If you’re accustomed to shelling out big bucks for organic food, remember you can still find it in the ground, in the wild, and free of charge. Once a month Wes Wagar convenes the Foraging Friends, a group of natural foodies and other interested parties, at the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park. From there they carpool to various forest preserves, vacant lots, and sometimes private properties (with the owners’ permission), where they hunt for mustard, garlic, black currants, grapes, mushrooms, nuts, and seeds. They also gather dandelion greens, from the hearty weed now springing up in most Chicago yards, which happens to outweigh even spinach in nutritive value.

The outings originated more than 20 years ago, when Wagar’s friend Lloyd Rich began leading survival trips on which people would eat only what they found. These more intense excursions are currently on hold, but the monthly meetings still give organic fans a chance to look for wild food. “We just go out and identify many different varieties of green stuff and their potential uses,” says Wagar. “We also look at the ecology of the areas a bit, to see how they’re changing.” The biggest change Wagar has seen in the last 20 years is the gradual depletion of the area’s wildlands. As a result not all edibles are up for grabs; some species are protected by state and federal regulations. “If it’s protected, we will just identify it and note its potential uses.”

One favored spot for previous outings has been Busse Woods near Elk Grove Village. “It’s a mature woods and we’ve found some good things there. Usually over 50 percent of the green stuff you see in the wild–and that’s hundreds of species–has uses as either food or medicine, or both,” says Wagar. The foragers typically celebrate with a picnic on the spot, or they may take food home to eat later.

When Wagar isn’t gathering greens, he’s gathering Greens. He’s an editor of the Chicago Greens Calendar and a regional representative on the party’s national committee. He and Rich, another Green, are busy trying to get Ralph Nader on the presidential ballot.

Why bother foraging when you can get all this stuff at Jewel? Mostly to take advantage of the higher nutritional values that accompany true organic food, explains Wagar, and to combat the agribusiness practices and increased genetic engineering that are harming the land.

Foraging Friends Wild Food Ecology Education Outing takes place on the third Saturday of each month, from April through October at Heartland Cafe, 7000 N. Glenwood. This month’s outing is Saturday at 11:45 AM. Participation is free, but gas costs are shared. Call 312-243-5619. –Lisa Phillips

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.