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    Harvesting the urban orchard

    Two ambitious projects bring Seattle's many tons of neglected backyard fruit to needy tables and fancy restaurants. Foraging feels good, but can it be efficient and financially sustainable?

    Dusty Towler gives a whole box of figs.

    Dusty Towler gives a whole box of figs. Eric Scigliano

    Dustin Towler knows how to stay cool in Seattle’s brief eruption of summer sun: He wears a white T-shirt and shorts and stays in the shade as he lifts his wire-basket pole picker to tease Japanese pears and green figs out of groaning trees in a Seward Park back yard. Nothing unusual about that in August — except that Towler has never seen this back yard before and may never see it again. This is his job: mobile fruit picker.

    “I worked in business banking,” he explains, “but I had to get out. The pay’s lower now, but this is much more satisfying.” Towler tools about southeast and West Seattle in an aged pickup with ladders strapped atop the camper, harvesting a neglected bounty of homegrown fruit. Most of it goes to food banks and other charities; the most delicate and desirable pickings, such as the figs he’s harvesting today, may go to Tom Douglas’ restaurants. “What I really like is taking crates of apples into the Rainier Valley Food Bank. They’ll ask, ‘Where did you get it?’ and I’ll say, ‘Right down the street.’”

    Towler works for City Fruit, a small Seattle nonprofit dedicated to some big goals: nutritional equity, community cohesion, urban sustainability and even locavorism. The name says it all — almost. While the City of Seattle and an army of volunteers labor to build, plant and nurture a visionary Food Forest on Beacon Hill, Towler, City Fruit’s own volunteers and other community foragers gather the harvest that already erupts citywide each summer — and would otherwise rot on the vine.

    It was that wasteful spectacle that led Gail Savina, a Mount Baker resident, retired King County environmental worker and veteran community organizer to join the emerging urban harvest movement. Savina grew up in Wenatchee, the ‘apple capital of the world,’ and started working in the orchards at 13. “It was really painful to see all the fruit lying on the ground here,” she says. Anybody living beside or with an overgrown pear tree knows the feeling.

    Savina started out in 2007 managing a fruit-harvesting program for Solid Ground (formerly the Fremont Public Association), a wide-ranging social-service nonprofit that also operates urban farms in South Park and Rainier Vista. Solid Ground drew inspiration from fruit harvest programs in Portland, Victoria, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and from local neighborhood groups' efforts to put neighbors’ fruit to use.

    In 2008, hoping to expand beyond harvesting into fruit-tree care, planting, education, even lobbying, Savina launched City Fruit, with help from the Phinney Neighborhood Association. Today, City Fruit and Solid Ground have largely conquered the city, and divided it: Solid Ground harvests across most north and central neighborhoods, down to I-90, and City Fruit covers Southeast and West Seattle, plus Phinney Ridge and Crown Hill. Last year Solid Ground harvested about 13,000 pounds of otherwise unwanted fruit and City Fruit gathered 20,000. Together, Savina estimates that’s about a third of the surplus apples, pears, cherries and other treasures drooping from Seattle’s vines and branches. Still, she admits she’s just guessing: No one knows how much fruit grows in Seattle. “The city doesn't keep an inventory of fruit-producing trees. It just counts them by genus, so they could be ornamental or fruit plums, cherries, crabapples….”

    Neighborhood groups gather and donate yet more. “Friends of” groups labor to restore and harvest the old, neglected orchards at Martha Washington, José Rizal, Meridian and other city parks.

    Everything Solid Ground picks, aside from bonuses for the volunteer pickers, goes to food banks, shelters, senior centers and other meal programs. They welcome all they can get, says harvest coordinator Mariah Pepper. Produce, super-fresh and typically unsprayed, is not a standard surplus food item.

    Nearly all of City Fruit’s bounty goes to the same recipients. But City Fruit helps pay its expenses by selling about 5 percent— the most valuable and, often, fragile fruits — to local restaurants. “The food banks don’t want figs and crabapples,” Towler explains. “They’re too hard to handle.” Tom Douglas, naturally, is an esteemed patron. 

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    Posted Mon, Sep 9, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    Kudos to both of these programs, and thanks to Crosscut for showcasing them here.


    Posted Mon, Sep 9, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

    Several years ago, I offered to have my old apple tree picked by an organization like these written up here. My only stipulation was that they sign a liability waiver, so if a picker got hurt on my property, there would be no claim against me or my homeowners' insurance.

