The Key to Ending Hunger

November 9th, 2012

Bella with blueberries

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.

Chinese proverb

What will it take to end hunger? Hunger ends where it begins. It starts and stops with a simple question: what makes more sense, to increase the amount of food we try to get to people or to teach people to get food for themselves?

oh, the irony

Hunger is an artificial creation, an artifact of civilization. The end of hunger is coming quickly, not through our efforts, but through our failure. We have tried for ten thousand years to subdue nature, and we have failed.

Agriculture has not made the world a better place. Not only hunger but chronic disease and social inequity have been the result. At this critical point in human history, we don’t need GMOs; we need to give up.

Foraging, i.e., hunting and gathering, is local food taken to its logical conclusion: all the way back to Paradise. In The Garden, food was free and plentiful. But we can’t go back. Groucho Marx once said that man leaves the womb and spends the rest of his life trying to get back in. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t go home again.

We can’t move back in with our parents, and we can’t make it on our own either. What can we do?

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em

The alternative to working against nature is not to depend entirely on what it doles out either. The solution is to work with nature, and this partnership can last indefinitely. The alternative to agriculture is not foraging, it’s permaculture.

chillinPermaculture is lazy man’s agriculture. It means doing minimal work for maximum gain. Not just personal gain, however, and not just for the short term. Permaculture is built to last.

Permaculture means growing what already thrives in an area, i.e., what grows wild. This includes hunting and gathering sustainably. This is not the same as foraging.

The word forage means “to pillage.” You can only pillage, taking without giving back, for so long. When I talk about foraging, then, keep in mind that I’m really talking about an aspect of permaculture: the part where we reap the benefits of managing resources wisely.

Supply and Demand

I have been teaching foraging for over twenty years. For over fifteen years, I harvested and sold several hundred pounds of wild foods a year, mostly wild mushrooms, to nearly one hundred restaurants and hotels in Western North Carolina and the Piedmont, including Lantern, The Grove Park Inn, and The Biltmore Estate.

In 2008, I was contacted by The Compass Group in Charlotte, one of the largest food service companies in the world, about setting up a standing order for as much wild mushrooms as I could give them. Clearly, despite a superabundant supply, I was meeting only a small fraction of the demand.

Instead of continuing to try to do it all on my own, I shifted from “fishing” to teaching people how to fish for themselves. Since then, I’ve taught thousands of people how to go “out to eat.” I founded the first and largest forage-to-table wild foods program in the country. I’ve been on a variety of major media, urging millions more to go “off the eaten path.”

This too is not enough. The next step is to teach others to teach. In order to put civilization on a sustainable foundation, foraging needs to be taught universally, i.e., in public schools, as a basic skill. I call this initiative, The Afikomen Project.

Starting Over

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.

lobstergangThe 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.

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 we need to re-establish. It’s not just about knowing where your food comes from but participating in its production. Here in the U.S., however, a “green wall” separates us from the true source of our food. Parks have become museums where you can look but not touch. Foraging, where it’s not scary enough, is downright illegal.

In countries that have severely curtailed foraging (which, as we’ll see, can be entirely sustainable), we’ve become passive consumers, forced to buy our commodified food from a largely uncaring industry. Our only way to be fed is to give money to people who are only growing food for the money. Perhaps this is why foraging has been called a non-capitalist practice.

Triple Bottom Line

money on trees cartoon

Wild foods are one of our most plentiful and renewable resources. With proper public education, foraging can be good business. It can become a major “green industry.” These forest-based commodities can provide the economic incentive to keep our natural areas intact while creating lasting employment at the same time.

thanks for business

meliorism– the doctrine that the world can be made better by human meals.

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. Nontimber Forest Products (NTFP) 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.

Been There, Done That

Word quickly spreads through neighborhoods, bars, workplaces, and the street. Workers of all backgrounds, education, and professions wait impatiently for the day they can throw off the shackles of the job and head to the forest with their families, boots, pails, and baskets.

In smaller towns, businesses are shuttered and local officials close the municipal offices. Older couples and babushkas look to spend as many days as possible in the forest; this is a chance to earn extra income needed to supplement meager or or nonexistent pensions.

It is the season of za gribami — looking for mushrooms — and Russians of every stripe heed the call of razh — mushroom passion – to troop through the woods in an annual ritual of seeking, collecting, eating, and preserving the year’s fungal bounty.

A national foraging public education program is not unprecedented. In 1969, Finland launched a fifteen-year wild mushroom training program. They started with 22 experts who trained 1650 “advisors.” By 1983, 50,000 mushroom hunters had been trained.

The Finnish Forest Research Institute estimates that now half of the population forages regularly without harming the forests. Many of the foragers are professionals who sell their mushrooms locally and as far away as Italy.

