally picked half a bushel in twenty seconds.
Chickweed is not just "survival food." As a salad green, I sell it to some of our top restaurants. It comes up, often in huge quantities, wherever we clear land. The same is true of stinging nettle. Pictured below is a mountain – or at least a hillside – full of nettle just outside Asheville. It comes up like this every year. When cooked, nettle no longer stings, tastes like spinach, and would make Popeye ten times as strong. "Many hands" could pick thirty bushels of it in two hours. It would cook down to about two square feet of freezer space and could feed an entire homeless shelter for weeks. Alternatively, you can serve it at a $125 per person dinner, like I do (see e.g. here). A second crop would be ready two months later (for more gourmefied gleanings, see here).
Chickweed and nettle, like lambsquarter and dandelion, are weeds. A weed is something that grows where we don't want it. Yet these plants are some of the healthiest foods in the world. They are so nutritious that they're medicinal. Nettle, for example, has over 125 documented health benefits (Duke phytochemical database, 2011). That's not surprising, given that wild food is what we evolved to eat. For approximately one million years B.C. – before Costo – everyone lived off the land. So it's not that wild food is good for you; it's that NOT eating wild food is bad for you. And remember, wild food is FREE. If I offered you a thousand dollars, would you say, no thanks, I'm busy earning ten?
People object to the effort it takes to process wild food, as if it were inherently more tedious than baking a pie or any other hobby or sport. Foraging feeds our body and soul. As I explain here and here, most of our Standard American Diet (SAD) isn't food; it's entertainment. It's just drugs, and as such, does us more harm than good. Most of it is addictive because, like they say, you can never get enough of what you don't really need.
When it's real food you're eating, i.e., what we're designed to eat, you don't need as much of it. Black walnuts, for example (a basketful in the husk pictured above), may be harder to crack, but I'd rather eat one wild organic walnut than ten cheap substitutes from the store. About 25 million pounds of black walnuts are processed in the U.S. every year, and nearly every one is hand-picked from wild trees. For more on the potential for local black walnut industries, particularly in Western North Carolina, see here.
Good and Plenty
What's true for plants is also true for mushrooms. Last Spring, I spent a month helping a group of homeschoolers to put on a play. The next day was my birthday, and I spent the drive home wondering how I would pay my rent. A block from my house, I spotted this fifty-pound "chicken of the woods" mushroom (or in this case, chicken of the 'hood). Twenty-five pounds is an average weight for this toadstool. And that's how much more came out a week later. I sold the two batches to twelve restaurants for a total of $750.
This one mushroom could feed a family for months. It comes up on its own wherever trees fall or are cut down. And whether or not you pick it, it sprouts back again year after year.
Oyster mushrooms are not as big as chicken of the woods, but you can find just as much on poplar stumps, and tulip poplar is one of our most common trees. Here's some coming up last winter at the Grove Park Inn.
Similarly, the Appalachians have plenty of hemlock (the tree, not the poisonous plant). They're nearly all dying from a blight, but the consolation prize is that what recycles these trees is reishi. Reishi, shown below, is one of the top three medicinal mushrooms in the world. Last year, a couple friends and I easily gathered over 100 pounds of it in one afternoon, which we were sold out of within a month.
With over 150 proven medical benefits, reishi is known in China as "the mushroom of immortality." I been taking it for years; check back with me in another hundred.
Reishi not only prevents cancer, diabetes, and heart disease (three of our four top killers), but when young, it's a gourmet delicacy. Here in the land of the free, however, where the third leading cause of death is our own medical system, reishi is known as "white butt rot." I was once harvesting it from someone's yard in West Asheville when I got to talking with the neighbor. It turns out that she had been selling reishi tea from China for years but had never seen the real thing. It was growing by the basketful next door.
Emerson said a weed is a plant whose virtues have not been discovered. If only that were true. Today, a weed is a plant that doesn't make money for pharmaceutical companies. It does make money for herbicide companies, however, and the two are often one in the same. I once visited a couple that for two years had tried unsuccessfully to kill the reishi on their tree with fungicide. Meanwhile, their home reeked of mothballs, which are highly carcinogenic. The mushroom could have helped prevent the cancer they were giving themselves from the mothballs.
Think back to the Bible story. The question is, did Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of knowledge or the fruit of ignorance? We may have left the garden, but the garden has never left us.
There's an Aesop fable of two men walking down the road. One has his head in the clouds, dreaming of riches. The other sees a bag of gold on the ground and picks it up.
