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Urban Harvesters Scavenge Backyards to Feed the Hungry

The idea is so simple: Trees produce more food than people can eat. Most of the fruit goes to waste. Get the food and donate it to those in need.

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A Good Idea Gets Rolling

In 2001, a woman named Joni Diserens founded Village Harvest in San Jose, Calif. The group now conducts fruit-gleaning events throughout the Bay Area, providing produce to food banks that serve an average of 207,000 clients monthly, 79 percent of which are families with children and seniors.

"I think of this as one of the most prosperous areas of the world," says volunteer (and Joni's husband) Craig Diserens. Turns out, however, that 8 to 10 percent of the area's population receives food assistance, including people on fixed incomes and working families struggling to make ends meet.

"That was a huge education for me," Diserens says. "It gives meaning to what we do."

Village Harvest identifies homes with fruit trees and assigns volunteer teams, who visit five or six houses during a harvest event (PDF), each of which takes about three hours. Volunteers pocket bruised produce that will likely spoil in a few days. Otherwise, all of the usable produce goes to food-assistance agencies.

"A harvest day can be an incredibly satisfying morning," Diserens says. "Getting together with a bunch of volunteers, that's a blast, arriving at the homes and seeing the citrus trees. Then we strip that tree and turn it into food for people. We get to see the whole cycle."

The group has 900 active volunteers, some who come out 50 times a year. A couple thousand homeowners and properties have registered their trees, and the group will host nearly 300 events in 2010. Village Harvest teaches volunteers how to use home-grown fruit to create jams and other preserved foods; in fact, in the early years, the organization sustained itself solely through the sale of volunteer-made preserves at farmer's markets and crafts fairs, and through Web sites. Nowadays, private contributions fund the organization.

"Overall, the organization is surviving and thriving, and has such a large base of volunteers and homeowners. That's terrific," Diserens says.

Since its start, the group has supplied 2.3 million servings of food. Weather and crops permitting, the organization expects to reach a milestone this year of harvesting a total of one million pounds since its humble beginning.

Village Harvest's model differs slightly from the Portland Fruit Tree Project, which a handful of neighbors started informally in the northeast area of the city in 2006. Interest quickly spread and the group formed a legitimate non-profit in 2007 and hired co-founder Katy Kolker as a full-time employee. Half of the produce goes home with volunteers and the rest to local food banks; 50 percent of volunteer spots are reserved for low-income people, which means the majority of fruit goes to those in need.

Kolker, a Baltimore-native, moved to Portland eight years ago and has spent her time in the Pacific Northwest working in the field of sustainable agriculture. Before that, she studied biology and environmental studies in college, which sparked her interest in eventually working to improve people's access to healthy food. Soon, she noticed an abundance of fruit trees decorating her city.

"There was an invaluable resource around our city that was going to waste," Kolker says. "I wanted to bridge that gap."

Portland Fruit Tree Project's database boasts more than 500 trees and 260 tree owners, but by next week those numbers will once again grow. And there's a waiting list of volunteers eager to participate in "harvest parties."

The organization offers educational programs as well, including pruning, preserving, freezing, canning and fruit-drying workshops. Volunteers also teach tips for increasing the productivity of trees, and managing pests and disease. The group will soon plant a garden to demonstrate home-scale organic food production in space outside its office building.

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