In Tucson, Arizona, there's an astonishing amount of edible fruit ripening into waste on people's trees. It happens everywhere; on my walk to farmer's markets in Palo Alto and Berkeley, I used to pass beneath perfect produce hanging overhead on my way to pay $5/lb for the identical item. Local as the farmer's market may be, there's nothing more local than our own yards, but too few people regard the goods that grow there as a source of food.
Of course, for residents who can't afford market prices (and who don't have their own tree-filled yards), a fruit tree does equal food, but it's not always easy to locate and obtain things that are growing on private property, and even in public space, it can be hard to know what's what. That's where Barbara Eiswerth comes in. Eiswerth is trained as an environmental scientist in Tuscon with a specialization in geospatial information technology. In other words, this woman knows how to make precise maps. After watching elderly and low-income community members in Tucson suffer the consequences of being unable to access or afford fresh foods, she decided to put her skills to use mapping the available fruits and vegetables growing around town and redistributing the goods to those in need.
Eiswerth took a particular interest in serving the nearly 1,000 Somali Bantu refugees living within the city limits. In 2003, she established the Iskash*taa Refugee Harvesting Network to not only help local refugees (from all over the world) access food, but also offer education, skills, computer training, and language lessons. According to this Arizona Daily Star article:
The network began with just a handful of volunteers and an afterschool program, which has since grown to around 70 helpers.
They began to systematically map Tucson neighborhoods, with volunteers walking around and identifying fruit trees by sight, over garden walls or from alleyways. That information was then entered onto a computer, and an aerial map was created.
Homeowners were then contacted through neighborhood fliers. They can either harvest their own fruit and vegetables and donate to the network, or Eiswerth's volunteers will harvest it for them.
This is reminiscent of the fantastic Fallen Fruit project, which was started in Los Angeles as more of a spatial intervention and local networking endeavor than a direct community service effort (although the resulting neighborhood walking maps of ready-to-pick fruit offer similar potential benefits to Angelenos).
Iskash*taa (or Iskashitaa) has branched into a number of other programs, as well. They started a tailoring service that helps refugees with sewing skills access material and machines to make medical scrubs out of African material, which they can sell to local medical professionals. They also started a bead project which combines literacy and language education with craft-making for women and children. There is a fair-trade gift program to teach marketing skills and assist with fundraising for the Network, and volunteers also run swimming classes and offer court advocacy for refugee families.
Iskash*taa has operated thus far on city grants and private donations, but will soon hopefully achieve official status as a charity. Eiswerth, who works full-time for the Network for free, has ambitious goals for the growth of the organization, hoping that some of the surplus from the 20,000+ pounds of produce they harvest each year can be turned into saleable, value-added products that can bring some profit back to the Network and help it move ahead.
On the heels of the community gardening push of the 1970s, I saw an article about the Fruition Program in Santa Cruz, CA in which people were planting food-producing trees and bushes on public lands. I passed the article to some friends and associates who were involved with local agriculture and State Representative Mel King introduced legislation for a pilot Fruition program in Massachusetts. The program got $60,000 and distributed thousands of saplings and seedlings throughout the Commonwealth through the Department of Food and Agriculture. There were even workshops on grafting trees held around the state.
In Cambridge, I and an associate went around looking at the parks and public places for possible sites of raspberry bushes, grape vines, or apple trees. We took our maps and proposals to the local Conservation Commission head who looked at us incredulously as she said, "You're serious!" Still, there were grapevines trained to the fences on the Cottage Farm pumping station and raspberries hidden among the milkweed beside the Charles River on Magazine Beach, more raspberries in a couple of community gardens, and I even planted an apple sapling next to the sidewalk where the landlord used to let me garden. Most of these plantings are gone now but there's a group called Earthworks that still pushes the concept of urban orcharding and helps with the upkeep on public parks in the greater Boston metropolitan area.
The concept of urban orchards and forestry, of city permaculture is a valid one. It was once part of how we lived for that short period of time after the 1970s and before the Depression. However, we don't have the vision, yet, to see it clear.
Thanks for the reminder.
PS: As I recall, Massachusetts never spent all of that initial $60,000. The problem was that there was no matching funds to administer the program and eventually the remaining funds went back into the general fund.
Agnes Varda made two documentaries about modern gleaning, which is part of this concept, in France over the last few years. "The Gleaners and I" is well worth viewing and I'd like to have a chance to see her follow-up film sometime.
I and a friend sadly watched the backyard fruit fall to the ground in Vancouver BC in the late 1990's. After a season of observing, we decided to found the Vancouver Fruit Tree Project in 1999 which is similar to the Tuscon project. We developed a large volunteer network to pick backyard fruit which is donated to our partner community agencies that make sure the fruit gets to those who need it. We get a small annual grant from our local credit union, just to keep the equipment going, pay a seasonal coordinator that matches volunteers with fruit trees. It's been a really fulfilling project! Other projects in slightly different forms also exist throughout British Columbia. Some are designed to get fruit off trees in rural areas to discourage visits by the local bears, others have a more entreprenurial bent where fruit is pressed into juice and then sold to make some money for the project. The wonderful thing about all of these sorts of projects is that they are developed by the community to suit their needs. It's great to see that other parts of North America are into this as well.
There's a small program in Seattle as well: