Foraging In A Pandemic Means Digging Up A New Business Model
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"People are so used to seeing food come in plastic," Jess Starwood says as she scrambles up the side of a wild cherry tree, just north of Santa Clarita. Perched between two branches, she dangles a basket from one hand and plucks fistfulls of bright red cherries with the other. They're more tart than supermarket cherries, with a super-sized pit in the center. "The first time people eat something fresh off the tree, they're completely blown away," she says.
By sunset, her car is stuffed with buckets of wild fruits and herbs -- acorns, redcurrants, prickly pears, manzanita, white pine and a few mushrooms. For Starwood, who has been foraging commercially for five years, scouring California's public lands for wild food is a familiar dance.
Before the coronavirus pandemic upended the world economy, she was making a comfortable living foraging wild fruits and herbs and selling them to some of L.A.'s top restaurants. But when dining rooms shuttered and restaurants switched to takeout, the demand for her services ground to a halt. Now, instead of selling what she forages to chefs, she's sharing it with her friends and neighbors.
Starwood helped establish farm + forest, a community supported agriculture program (or CSA) where she offers weekly food boxes to about a dozen subscribers in the Thousand Oaks area where she lives.
It's not the first time she's pivoted in the face of disaster. When Starwood started foraging in 2011, she still had an office job at a marketing firm in Santa Barbara. It paid well but she was unhappy. After a few years, she decided she wanted to quit and focus on foraging full-time. She says her husband wasn't keen on the idea. "He felt that I should have gone back to work at the office because it made more money," Starwood says.
They separated in 2015 and after a rough divorce, Starwood says she fell into a deep depression with "nothing but a car and $10,000 in debt." Her voice trembles as she recalls how scared she felt about losing custody of her daughters.
"A lot of times, people with depression, they've lost connection with a purpose in life," Starwood says.
One day, in the midst of her sorrow, she forced herself to go for a walk around her neighborhood. A few days later, she took a hike in the woods. Eventually, as she began spending more time outside, she found the sense of purpose she had been craving. "Being in the forest can be so healing," she says.
Over the next two years, what had begun as a fun way to feed herself and her daughters became a way to pay the bills. "Now, that's just my life," Starwood says, scanning the dense brush for redcurrants. She finds a cluster and pops one into her mouth. "That one was sour!" She chuckles and reaches for another fistfull.
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By 2019, Starwood was the head forager for multiple restaurants in Los Angeles. At acclaimed kaiseki spot n/naka, in Palms, chef Niki Nakayama made drinks from Starwood's prickly pears. At Yapa, a Peruvian-Japanese restaurant in Little Tokyo, her wild cherries became a vibrant sorbet topped with pickled redcurrants. Cooks there also milled flour from her acorns and used it to make pasta.
Many wild foods require extra processing before they're ready for the dinner table. Yapa's head chef, Richard Lopez, says that's what makes these dishes so special. His goal is to create a menu he could have served in California a century ago, before ingredients could be easily flown in from across the world. Lopez calls Starwood's foraging "a huge pillar in this concept [we're] trying to create."
Although wild foods have increasingly appealed to chefs in the past couple decades, foraging is hardly new. The practice precedes modern civilization by millennia and is still a main food source for indigenous communities around the world. For many cultures, there may be no clear distinction between foraged and cultivated foods.
To satisfy American consumers' growing appetite for wild foods, commercial foragers like Starwood might drive hundreds of miles, scramble up the sides of mountains and make their way through dense forests, all while hoping someone doesn't beat them to their favorite patch of ramps or elderberries or porcini mushrooms. The industry has grown so big, competition among foragers can be fierce and has prompted concerns about sustainability.
Foraging has always been tough work but it offers an alternative to people who prefer to spend their days tromping through the woods instead of sitting at a desk. Most foragers don't report to a boss and they get paid by the pound, eliminating race and gender-based wage gaps, at least in theory. During good years, foragers can clear six figures by selling to restaurants and grey-market buyers.
The COVID-19 pandemic shattered all of that.
As restaurants closed or scaled back their menus, foragers across the country saw their wages shrivel up like a chanterelle in the summer sun. But foragers are a resilient bunch, and many saw the virus as a chance to test their self-sufficiency. "It's almost like foragers have been planning for a pandemic their entire lives," Starwood jokes. "Well, I do have a pantry full of [homemade] preserves."
The sentiment is popular among her peers. Mushroom hunters in Northern California, Oregon and upstate New York are selling locally, to their friends and in their communities, or drying their bounties to sell in the fall.
Some foragers, like Pascal Baudar, have turned to Zoom. After stay-at-home orders were issued, Baudar started offering online classes, teaching people to make beer, wine and other fermented items using foraged foods. He says Zoom has allowed him to expand beyond his Southern California audience, giving him "new opportunities to teach and make it viable financially despite the pandemic."
The pandemic also highlights the importance of food justice, especially for Black and brown communities that often struggle to get access to healthy food. Food activist Ron Finley believes cultivating wild foods can help bridge this gap.
"In our community, we don't have any kinds of healthy food," Finley says. "Am I going to wait for you to put it there or am I going to do it myself? That's the lesson: do-for-self, do-for-community."
For Starwood, losing her restaurant clients meant she lost a source of steady income but it also allowed her to broaden her reach. When she and a neighbor started their CSA subscription service, their ultimate goal was to grow and forage enough food to feed their entire street: about 30 homes. That meant a lot of foraging.
Over Memorial Day weekend, she joined dozens of foragers for an annual porcini hunt on Mt. Shasta. They met in the woods, using secret GPS coordinates to find each other. That day, she scored more than a hundred pounds of porcini mushrooms, which she offered at $20/pound for her CSA members.
"I feel like wild foods have turned into gourmet food, and they can be really high-priced," Starwood says. These weekly produce boxes let her offer what she forages and farms at more affordable rates.
It's critical for people to have access to healthy, wild foods, Starwood believes, and CSAs like hers "get it right to the people."
Pivoting her business model also gave her more control over her schedule. She's using the time she spent on weekly restaurant deliveries to write a book: an introductory guide to mushroom foraging.
"We adapt to change," Starwood says, describing herself and her fellow foragers. It seems fitting that the pandemic would also guide the next step in her journey.
Starwood says the current economic uncertainty was the chance she needed to pause and reflect on what's most important to her -- sharing the joy of foraging with people.
Whenever restaurants fully reopen, she's not sure she'll sell to them again. "Chefs seem to be a little more specific about what they want and when," she says. "I'd rather follow nature's abundance."
Starwood's CSA offers pick-ups on Tuesdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Thousand Oaks, at the intersection of Hillcrest & Rancho Roads.
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