When Sheila Nemcsok goes for a walk, she sees food all around her.
The Kingston resident has spent years building up a bank of knowledge in edible wild food, and she’s sharing that knowledge with anyone who is interested via her passion project, the Portsmouth Urban Forager.
Nemcsok leads regular walks through Kingston neighbourhoods teaching locals how to safely identify and collect food that is available for the taking.
Now in her mid-40s, Nemcsok says that she has been foraging for food since a young age, but got away from it as she entered adulthood and focused on a career.
“I decided to leave work in my mid-30s to go back to school, and that was economically very difficult, to walk away from a steady income,” she said. “Everywhere I turned, my budget bit hard. In order to control some of my finances, I turned back to foraging as a way to be more economical.”
Nemcsok started gathering large amounts of food that she found in the forest, parklands, wastelands and sidewalk edges.
“I utilized a lot of that type of food to make school more affordable,” she said.
Years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nemcsok started sharing bits of information every few days on a chalk sandwich board outside her home, profiling a plant that’s available in her neighbourhood, and that has a food use — her “pandemic project.”
“Shelves are empty in the grocery store, people are panic-buying, and I realized that a lot of people around me in my community of Kingston don’t know that there’s an alternate way of putting food on their table that is absolutely free,” she said.
In 2022, Nemcsok started posting the information on a Facebook page called the Portsmouth Urban Forager. Then she began offering walks through her neighbourhood.
“I’d advertise them on the Facebook page and people would show up and I’d show people plants in our neighbourhood that people could use,” she said.
Now, Nemcsok has partnered with the Kingston Frontenac Public Library to offer foraging walks, as well as through her Facebook page.
“It seems that the interest in these walks is growing … I think for the same reason I’m motivated to do this,” Nemcsok said. “There are a variety of reasons, but one is that since the pandemic started, there is a greater sense of food insecurity. People want to be more self-sufficient. Another reason is that foraging is an excellent gateway into culinary creativity, culinary flavours and textures that you can’t acquire at any store. It broadens people’s culinary horizons.”
Nemcsok also believes that foraged foods can be higher in nutrients than some grocery store produce.
“When you turn back to original foods that are out in our woods or parks, you get a heavier nutrient load in these plants,” she said.
During her walks, Nemcsok talks to people about not only identifying food, but also how to source food safely.
“I definitely tell people about watching out for areas that have been sprayed. Don’t forage in brown lands or brown spaces. I ensure that as I’m talking to people, I talk about safety, sustainability and ethical foraging. It’s not just whether or not the land has been sprayed — it’s knowing about things like ticks, knowing if you’re on your own in the woods (to) beware of coyotes in a region, making sure you don’t consume something unless you are 100 per cent sure that it’s edible.
“There are also plants that are safe to eat at certain stages of their development, and unsafe at other stages of development. There’s a lot of safety involved in foraging.”
Nemcsok is self-taught in her foraging skills. She’s built her knowledge through attending foraging workshops, reading and re-reading foraging books and even acquiring a certificate from Cornell University in medicinal plants.
“Every year my knowledge of plants grows,” she said.
To those who want to begin foraging for food, Nemcsok urges both curiosity and caution.
“My number one advice is to not harvest a plant until you are sure that it is safe to use,” she said. “Even if you harvest a plant, take it home and look it up, some plants can cause irritation of your skin, or even blindness if you take the juices of that plant and stick them in your eyes. Don’t harvest plants, definitely don’t taste them until you become educated.”
There are many ways to gain that education, she said — from books, websites, online communities and social media pages to working with a mentor.
“My other number one piece of advice for people wanting to get into foraging (is to) stay curious,” she said. “There’s so much to learn about plants.”