Foraged leafy greens are consumed around the globe, including in urban areas, and may play a larger role when food is scarce or expensive. It is thus important to assess the safety and nutritional value of wild greens foraged in urban environments.
Field observations, soil tests, and nutritional and toxicology tests on plant tissue were conducted for three sites, each roughly 9 square blocks, in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the East San Francisco Bay Area in 2014–2015. The sites included mixed-use areas and areas with high vehicle traffic.
Edible wild greens were abundant, even during record droughts. Soil at some survey sites had elevated concentrations of lead and cadmium, but tissue tests suggest that rinsed greens of the tested species are safe to eat. Daily consumption of standard servings comprise less than the EPA reference doses of lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals. Pesticides, glyphosate, and PCBs were below detection limits. The nutrient density of 6 abundant species compared favorably to that of the most nutritious domesticated leafy greens.
Wild edible greens harvested in industrial, mixed-use, and high-traffic urban areas in the San Francisco East Bay area are abundant and highly nutritious. Even grown in soils with elevated levels of heavy metals, tested species were safe to eat after rinsing in tap water. This does not mean that all edible greens growing in contaminated soil are safe to eat—tests on more species, in more locations, and over a broader range of soil chemistry are needed to determine what is generally safe and what is not. But it does suggest that wild greens could contribute to nutrition, food security, and sustainability in urban ecosystems. Current laws, regulations, and public-health guidance that forbid or discourage foraging on public lands, including urban areas, should be revisited.