The Rules of Engagement: Foraging Edition

Meghan Offtermatt

Edible plants are all around us, even in New York City. But especially here, they aren’t always accessible.



This is Telling True Stories in Sound. I’m Meghan Offtermatt.

[outdoor ambi bird chirping]


[Samuel and Meghan overlapping] Wow, wow, wow. This is the most potent mint. It’s so potent. It’s called chocolate mint. I was going to say it smells like chocolate. It smells like Mole bitters.  Ok, yeah. So it’s, like, a licorice…slightly infused mint…that creates this sensation. So we’re wrapping this strawberry in this chocolate mint. Yes. Cheers. Cheers.

[upbeat music]


I’m in Brooklyn with Samuel Pressman and we’re foraging for food four stories above street level.


We’re sitting here on this rooftop food garden.


And while rooftop gardens aren’t a new phenomenon in New York City, this particular garden is unique. Almost all of the planters here are made from repurposed materials — which is a fancy way of saying trash. Here, bundles of fragrant mint, purple basil and furry sage erupt out of discarded wooden pallets. Onions and herbs peek out of holes drilled into gutters stuffed with soil. Instead of string-lights, purple and green bean vines rope around the rooftop decorating the space. We are surrounded by plants. 


Orange mint, peppermint, spearmint, basil, oregano, strawberries, sorrel, clover, parsley, sage.


There’s a reason why we’re picking and eating edible plants up here and not down at street level. It has to do with the laws surrounding foraging, not just in New York, but all over the country. We’ll come back to this rooftop in Brooklyn a bit later on, but first I asked Baylen Linnekin to explain these laws to me. He’s a lawyer who specializes in food law & policy and he’s written extensively about anti-foraging legislation. 


There is a blanket ban on foraging in city parks and the city views even the picking of a berry or of a dandelion to be damaging park property and plant life. 


Here’s the blanket ban as written by the New York City Parks Department:

[Parks Department Voice]

No person shall deface, write upon, sever, mutilate, kill or remove from the ground any plants, flowers, shrubs or other vegetation under the jurisdiction of the Department without permission of the Commissioner.


That’s absurd, but that’s unfortunately the way that many cities across the country, states and even federal parks — national parks — view foraging.


Anti-foraging rules aren’t new. In fact, they go back centuries.


The first rules against foraging were put in place to push Native Americans off their lands.


The same rules were implemented in the South after the Civil War to prevent newly freed slaves from foraging. Then again in the 1880s in the Adirondacks to prevent poor white farmers from farming their lands. When the National Park Service was created in 1916 prohibiting foraging became the default. In the Sixties, rules shifted to allow independent national park superintendents to establish their own regulations for individual parks. That’s why today some parks allow foraging and others don’t. But changes to those original anti-foraging mandates still excluded indigenous people. 


Racism, it’s classism, colonialism or imperialism. You know,  I think that there are certainly tinges of all of those elements in anti-foraging laws today.


Anti-foraging legislation hasn’t changed much since it’s inception. In 2016, the Department of the Interior changed foraging rules to allow the National Park Service to enter into agreements with federally recognized Native American tribes to allow foraging. 


So, the default should be let’s allow foraging and only restrict it if there’s a problem rather than the opposite.


In 2019 the National Park Service announced an agreement allowing a limited number of tribal gatherers from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to forage for a plant called Sochan which grows wild in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Sochan is a leafy green in the sunflower family and a Cherokee staple, and while this is a welcome change, in most places, anti-foraging rules are still in place.   


Some cities such as Seattle, Denver, Salt Lake City are very, very good about allowing and even encouraging residents to forage. New York City is not one of those.


Because of that, people are pushing to repeal anti-foraging laws in New York City. People like Mary Mattingly. 


Those are the things that I think are the most important. Giving us agency in public space, access to fresh foods and healthy foods and then also sharing the work of caring for the space. 


Mary is a visual artist and she’s been getting creative about growing and foraging food in New York City for years. She founded SWALE back in 2016. Swale was a traveling barge where people could forage for food. She also co-created the Bronx concrete park “foodway,” where people can go forage today. Right now, she’s working on an edible landscape project for public foraging on Governor’s Island that’s set to open in a couple weeks. 


So learning about New York City’s public land use and that it’s illegal to forage on public land made me try to sort of rethink the barge project as a space where anyone could forage fresh foods for free.


All of these projects have loopholes that allow for foraging. We can forage on the rooftop because it’s private property. People could forage on the SWALE barge because it wasn’t technically on public land — it was on federal waters floating around the city. People can forage on Governor’s Island because it isn’t technically owned by the city, but by a private trust. Even the Bronx foodway project, which is overseen by the Parks Department, has a twist.


Specifically their signage says, “this is a scent garden — you’re welcome to pick things,” so it’s not advocating straightforwardly for foraging.


But Mary doesn’t think it should be that complicated. 


First it should be in every park. Not just the major parks — I’m thinking Prospect Park and Central Park. It should be in small community parks.


Most of the parks in New York City fall under the 30,000 acre umbrella of the parks department. Mary thinks that edible landscapes where people can forage just add another use for greenspace.


If another use was added to public parkland then our food systems could look much different in the city.


But until those rules and regulations change…urban foragers have to be creative. Which explains why I’m on that roof in Brooklyn, with Samuel.


If we had learned about plants like we have been taught about mechanics or sports we could realize there is so much more edible food around us.


If anti-foraging legislation is overturned, people from the Smoky Mountains to the South Bronx could have increased access to edible plants. If people have access to edible plants, they have the opportunity to learn about where their food comes from.


You need to have a culture switch. You need to have more people aware that there is value in growing food and there is value in not wasting food.


Samuel doesn’t want to oversimplify it. Not all plants are edible and after centuries as an industrial center, the fact is a lot of New York City’s soil is contaminated and not safe for growing food. But there are ways around that. Mary and Samuel rely heavily on raised beds for growing food on their barges, islands and rooftops. 


Imagine if we did have these types of containers lining streets or surrounding schools or even scattered throughout public parks where we don’t really see a lot of food growing going on.


Here on this rooftop, surrounded by edible plants, it isn’t that hard to imagine city streets lined with raised beds of forageable foods. 


This foraging activity is actually much deeper and much easier…most plants we can eat. We just don’t realize it.


Maybe then, we wouldn’t have to board a barge or ride the elevator to a rooftop to forage for edible plants in New York City. Maybe then, foraging for food would just become a part of the daily commute. 

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