Short documentary about urban foragers in Chicago

Interesting documentary about a couple of Chicagoans who find and eat edible weeds, wild berries, nettles, purslane, apples, and other goodies free for the taking in the urban landscape.

Urban foragers are people who eat what grows naturally from a very unnatural place— a city. In this all-vegetarian Sky Full of Bacon podcast, urban foragers show us how they find food all around them. Chef-blogger Art Jackson shows us what's growing around his home in Pilsen, and then foraging expert Nance Klehm, Art and I nibble our way through a remarkable wilderness literally in the shadow of Chicago's skyscrapers.
(Via Homegrown Evolution)


  1. Hi. My mom was a big hippie back in the day. I grew up eating berries, plants, fruits, and nuts wherever I can find them. City, backyard, forest, or park.

    Nice to see the Urban Homesteading manuals pointing to this, and now blogs. Is this a rehash of an old trend?

    I see Morus trees overhanging many sidewalks here in Pittsburgh. Pounds and pounds and pounds of delicious fruit just waiting to be eaten (or fermented).

  2. Every year about this time, I see elderly Chinese(?) women collecting acorns around the parking lot of the county govt. building. I’m guessing this is for consumption, but I haven’t been able to confirm it (can you?). In any case, I think it’s a damn cool thing anytime I see urban harvesting going on. There’s a great bike path behind my house that passes through an old plum orchard along the way and there’s always a lot of urban harvesting going on during the summer.

  3. generally better these days since most local governments stopped spraying chemical herbicides and pesticides on everything. There is still the witches brew of city air fallout though.

  4. Thats my old neighborhood. I moved to a different part of the city last month and I already miss Pilsen. We always called that large un-developed area ‘the brownlands’. I spent quite a lot of time wandering around in there. We would attend campfire parties at night in the summers. It’s a pretty great experience to sit next to a campfire so close to those big skyscrapers.

    One time I found some morel mushrooms next to the train tracks in the brownlands. I was afraid to eat them due to the presence of a very large lead factory nearby. It’s a shame that area will be gone soon.

  5. Hi, about five weeks ago I undertook a project to live sustainably through urban foraging in my home city of Phoenix, Arizona. I am excited about eating locally and reducing waste but I have had trouble finding edible plants around here. So far I have lost 38 pounds and my nose bleeds a little in the morning. Does anyone have any advice?

  6. Careful on the RR tracks! Not only can you be slapped with trespassing charges in some places, but they also spray regularly with herbicides – you know, to keep the “weeds” down.

  7. Well, we know who’s going to survive in a post-apocalyptic (hopefully zombie) world.

    I need to learn how to urban-forage too. This is just awesome.

  8. I personally wouldn’t eat anything grown in Pilsen soil. There are countless “super-fun” zones, the soil definitely has lead in it, and there’s an coal burning power plant that still produces hundreds of pounds of mercury a year. Not to say the area isn’t beautiful. Because of all the empty lots and big (abandoned?) warehouses there’s a feeling of openness that you don’t find anywhere closer to downtown.

  9. Hey I know that lady! I took a cheesemaking class from her at Machine Project last year. REALLY cool lady. You’re my hero, Nancy! Keep it up!

  10. #6 Avarice: Here’s how you can learn what’s good to eat or not. Find a plant that looks edible, and taste some of it. If it tastes like something you’d like to eat, look it up in one of the Field Guides to make sure. If it tastes like something you don’t want to eat, then DON’T EAT IT! I am certainly not an expert, but I feel pretty confident that if I eat random leaves, my tongue will tell me whether to spit it out or not.

    Depending on how curious (or hungry) you are, you may or may not find things to eat. Obviously, things like blackberries, tomatoes, and even dandilions look just like things you would want to eat. Some things are underneath the ground, or need to be processed first.

    Remember, our brains are hardwired to differentiate plants, even if they are very similar in appearance. If you carry a field guide with you, you’ll soon know what most of the plants are that you come into contact with.

    Some things need processing before you can eat them. Prickly-pear is one of these, although I would think that once you get a mouth full of spines, you learn pretty quickly whether you would try that again. Field guides are good for identifying plants you can eat, and what to do to them before eating.

