Project aims to lure locavores to the wild side

Could your meals benefit from a walk on the wild side? A collaborative project between researchers and extension educators seeks to lure locavores to the piers and public hunting lands of the Finger Lakes region.

Wild species are often healthier options, as they tend to have less fat and higher mineral content than their farm-raised equivalents. But most people don’t realize that, due to a significant information gap within nutritional databases of wild foods abundant in New York state. Senior extension associate Keith Tidball, associate professor of natural resources Paul Curtis, and Moira Tidball, a nutrition resource educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) in Seneca County, are working to change that.

The team has been collecting samples of local fish and game and analyzing their nutritional content for submission to the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, which is used in food policy, research and nutrition monitoring. The first addition is New York’s state fish, the brook trout. The Canada goose and ruffed grouse, also known as “road chicken,” will soon follow.

“We actually had trouble getting samples of ruffed grouse – it’s so coveted by hunters, they’d rather eat it than donate it to science,” Moira Tidball said.

The data was collected as part of a study to be published this fall in Ecology of Food and Nutrition, in which the team found that only 38 percent of the 42 species legal to hunt in New York have nutritional information listed in the USDA database.

The project complements a related CCE initiative, Wild Harvest Table, which seeks to bolster food and nutritional security by increasing consumption of wild fish and game.

“In addition to white-tailed deer, turkeys and rabbits, we have fantastic fisheries, and not just in the lakes and streams – small, private ponds can be a good source of wild fish,” Curtis said.

The team will be tapping into the locavore movement to answer key research questions such as what motivates people to eat wild fish and game, and how they learn about processing and preparing wild foods. The project aims to link consumption and conservation: As people learn about connections between food and the environment, Moira Tidball hopes support for habitat conservation and outdoor recreation will grow.

“Many locavores may not have grown up with hunters or fishermen in the family, or their fishing skills may be rusty,” Keith Tidball said. “For them to branch out into fishing and hunting, they often need an introduction.”

CCE is providing such information online and in person.

A July “Panfish to Plate” fishing workshop held in Waterloo, N.Y., attracted more than 20 participants. They learned the basics of fishing – from tying knots to casting with rod and reel – as well as filleting and panfrying, health advisories, fish conservation and identification, and fishing regulations.

“Many of the attendees were people wanting to remember the fishing skills that they had forgotten from their childhood,” said CCE summer intern Rachel Blomberg ’14, who helped organize the event. “The group also included young kids just getting into fishing and moms wanting to learn ways to feed their family healthy, sustainable food.”

The Wild Harvest Table website includes information on what’s in season, nutritional data, and a collection of recipes that showcase the versatility of wild game, including venison summer sausage with cheese and jalapeno peppers, bass tacos and squirrel fricassee.

This research was partially supported by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station’s Hatch Act funds and Smith-Lever funds from CCE.

Amanda Garris, Ph.D. ’04, is the agricultural experiment stations communications officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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Joe Schwartz