How some Nova Scotians are fighting high food costs by foraging
'You wouldn't find at the most expensive restaurants anywhere, what we have commonly for meals'
For Christopher Wildbore, the world is his pantry.
Wildbore, who lives near Truro, N.S., learned how to forage at a young age.
His grandfather knew about wild plants and herbs. He taught him how to recognize the mint that grew in the ditch near his house and the plantains that grew in their driveway.
As he grew up, Wildbore learned more about the natural world and became familiar with what he could eat.
But there came a time in his adulthood when foraging became less of a hobby and more of a necessity.
"Although I'm at a good place in my life now economically, there have been times I have lived on the street," said Wildbore, who runs the Facebook group Backyard foraging in Nova Scotia.
"There have been times when my rent was higher than my income and I had to find other ways to get groceries."
One of those times was between 2003 and 2005, when Wildbore was living in Kentville on a disability income of $527 a month. His rent was $505 a month and his medication was $20 a month.
With nothing left for groceries, he turned to forests and beaches for food.
"I had direct access to just about every plant Nova Scotia has to offer," he said.
Plantains and dandelions are two of his favourites.
Plantains are easily found and nutritious to boot. "It's got a lot of what you need," said Wildbore.
He said dandelion greens are similar to spinach and can make excellent salads once they're soaked in salt water to remove the bitterness.
Foraging is often thought of as a wilderness pursuit, but Wildbore said there's plenty to be found in suburban or urban settings. Most green spaces offer a place for things to grow.
If you muster up the courage, you can even ask to go hunting on lawns around the neighbourhood.
"People aren't actually going to think you're weird for it. They think it's pretty darn cool," said Wildbore.
But permission is required or it could be considered trespassing.
Wildbore added that foraging in urban areas comes with a few concerns. He warns people to stay off busy roadsides and to beware of pesticides.
There are also rules about removing plants from provincial and national parks.
While Wildbore's in a better place now, he still supplements his grocery shopping with foraged food to save money.
"I have bags and bags of plantain and dandelion greens in my freezer that I picked during the summer so that I have it for the winter," he said.
'Stunned' at high food costs
The cost of food across the country has been on the rise for years. Canada's Food Price Report 2020 estimates the average Canadian family will spend $12,667 on food in 2020 — $487 more than in 2019.
Cliff Seruntine said he's noticed the high prices.
Seruntine, a forager and naturalist, grew up in Louisiana and lived in the Alaskan wilderness for more than a decade before moving to Nova Scotia 15 years ago.
"I am frequently stunned at the cost of fresh vegetables here in Canada," he said. "Even in Alaska, they didn't cost so much."
He and his wife get much of their food either from gardening or foraging. Seruntine said foraging can help people try new and interesting food without breaking the bank.
"You wouldn't find at the most expensive restaurants anywhere what we have commonly for meals," he said.
Seruntine's been foraging for most of his life and teaches classes on the topic, both in person and on his YouTube channel. His property is on a couple hundred acres of woods, which he refers to as a "forest garden."
But it doesn't take acres of woods to take advantage of what nature has to offer, said Seruntine.
"If a person didn't apply pesticides to their yard, they could easily turn that yard into an almost maintenance-free garden," he said.
A buffet of wild plants
He said there's all sorts of edible wild plants Nova Scotians might overlook: clover, goosegrass, Japanese knotweed, oxeye daisies and cattails.
The province is also "blessed with berries," he said, with bushes commonly growing salmonberries, wild blueberries and wintergreen berries.
But what Seruntine really loves are the mushrooms.
Nova Scotia is home to many different kinds of wild mushrooms that can be cooked and turned into tasty meals, said Seruntine.
"You can get really creative," he said. "And wild mushrooms have a lot of flavour too, so you can do things with them that just aren't going to be applicable to other mushrooms."
But Seruntine underscored the importance of doing research and learning which mushrooms are edible.
He suggests folks new to foraging pick one kind of edible mushroom, "learn that mushroom inside and out," and only collect that kind until are comfortable enough to start learning about others.
More than food
While the outdoor activity might let people access new and unique flavours for free, that's not the only reason someone might forage.
According to 2016 numbers from Statistics Canada, nearly 70 per cent of Canadians took part in one or more outdoor activities that year.
Of those, 16 per cent said they foraged for food — slightly more than those who said they went mountain biking or tried snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.
Seruntine said foraging is an opportunity to get out of the house and learn more about the natural world and how to conserve.
"It's a great way to reconnect with nature, to be able to appreciate nature that's around you, the beauty of our province, and to know that everything that we need is right here," he said.
With a laugh, he added: "Except chips."