Urban Foraging

BY Joachim Brouwer

Urban foraging is the art of scavenging consumable and reusable items in our cities. Foraging originally meant, only gathering plants that were growing wild in public, but when prefixed with urban, the term has come to have a broader and very politicized definition. 

The flotsam and jetsam, the detritus created by the Capitalist paradigm of conspicuous consumption and thrown into the ever burgeoning growing waste stream is taken out, diverted and recirculated. The last utility is extracted from products made on dehumanizing assembly lines in soulless factories by ‘alienated’ labour.  These factories now include what was once known as the family farm. 

Other terms for urban foraging might be ‘curb crawling’, ‘trash gleaning’ or ‘dumpster diving’.

Other terms for urban foraging might be ‘curb crawling’, ‘trash gleaning’ or ‘dumpster diving’.  When I travelled through the sprawling megacities of the Global South, I often came across long rows of ornamental orange trees planted  on officious looking thoroughfares. I would fill my pannier bags with the succulent fruit that had rolled into the gutter or lay right in the street. In my northern sojourns, I have retrieved whole steaks, lettuce heads and yogurt tubs from dumpsters, where they have been discarded because one day has passed on the expiry date. Sometimes, I have stumbled upon the homeless in the morning emerging bleary eyed from these ubiquitous fixtures of the urban landscape.

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Urban foraging is often seen as an affront to public decorum and even considered deviant behavior. In earlier times, widowed and unmarried women gathered herbs and medicinal plants to heal their sick neighbors. Their foraging was considered diabolical and they were burned as witches. It is even illegal in some municipalities to rummage through private business’s dumpsters which are tightly locked after hours.

But urban foraging should be seen as an alternative to the out-of-date packaged tins and blemished fruits donated to soup kitchens and food banks and doled out by private groups. These programs do more to assuage the collective guilt of those organizing them than imparting dignity to those receiving the free food. It satiates the poor’s bodily needs but leaves their souls unnourished.

Urban foraging is empowering  to those who are marginalized, disenfranchised and stigmatized in our community.

Urban foraging is empowering  to those who are marginalized, disenfranchised and stigmatized in our community. Searching for your daily sustenance as opposed to having it ladled on your plate shows resourcefulness. It takes ingenuity, skill and labor to search for food. And the visceral experience of eating what you have gathered is greatly enhanced. The animals and plants we seeded, tended and then harvested or butchered on the family farm tasted better, than what we bought at stores.

Food waste in Capitalist societies is endemic and obscene. The French National Assembly recently passed legislation making it a crime to throw away perfectly good food. This country has long been in the forefront of direct action social movement stemming  to the days of The Commune in 1870 and the Paris student uprising in 1968. Urban foraging is sometimes called ‘recoupe’,  derived from two words  meaning to ‘cut back’ and ‘recover.’

‘Recycling commandoes’ crisscross the cities of France  in organized brigades seeking food and other discarded consumer products. Guerilla ad hoc feeding stations are set up in public squares to feed the hungry. (Hamilton’s ‘Food Not Bombs’ recently had such as event in Gore Park) 

The issue of food security cannot be honestly discussed without considering foraging as a legitimate way to obtain the organic material  we need to survive and prosper.

Joachim is co-secretary of the Gibson-Landsdale Community Planning Team

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