Wild Eating: Bringing Food Production Back to Nature

Final Report for YENC12-038

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2012: $1,895.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Manager:
Laura Worstell
Scattering Fork Outdoor Center
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Project Information




In the late 60’s as a 4-H Outdoorsman project leader, I encouraged preteens and teens to learn to use woodlands for possible food sources as well as family camping fun.

For nine years from 1990 to 2001 we held a half-day summer school for the Mexico Public Schools for 3rd through 5th grade students at Scattering Fork Outdoor Center (SFOC). The science-based curriculum included learning to enjoy foods from the woods such as spring beauty root bulbs, cattail roots, wild onions and dandelion leaves.

In late May, for the past six years SFOC has held Wild Edibles, a free program for families to learn to identify, taste, and enjoy leaves, roots, flowers, and fruits growing in our woods and along our trails. They also take home recipes for future use. This event has drawn participants from as far away as Willow Springs in south Missouri to St. Louis in eastern Missouri from our listing in the Community Events Calendar in Rural Missouri.


Students will learn to grow 18 species of plants, how to keep those plants healthy and improve their own healthy by eating wild (natural) foods. Participants will learn how soil, plants, and people are all living parts of a natural system which can work together to benefit their community. Students will learn how one plot of land can produce multiple crops which interact in mutually beneficial ways. They will also learn how they can help each other create healthier lifestyles through working and learning together as a team.

Students will acquire both tacit and formal knowledge about wild foods and food production. Many of the skills acquired to produce food require knowledge which cannot be obtained from books. The young participants will learn to efficiently use a shovel, rake, and hoe so they will not become frustrated when producing their own food. They will also learn how to distinguish different species of plants, different soil types, and water needs which can only be accomplished though personal experience with living plants and soils.

Most SFOC students will not become farmers but all can grown and harvest natural foods. They will learn how their health and happiness can improve by getting outdoors, working the soils and collecting and eating wild fruits, nuts, and berries, and will help meet our goal of a healthier, happier community.

The skills these students learn will impact their neighborhoods in Mexico as well as outlying communities with their pride in what they have learned and use which encourages others of their extended families and friends to enjoy the healthful benefits of wild foods. Ultimately our goal is accomplished.


This SARE education grant grew out of the need we saw in young people in our area to learn that the outdoors has many, many healthy, good tasting fruits, nuts, flowers, leaves, and seeds they might learn to plant, care for, and harvest for themselves and their families. Youth will become lifelong advocates of eating tasty wild and natural foods when they have the opportunity to develop and use their own skills and knowledge while planting and gathering these foods for themselves and their families.

We chose a group of 7, 8, and 9 year olds from a local city-based 4-H club led by a parent educator from the Mexico School District. We had to begin with the fundamentals of clearing a specified area, planting 18 Missouri native species of trees, shrubs, and edible flowers with follow-up care and mulching.

Members of the Scattering Fork Outdoor Center staff were joined by members of the local Master Gardeners and Mexico Federated Garden Club to teach the boys and girls these basic skills in three after-school sessions. The 4-H club met weekly on Thursday so this was the preferred time for them.

The first session on March 21, 2012 was devoted to leaning how to use rakes, shovels, and spades to prepare the site for their wild edible garden. They also learned the requirements for minimal shade, well-drained soil, and soil organic matter for the different trees, shrubs, and perennials they were going to plant.

April 11, 2012, the club members learned the depth needed for each of the trees and shrubs as they dug the holes and planted the native paw paw, wild plum, elderberry, persimmon, blackberry, serviceberry, red mulberry, choke cherry, golden currant, and black cherry from the Wild Edible bundle we ordered from the Missouri Department of Conservation nursery at Licking, Missouri. We planned the area in the front for the students to transplant spring beauty, violets, and wild strawberries and let the dandelions grow in there also. Wild grapes, walnuts, and Shagbark Hickories were already flourishing in the woods around this area. (One boy decided he now could take advantage of the free tree seedlings the City of Mexico gives out on Earth Day to plant one in his own yard. He was going to borrow his grandmother’s shovel.)

With this diversity of types of plants, it was easy for them to conclude there is always something edible and tasty in the woods.

