Viewing a city as a place where food grows
Host Amber Smith: Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, invites you to be The Informed Patient, with the podcast that features experts from Central New York's only academic medical center. I'm your host, Amber Smith.
Collecting wild plants, nuts and flowers that grow freely throughout the city is known as urban foraging.
Today, I am talking with two professors from Syracuse University about this practice, which seems to be gaining support. Sudha Raj and Anne Bellows are from the department of nutrition and food studies at SU's Falk College. Dr. Raj is a teaching professor with a doctorate in nutrition science, and Dr. Bellows is a professor of food studies.
Welcome to "The Informed Patient," both of you.
Anne Bellows, PhD: Thank you. It's great to be here.
Sudha Raj, PhD: Thank you.
Host Amber Smith: First of all, Dr. Bellows, can you give us some background on the Syracuse Urban Food Forest Project?
Anne Bellows, PhD: Yes, thank you. The project started in 2019. It's a collaboration that started between Matt Potteiger from landscape architecture at ESF (SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry), Stew Diemont from environmental biology at ESF, and myself.
There were these internal grants available at the time from both institutions, and for the first time, they were actually linked, so we had the opportunity to write one proposal and bring it to our separate institutions. And the institutions knew that this was a possibility. This was actually the first time that this had been done, but I am based in food studies, and it developed as an interdisciplinary project.
We work very closely with the city government and local community groups. We were really fortunate that Sudha Raj joined our group after a year, and that's how we started.
Host Amber Smith: Now you and some colleagues from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry have a paper in the journal Nutrients that makes the point that we consume relatively few fruits and vegetables and whole grains and dairy, and way too many refined grains and foods with added sugars, saturated fats and high levels of sodium.
So in general, our collective diet is missing out on nutrition, and you're attempting to find alternate forms of high-quality, local, low- or no-cost food sources. Is that right?
Anne Bellows, PhD: That is right. The project itself started with the idea of having a transect, a riparian transect. That means a pathway along a river area on the South Side of Syracuse.
It runs from about Corcoran High School through Elmwood Park, goes underground -- this is the Furnace Brook. Furnace Brook goes underground -- until it hits Onondaga Creek and then goes north. And our initial transect was up to the Southwest Community Learning Farm, also includes Brady Farm to the south.
It's longer now. It goes from Onondaga Community College all the way to the lake (Onondaga Lake), so it's more like 12 to 15 miles long now, following sort of this transect of public spaces, parks, public land that is not in parks, land bank, vacant lots, et cetera. But the purpose is to identify existing, forageable foods.
And also we have grants now to plant a lot of forageable foods, but it's not just for humans, it's also for more than humans. So we're very interested in the eco-services, the ecosystem services, that benefit, we say, "more than humans," so animals, plants, the ecological infrastructure, especially on the South Side, where there is a level of, sometimes it's called canopy injustice, sometimes it's called environmental injustice, where there is much less greening. And that takes a heavy toll on human and non-human lives. It has to do with environmental quality and community well-being.
Host Amber Smith: So you and your colleagues have traveled this -- what, you said 12 to 15 miles? -- of property and land yourself, kind of looking and seeing what's there?
Anne Bellows, PhD: Yes. The paper that you referred to, in the back, there's an appendix with over a hundred different species, edible species, that we identified, and we've been adding to that, with both native and non-native species that include edible plants and herbs that humans like, but also animals.
Host Amber Smith: This is Upstate's "The Informed Patient" podcast. I'm your host, Amber Smith.
I'm talking with Dr. Sudha Raj and Dr. Anne Bellows from Syracuse University's Falk College department of nutrition and food studies.
Dr. Raj, what plants did you find growing wild in Syracuse?
Sudha Raj, PhD: It's a host of plants. These include herbs. These include fruits, nuts, vegetables. So all different food groups are represented, and as the paper lists out, all the common plants that have the possibility of growing in this region, or rather they're indigenous to this area, listed out.
Almost every food group category that we, as nutritionists, impress upon people the importance of consuming for optimal nutrient density and for good health outcomes is represented in this tract.
