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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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In the organization's first year, volunteers gleaned 3,500 pounds from six parties. Last year, the group harvested 15,000 pounds of fruit during 32 parties with the help of 260 people, which means that 11,250 pounds of fruit reached more than 1,500 low-income households. Kolker expects for her organization to host 45 harvest parties and pick 20,000 pounds of fruit this year.

"We've hit on something that has so much interest and so much demand, the challenge is to keep up with the demand and be realistic about our capacity," Kolker said. "Honestly, it's really hard to keep up, especially during the harvesting peak. It's both a blessing and a curse."

Village Harvest shares this conundrum. In 2009, volunteers harvested 173,000 pounds of fruit, gleaned from 500 houses and small orchards. Harvest weight was up 42 percent and properties up 50 percent from the prior year. In California's South Bay, the affable climate and fertile soil sprouts a plethora of fruit trees year-round. Diserens estimates that between 10 and 40 million pounds of fruit go to waste in backyards here. Ideally, his group wants to make even more of that produce available.

"That relates to one of our challenges," Diserens says. "It all relates to growth."

For many organizations, the growth becomes difficult to manage and some groups have capped what they do to 10,000 pounds a year, he says. Because his group calls Silicon Valley home, they've benefited from computer automation behind the scenes that effectively tracks events, trees and volunteers, and makes the group's substantial scale feasible. Meanwhile, the phone rings off the hook, Diserens says, with people all over the West Coast wanting to start a Village Harvest chapter. He's answered calls from as far away as Chile and China.

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

As Diserens says, "The challenge is because it's such a simple idea, the idea is very infectious."

How to Keep it Going

Gleaning organizations keep costs low because they rely heavily on volunteer labor and use existing resources: "The food we're harvesting is there to be harvested," Kolker says. Because Portland's group employs an executive director, rents office space, and runs tree stewardship and education programs, its budget--$60,000 annually--is higher than most other groups.

Village Harvest employs one part-time staff person who works eight hours a week. Stannard coordinates Harvest Sacramento as part of his job with Soil Born Farms, an urban-agriculture project. But he has other responsibilities and can't really commit long-term to managing the group. Stannard's group has applied for grants, but in the meantime, volunteers will assume more responsibility for coordination and outreach efforts.

"While Harvest Sacramento will most likely not fold, we will be required to scale back our coordination and outreach efforts," says Stannard, if the group fails to obtain grant funding. He estimates it will cost between $40,000 to $50,00 to run the program in the future, which includes the salary of a part-time coordinator.

Back in Sacramento, a week after the tree-canvassing event, volunteers gather once again, this time for harvest day. There are 50 volunteers present. Trained leaders grab clipboards and call out group members. Melissa Galante, 29, assembles her group of seven volunteers.

After college, Galante worked on organic farms in Sicily and developed a passion for social justice. Now, she earns a living as a social worker.

"I like not letting fruit go to waste," Galante says. "We have so many trees in our city. I like feeling a sense of community and being outdoors after having to work in an office during the week. It's a good service to homeowners and it's great that the fruit is going to the food bank."

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