These stories are not fables. The point of these very real examples is that right we have the solution to our food problems right under our nose. We can end hunger in our own backyard, literally. I'm no food systems expert, but what makes more sense: to depend on industrial systems of production and distribution for food from California or even overseas, or to harvest food that grows itself, right outside your door, in your neighborhood garden, the woods, or the empty lot down the street?
Seeing the Big Picture
If you're reading this, you are probably not having to be, in the words of Bob Dylan, "scrounging for your next meal." But with the potential collapse of our industrial food systems, we may all soon be.
It's said that there are too many of us to live off the land, that the human population is too big to survive on wild food. That's like saying, "I'm too addicted to drugs at this point to quit." Like Cuba learned in the '90's, we have to quit, one way or another. Agriculture is not sustainable (for more on this, see here). What is sustainable is permaculture: growing not whatever we want but what grows easily there already. In other words, like me, permaculture is not entirely wild and not entirely civilized either.
Like withrawal from drug dependency, the transition to permaculture will probably be difficult, but it has to happen. And the less we resist it, the easier it will be. Doomsday Preppers is the most successful show in The National Geographic Channel's history. One guest postulates that "if the grocery shelves are empty, you are only nine meals away from anarchy.” Isn't it better to learn together to fend for ourselves before everyone is forced to fend for themselves? Like evacuating before a storm, things are a lot easier when you're not in denial.
The Noble Scavenge
Of course, just because people can and should forage doesn't mean they will. Most of us, like I've said, from our first taste of infant formula, have grown up more drugged than fed. Consequently, our eating habits are some of the hardest to break, and the failure of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution attests to that.
Besides our processed food addiction, our bias against "scavenging" and our fear of wild food are also deeply set. In The Forager’s Harvest, Sam Thayer argues that our collective prejudice against foraging arose with the spread of civilization. As hunter-gatherers were displaced by farming communities, “a prejudice was born that wild food was beneath the dignity of real human beings, and that those who lived upon it were subhuman. It was alright to kill or mistreat them, and conquering their land was virtuous. This attitude continued until foragers were exterminated or their way of life had been destroyed.”
Fortunately, there is still a tradition of hunting in this country, at least among among richest and poorest populations. In Appalachia the quarry includes ginseng, ramps, and morels, and of course, wild game. Granted, the thought of eating unfamiliar plants, animals, and mushrooms may not appeal to many (except on TV). But the money to be made from "a walk in the park" is a different story.
It's been said that one of the best ways to hide something is to put it in plain sight. Like the emperor's new clothes, the promise of wild food is not going to be recognized by everyone. That's why we are focusing on children, who see what most adults overlook. Even if they are willing, many low income adults just aren't able to scour the woods or even their backyards. Children have the time and energy to gather freely — just as their cousins have been doing since time immemorial all over the world.
In most of Europe and Asia, nearly everyone knows how to hunt for wild mushrooms. In fact, you will frequently find people selling mushrooms by the side of the road. A student of mine was in Romania a couple years ago. As she approached a streetside mushroom vendor, she stopped to pick berries from a nearby bush. His jaw dropped. He said, "you can EAT those?"
"Yes," she replied.
They were blueberries.
There are over 3,000 species of mushrooms in Eastern North America, most of them edible. Yet the only one many people are familiar with is morels. And what you don't know won't feed you. Fortunately, like good friends, there are only a handful of mushrooms that people really need to know: seven, to be exact.
In my experience, of the thousands of species of wild mushrooms in a given area of the country, the vast majority of what is edible will be one of only seven varieties. In other words, what you will come across that's edible nearly ninety percent of the time are these seven varieties. In my area, they are: morels, lobster mushrooms, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods (a.k.a., maiitake), chanterelles, milk caps (Lactarius corrugis/volemus, a.k.a., leatherbacks), and honey mushrooms.
Honey mushrooms are not generally sold commercially because they require thorough cooking and are highly perishable. One patch of honey mushrooms, however, can feed an entire city. The two largest known creatures on earth, in fact, are both honey mushroom fungi. Millions of mushrooms each year sprout from a single underground "monster." The larger patch, in Oregon, is estimated to be up to 8,000 years old. It's three and a half miles wide– and it's heading this way.
Actually, we have our own share of this humongous fungus, enough to fill hundreds of car trunks like this one every Fall.