And hopefully all of them can be planted, going forward.
Host Amber Smith: How do you know the nutritional content of something growing near a river or on the side of a road? How do you know how nutritious it is, or if it's even safe to eat?
Sudha Raj, PhD: Well, our partners at SUNY ESF have that expertise to identify, and professor Bellows also is very knowledgeable in this area.
I come to it from a nutrition perspective. Typically, we would do an analysis in a lab to analyze the nutritional composition of these different varieties of foods or food groups, so whether they're fruits, nuts, vegetables, et cetera.
However, that is time-consuming, and it is labor-intensive. So, for the purposes of this project, because of the wide spectrum of plants that we are dealing with, we went to the USDA's (U.S. Department of Agriculture's) food composition database, which has been around for several years now, several decades, and it is updated, sometimes sporadically. And so, through our research, we identified that there were many plants that were growing in our backyards that do not have an adequate nutritional composition.
So, we had to go looking in different places to identify if somebody else had done these nutritional analyses. Sometimes you have counterparts in the other hemisphere, and they might not necessarily be very similar to the ones that are grown in our region, but that is the closest that we have. This also highlights that there is a need for research because this is a large research gap.
If we don't have the nutritional composition, we are just speculating that these products have these bioactive food components that may be important for our health. So it certainly highlights the need for research in this area.
Host Amber Smith: Let me ask you if there is a definition for what foraging is or what urban food forestry is. Dr. Bellows?
Anne Bellows, PhD: Foraging generally refers to collecting, gathering edible foods from more wild, but also very domesticated locations. You could talk about foraging from a garden that you have in the backyard. You can talk about foraging when you're out in the mountains someplace.
When we talk about urban food systems or forestry, urban food forestry, we use a definition that was developed by Bukowski and (J.F.) Munsell, and Catherine Bukowski is actually an ESF grad. And it basically refers to the use of perennial food-producing plants to improve the sustainability and resilience of urban communities.
There are so many different activities and so many styles of what a forest can be. It can be a single tree. It can be a backyard orchard. It can also be the kind of woodland that you find more natural, say, in Elmwood Park or more specifically situated, planted, for example, in Kirk Park.
So there's a very broad understanding. One of the key pieces is that you're talking about perennial species that tend to require less maintenance than, say, a vegetable garden that you replant every year. That's one way to think about it.
Host Amber Smith: So these are plants that are going to come back year after year ...
Anne Bellows, PhD: Right.
Host Amber Smith: ... but is it legal to go harvest them from public lands for your own consumption?
Anne Bellows, PhD: The laws differ in states. They differ in different municipalities. Syracuse actually has code that says, basically, "Thou shalt not pluck or pick on public land," but we work very closely with the Parks Department, with Community and Business Development, that department, to develop these edible forests on public land and land-bank vacant lots.
And we are actually right now working with the city to try to develop a code that better reflects today.
That old code was really written to sort of separate what a city does and what a rural area does.
We are now thinking about agriculture as something appropriate for cities. When this original code was written, we did not have the idea of urban gardening or urban farms. We did not set aside spaces we are trying to do now in Syracuse to be able to support urban food production. So the whole notion of what an urban food system is and how it functions is very much evolving at this very moment. And your question points to that issue.
With regard to the safety, that's something that is evolving very much also, and it's a very relevant, very important question. It makes it very important to know where the city is putting pesticides, right? It is one of the reasons that many community gardens have raised beds, right? So you're not planting in soils that have concentrated heavy metals. So, the question of safety is something that we are very aware of, we work on, but we also want to establish the idea that the conventional, market-based, highly processed food system has its own kinds of risks.
And so when we talk about risk, we have to talk about balancing risk and thinking about: How do we pay attention to what risks are from water quality, from soil quality, from air pollution quality, which also can be picked up by leaves, and what those concentrations are in conventionally produced agriculture, as well as highly processed and ultra-processed foods.
We have a lot of work to do on our food system, whether it's in urban areas or outside of urban areas, but I certainly welcome that question.
Host Amber Smith: Do you know, are there cities in America, or are there other nations, where urban foraging is more accepted or more common practice?
