The Professional Wild Food Community and Covid-19: The use of online platforms in supporting people to access alternative food sources.
By Dr Leanne Townsend, James Hutton Institute (& AoF Member).
This paper reflects on the response of the professional wild food community in the UK to lockdown measures during Covid-19. It explores the rapid adaptation of the community towards providing (mostly free of charge) online support via various social media platforms and using various communication tools. This support is aimed at providing high quality information on how to safely forage for wild foods in rural and urban environments. The paper considers the reasons for increased interest amongst the general public in foraging for wild foods during Covid-19. It reflects on motivations for wild food professionals to provide free online education, and the longer-term impacts on their economic viability once lockdown has been lifted, considering bridging social capital as one positive outcome of these support activities. It frames wild food as an alternative local food system with potential for increasing the resilience of local communities in times of uncertainty.
Foraging; wild food; professional community; online education; local food.
The extent to which foraging and wild food is locally embedded in cultural practices varies globally. In some cultures, wild foods form a staple part of the diet (Luczaj 2020); in others, wild food knowledge and practices have been lost over time. In the UK indigenous knowledge of wild food is limited, yet foraging is an increasingly popular activity, popularised by a drive for outdoor pursuits, an increasingly foodie culture and the practices of fine dining restaurants, celebrity chefs and local food movements (de Jong and Varley 2017). Foraging embodies the values of diverse cultural groups in the UK. It reflects a desire to get closer to nature, and to source more nutritious, gourmet and sustainable food. Foraging is largely considered a sustainable practice which celebrates local produce, promotes wellbeing and creates custodians of natural habitats.
The increasing interest in foraging and wild food supports a growing community of professional foragers and wild food specialists in the UK and globally. These specialists engage in a range of economic activities which deliver wild food education, products and services. The majority of wild food professionals are engaged in teaching – typically in the form of courses in which clients join a group and explore rural (and sometimes urban) natural habitats, learning how to identify edible wild plants and fungi, as well as learning which plants and fungi to avoid. These courses often also include a small meal at the end which showcases how to prepare wild foods in various dishes, as well as how to preserve one’s harvest in various ways (dehydration, pickling, fermenting, alcohol and so on). Other wild food professionals run themed workshops (for example, making gin with wild botanicals, making ferments with wild plants etc.) as well as dining events such as pop-up supper clubs. A smaller number of wild food professionals produce drinks such as specialist gins and liqueurs, sell preserves, and supply fresh wild plants and fungi (typically to restaurants).
Research to date on foraging and wild food practices is somewhat limited, tending to fall under the general area of “Non-Timber Forest Products” or NTFPs (even though not all wild food comes from forests) which encompasses food, medicine and crafts among others. Much of this work is concerned with ecological implications, both positive and negative (e.g. see Ticktin 2004) and the economics of commercialising wild foods (e.g. see Zhu et al. 2019). Whilst a valuable body of work has arisen in the field of NTFPs, a focus on “product” arguably misses the importance of the more social and psychological aspects of foraging, such as values connected with nature connectedness, wellbeing and sourcing local food.
This paper reflects on the response of the professional foraging community to Covid-19. It explores how members of the community have adapted their practices (largely online), to support people in safely accessing wild food resources. The paper considers what this means for the long-term sustainability of these businesses, bearing in mind that this online support is being offered free of charge in many cases. The paper explores the concept of wild food as an alternative local food system and considers the reasons for its boom in popularity during lockdown measures in Covid-19.
As well as being a social scientist engaged in research around wild food practices and cultures, the author is also a wild food professional. She runs a small business offering foraging courses and workshops, and is involved with several local, regional and national food-based festivals and events. This position gives the author a unique viewpoint (as both researcher and researched) into the world of wild food. She is a member of the Association of Foragers – an organisation representing wild food professionals globally. She is well embedded in local and online wild food networks which communicate via a number of social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The author therefore acknowledges a bias, most notably in the sense that she is embedded in that which she reflects on in the paper – practices which she tends to view in a positive light. On this understanding, she has tried to be as objective as it is possible to be when discussing one’s own practices. As noted by Mason (2002), with careful reflection it is possible to develop methodologically sound practices of “self research”, though in this paper the author focuses more centrally on the practices of others in the wider professional community, even where these might be relevant to her own practices.
