Kevin Feinstein goes by a number of different titles: author, forager and educator, among others. But when you get to know him, you realize that these are just different facets of a person acutely aware of modern civilization’s impact on the environment, who happens to be very concerned about what that means for our survival.
Determined to do his part to reinstate what he believes as the “Right Relationship” with the earth, Kevin began researching the nutritional benefits of eating readily available wild foods in his environment. As his interest grew, so did his knowledge, and before long, he was giving classes on wild edibles in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s now the author of two books, runs a school gardening program in Lafayette and manages a busy roster of wild food and mushroom walks in and around the Bay Area.
“I started getting interested in foraging and sustainable agriculture in 1998-1999, after taking a real hard look at the way the food system is structured today and realizing how dysfunctional and unsustainable it is,” he explains. “We expend so many calories to produce food that isn’t entirely nutritious for us (such as genetically-modified foods), while intoxicating the earth with chemicals and depleting it of its diversity. And on the other hand, we have an abundance of nutritionally-dense foods available out in the wild all around us that we’re just letting go to waste.”
“Widespread interest in foraging really took off in 2008, around the time I started partnering with Forage SF to conduct these walks. Food items like nettles and chanterelle mushrooms started appearing on more restaurant menus and it became trendy. My early students were mostly nutritionists and naturalists interested in understanding the different uses for wild herbs. These days, the majority of the class is comprised of foodies and survivalists. There’s almost always one student who’s taking the class so as to survive a zombie apocalypse,” he quipped.
On a picturesque Saturday morning, I joined Kevin for one of his walks at Buena Vista Park in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. A modest group of ten gathered for his “edible wild plant identification walk” (an important distinction, since foraging is still illegal in many urban areas). We learned, for example, that Yarrow, with its stimulating and healing properties, used to be a key ingredient in beers, before hops took its place, and that all grass is edible and nutritious. Nasturtium flowers, widely available in San Francisco, add a spicy kick to salads, while the flower petals of the Feijoa plant are just as juicy and sweet as its fruit. Kevin also introduced us to the Ceanothus shrub, whose flowers, when crushed in the hand with water, turn into a natural soap, and whose leaves can be dried and brewed for a caffeine-free herbal tea.
Kevin’s reasons for foraging stem from his concern for the planet. He explains, “I’m not into this for the shock factor, to be able to say, ‘Hey, look at me! I’m eating something exotic!’. No, I’m very concerned about eating a healthy natural diet, and the environmental benefits of eating locally foraged and sustainably-grown food. Wild foods are better for us and better for the planet. This motivates me more than the pursuit of gourmet flavors.”
We covered a mere half-mile of the park’s eastern slope in two hours, but the leisurely pace and care with which we examined each specimen, shrub and tree was enough to change the way I look at the plants in my environment. Instead of being mere ornaments in the landscape, they are now potential ingredients, each of them a gateway to new flavors and textures. All I need is a pair of good shears and a pretty satchel.
All photos by Danielle Tsi.