A group of Food Forward volunteers. (Credit: Food Forward)
If you’ve ever had a fruit tree in your yard, you know delight of picking a fresh bounty…and then frantically searching for ways to use it all up. Three pies and four jars of jam later and you haven’t even made a dent.
That’s the thing about fruit trees: They grow a lot of fruit. And much of it goes to waste.
Enter fruit foraging. Nonprofit groups around the country are gleaning fruit from trees growing everywhere from backyards to the sides of exit ramps and donating it to homeless shelters.
"These trees just make so much food," says Aubrey Daniels, an economist who founded the Atlanta-based Concrete Jungle in 2009 with pal Craig Durkin. “If you have an apple tree that makes 400 pounds of apples a year, you’re not going to eat 400 pounds of apples. You can’t make that much apple butter.” After the pair began hosting an annual cider-making party dubbed “CiderFest” nearly a decade ago, they found themselves looking for something to do with all those leftover apples. Concrete Jungle was born.
Now, with the help of volunteers and tipsters with a niche talent—”Some of them really just have the ‘fruit eye’”—Daniels and Durkin pick all over the city, mostly from May to October. For those who want to donate to food banks themselves, Concrete Jungle offers a map on its website to highlight clusters of public pomegranate, pawpaw, and apple trees. (Despite Georgia being in the Peach State, Daniels says he ends up with very little of the fuzzy fruit because passersby snag them before Concrete Jungle gets to it.)
Concrete Jungle “super volunteer” Andy Quitmeyer beside an Atlanta apple bounty. (Credit: Concrete Jungle)
Unlike dumpster diving, foraging is usually welcome; homeowners and city officials alike appreciate the help. “Cities don’t really like fruit trees,” insists Daniels, “because they make a mess when nobody deals with them.”
In California, produce is ripe for the picking all year round. Rick Nahmias, a former photographer and filmmaker, launched Food Forward five years ago after taking some tangerines from his Los Angeles neighbor’s tree and donating them to a local shelter. Today his group has thousands of volunteers and works with wholesalers and farmers’ markets to collect leftover producer in addition to conducting picks on public and private property.
A “glean team,” as Nahmias calls them, recently collected oranges from 600 trees near the historic Huntington Library and Gardens. Before Food Forward began picking there a few years ago, the oranges “were falling to the ground and being thrown out.” (Though the trees are on the Huntington property, they aren’t part of the botanical gardens; they’re simply left over from the days when the property was an orange grove.)
Since its inception, Food Forward has recovered more than two million pounds of fresh produce and distributed it to food banks and shelters around greater Los Angeles.
"Any time we can get high-quality fruits and produce, it takes the burden off of us financially and allows us to provide more nutritious food to the community," says Allison Griffith, director of the Extra Helpings program at L.A.’s Westside Food Bank, a recipient of Food Forward’s fruit. “And that it’s not going to waste on top of that, it’s better for everybody.”