Method and ethics
This paper does not reflect on primary research. Instead, it is a commentary paper, which describes responses to Covid-19 amongst a particular community of practice. Despite this, the paper presents insights garnered from the author’s privileged position as a member of these online communities. It can therefore be considered “netnographic” in the sense that it is a form of online ethnographic observation. In order to ensure ethical considerations are met for publishing these reflections, the paper follows the framework developed by Townsend and Wallace (2002). Reflections are based on discussions witnessed on Facebook and Instagram. The paper presents these observations but does not provide quotations (which can lead back to an online profile and compromise anonymity). Nor does the paper cite business or individual names. A research-based publication will follow in the coming months when netnographic research can be carried out in-depth online, when implications of Covid-19 on the professional wild food community are better understood.
The Professional Wild Food Community: Adopting a New Approach
During March 2020, most foraging instructors in the UK had begun to schedule their courses for the year. Some instructors had already begun to run some early spring courses – typically those in the south of the UK, where plants tend to be in season earlier. As Covid-19 impacts began to unravel but before lockdown had been imposed by the Government, wild food professionals were already realising that they would need to cancel or reschedule these courses as a matter of social responsibility. Most instructors then offered their clients a choice: either to be in credit for a place on a future course, or to have a refund. In most cases, clients who had already booked onto (and therefore paid for) courses chose to accept the offer of a place on a future course, rather than requesting a refund. Instructors were then left without the means to take further bookings on courses, and therefore to make money during lockdown measures – without any certainty on when they would be able to take bookings again. The Government soon announced its scheme to support businesses, though this would only be a reassurance to those individuals working more formally as registered businesses. It is important to mention that amongst the professional wild food community, some individuals work full time in wild food, whereas others have additional jobs or careers, and therefore have alternative sources of income.
At this time, wild food professionals were faced with a choice. Take a break in activities, or find new ways to offer their services.
A surge in interest in wild food
At the same time, social media (Instagram feeds, Facebook wild food groups) saw a surge in interest in wild food – in some cases with individuals without proper training delving into the plants and fungi of their local landscapes. This activity can be witnessed on Instagram (through searching relevant hashtags such as “foraging” and “wildfood”) and Facebook in a large number of wild food-related groups, such as “UK Wild Food Larder” (note, as an ethical measure only public online groups are named, which do not require membership approval to gain access). An increase in activity was also seen on the Facebook group “Poisons Help: Emergency Identification for Mushrooms and Plants”. This group was set up by plant and fungi experts with the goal of helping individuals (as well as medics and vets) to identify plants and fungi that have been consumed by adults, children and animals. The group itself is a great example of a specialist community giving a great deal of their spare time to support others with no financial gain for themselves – the experts running the group span the globe with expertise covering a vast range of plant and fungi species. Since Covid-19 lockdown measures the group has seen a rise in the number of posts of individuals consuming unknown plants and fungi – in some cases with worrying symptoms (though no fatalities have been observed through the group since lockdown measures began).
Why the increased interest in wild food? It’s important to bear in mind that the professional wild food community have a strong online presence – like others working in the food industry, they are keen to create a strong profile for themselves, and a positive image for foraging and foragers. Self-promotion through social media platforms is a crucial aspect of building a wild food business – bookings for courses, workshops and other events come largely through one’s social media followers. So foraging and wild food was already visible to the many people who follow wild food accounts online. Further, a number of chefs and bartenders, given more time during lockdown to spend in their gardens and nearby natural spaces, and less access to other gourmet ingredients, have taken to incorporating more wild foods into dishes and drinks. These creations are made at home, rather than in their place of work, but nonetheless are a means of promoting both their own profile and that of the restaurant, bar or hotel in which they work. These chefs and bartenders often have large followings online too, hence raising the profile of wild food and foraging further.
People have also taken the opportunity to access nature during their allotted daily exercise sessions. For some, this means a local park or woodland, with others straying no further than their back gardens. Given the lack of personal freedoms in other respects, the chance to spend time outdoors engaging in meaningful activity is positive in terms of both physical and mental wellbeing (something that the wild food community have been keen to stress for many years). For those individuals who were unable to work from home, and therefore furloughed, wild food and foraging has provided an interesting and enjoyable way to spend time.
