An audible gasp escapes my lips as I spy a huge, brown-capped mushroom peaking through the forest leaf litter. I’m at Salt Point State Park with about 40 other would-be foragers from all around the Bay Area to learn about edible mushrooms from the Sonoma County Mycological Association (SOMA), and to give foraging a try for myself.
“There are about 250 mushroom that are identifiable in this area,” explains Jim Wheeler, president of SOMA, to the group he’s leading. “There are another 100 that aren’t identifiable, and out of all of those, only about 20 are edible.”
When pressed further on the subject of edibility, because some are used for medicinal purposes, for example, he jokes: “There’s an old adage that says that every mushroom is edible—but some only once!”
Along with familiar names like porcini mushrooms and chanterelles, there are also many lesser-known varieties in these woods like black trumpets, hedgehogs, matsutakes, witch’s butter and candy caps. The mushroom I found? It turns out it was an agaricus augustus, a “superb edible,” also commonly known as “the prince.” I beam with pride.
While most people define foraging in the traditional sense of the word—namely, the acquisition of food by hunting, fishing or the gathering of wild, uncultivated, plant matter—many foragers today have expanded on this definition to include any sort of gathering, whether in the wild or in their own backyard. For Kevin Feinstein, teacher, forager and author of Practically Wild: Food and Health Through the Eyes of a Modern Forager, the lines between wild and cultivated can be blurred. For example, the way native people in this area cultivated and harvested acorns can be seen as very similar to harvesting any large crop. On the other hand, he says, going into his backyard and harvesting edible weeds that have popped up is more of a foraging activity.
“That seems more like foraging, because I’m actually going through and seeing what’s there and what I can get right then,” explains Feinstein. “All those lines can be blurred really quickly. Ultimately, every action we take as individuals or as a collective has an effect on the environment, whether conscious or unconscious. Indigenous people gathered food and took care of the landscape. Where is that line between wild and not wild? One of my favorite quotes is ‘Wilderness is a construct that was created in the cities.’”
A connection to our past
Regardless of how foraging is defined, the idea of looking beyond the grocery store to see what’s edible in your own backyard or growing region appeals to many people—often for those furthest removed from nature, who work indoors most days. Patrick Hamilton, nicknamed “Mycochef,” acts as foray coordinator for SOMA and has been a mushroom chef and foray leader for many fungal gatherings across North America. He often sees his forays populated by individuals from the technology industry who have an urge to get back to nature. He’s led groups from software companies, as well as wineries and restaurants, among others.
“Every one of them just exalts—regales—being in the forest,” says Hamilton. “It’s like they realize we’re hunters and foragers. Humankind really does like being in the woods.”
Indeed, it’s not only a pursuit from ancient times, but still quite commonly done as a viable source of supplementing one’s food supply in other areas of the world. And Hamilton has seen an upsurge in interest in foraging here, just in the last three years.
Reasons for foraging include everything from health (finding herbs and mushrooms for medicinal properties); culinary purposes, especially as more and more high end restaurants have been offering foods like wild greens and uncultivated mushrooms; for scientific reasons; for finding plants and mushrooms for dye making, and also simply for the fun and gratifying activity that it is. Because we, as a society, have gotten further away from the process of growing our own food or even knowing what’s in our food and where it comes from, there’s a real desire by many to know what we can eat in our local forests, streams, oceans and meadows.
“Most people love the joy of the hunt,” says David Campbell, president of the newly formed Mycologyical Society of Marin County, partner of Wild About Mushrooms Company and founder of MycoVentures, an international tour company that leads truffle, mushroom and wine tours in Italy and Croatia. “People really enjoy looking for something, finding it and it actually having a food value. It’s also good for our psyche and our soul. It’s like Mother Nature loves us—she’s providing us with this bounty and we can go out and access it. Just going through the process is a wonderful therapeutic thing for people. It’s very gratifying.”
What to expect
Participants on mushroom forays learn the basics about mushrooms, including how to appropriately identify mushrooms and proper handling and cooking options. Foragers usually also come across and learn about many beautiful, nonedible species with equally interesting names such as birds nest fungi, cat’s tongue jelly fungus, conchatus and toadstools. In the case of my mushroom foray with SOMA, participants also gathered afterwards for a potluck and were treated to a dish prepared by Hamilton (featuring mushrooms, of course).