  11. GreatMiddleWest @ 4:
    That brings up a good point I was going to ask about, and they briefly mention this in the video: I know a lot of cities discourage home gardening without having the soil tested, as there can be all sorts of nasties in the ground from before it was your yard.

    Since urban foraging is basically the same thing, I wonder if the soil is clean enough to trust the food from it. I suppose the best thing to do would be to have someone test the soil at a common foraging site and post the results somewhere so people will know.

  12. Hi, this is Mike Gebert who made the video, thanks for the shout-out and I’m glad to see the very good questions here. Feel free to check out more of my podcasts, they’re all at Vimeo.

    Nance’s attitude is basically that we’re breathing in all this stuff just living in Chicago, eating a leafy green plant that’s been absorbing it too is not necessarily any worse, and perhaps better. That said, she does exercise some caution about the nature of the land she forages from, and said she wouldn’t have picked a lot from the area along the train tracks that we foraged in the second half of the video because railroads tend to do pretty heavy spraying of weeds. In general, that stretch of land we visitedhas been more ignored than anything else for many decades, and so apart from the tracks, I wouldn’t feel too hesitant about eating from it, even in quantity. At least I’d put it on the same level of risk exposure as working in an office where people are heating up microwave popcorn every day, say.

  13. For Boingers in the NY/NJ/CT area, Wild Man Steve Brill gives tours explaining basic edible / medicinal fauna in the various parks, including NY’s famous Central Park.

    I’ve made wineberry compote with foraging picked on his tours. Like all food, wash it before you eat it Simple, eh?

    That said, operating a microwave in an office (or at home) is not dangerous as long as it’s in good repair.

  14. Actually, I was referring to the nasty chemicals in the popcorn, which apparently have turned out to cause all kinds of trouble for the workers at the plants that make it. Anyway, it’s funny that we’ve reached a point where we’re worried about stuff we can see growing straight out of the ground, but anything in plastic wrap is sure to be safe.

  15. about #15 posted by Mike Gebert…

    Awesome video but again, the problem with lead is that it persists so long. Really it’s like we have sewn our fields with salt. PLEASE GET THESE PEOPLE TO STOP EATING THESE THINGS…And while your at it ask them to get lead tests for themselves and their children.

    snip….”Nance’s attitude is basically that we’re breathing in all this stuff just living in Chicago, eating a leafy green plant that’s been absorbing it too is not necessarily any worse, and perhaps better.” ……/snip

    The amount of lead you might breathe, especially these days, is so much less than what you could get from eating a phyto-accumulator plant growing in contaminated soil that this is not a good argument.

    And #16 posted by megamommatron, please tell me you aren’t feeding your children a pie made from untested urban-sourced produce! Lead doesn’t [often] kill you but it has profound developmental effects on children. DON’T EAT THAT PIE [Send it to me, I’ll take care of it..mmmmm]! If you did, get them a lead test …better to eat one of those GLaDOS cakes…They’re so delicious and moist.

  16. Again, is it really logical to assume that all soil is contaminated soil? My house in the city was built on farmland in 1920. The nearest factory was four blocks away. Why should I think that lamb’s quarters or mulberries growing in my yard are presumed deadly– but food manufactured in China is safe?

    1. I would like to mention that, at least in California, little tiny flags in the ground usually mean that the area was just treated with something like pesticides. I think that there might be a color code as well.

  17. In reply to #20 posted by Mike Gebert,

    Yes, in the absence of a negative lead test, YOU MUST ASSUME THAT ALL URBAN SOILS ARE CONTAMINATED WITH LEAD!

    and again


    Please don’t take my word for it, do a little research. Again, awesome video, cool people, but this is just wrong wrong wrong to encourage people to do. Really the concern is for kids or women who might want to have kids. Lead also persists in the body! If adult men or post menopausal women want to take this risk, rock on! Otherwise it is irresponsible.

    And I agree with you on the non-safety of Chinese food imports. That does’t make lead any safer to eat.

    In the video, you guys are checking out some garlic mustard. Interestingly, one of the plants that is researched as a good lead-accumulator for phytoremediation is Indian mustard (Brassica juncea), but I don’t know if these two mustards share this talent. The pytoremediator plants suck up lead and can then be harvested and ‘disposed of.’ My point here is that you don’t want to eat plants that may be lead accumulators if they are in untested soils!

