NEWS “It Made My Heart Sing”: Finding Herbs and Medicines in the Bronx’s Food Forest | Foraging

EuropeOn a crisp November day in the South Bronx, over the din of the 6 train, more than 300 people set off from Westchester Avenue along a tree-lined path leading to Concrete Works Park . This is home to the Bronx River Food Trail, a quarter-acre food forest filled with edible plants, mostly native. At first glance, the land is dotted with trees but overgrown with wild leaves that Foodway has purposely planted. It is the only legal foraging place in New York City.

Neighbors of all ages flocked to the grassy banks of the Bronx River to celebrate the end of the season and the Bronx’s lush foliage, including a line of snacks made from foraged ingredients: gingko cheese and acorns Biscuits, as well as pickled mushrooms and herbal ale in a recent four-part cooking series launched by Foodway over the past two months.

man gesturing to plan
Nathan Hunter leads management activities. Photo: Courtesy of Nathan Hunt

These courses are part of Foodway’s educational program. Previous virtual sessions have covered how to forage safely; how to start indoor gardening; how to cook with lamb’s quarter, an abundant drought-tolerant plant with edible kale-like leaves and seeds that rival quinoa; and how to identify herbs for respiratory health.

“Because of all the highways and industrialization in the South Bronx, we live in what’s called the Asthma Triangle. Many of the plants that Foodway grows treat respiratory ailments,” said Nathan Hunter, Foodway’s coordinator. He is Foodway’s only full-time City Park employee. He sees it as an oasis for residents of the Bronx’s industrial district, surrounded by the historic silos of the former concrete factory. Gatherers can gather as much as they want, day or night.

“In the black community, we don’t always trust the medical system,” said artist-in-residence Journei Bimwala, an herbalist, gatherer and educator. Instead of shaming people for lack of trust, she offers asthma remedies from food forests, such as New England asters.

man gesturing with cup
During the summer, herbs and berries rich in immune-supporting nutrients are gathered for drying and storage for winter. Photo: Courtesy of Nathan Hunt

Providing safe spaces for legal and free foraging in mostly low-income and non-white areas could be seen as a radical approach, especially in a city where collecting or vandalizing park plants can result in fines of up to $200. Foodway 2017 Created in partnership with the Bronx River Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to reclamation of the Bronx River, which operates the Foodway with the city’s parks department; since then, Foodway’s growth has been driven by the community . Hunt said he often encounters curious locals exploring the concrete botanical park, who greet him with questions about the space. These exchanges, especially with older generations, help Hunter shape Foodway to suit the needs of the community.

The Foodway team is using the winter program to allow the community to forage during the off-season. So far, they’ve come up with a three-part mushroom series: a mushroom-identifying walk led by Bimwala; a mushroom-growing workshop; and a final session with a hands-on session on growing mushrooms from seed bags using coffee grounds. They will also continue their soil testing program in partnership with Cornell University—Hunter and his team test Foodway’s soil using an X-ray machine, which can identify toxic substances, to ensure the leaves are safe to eat. Invite locals to bring soil from their yards to test.

people sitting behind desks smiling
Foodway team members gather around a picnic bench at the New York Botanical Garden designed by artist Elizebeth Hamby. Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Hamby

During her first year as coordinator, Hunter found Bimwala leading tours and teaching the children about the properties of each plant. “It makes my heart beat because that’s what Foodway is all about,” Hunter said.

From spring to fall, Bimwala leads free weekly tours for community members, who come in droves with baskets to take home their finds. As she nimbly made her way through the food court, she stopped to examine a plant with fuzzy mauve flowers and drooping tiny seeds. “This is amaranth,” she said, loosening the seeds between her fingers. “In the black community, it’s also known as callaloo, and the seeds are used like popcorn. You can cook vegetables, use them in salads, and put them in your smoothies,” Bimwala said, citing the growing A range of medicinal and edible plants: common plantain, elderflower bush, goji berries and a host of herbs with medicinal value.

TonThe city has no plans to legalize foraging on a large scale, but Hunter hopes the Bronx River Food Street can serve as a model for other city parks. Bimwala and Hunter say it’s time for the city’s laws to evolve and provide ways to include certification systems and restrictions on when and what can be foraged to prevent overharvesting.

people walking through the park
Bimwala tours mix returning foragers eager to learn more and newcomers, many of whom have lived in the Bronx for decades. Photo: Courtesy of Nathan Hunt

The city argues that if foraging is legal, it damages the urban ecosystem. “On a large scale, New York City’s parks will not be able to sustain significant urban foraging—plants and their bounty are easily wiped out, depending on their popularity and the number of foragers,” Dan Kastanis said , who is in charge of the parks department.

Instead, Kastanis encourages those interested in foraging to join one of the city’s more than 550 GreenThumb community gardens, which provide free garden space, training and resources to the community.

Foragers say over-foraging should never be a problem, as digging around city parks for leafy greens, nuts and berries isn’t for everyone. Most importantly, the foragers who lead the movement say their walks include education about how to forage sustainably.

Bimwala and Hunter agree on the need for a foraging management certification program, possibly supported by organizations like the New York Botanic Gardens, which already offer educational courses, including an urban naturalist course.

“I wanted to create a space for foragers,” says Hunt, who envisions a “community that is curious about how foraging exists around cities while recognizing the limitations of public lands.”

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