Anne Bellows, PhD: Well, in the States, Atlanta, Georgia, has the biggest urban food forest, seven square miles, on the south side of town, the Browns Mill area. That's one example.
Before coming to Syracuse University, I worked at Hohenheim University in (Stuttgart) Germany. And there were long alleys that were consciously planted with cherry trees, and it brought people out to walk and to gather. And the idea was, you build urban infrastructure that brings people closer to the outside world, to the rural environment, to understand what food is -- something that is not wrapped in plastic at the store. And to participate in gathering it, as part of a family ritual, like cooking a meal. And it's been wonderful to work with Sudha because she brings this experience in India, which is very, very telling of that intersection of daily life and foraging.
Host Amber Smith: So, Dr. Raj, tell me: If someone is going to embark on urban foraging, how should people deal with the weeds and the plants that they've pulled once they get home?
Sudha Raj, PhD: In our paper we talk about bioactives. And these bioactive compounds are phytochemicals. So the word "phytochemical" means chemicals that are present in plants.
And these plants produce these chemicals as a way to protect themselves from other environmental stress, from predators, et cetera. So these compounds are innate to the plant. When we consume them, we also consume those chemicals. Now, some chemicals have a lot of benefits, like the antioxidant chemicals, which basically can do some free-radical scavenging and keep our disease risks low.
I never say that eating plants is going to completely cure you of a disease, but it can certainly keep it at a much lower risk. Now, having said that, plants also produce many chemicals that are toxic because that's the way they protect themselves from the environmental stress, from predators, et cetera.
So sometimes, if we don't know, unknowingly we may consume certain plants, thinking they're good for us, and therefore we may also ultimately consume those toxic materials. Now, if you look at cultural food practices, many cultures across the globe have been dealing with such kinds of plants, and before botany and zoology and all of these became sciences that people were studying, people were foraging and picking up whatever they thought they could consume.
They consumed it by trial and error. They have identified ways of keeping these toxic compounds low. So to give you a simple example, every morning we drink coffee. Those coffee beans have to be roasted. If we ate the coffee, just without roasting, we would be consuming some of those toxic materials that are present in them.
So same way, there are certain beans that have certain toxic materials. So it's about identifying. Many have been identified, and these we call as "antinutrients." The reason we call them antinutrients is because a bean or a lentil can be a good source of a mineral, but if it has an antinutrient, this material can actually bind to the minerals, making it less bioavailable. So we have methods like soaking, boiling, cooking, all of these methods.
In this processed time in the 21st century, when we have so many different processed foods, people go for convenience, so some of the age-old techniques of fermentation, sprouting, et cetera, they have fallen on the wayside. And therefore it becomes very important that, when we are talking to people about plants, about the ability of these plants to be protective and provide these phytochemicals, we also have to keep in mind that there are many antinutrients, and people should be given the correct advice about handling these foods.
How should they be eaten? So some foods can be eaten raw, some need to be processed. There are people who consume raw diets, raw foods diets. And as a dietitian, it is always a big challenge to talk to these people and impress upon them the importance of cooking, because not all cooking is bad. We cook certain things so that we can eat foods and get the maximal nutritional value of it.
So to answer your question, there are lots of toxic materials that could be found, but it is about identifying them, educating consumers about how to deal with these toxic materials.
Mushrooms, for example: There are 400 varieties of mushrooms. People who pick mushrooms all the time, they know exactly what they're picking, and they're very careful about it. But for somebody who has no clue about mushrooms, and they say, "Well, mushrooms are good," they cannot pick anything from off the ground.
So it's about educating, identifying these materials, and then, educating consumers, creating a database about what are some potential toxic elements that might be present and how do you deal with these products, so that we can keep risks to the minimum.
Host Amber Smith: You're listening to Upstate's 'The Informed Patient" podcast. I'm your host, Amber Smith. My guests are Dr. Sudha Raj and Dr. Anne Bellows from Syracuse University's Falk College department of nutrition and food studies.
So what you're describing, if a person wanted to start into foraging, it seems a little intimidating, like there's a lot you would need to learn. You can't just go out and start picking, right?