The first four of these "savory seven" varieties are easy to recognize, and all seven – with the exception of morels – are quite easy to find. Like I said, because they grow on the stumps and tree roots, chicken and hen of the woods commonly fruit right in people's yards. Both weigh 5-50 pounds each. The last two varieties, milk caps and honey mushrooms, are only found in the woods, but they are never few or far away. Our land is literally flowing with milk and honey.
A public training program and market is a cooperative approach to foraging, one I had to learn the hard way.
When first I started mushroom hunting, I did what you'd expect: I kept my mouth shut. For over ten years, to my knowledge, I had the only wild mushroom business east of the Rockies. I was king of all I purveyed. I wrote my gansta mushroom rap, "A Fist Full of Fungus." It was the beginning of the end.
Gradually, as my teaching career grew, so did my competition: I taught myself out of a job. But it wasn't really working anyway. The more I picked, the less I enjoyed it and the less it made sense to continue.
What I learned is that a wild mushroom business doesn’t work well on a small scale: the supply is just too variable. You can have a hundred secret spots all over town, like I did, but you still don't know when the mushrooms will appear. After a while, driving all across town to check them all gets old. And if a tree falls in the forest and you're not there to hear it... Better to have each spot watched by someone who lives there or runs or walks their dog by there every day. I didn't learn that lesson 'till the axe fell.
In short, foraging is best carried out as a community enterprise. You spread your odds when you have more people looking. A hundred heads are better than one, and there's a thousand times more out there than any one person can pick.
For example, this spring, in the course of four outings, I found less than ten pounds of morels (pictured here). Meanwhile, three other mushroom hunters went in the woods near town one day and brought out 75 pounds. Yes, seventy-five pounds; retail value: two to three thousand dollars. I'm surprised all three came back out! There was actually more than that. This was just all they wanted to carry.
You'd think people would keep something like that a secret, and this spot is in fact secret (otherwise I'd be in Tahiti right now). The point is that everyone can have their own spot or two, and that's enough.
Since 2005, I have been advocating for local wild foods markets across America. All over Europe, you find open air bazaars where anyone can buy, sell, or trade mushrooms and other wild foods. These are just like the farmers markets we have now, and wild foods can simply be incorporated into these tailgate markets. Alternatively, a wild foods "clearinghouse" could sell directly to restaurants and other commercial clients without any retail storefront. What's important is that (1) everything is inspected by an expert, and (2) we make it easy for the public to pick and sell what they forage.
In France, every pharmacist is trained in basic mushroom identification; consequently, there is always someone competent nearby to show your mushrooms to. In the U.S., the FDA requires that all wild mushrooms sold be inspected by an "approved expert." They have left it up to each state to define just what that means. Consequently, some states, like Minnesota, have developed their own parameters. Some, like North Carolina, allow the sale of wild mushrooms without it (Tibbets, private memorandum, 2012). And some, like South Carolina, have made it illegal.
If the drug trade is any indication, making something illegal does not stop it from happening. It only makes it more profitable and more dangerous. Only education can keep people from hurting themselves, each other, or the environment.
For example, one objection raised against this initiative is the potential damage to our natural areas. The impact of harvesting roots like ramps and ginseng can indeed, over time, be significant. For this reason, ethical wildcrafting is core part of the Afikomen Project curriculum.
However, unlike digging roots, gathering wild mushrooms is like picking berries. This is because mushrooms are just the fruit of a fungus. Even if you could manage to pick every single mushroom, the fungus is there, in the ground, tree, or log, ready to put out more. This makes wild mushroom hunting a potentially sustainable enterprise, as it has been in the Pacific Northwest for decades. A search on “non-timber forest products” (NTFP) pulls up many studies on the proven economic value of wild foods.
Besides, each mushroom in the wild produces on average over one million spores. Why then isn't the earth covered in mushrooms? It's not for lack of "seed." The limiting factor is habitat. There's less and less habitat every year, and the number one reason for that is agriculture. The most destructive thing humans have ever done to the planet is clearing land to grow food (read Against The Grain or The Vegetarian Myth). The cultivated food we eat, organic or otherwise, is far more damaging to the environment than wild food could ever be. Foraging, then, is not what destroys the woods; not foraging is what destroys it.
Critics say that even if foraging is sustainable, there's not enough out there to feed everyone. However, I'm not talking about surviving merely on what nature provides. The solution to world hunger is neither indiscriminate foraging nor indiscriminate agriculture. It's permaculture, i.e., managing "wild" lands for maximum abundance and diversity. Native Americans used permaculture successfully for thousands of years (read 1491 or Tending the Wild). It's just a matter of "growing" what already grows naturally in the area; not what doesn't already thrive there on its own.