    But the organization (don't remember which one) was quite adamant that they would not sign such a waiver, so the fruit went unpicked. I hope this problem has been solved so that homeowners no longer have to bear a risk in order to contribute to this worthy endeavor.

    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 11:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    I was surprised to learn in the article that there are "professional pickers". It seems to me that L&I; would kick in if any of these guys were injured in your backyard. I wonder why they wouldn't sign a waiver, it would be a shame if a homeowner were held liable as a result of trying to donate their surplus fruit.

    Posted Mon, Sep 9, 7:58 p.m. Inappropriate

    Is there a phone number to contact someone to come retrieve an abundance of figs on Phinney Ridge?

    Posted Wed, Sep 11, 12:17 a.m. Inappropriate

    City Fruit's Phinney Harvest Crew is reachable at phinney@cityfruit.org.

    Posted Tue, Sep 10, 2:53 p.m. Inappropriate

    There is a similar project here in Tacoma - The Gleaning Project.

    I think part of the problem is that not enough people know how to can/preserve anymore - its a lost art that is crucial to dealing with an abundance of produce all at once.


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

    What a great story featuring important civic stewardship! When we "peel back the layers of pavement", so-to-speak, it becomes more and more evident that our city is a diverse agroecological landscape. Along with our hundreds of native plants and few remnants of old growth, we also have cultural and agricultural histories of fruit orchards. I'm a huge advocate for creating space for multiple uses and values of our urban ecosystems. When the urban canopy components include fruit-bearing and food-bearing plants, it's possible to meet the city's triple goals of climate action, food security, and social justice. City Fruit and other food recovery programs play an important role in this process. Kudos!


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

    City Fruit is a truly amazing organization that feeds hungry people, trains tree owners how to care for their trees and engages the greater community in increasing fruit consumption. I would like to see this program expanded and supported by the City of Seattle.


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 11:05 a.m. Inappropriate

    I love City Fruit so much that the non-profit I work for is fundraising for them this month! This would be a nice way to support them if you can attend.

    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

    City Fruit is a wonderful neighborhood resource. We have several plum trees that didn't produce much this year. The only fruit was at the very tops of the trees that we could not reach. Hating the thought of the fruit going to waste, yet having no tools to harvest it ourselves, we contacted City Fruit. They came out and quickly harvested the plums at the very tops of the trees, and then provided a tax reciept for the 40 pounds they came away with. 40 pounds! This is 40 pounds of food that went to those in need instead of rotting on the ground. Thank you City Fruit for all that you do!


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 11:27 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks to Crosscut for covering this valuable community resource! City Fruit helps keep nutritious and delicious food out of the waste system and into client hands at Rainier Valley Food Bank!

    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks for this thoughtful article. City Fruit does such great work!

    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 11:39 a.m. Inappropriate

    City Fruit is my favorite non-profit also. Besides coordinating the hands-on labor of getting backyard fruit to food banks and meal programs, they also support the rehabilitation and care of public fruit trees in various parks in the city. Public fruit trees serve as a permanent billboard of what best practices can do for back yard trees. City Fruit's web site (www.cityfruit.org) provides a wealth of good information for back yard fruit growers in our climate and answer most questions that homeowners have. You can also find their calendar of classes ranging from organic pest management and pruning to fruit-infused cocktails! (Yum!) City Fruit shows you that yes, you can eat the fruit from the tree in your yard, and, with a little love, it will be mighty tasty.


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 12:08 p.m. Inappropriate

    Good to see this on Crosscut. Not only does Gail think outside the (produce) box when it comes to innovation and new business models for primarily volunteer organizations, but she does so in an area of Seattle that was famously full of fruit trees and farms. And farms that were meant to feed local families. We see remnants of old trees in the Rainier Valley, homeowners planting new trees, and residents harvesting from young trees--but what City Fruit does is really essential in trying to get food into people's bellies.


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 12:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    Food should be used and not wasted! I love that my fruit can help others and I love City Fruit for all that they do to make this happen!!


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 12:45 p.m. Inappropriate

    I love City Fruit. It does so much with so little. This is an organization that squeezes every bit out of every dollar and it is so worth our support.

    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 1:12 p.m. Inappropriate

    I can get behind any organization that benefits a community so transparently and effectively. Reducing waste and feeding the hungry. It's a win-win for everyone.


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 1:50 p.m. Inappropriate

    What a fantastic idea! I see loads of rotting fruit lying around my neighborhood this time of year. I'd like to see programs like this expand into more neighborhoods so that more people can benefit.