The third session on April 25th provided more hands-on learning as they weeded, mulched, and watered their plantings. They also harvested lambs’ quarter and dandelion leaves for salads and tasted violet jelly made from violet blossoms – food not from the grocery store they could have at home.

Scattering Fork was very appreciative of the Master Gardeners and Garden Club members who gave up their afternoons to share their expertise to help these students learn so much.

In the spring of 2013 we had to replace several trees and shrubs because of the severe drought the summer before and will have to do so again in 2014 for the same reason. We are mulching again this year (2014) and including walkways around the various plants for those who visit during our family days (Wildflower Walks, Wild Edibles and Grandparents Day.) we are also now adding permanent steel identification stakes to help the general public know just what each plant is even when not producing fruits or nuts at that time. (Plastic and wood stakes degrade.)


Daniel Nunnelly, the parent educator from the Mexico Public Schools and leader of this 4-H club organized the parents of the boys and girls for transportation to Scattering Fork each of the Thursday afternoon sessions and worked with them each time. He has always been an advocate for these students and will be bringing them back to SFOC this spring to check on their endeavor.

Laura Pitts, president of the Federated Garden Club, and fellow member Nell Mackey, along with Sui Priest and LaVerne Flatt, members of the Audrain County Master Gardeners showed the students how to clear an area, dig the correct holes, plant the trees, shrubs, and flowers and mulch the young seedlings. They also donated cookies and kool-aid for snacks.

Mary Soba, Director of the Audrain County Extension service in Mexico gave advice on much of what we were undertaking.

Mary Worstell, from Columbia College trained the SFOC staff who worked with the boys and girls each session.

The Missouri Department of Conservation at Licking, MO sent detailed requirements for each of the seedlings we ordered in 2012, the replacements in 2013 and again this year.


This project is socially responsible and ecologically sound. These youth come from a lower-income area of town. Their leader feels they have many possibilities and are easily excited about new projects. Most of the wild edibles they planted here were quite tasty, could be grown in their backyards, and we encouraged them to take on a growing project of their own, as one boy did when he planned to get a free tree from the city on Earth Day and plant it at his home. A girl said now she could help her grandmother plant her garden now that she knew how. Small starts and Daniel, their leader, have encouraged them to all try planting something. Supplementing their food budget even in a small way would be quite beneficial in these times. Most of them may have dandelions, lambs’ quarter and/or violets growing freely in their yard or in a relative’s yard.

Every session involved walking to the site and 1 ½ hours of physical work to complete what was planned for them. Only one student misses one of the three sessions and that was because of his asthma.

At our annual Wild Edibles Day we hold in late May each year, we have many questions about how could they grow what we have here as a result of seeing the Wild Eating Area and the surrounding woods.

An unexpected but really interesting result has been the interest these plantings in Wild Eating Area have on the groups of low ropes challenge participants who pass these plantings located on one of the primary trails to the low ropes events. The Wild Eating Area sign creates questions and the SFOC staff, which accompanies each group, answer those questions ranging from are these really edible to do you care if we taste them? Each year some 400 to 500 people take that trail to some of the low rope events.


It was easier to set up and carry out this project than we thought. The 4H leader was so interested in helping his kids learn and try new things. He went out of his way to organize their travel from town and parents to accompany them. The Garden Club and Master Gardener members are so full of knowledge, very eager to encourage all ages – especially kids – to learn to love plants, and do give of their time freely. We are pleased with the outcome.

I would have liked to include the YMCA after school program but the interest just isn’t there. This was a unique project because we had the room to designate an area for a permanent wild edibles site, develop it with a group of elementary students who learned to clear, plant, and care for it. Now it is available to the public during the summer at special events days and does so intrigue several hundred low ropes challenge course participants throughout the spring, summer and fall while they are here at Scattering Fork Outdoor Center.

This might be adapted through a community garden program or a city parks department.


The local newspaper, the Mexico Ledger, featured our project with a news story and pictures of the 4-Hers at work planting the trees.

I also gave a PowerPoint presentation at the NCR-SARE Farmers Forum on November 2, 2012 in Columbia, Missouri on Wild Eating: bringing food production back to nature. A video of this presentation can be viewed online through NCR-SARE's YouTube channel. Copy the following URL and paste it into your browser to view the video:

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Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.