Technically, foraging for food in New York City is illegal. After the public-park-picking trend started to grow in the early 2010s, the city stepped up efforts to end the practice. It claimed people looking for food growing in the wild could harm the landscape and unwittingly expose themselves to harmful contaminants or mistakenly pick poison plants.

Since 2016, however, the practice of foraging has come back to the Big Apple, but in a very different way.

A floating food forest

Swale is basically a barge filled with foliage. It began appearing at piers around the city last year. The idea was started by Mary Mattingly, an environmental artist who has collaborated on floating, sustainability-focused projects before.

The concept is straightforward: Members of the public can board the barge and harvest food from all the edible plants that grow onboard. The foragers’ targets include apples, plums, berries, greens such as kale, herbs like mint and oregano, wild yams, onions and a variety of other edibles, all native to New York.

The barge’s operating budget comes from grants, sponsors and support from the city’s park authorities, but not admission fees. That’s right — it is completely free to come aboard and forage for food. (However, it is closed for the winter.)

How does the barge get around NYC’s foraging restrictions? Picking wild food on city land is illegal. Swale’s loophole is that technically it is on water, and therefore not covered under the law as currently written.

A new solution for food deserts?

Woman looks at berries on board a food barge Foraging for berries aboard Swale food barge. (Photo: Noya Fields/Flickr)

New York City has some of the country’s largest urban food deserts. In fact, Swale’s first port of call was the pier at Concrete Plant Park in the South Bronx, which is in the middle of the city’s widest food desert. (Food deserts are areas where people do not have access to fresh produce). The usual solution has been the establishment of community gardens. There are around 600 in NYC.

Swale is something different. First of all, Swale uses permaculture techniques rather than regular gardening or agriculture methods. This means that the foods on the barge grow sustainably and naturally in this particular part of the country. In addition, as a New York Times article on Swale points out, community gardens are generally open to anyone living nearby who wants to participate. But they are not always accessible by members of the general public.

This is an important distinction because one of Swale’s main goals is to “to address food as a commons in public space.”

Teaching new skills

While free foraging and permaculture are interesting ways to address food deserts, Swale has an eye on the big picture. Like Mattingly’s previous water-based project, Swale is a model of sustainability. It relies solely on solar power, and irrigation comes from rainwater and recycled water. There is even a powerful filtration system that can make the city’s brackish (and polluted) river water fit for irrigation if needed.

But the amount of food produced on the barge, about 400 pounds annually, is not enough to provide produce for one person for a year. So the real goal is to promote better understanding of foraging.

The organizers believe that the reasons foraging was banned in the city can be addressed through education and awareness. When it comes to safety, Swale’s website says, “the benefits of free access to local greens, berries and herbs outweigh potential risks involved with foraging, and…these potential risks can all be mitigated by educational initiatives.”

One of the main dangers of foraging is not being able to tell the difference between edible and inedible plants. Swale tries to address this with regular workshops and staff on the barge who help visitors if they do not know what to pick. Swale’s organizers are also seeking to ease the use of herbicides and other potentially toxic materials public parks landscaping and eventually to place signage near edible plants in parklands.

More than just a valuable source of free produce, Swale is aiming high to transform awareness and stewardship of common land in one of the world’s biggest urban environments.