  18. Hmm, interesting. The only urban foraging I ever did was gathering psychedelic mushrooms that grew on the university lawns in the fall.

  19. lobby for this then:
    Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 8:57 pm
    Steam as Trackside Weed Killer

    Dave Polster has come up with a way to remove weeds from a railbed without using herbicides, the Esquimault News reports: steam! “Based on a UBC scientist’s study [that] determined that high-temperature steam was an effective method for killing weeds, Polster and others coddled together leftover items to create a prototype machine that put the theory to work,” says the paper. “Upgrades and improvements yielded a mobile, rail-based machine that created a veil of low-pressure, high-temperature (425 degree Celsius) steam that instantly cooked plant tissues.”

  20. Apparently it doesn’t matter even if there’s no apparent mechanism for the contamination to have ever existed at all.

    There is, in fact, a serious lead risk in a city like Chicago. It’s lead paint, used especially around windows, since an old window serves as a very effective grinder to release atomized particles of lead paint into the air of a home or apartment. The City of Chicago has a program for replacing older windows in residential units at a heavily discounted or no cost to combat exactly this issue.

    The idea, though, that every speck of outside soil in Chicago must be presumed to be contaminated to a deadly degree which you or I will suffer from by eating a handful of mulberries is simply more extreme than rational. Is there a risk there, yes. Is it the only risk I will face living in a city, does it warrant the perverse attitude by which naturally-grown food is presumed to be a silent killer but a packaged food full of preservatives, trans-fats and who knows what represents absolute safety– that’s what I find bizarre and, if we only think about it for a moment, obviously wrongheaded.

    Something’s gonna kill you. But between the mulberries, the Burger King sandwich you eat instead, and the bus that’s barreling down Irving Park toward the BK, it’s hard for me to see why I should regard the mulberries as the biggest, indeed only, menace.

  21. Microwave popcorn? I don’t eat the stuff. Nasty. Don’t even own a microwave. Not because it’s unsafe, it’s just a crappy way to cook.

    Regarding contaminants in food grown in city area soil, I think it would be interesting to see what sort of testing has been done, and what might be done in the future.

  22. I’m excited about the response to this podcast.

    There are some great points for discussion brought up here which is what I was hoping for.

    What’s stimulating about urban foraging, for me, is just knowing what is right in front of my face, whether I eat it or not. In a global society we often assume that things are exotic and come from far away places. I’m sure that huazontle is something that has turned up on authentic Mexican menus so we assume it comes from Mexico. Well, it does. But it’s also part of an invasive weed in Chicago called lamb’s quarters. To me, that’s the thrill. It’s part science and part adventure making that discovery or that connection.

    And don’t even get me started about being able to cook with something that I have foraged. It doesn’t get much more “local” than that. The best tasting food, in my opinion, is that which is made from impeccable ingredients that need little preparation. Foraging enlightens your sense of season and tunes you in to what is truly at the peak of its freshness.

    Regarding the safety of the soil in which these plants grow–I’m glad people are questioning the safety of the very dirt that food is growing in right outside of your doorstep. I’m glad people are questioning the safety of the soil that their children are playing in and tracking into the house on their shoes. It’s that same awareness as to what’s growing around us that is going to raise awareness about the quality of our land. Let’s test all of it. Why wouldn’t we? Unfortunately, the cost to the individual is the hundreds of dollars to test for lead and every other potential contaminant after that is charged ala carte. I think that city environmental workers should test all areas and post the results as a previous commenter brought up.

    When I was on a group forage with Nance earlier this year I met a bunch of great people and one of them grows vegetables on some land on the west side of Chicago. I asked if he used raised beds and he said they did not–they had the soil tested and the levels were acceptable. Perhaps the soil is not as bad as we think? This example shows that we should at least not assume all of it is.

  23. The advice above to actually taste part of a plant and THEN look it up if you like the flavor is INSANE.

    Please don’t put ANYTHING in your mouth, that you are not 100% certain of it’s identity. It’s really pretty easy to begin learning from books, and to find classes. A community college is a great place to look. So is online. One of my favorite sites with GOOD PHOTOS is here:

    Take your time, do it right!

    John Galt

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