It’s also important to note that for some, lockdown during Covid-19 has been a time of uncertainty and stress. Financial difficulties are a reality for the many households who did not qualify for the Government support schemes. For these people, the chance to access free food which is high in nutrition is an opportunity to protect their food security during this period. Although foraged foods are rarely substantial enough to form the mainstay of one’s diet, many are higher in nutrients than cultivated foods, and can therefore boost a nutrient-poor diet. Finally, there are those who have taken pains to minimise or even avoid their visits to supermarkets and smaller stores. Given the difficulty in obtaining slots for online delivery, these people have also been keen to find alternative means of accessing food.
Wild food professionals adapting to become online educators
Given the surge in interest in wild food including people without the correct knowledge taking risks around toxicity, wild food professionals quickly adapted their role to that of online educators. Although many of these professionals were already very prolific online, many became much more active in terms of the amount of educational content they were posting on social media platforms. This period has seen wild food professionals embracing all manner of online communication tools to get good quality educational information out to a large number of people. These tools have included videos (videos on Facebook, and videos in “Stories” and on “Instagram TV” or IGTV on Instagram), and even live videos on Instagram where viewers are able to type in questions which are answered in real time. Zoom (an online meeting place similar to Skype) has been used to provide online training to people in place of face-to-face foraging courses. A new group has been started on Facebook to encourage children (along with caregivers) to engage with wild food, with membership growing extremely rapidly, and with wild food professionals taking time to create engaging activities for children to enjoy and boost their learning about plants and wild food. Foraging instructors in some cases have started a wild food mentorship scheme, with a pay as you are able structure. Furthermore, a subgroup of the Association of Foragers quickly developed a paper-based magazine to help people to learn how to safely forage in their own neighbourhoods. One interesting adaptation is that two gin producers (both of whom use largely wild botanicals in their products) have switched to producing alcohol-based handwash during Covid-19.
Given the crossover between herbalism and wild food foraging, there has also been a small movement towards providing medicinal advice around wild herbs and their potential to protect against Covid-19. Wild food professionals have typically approached this with some caution however, as it is widely understood that irresponsible (or unqualified) medical advice around natural herbs can lead to undesired health outcomes.
This rapid adaptation echoes a similar trend seen amongst local food producers, restaurants and so on, which have rapidly switched into online order/home delivery mode for some of their products and services. Further, these food businesses are in some cases collaborating with foragers to adapt their services. This is just one example of how wild food practices can contribute to alternative local food systems, and build resilience in local communities in uncertain times.
Outcomes for wild food professionals.
It’s important to note than for the most part, these activities have been offered at no cost to online audiences, or wild food “learners” – although in some cases, more comprehensive online courses and tutoring have been offered for a fee. It therefore begs the question what is the motivation for wild food professionals to offer up these services, which are time consuming to develop and deliver? As far as the Association of Foragers is concerned, members share a common vision to encourage more people to connect with nature through the means of wild food – the tagline for the Association is “Restoring Vital Connection”. Certainly, most foragers share this value, and their work is often motivated by it. Bringing more people to wild food may therefore be reward enough for many wild food professionals.
Although these activities for the most part do not lead to income for the wild food professionals, increased social media activity (particularly where this proves useful for audiences) inevitably leads to a bigger following (more likes on posts and videos, more followers overall) – which in turn leads to a stronger profile and a more well-known name. This itself can bring about other opportunities (for example, invitations to contribute writing to press, opportunities to do television and radio interviews, proposals to collaborate with others), essentially building bridging social capital (the strength of building weak online ties is powerful for small-scale businesses, as discussed in Townsend et al. 2016). It is this potential of online networks for wild food professionals which has also potentially motivated these educational activities. Wild food professionals will need to hit the ground running when all of this is over – the greater the interest in their work with wild food, the more opportunities for them to return to economic activity once Covid-19 lockdown measures are lifted.
Acknowledgement and declaration:
This paper and associated observational research was carried out in the author’s own time, and is not associated with any funding source. The author will not receive any financial benefit from the publishing of this work.
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