Daylighting the Underground Fruit Economy:
Foraging Goes Live
By Jillian Steinberger
In 2007, a young UC Berkeley graduate student in city planning began a project of charting the food she could see growing in her Oakland (Rockridge) neighborhood. As a recent arrival from the East Coast, Asiya Wadud was especially fascinated by the many fruits that were new to her eyes—things like passionfruit, quince, and tamarillo—many of them going unpicked. She began foraging fruit from public right-of-ways and temporarily abandoned homes, and she knocked on doors to introduce herself to neighbors, many of whom were happy to have the fruit harvested.
In 2008, she migrated the project onto a blog—currently at www.forageoakland.wordpress.com —where she could inform her friends of what she was finding as she rode around on her bike with a fruit picker. More people joined in the harvest and soon Wadud was looking for ways to share the (literal) fruits of her labors. She began to see fruit “as a medium of exchange” in community building, and hoped Forage Oakland would grow and take on a life of its own.
In 2010, Wadud’s efforts came to the attention of Mobile Action Lab (www.mobileapplab.wordpress.com ), a project of Youth Radio, the Oakland-based nonprofit known nationally for its NPR programming. Mobile Action Lab is funded by the National Science Foundation and is a winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Competition. Its mission is to help teens and young adults learn to propose, design, and market apps for smartphone and computer use that serve community needs. The program provides an opportunity for young people, especially low-income youths and youths of color, to network with tech developers, engineers, and entrepreneurs. The youth teams drive projects from brainstorming concepts through to marketing and distribution. They conduct market research and user testing, and design the look and feel of the apps as well as that of their promotional material. The program emphasizes personal engagement with meaningful projects the young people can get behind.
Impressed by Wadud’s Forage Oakland, a project already charged with such meaningful energy, Mobile Action Lab decided to try scaling it up. Now, after two years of development, they are in the final beta-testing phase of a free-to-use Android, iPhone, and web app called Forage City (www.foragecity.com ). Straightforward, simple, and user-friendly, the app seeks to provide people and nonprofit organizations with a way to share and receive bounties of fresh, free food.
“People who are already doing foraging now have a tool to facilitate larger exchanges,” says Wadud. She has moved on to a master’s program at Stanford’s Center for African Studies, but has remained involved in an advisory capacity. “It is a simple but intuitive tool with a large reach.”
“Large reach,” in fact, means much bigger than the city of Oakland. According to Lissa Soep, PhD, Mobile Action Lab’s senior producer and research director, “The app is set up to work anywhere in the United States. Our roll-out strategy is to lead with the Bay Area—we’re reaching out to food equity projects, farmers’ markets, CSAs, food trucks, food banks, grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, and so forth—as our first testers and users, to get the activity up and running here, iterate as needed, and then scale nationally.” She adds, “Today, apps determine who knows what, how news travels and what makes change possible.”
One of the co-founders of the Mobile Action Lab is Asha Richardson, who started working with Youth Radio when she was 16. Now 21 and a senior at Mills College, Richardson has been on the Forage City project from the beginning. “Many students were aware of the lack of access to fresh produce and the overabundance of alcohol in some Oakland neighborhoods. Since developing the app and meeting food justice activists, our team has learned more about the issue. Now, instead of going to the corner store and getting gummy bears and potato chips, people can go online and get some fresh fruit. This is how we’re trying to address food deserts in Oakland.” And then the world—carpe diem!