Food

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.

Randy Stannard issues a warning to first-time harvesters: Participate in a community fruit-gleaning event, and suddenly, fruit trees will seem to surround you. You'll notice only the fruit trees in your neighborhood. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of them, just waiting for their bounty to be picked. And you won't feel content until every last edible piece of produce sits in your bucket.

Matt Jurach, a gung-ho harvester, knows this feeling well. Under a bright sun on a warm Saturday morning in February, he role-plays for the rest of the group, explaining how to best approach homeowners who, like his dad, might be protective of their fruit trees. Jurach has volunteered at five fruit-harvesting events in the past year and knows what he's talking about.

"I'm such a sucker for efficiency," Jurach explains later. "It kills me to see all the effort people put into a tree and it produces all this fruit, then it falls onto the ground and rots. It's understandable, because we're busy people. But when you have a group, we complete the last step."

That last step involves salvaging excess produce from abandoned orchards and residential backyards, and donating the fruit to local food-assistance programs, helping to alleviate food insecurity and provide a substitute for unhealthy processed, canned or packaged food typically supplied to those in need.

On this Saturday, 25 volunteers assemble as part of Harvest Sacramento's tree-canvassing event, where they will spend the next four hours walking among the bungalows and Tudor houses in an affluent neighborhood, collecting names and addresses of residents willing to share the fruit hanging from their trees. The non-profit group touts more than 100 homes in its database and more homeowners contact them daily.

"It's already more than we can handle," says Stannard, the group's co-organizer. Harvest Sacramento has no funding, but it has the willingness of volunteers eager to help fight hunger in California's "City of Trees."

The previous month, 65 volunteers gathered 3,500 pounds of citrus covering one square mile in one of the city's low-income neighborhoods.

Typically, a single fruit tree will produce 200 to 300 pounds a year, making community-gleaning groups the low-hanging fruit to addressing food access. And with the social benefit and personal satisfaction high, the idea has caught on like wildfire across the United States. Groups exist in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Florida, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and there are 14 in California. The Society of St. Andrew gleans all over the country.

So far this year, Sacramento's group has harvested 9,397 pounds. Last year, the group harvested 20,022 pounds, the majority of which went to the city's food bank, which serves 15,000 clients monthly. Additionally, clients receive nutrition information, such as healthy recipes, advice for planting gardens and the benefits of eating locally grown, seasonal produce. 

"The food bank is pushing for healthy food, rather than just calories," says Courtney Cagle from Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. "How we do that is through the community."

Increasingly, though, these gleaning groups learn that the positive work they do is a double-edged sword, as more trees and interested homeowners exist than some of these typically volunteer-run groups can handle.

"Our biggest limiting thing is our own capacity," says Katy Kolker, executive director of the Portland Fruit Tree Project in Oregon.

Back under the California sun, volunteers prepare to search for citrus trees.

"We're rocking and we're rolling," says Mary Lynne McGrath, one of the group's creators, who grew frustrated with all the rotting oranges piling up in her neighborhood's streets. With clipboards in hand, the groups head out.

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.

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."

On this day, her volunteer group includes four high school students from California Green Jobs Corps

"This is life experience for me, cause y'all know I never did nothing like this before," says Willie Young Jr., as he picks oranges. The 17-year-old wears glasses and is dressed in sweatpants and a pea coat. He listens to his iPod and chats with friends as he works.

He spots a large, nice-looking orange. "Ooh," he says, directing the picker pole toward a high branch. "I want this one."

By day's end, his group will have helped pick some of the 4,197 pounds of oranges, mandarins, tangerines, blood oranges, lemons, grapefruit and kumquats gathered by Harvest Sacramento. And most likely, Young will see fruit trees wherever he goes from now on.

Sena Christian is a freelance journalist based in Sacramento, Calif. who covers environmental and social-justice issues.