Foraging walks—whether held for the public through a local mycological society or privately booked through a foraging expert—fulfill an important need for those wanting to give foraging a try, or who simply want to know what’s growing on their property that’s edible. Foraging experts caution, even though there are very few poisonous mushrooms and other edibles in the North Bay, to never eat something unless absolutely sure of what it is. That’s the real benefit of these walks and mycological societies. It’s a chance to talk to experts and get help with species identification. As Wheeler quips, “There are bold mushroom hunters and there are old mushroom hunters, but there are no bold and old mushroom hunters!”
Campbell, who’s also active with the California Poison Control System (CPCS) for mushroom poisoning
incident response in the greater Bay Area, is on the short list of people who get called to help identify mushrooms in time-sensitive situations. He believes there’s a much better understanding of mushrooms and potential poisonings today than ever before. In the past, treatment for potential mushroom poisoning sometimes did more damage than the actual mushroom would have caused. His expertise has been helpful in knowing when to ride out a problem or when medical intervention is necessary.
“Things are getting better now,” says Campbell. “Thirty years ago, there was a tremendous lack of knowledge in the medical profession about how to handle mushroom poisonings. I give the people at Poison Control System a lot of credit for setting up a system to give doctors a much better understanding of what they should be doing. Historically, it’s been a blind spot in the medical profession. As in any medical procedure, you can do better if you know what you’re properly informed.”
Besides knowing what is and isn’t edible, a bigger challenge for both amateurs and professionals is finding places to legally forage. Of California’s 280 state-managed open spaces, the only one to allow public foraging is Salt Point State Park north of Jenner in Sonoma County. Mushrooms foraged there aren’t for commercial sale, and there’s a five-pound limit per forager.
Some national parks in the North Bay allow limited foraging, including Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, where individuals are allowed two quarts per person, per day, of blackberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, gooseberries, salmonberries, huckleberries or apples; and two gallons plus one mushroom per adult, per day. The park has also hosted a Fungus Fair for the past 11 years, which usually takes place early in the year. Most foraging on other public lands is forbidden and can be heavily fined. Foragers therefore need to find other private land owners who will let them forage or do it on their own property.
Opponents worry that commercial-scale foraging could potentially disrupt habitats, put endangered species at risk or increase the chance of impacting the park’s liability (in cases of injury or poisoning). However, given that most amateur foragers are driven by preserving the beauty and learning about their local lands, and generally driven by sustainability, that risk appears slim.
For Kevin Feinstein, the solution is simple. “I think there should be a permit system,” he says. “Most foragers agree that if you have a permit system, like a hunting and fishing license, it would solve that problem [of potential over-harvesting]. It’s not perfect, but that system does work. It’s an easy solution.”
In contrast to park officials worrying about over harvesting of wild plants and mushrooms in public spaces, there’s a movement afoot of utilizing the overabundance of food from farms and backyards across the North Bay.
Gleaning is the age-old practice of gathering fruits and vegetables left after harvest for those in need. The term has biblical ties, though today, some use it in more of a universal term meaning any type of food recovery—that is, taking anything that was going to waste and having it redistributed and utilized.
In the North Bay, several organizations have started gleaning programs that create a win/win solution by bridging the gap between an abundant surplus of fresh produce and a low-income population without enough to eat. That’s how Melita Love, executive director and founder of Healdsburg-based Farm to Pantry, got the idea for starting a local gleaning program.
“I felt very fortunate to be surrounded by all this bounty [in Sonoma County], and I realized that there were people in my community that didn’t have the same access that I did,” explains Love.
“There was a moment of epiphany when I was in a grocery store and saw a food bin at the check-out stand to collect for a local food pantry. I thought that was wonderful—until I looked in the bin and saw it was all highly processed food. I started trying to figure out what I could do. In Sonoma County, we have year-round access to fruits and vegetables, and I stumbled on this concept of gleaning.”
Love first gleaned at the farmers’ market, where she approached different vendors at the end of the day and asked them to donate the produce they couldn’t sell, which she then brought to the local food pantry. On one of those occasions, she met a homeowner who had a fig tree but no way to pick the fruit; others nearby offered to help and Farm to Pantry conducted its first official glean, which resulted in 50 pounds of figs, apples and walnuts being brought to the local food pantry.