Sudha Raj, PhD: I would think I would be careful. This is where we are hoping that we can learn a little bit more about the indigenous cultures around the Syracuse area, what their familiarity is with these plants, how do they use it, so that we can create a knowledge database on some of these plants so that it can be used for educating purposes.
Our dietitians are constantly educating communities about fruits, vegetables, et cetera. This is another layer added to it, that you can go foraging. It's not as intimidating if you go with somebody who's knowledgeable and who can show you the ropes.
For example, the refugees, the Bhutanese refugee women I know, they go to Onondaga Lake Park, and they're able to pluck many of the greens there that we think of as weeds. But for them, those are important greens, and they identify them because they have seen similar ones growing in their region.
Now, I don't know if they're equal in terms of nutritional composition, what their toxic levels are, but people who are used to foraging, they know what to pick and what not to pick. So they can be good guides in this process, and that's also part of the community building, getting people involved and using their knowledge.
And it's also a practice of cultural humility, appreciating and celebrating the cultures around us and the knowledge that they possess about these foods and encouraging cultural capital. We talk about cultural capital in our paper. It's about recognizing what our region is good for, what our region produces, and in bounty, and how we can use it, and how we can celebrate and appreciate those resources that are just around us.
Host Amber Smith: Now, your paper encourages public and private expansion of urban and rural food forests. How do you envision that that would occur? Dr. Bellows?
Anne Bellows, PhD: Well, there is certainly a lot of open space, underused land, everything from Syracuse University South Campus, all that green area, to many vacant lots and to areas along some of the stream corridors that are mostly in scrub now, but could be changed.
One of the cool things is the city of Syracuse Parks Department, through work of the Forestry Unit and the city arborist, they've been giving trees away. So when we do plantings, we have a grant through the U.S. Department of Ag Forest Service Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to do plantings along the stream corridor in order to stabilize the banks and reduce runoff, and in that way be supportive of a healthier Great Lakes ecosystem.
And we collaborate with the Parks Department, Forestry Department, and we do major plantings twice a year, usually in May and October. And when we've done it, we've had 60 to 80 volunteers. The city works with us, and they do these tree giveaways, so people can take trees home and plant them there. The city has its own master plan. There's an urban forest master plan. It does not have a focus on edible species particularly, but it does focus on the critical importance of expanding canopy and canopy justice.
So the city is very involved in trying to regreen the city, especially in areas where there is a dearth, a relative dearth, of green roadways and parks. So there are many ways that greening and, particularly, food forests can develop.
And there's a lot of interest. We've worked with different city elected officials to expand work along Onondaga Creek, the Kwanzaa Garden, the Southwest Community Learning Farm, along the Creekwalk. And we will be very soon working in the Inner Harbor area.
But there are other groups working on it also. We're not doing it all by any stretch. And we work very closely with the Onondaga Earth Corps, a group that is dedicated to training young folks about environmental careers. So the project is very linked to social justice efforts and working closely with what the community identifies as its priorities, both for where things are planted and what we plant.
Host Amber Smith: Well, along those lines, is there anything that you would want landscape professionals to be doing differently, or could they do better toward this?
Anne Bellows, PhD: It would be great if they would focus on both native species and more edible species. It often depends on what people themselves want and also what they know and recognize as valuable and important.
Some people don't want an apple tree because it attracts bees and their kids are allergic, but then there are other options like, nut trees or berry bushes or, some of the beautiful shrubbery, like elderberry.
Host Amber Smith: Well, I appreciate both of you making time for this interview, Dr. Raj and Dr. Bellows.
Anne Bellows, PhD: Thank you so much for having us.
Sudha Raj, PhD: Thank you.
Host Amber Smith: My guests have been Dr. Sudha Raj and Dr. Anne Bellows from the department of nutrition and food studies at Syracuse University's Falk College. Dr. Raj is a teaching professor with a doctorate in nutrition science, and Dr. Bellows is a professor of food studies.
"The Informed Patient" is a podcast covering health, science and medicine, brought to you by Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and produced by Jim Howe.
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