The Key to Ending Hunger

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.

chickweedThis is a friend of mine gathering the chickweed that covered half my yard one spring. In three months, that one patch produced more fresh greens than most people eat in a year. I never planted it, I picked from it for years, and the more of it I gathered, the more of it that grew. That June, there was an even bigger bed of it 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 sold it to some of our top restaurants. It comes up, often in huge quantities, wherever we clear land.

nettle_hillThe same is true of stinging nettle. Here is a mountain – or at least a hillside – of nettle just outside Asheville. It comes up like this every year. This April, one person picked over 75 pounds of nettle from this very spot at eight pounds an hour, which we sold for $12 a pound. We buy from pickers at 50% discount. That means he made $450 in nine hours, or about $50 an hour, and he didn’t have to deal with selling it.


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 for dinner at $125 per person. A second crop would be ready a month later. For other gourmefied gleanings, see here.

Greer bambooBamboo, planted at the edge of many properties, can be invasive, and many owners knock down the shoots every spring, leaving them to rot. They don’t know that fresh local bamboo shoots sell for $3-5/#. For the past several years, I have picked over 100# of it from my old neighbor’s yard, spending no more than a couple hours total on doing so. Again, that’s at least $50/hr for the person that gathers it.

There are at least two dozen serviceberry trees in public areas throughout the city. Each produces thirty pounds of berries every year. At least ten are in front of the Asheville Visitor Center. Here’s one right beside the entrance.

Visitor CenterThe Asheville Visitor Center is also the headquarters for the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. This past May, I went there to see the head of the travel bureau. She walks past these trees at least twice a day, but she didn’t know they were there. It’s like someone said on one of my recent outings: “I’ve been surrounded by these things all of my life and I’ve never noticed them. I guess I wasn’t looking.”

To her credit, now she wants to add twenty other wild foods to create an edible demonstration garden showcasing “Foodtopia.” Amazing Grace!


This edible wild yam, known locally as “fairy potatoes,” grows on vines like grapes. It can be harvested, with time and patience, by the gallon. But wild foods are not just small potatoes. 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 a local black walnut industry, see here.

Good and Plenty

Practically all regional “natural products industry” initiatives are about medicinals, not edibles, yet there is far more demand for the latter. Besides, medicinals by their very nature are used in small quantities. They generally contain powerful alkaloids that make these plants toxic when eaten in typical food amounts. Yet they don’t necessarily sell for a correspondingly higher price per pound.

And what’s true for plants is even more true of mushrooms. Compared to edible plant foods, wild mushrooms sell for a disproportionately high price, considering the relative ease collecting them.

big chickenIn Spring of 2010, 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 wood (or rather, 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.

winter_oysterA patch of oyster mushrooms can easily rival a large chicken woods. Here’s some coming up last winter in front of The Grove Park Inn.

There’s nothing quite like walking the dog on an ordinary morning, turning the corner, and seeing dinner growing out of the trunk of a street tree in front of your own house. Instant adrenaline rush. Right at eye level —there — a fresh, meaty clump of oyster mushrooms, the same exact ’shrooms sold at Whole Foods for $8.99 a pound. SCORE! Nearly two pounds of delectable beauties became a hearty wild mushroom bisque that very night.Other people had probably seen those mushrooms too, people who wouldn’t for a moment have considered eating them…

Sometimes, vendors at city farmers markets sell foraged wild food alongside those they’ve grown themselves… How ironic to pay three or four dollars for a small bunch of lamb’s quarters when a shopper can walk past an armful of the same plants, free for the picking, growing along the edge of the road where they’ve parked their car!

To be fair, picking along busy streets is not a great idea because of potential contamination from auto exhaust and dogs—but you get the idea. With a little bit of effort and knowledge, one can find the same wild food for free.

Zora Margolis, “The Edible Treasure Hunt”

This sugar maple in middle of West Asheville has sprouted at least twenty pounds of oyster mushrooms every season for the past four years. And wild mushrooms sell for $16-40 a pound, not $9 a pound. Do the math!

Murphy reishi - 3Reishi is one of the top three medicinal mushrooms in the world. I would sell it fresh for $16 a pound. In 2012, this family near Murphy, NC picked 750 pounds of it in one season. Here’s just a third of it, dried.

reishi table - 03Last year, a couple friends and I easily gathered over 100 pounds of fresh reishi in just one afternoon. We were sold out of it within a month. Most years, reishi is not even nearly that abundant. But when one wild food isn’t plentiful, another one is.

Chanterelles are one of the most prized mushrooms — and, surprisingly, one of the most common. In 2013, here’s what my partner and I picked in just a few hours — all in people’s front yards.

This wasn’t just luck or uncommon skill. That year, many people in WNC found just as many chanterelles, though it might have taken them several days to do so. And again, every year is different. However, over the fifteen years that I picked and sold mushrooms for a living, I consistently made, on average, at least $30/hr.

The Natural Choice

Chickweed, nettle, lambsquarter, and dandelion are all commonly considered “weeds.” A weed is something that grows where we don’t want it. We may not want them, 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. It’s not that wild food is so good for you; it’s that anything else is not. 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. Most of our Standard American Diet (SAD), on the other hand, 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.

Alysha black walnuts - 1When 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, may be harder to crack, but I’d rather eat one wild organic walnut than ten cheap substitutes from the store.

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.

Julie_reishiEmerson 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.

Seeing the Big Picture

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?

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, i.e., growing typical field crops, is
not sustainable.

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 withdrawal from drug dependency, the transition to permaculture will probably be difficult. Civilization Unplugged will not be on MTV. 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.

jacksBesides our processed food addiction, our bias against “scavenging” and our fear of wild food are also deeply set. Fortunately, there is still a tradition of hunting in this country, at least among the 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.

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One Response

  1. Terri Ratliff says:

    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.