The proof is in the produce
Today the organization, which gained nonprofit status last year, has 2-3 dozen dedicated volunteers (it’s always looking for more) to glean produce from all over Sonoma County, from apples to zucchini. Since it began in October 2008, Farm to Pantry has gleaned more than 110 tons of fresh produce. That’s about 224,876 pounds, or 899,504 servings of healthy produce not going to waste.
For Farm to Pantry, gleaning is not only about making fresh food more accessible and reducing waste, but also strengthening communities by connecting neighbors to neighbors and abundance to need. Volunteers include Americorps groups, a team from Becoming Independent, students, seniors—essentially anyone who may have time to donate when these programs are operating. Love says when young people help out, they often recognize for the first time that there are those less fortunate than themselves. It lets them see what impact they can make on their community and also delivers knowledge about health and nutrition, and shows them where their food actually comes from.
“We’re about nourishment,” says Dani Wilcox, program director of Farm to Pantry. “We nourish the minds, the body and the spirits of our community.”
“We connect with the community in many different ways,” Love agrees. “I’ve had a property owner cry because she was so happy that her apples weren’t going to waste.”
Besides the Healdsburg Food Pantry (which still receives about 50 percent of food gleaned by Farm to Pantry), about 10 different programs are also recipients of the gleaned food, from children’s and senior’s programs to community kitchens and the Salvation Army.
“My experience with Farm to Pantry has been wonderful,” says Jim Traumiller, director of the Healdsburg Food Pantry, which serves 200 families from Healdsburg and Geyserville via a twice monthly food pick up. “Rain or shine, dry or muddy, they go out and harvest produce from whoever has it. A lot of times, I’ll drive around town and see orange trees or lemon trees that are unpicked. If people knew someone would come and pick it for them and get it distributed to people who need it and can use it, that would be great.”
Title: AB234: A Step in the Right Direction
The Community Food Promotion and Safety Act, or Assembly Bill 1990 (AB1990), was passed in September 2014 to make it easier for school and community gardens, backyard growers and other microenterprises to sell their produce upon complying with a variety of health and safety regulations. That’s all well and good, but donated goods were included in the bill because of increased federal pressure to implement the Federal Department of Agriculture’s Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act as well as the Food Safety Modernization Act. Specifically, donors were going to be required to register with the county, gleaning groups would need to ensure traceability and labeling from source point to consumer, and food pantries would have to act more like a grocery store than a charitable organization in terms of additional compulsory administrative requirements.
In addition to increased administrative burdens on volunteer gleaning networks, compliance would have reduced the willingness of people to donate food. The online registration process was cumbersome for some older residents, who were a significant percentage of donors. The whole process threatened the supply of free, healthy, fresh produce for people in need.
After much deliberation, compromise and revision, sparked partly by Suzi Grady, program director of Petaluma Bounty (its Bounty Hunters Program turns a food waste problem into a food access solution), AB234 was passed by the governor in October 2015 as a clean up bill to AB1990. According to this new bill, community food producers or gleaners are able to sell to any permitted food facility, versus only restaurants, and language regarding donations has been clarified.
“Gleaning organizations are very grass roots based and they reflect the needs of the community that they’re serving,” says Grady. “That whole process [of renegotiation] was very eye-opening to me, because regulators and law makers were trying to typify gleaning groups in a way that just doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation.”
Today, AB234 lets charitable gleaning organizations continue, albeit with an increased administrative burden. Donors are no longer required to register, but gleaning groups and food pantries are required to retain sources for 30 days. They’re also required to continue the common sense best practices they were already following, such as using clean boxes, not collecting windfall produce (produce that fell to the ground rather than being picked from the tree) and not utilizing gleaners who are ill.
In 2014, Petaluma Bounty Hunters, as part of a larger volunteer network, harvested, recovered and redistributed more than 135,000 pounds of food. Gleaned by volunteers from backyards, orchards, farmers’ markets and local farms, the program distributes the produce to Petaluma Inter-Faith Pantries, PPSC Senior Nutrition Center; which includes the Senior Café and Meals On Wheels, COTS Kitchen, PEP Housing and low-income housing centers throughout Petaluma.
“In this movement right now, there’s so much enthusiasm around waste prevention and food recovery,” says Grady. “There’s a lot of excitement around different platforms that can help prevent food waste.”
Thankfully for families in need, and our community as a whole, they’re able to legally continue to do so.