Food Forward gleans an orange grove. Alternative Apparel/Stephen Zeigler

Organizations across North America are reclaiming a bounty of fresh fruit

On an overcast Sunday in September, Laura Reinsborough peers up into a gnarled apple tree behind a century-old red brick Victorian in downtown Toronto.

“Hmm,” she muses, “not a whole lot of fruit…”

Reinsborough is the founder and executive director of Not Far From the Tree (NFFTT), a three-year-old urban gleaning group that dispatches platoons of volunteers to collect fruit – apples, pears, plums, cherries and various species of berries – from hundreds of privately-owned trees in backyards. Last year, the group harvested almost 20,000 pounds from 228 trees, with the fruit divided evenly between the pickers, homeowners and local food banks.

On this day, she’s accompanying six people who’ve turned up to gather green apples from three trees. She runs through the rules – only climb a ladder if you have a spotter, don’t use any fruit that’s touched the ground – yet it’s clear that today’s pick will be over quickly: there are only a handful of apples still hanging from the lower limbs. The 2011 harvest, she remarks, has been disappointing due to a wet spring; as with any farming operation, the weather always has the final say.

NFFTT is just one of a rapidly growing number of such groups that have sprung up in North American cities in recent years, attracting thousands of volunteers as well as homeowners eager to have someone cart away excess fruit that pile up in the yard. The organizers are motivated by a recognition that enormous amounts of fruit routinely goes to waste in urban backyards, leaving behind a rotting mess. “Many homeowners are at their wit’s end when they contact us,” says Reinsborough. “It’s a hassle to have an un-harvested tree [on your property].”

But interest is driven by broader community considerations. Gleaning groups give some or all of the produce to local social agencies, thus blurring the crisp line between private asset and public amenity. Some forge connections with cultural activities (e.g. Fallen Fruit in Los Angeles, a collective that combines gleaning and performance art) while others are linked to programs geared at street youth, refugees or migrant workers.

Many also emerged from the food security movement of recent years. “We don’t have to ship apples from China,” says Amy Beaith, a librarian who founded Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton two years ago. “There’s so much we can grow in our own climate.” Indeed, Reinsborough notes that such programs mesh seamlessly with the informal food economy that has always existed in big cites in the form of traded backyard veggies and homemade wine. “I love how underground this is,” she says. NFFTT, in fact, deliberately avoids calculating the commercial value of the fruit it has collected. “There’s something really special about it not being quantified.

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Interestingly, many of North America’s urban gleaning programs took root within the last three or four years, often founded by individuals with neither agricultural nor social service experience.

Rick Nahmias, founder of L.A.’s two-and-a-half-year-old Food Forward,  never expected to be at the helm of a major urban gleaning project when he and a couple of volunteers decided to collect ten crates of tangerines from a neighbor’s property and donate them to charity. But he came by his interest honestly: a photographer, Nahmias had been taking images of California migrant farm workers and saw the “cruel irony” that many couldn’t afford to eat the food they were harvesting.

He decided to focus on an area of the San Fernando Valley that once sustained thousands of acres of citrus groves. Those farms are gone, but many residential properties still have orange, tangerine, and lemon trees. Since launching, Food Forward grew quickly, and has now delivered 2.2 million servings of fruit to a network of about 20 local food banks and pantries. “We have an embarrassment of abundance,” Nahmias observes, adding that his volunteers are attracted by the immediacy of their work. “At the end of the day, there’s a huge pile of fruit. You can see the results very quickly. That’s very rewarding.”

Similar groups have formed in other West Coast cities like San Francisco and Portland, but projects have also sprouted in more climatically challenged regions, such as Las Vegas/Clark County, home base to Project AngelFaces, a 6-year-old group that combines gleaning and gardening programs for at-risk youth. The arid valley, says founder Rhonda Killough, contains a surprising amount of arable land suitable for figs, pomegranates, and almonds. “We can literally pick all year round.”

In Tucson, meanwhile, Barbara Eiswerth manages Iskashitaa, a gleaning program geared at the city’s growing population of refugees from Somalia, Iraq, and sub-Saharan Africa. She started the project four years ago after returning from a stint in Malawi doing graduate fieldwork. Struck by North American over-consumption, Eiswerth hired local youth to map local food resources in four Tucson neighborhoods. When a colleague suggested she involve refugees – there are about 8,000-10,000 in Tucson – Eiswerth saw an opportunity to use gleaning as a way to bridge diverse cultures. “Food is a wonderful way to welcome them into the country.”

She recruits volunteers through local settlements organizations, and the refugee volunteers use some of the fruit to improve their household diets and overall health. A good portion of the harvest goes to food banks serving the broader Tucson community. “They’re giving back as soon as they get here.”

Eiswerth points out that even in less abundant regions, there are almost always sources of potentially viable produce, beginning with local pumpkin patches that invariably have surpluses after Halloween. “Afghanis,” she recounts, “can cook a delicious meal from jack o' lanterns.” Iskashitaa, in fact, has compiled recipes for pumpkin seeds as a resource for other gleaning groups.

But the runaway popularity of the urban fruit-picking movement has brought its own challenges. Some groups have too many volunteers and not enough trees, while others can’t keep up with demand from homeowners. The growth also brings logistical and administrative challenges, such as the need for harvesting equipment and storage facilities. “We’ve grown to the point where we need the community to contribute so we can carry on,” says Eiswerth.

Groups like NFFTT have attracted funding from public agencies and foundations. Others, like OFRE in Edmonton, have begun hosting neighborhood canning parties for the volunteers, with some of the preserves and ciders sold at local farmer’s markets to generate a bit of revenue.

After two years of dizzying growth, Rick Nahmias wonders whether the gleaning movement will prove to be sustainable over the long-run. But he’s certain about one point: that his volunteers have had their eyes opened to food waste in L.A.’s far-flung neighborhoods. “They wince when they drive by a home where the lawn is covered with rotting lemons.”

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