Opinion

What I learned from living for a year only on foraged foods

With the cost-of-living crisis and food shortages spiralling, Mo Wilde urges people to give foraging a try

Foraging

Images: Shutterstock

Here in Britain, foraging is often portrayed by the media as a middle-class activity. We forget that thousands of people around the world still depend on the collection of wild food. Despite all the dietary health evidence pointing to the need for greater consumption of fruits and vegetables, half of the world’s daily calorie intake is from just three starchy species – wheat, corn and rice. Farming has brought carbohydrate-laden calories to most people but it is the wild weeds that so often provide the precious green nutrients essential to good health.  

I started foraging as a single mum with three children. Always taking on extra jobs to earn money and economising where I could. The price of food has rocketed over the last couple of years and I feel for those families unable to buy nutritious food.

In 2021, I lived for a whole year exclusively on wild food – just to see if it could still be done – and I must have saved over £3,000 on food shopping. I’m not suggesting that everyone would want to live this way, but adding even something as simple as cooked nettles to your daily diet will give you a free nutrient and flavour boost without flying it in from a tropical country. (A shocking 80 per cent of British food is made from imported ingredients.) Wild food that you pick yourself is the freshest local produce with the lowest food miles possible. And the array of flavours is quite incredible. 

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Over the last few years, the issues of food security and sustainable food production have been uppermost in my mind. At first, bare supermarket shelves after the ‘Beast from the East’ storm, Brexit labour shortages and Covid panic buying, coupled with the urgent need to rethink how we produce food in an era of climate change.

My thoughts now turn to Ukrainians besieged in cities where foraged food knowledge becomes vital to survival. Or those in Syria and Turkey who need to forage as entire towns have collapsed under the earthquakes. The daily news reminds us that we need to rethink how we feed the people on our planet, without wiping out all other species and the very soil beneath our feet. 

This month, there’s been talk of food shortages again. The supply of salad vegetables reduced by droughts in Spain, while British farmers have closed their poly tunnels as they are too expensive to heat. I was only slightly aware of this because I was out – picking salad ingredients from the hedgerows and verges.

The idea of a ‘hungry gap’ time of year contradicted by the abundance of free, wild edible greens. My salad bowl brims with flavour: wild garlic, shiny young ground elder shoots that taste of celery-parsley, mild chickweed, spinach-like pink purslane, lemony common sorrel, dandelion leaves and primrose flowers. 

I was so surprised and delighted that my book The Wilderness Cure: Ancient Living in a Modern World, that documented my wild year, has won the prestigious John Avery Award 2022 in the André Simon Food Book Awards. Last year, Dan Saladino’s book Eating to Extinction received a Special Commendation at the same awards for highlighting the thousands of foods around the world today that are at risk of being lost for ever. This reflects a trend in food writing to connect food with the environment that it comes from. 

Thoughtful, conscious consumerism is the only way we can sustainably progress as humans on this beloved planet. Foraging for your food inspires a love of this land and gratitude for her gifts. We can all truly connect through foraging, to the wonder of the world we discover around us, no longer mediated via a screen that disconnects us from our mental and ecological health. The naming and knowing of the plants brings the intimacy of relationship.

How can you harm those you love? Touch, smell and presence reconnect us to our home planet in a way that watching a nature programme on TV does not. My hope is that the people who read my book will be encouraged to put it down and get outside, with new eyes! Mindful foraging makes environmental stewards and eco-warriors of us, and this is badly needed in our modern time. In a world that’s dis-connected from its roots, eating wild food is both culinary and healing, social and political. 

Ultimately, it is an act of love and community. 

Mo Wilde’s book The Wilderness Cure: Ancient Living in a A Modern World is out now in hardback (Simon & Schuster, £16.99) and audio. The paperback is out on March 30.

To find a mindful foraging teacher near you, visit the Association of Foragers at foragers-association.org 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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