Native Americans routinely cleared small areas of woods selectively to diversify habitat. This is the same reason why there are more edibles including mushrooms in the city than in the woods. Unfortunately, this means that contamination is a greater concern than misidentification. An expert can pick out the wrong mushroom, but they can't pick out the ones full of chemical waste. Mushrooms are actually used for "bioremediation" because they soak up heavy metals and other toxins. Some they actually digest; others they just accumulate. This is another reason why public education is important.
With a wild foods market in place and an educated public to supply it, at least ten thousand pounds of edible mushrooms a year can be harvested and sold in Western North Carolina alone. Few regions can match the quantity of wild mushrooms that come out of the Pacific Northwest, but the quality of fresh local mushrooms is consistently better than what is available online. Many mushrooms – though not all – are delicate and highly perishable. Asheville, for example, having the greatest diversity of mushrooms in the country, has many choice edibles, some of them unique to this area, that are simply too uncommon or fragile to be shipped anywhere else. These include a wide variety of boletes, puffballs, milk caps, parasols, and many more.
The average price for gourmet wild mushrooms in North Carolina is $16/#. Mail order prices vary far above and below that, so that different regions can at times be competitive with the Pacific Northwest. At high volume, our mushrooms could retail for as little as $10/pound. Paying half of that to the picker, a person in very little time could easily make $25 or more on a casual walk in the woods or just around the block. In other words, they'd be making at least $15/hr for getting some exercise and fresh air. Wouldn't you rather be flipping burgers? For more on the personal economics of foraging, see here.
In summary, even with our current population, wild foods are still a potentially sustainable, green industry. Consider that:
NTFP in the Pacific Northwest are a $190 million industry
foraging, when done conscientiously, is sustainable
an industry that relies on healthy, mature forests argues for conservation
thousands of pounds of wild foods are gathered and sold by the Asheville market each season
property owners, landscaping companies, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts are all potential suppliers
supply can be supplemented by cultivated production
The East Coast wild mushroom season lasts roughly seven months out of the year. It starts with morels in April and reishi in May. Chicken of the woods follows in June, chanterelles in July, lobster mushrooms and milk caps in August, boletes in September, honey mushrooms into October and maiitake into November. And again, there are dozens of other edible varieties in between. Mushrooms are easily dried or frozen for continued sales in the winter months, and supply can be supplemented with cultivated varieties year-round. In fact, it's been estimated that North Carolina alone could be growing $80 million in edible and medicinal mushrooms per year.
The Southeast wild plant season runs for roughly nine months. Edible flowers, salad greens, cooking greens, fruits, nuts, seeds and roots can be harvested from March through December. There are efforts to cultivate several of these as well; see e.g., "Collection to Commerce: Western North Carolina Non-Timber Forest Products and Their Markets." For my list of the top 75 wild foods in Western North Carolina, see here.
Coming Home to Eat
"Nature is not a place to visit," says Gary Snyder. "It is home." The dinner bell is ringing; it's time to come home.
John Burroughs, one of the first American conservationists, declared that "the most precious things of life are near at hand, without money and without price. Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door. All that I ever had, and still have, may be yours by stretching forth your hand and taking it."
We live in a Garden of Eden. If we would only recognize our kinship with each other and all living things, we'd see that the Earth is providing more than enough for her children. Don't slight the hand that feeds you! Beyond organic, closer than local, WILD is the final food frontier. And is that any surprise? It's where it all started. Like the psalm says, "can God prepare a table in the wilderness?" I think the answer is clear.
It's time to heed the call of the wild. We are like horses led to water; it's up to us to drink.
I hope The Afikomen Project inspires you to rediscover your natural place in the world. To get involved or for more information, contact us.
- all images by Alan Muskat -
I cried as I read this article. Foraging is something that I would love to learn and haven't been able to find anyone in my area who can teach me. For a long time now, I have been saying what your article says about God providing and it makes me so sad that for all He provides, all I can do is look at His abundance and wonder if it is edible. Because of the economy and because of the poisons in commercial food, we keep milk goats and chickens and raise a garden. To be able to live without the commercial food would make my life even more complete. There are several others in my area that are interested in this most glorious "Nature's Table."
My regret is that I started getting interested in this later in life - I'm 54. I love it when I take my grandson into the woods and he hugs the trees and calls them his friends. To be able to teach him what nature has to offer would be one of my greatest joys. God bless you for the wonderful work you are doing to bring us back in touch with our Creator.