How foraging could be growth industry for North Carolina,” 1/16/16

Granted, Finland has only 3% the land area and 1.5% the population of the United States. But we probably have about fifty times more ants, and they don’t have a hunger problem. Who is really living in a united state?

First Child with the Goods

ADD is not a natural state. It is… one of civilization’s discontents.

Gabor Mate, Scattered

The Afikomen Project aims to establish local wild foods economies across the United States. This can be accomplished through public education and the establishment of local markets. Children supply the market and the market, in turn, pays for their training.


These markets allow children to simply enjoy their “treasure hunt.” Children don’t need to be making money; they need to be enjoying themselves outdoors. When children spend time in nature, Attention Deficit Disorder doesn’t result from Nature Deficit Disorder. Exercise, time in the sun, 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. Otherwise, as Charles Jordan, Chairman of the Conservation Fund, forewarns, “what they will not value, they will not protect, and what they will not protect, they will lose.”

To feel at home in the world is every child’s birthright, and restoring this inner certainty is the mission of No Taste Like Home.

Our Eden Disorder

Lulu morelsMany 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 sits in the middle of one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Having over 100 common local wild foods, however, is not at all unusual. And like any other city, Asheville has more wild food in cleared areas than in the woods.

Wherever you live, there is no shortage of wild food, one of our most renewable resources. There are no “food deserts.” The problem is that, 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.

Cobbler’s Prodigy

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.

Lion's maneForaging 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.

A Green Industry

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.

The one mushroom people in the South are used to foraging is the morel. And the plant they know brings cash along with it is the wild leek, a.k.a., ramps.

Every year, the town of Richwood, West Virginia holds a ramp festival. In the absence of any sustainable local economy, that is about all they have left to celebrate.

Since 1980, the town has lost more than 40 percent of its population and a third of the remaining 2,000 or so residents live in poverty, according to data from the city and the U.S. Census Bureau. The Ramp Feed is one of the few moments in the year when this depressed small town feels like a thriving community again…

Bruce Donaldson is the largest ramp seller in Richwood. He ships about 20,000 pounds of ramps each year to buyers all over the U.S. and hires locals to forage them.

“My men, the men that work for me, are basically laid off in the wintertime. A lot of them’s in the logging industry. A lot of them transfer to the coal fields,” Donaldson says. “They’ll work a month, they’ll be laid off. Sometimes they’ll have to go 100 miles to find their job.”

Along the side of the road, many people are camped out, hawking the ramps they’ve harvested. Tyler McCune, 11, is out with his uncles and stepfather, selling the wild leeks for $4 a pound. He wears faded jeans and a navy blue T-shirt. His blue eyes squint in the sun. His grandfather and stepfather used to work in the sawmills, though his grandfather is now disabled and his stepfather is out of work. Each spring, they still dig ramps as a family. Some people here worry that ramps are being over harvested and there’s debate over how much of a threat that is. McCune says his grandfather taught him how to harvest them the right way, without being what he calls an “over-picker.”

Over-pickers, they dig every ramp they see,” McCune says. “You can dig a lot of ramps, but you can at least leave some roots behind. That way they’ll grow. And we’ll be able to keep having this good ramp feed up here in Richwood everybody enjoys.”

In A Coal Town Where Jobs Are Few, Wild Ramps Are Plenty,” NPR, 5/22/14

It’s fashionable in foodie circles to worry about the future of ramps, but overpicking is the least of our concerns. 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.

Paradise Lost

Sovah_dandelionWe 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 as of 2012, Asheville ranked 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. As of 2019, one in four children in Western North Carolina is food insecure. 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. Even in Asheville, which bills itself as “Foodtopia,” there’s no free lunch: not enough caring community to keep everyone fed.

Vitton oatsI couldn’t believe it. 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.

Return of the Native

Wild foods have recently become all the rage – at least, ironically, among the affluent. In 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014, Noma of Copenhagen was 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.

honeybunchInterest in wild food is steadily going mainstream. Like organic food, it is a trend that will not go away. Why? Because it’s “only natural.” 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., that grows wild, can be considered truly local food.

Four Walls Around Us

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 is unprecedented and irrational. 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.

Another frequent objection to a mass foraging movement is that people will destroy the woods. Foraging doesn’t hurt the woods; what hurts the woods is not foraging. Even if everyone were to suddenly start foraging, even with no concern for the environment, we would still do less damage than we are already doing now. Farming is far more destructive than foraging could ever be.

lobster_pileThe third main objection to mass foraging is that there just isn’t enough food out there for all of us. That’s true of foraging and it’s true of agriculture. The only solution is permaculture.

The fourth myth about foraging is that it’s too much work. This, with twenty years of examples to disprove it, is what I’ll turn to next.

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.

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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.

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