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 2:11 p.m. Inappropriate

    We need more of City Fruit in Seattle! Connecting the dots of wasted fruit in the urban forest and the needs of the hungry in our city is something everyone supports and understands. Not to mention all that cool stuff like improving our fruit tree canopy and cultivating the art of preserving/canning in our society. Go City Fruit!


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 2:19 p.m. Inappropriate

    It's great to see all that beautiful fruit going where it's needed. Great work City Fruit.


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 2:22 p.m. Inappropriate

    I've been a happy City Fruit member for a year, renewing my membership today. I support good work, get discounts at local businesses, and receive invitations to fun local events. The volunteers and staff at City Fruit work hard and the model is sustainable. Supporting this nonprofit is a no-brainer. City Fruit is amazing!

    A quick note: City Fruit not only feeds hungry people, it reduces the amount of material going into the waste stream. The only thing that hits the compost bin when City Fruit is done is pits and peels.

    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 3:15 p.m. Inappropriate

    City Fruit is a real community gem: doing good in the community, building community, and doing it on a shoestring budget! This much goodness deserves community support and funding. And it has been one of the most rewarding experiences to have been on the board working with such conscientious fellow board members and such a great ED!

    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 3:33 p.m. Inappropriate

    Hats off to the good people at City Fruit and the good work they do!

    We have an apple tree and no matter how many apple pies, apple crisps, jars of applesauce we bottle each year we never come close to making a dent in the harvest our tree produces.

    This year City Fruit was able to harvest 70 pounds of useable fruit to donate to a neighborhood food bank that otherwise would've rotted, and it made us feel great to support our local in positive ways!


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 3:46 p.m. Inappropriate

    City Fruit is great. Talk about win-win. It's a pleasure to harvest for them and know how much good comes from it. What a wonderful project.


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 3:47 p.m. Inappropriate

    Good work City Fruit! With additional resources, it would be wonderful to have City Fruit across ALL neighborhoods - not just where they currently harvest. For a small organization, they are having a big impact on those they help with the fresh fruit that would otherwise go to waste.


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 4:55 p.m. Inappropriate

    This is such a great organization. Seattle has plenty of food deserts and City Fruit takes steps to fill them with nutritious, free produce. I love supporting City Fruit.


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 6:57 p.m. Inappropriate

    City Fruit is a great organization. I garden for a living and a few of my clients have fruit trees that they aren't able to collect all the fruit from. City Fruit comes out and gleans the fruit and donates it to the food banks.


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 7:32 p.m. Inappropriate

    Great article Eric! It was great meeting you and I really appreciate the exposure you've provided for us at City Fruit. I love the work we do for those in our community and look forward to the coming years. Cheers! DT


    Posted Thu, Sep 12, 11:25 p.m. Inappropriate

    Connecting surplus food with food banks is a great mission. I applaud City Fruit for taking on that challenge and the private owners for their donations. If some of the fruit need be sold to sustain the organization, that seems reasonable to me.
    However, the use of fruit grown in public spaces makes me uneasy. Inefficient harvest and quick spoilage lead me to think that donation to food banks is not appropriate. I would much rather see "public fruit" auctioned off within the community in which it is grown and the proceeds given to charity. There are much more efficient ways to deliver nutrition and calories.
    What better way to increase enthusiasm for local agriculture than to pick and share produce with anybody and everybody who shows up and show interest? Diverting fruit from parks and public spaces toward food banks and private restaurants does little to accomplish this. The apples growing in parks in my neighborhood for instance are high quality heirloom varieties. The thought that these rare fruits are changing hands 3 times on the way to becoming apple sauce makes me sad.
    I enjoy cooking and making cider especially with high quality local fruit. If City Fruit made their picking available at market or auction to the local community, I would show up and bid. Maybe this would also negate the need for public funding. If the goal is to raise awareness and involvement in local agriculture, the products should be made available to everyone. Not just specific volunteers, the very rich (restaurant patrons) and the very poor.

    Posted Fri, Sep 13, 7:57 a.m. Inappropriate

    City Fruit offers one of the most direct ways I can imagine to put great fresh bounty to excellent use. Avoid waste, feed people well, and build community. What could be better? THANK you for doing this article and THANK YOU city fruit for being ALL GOOD. So many efforts/causes are complicated with good and not so good aspects to them. CITY FRUIT is just ALL GOOD.

    Posted Fri, Sep 13, 8:31 a.m. Inappropriate

    City Fruit is admired, and their efforts improves the food quality and volume for our City's food banks and food insecure neighbors. Their efforts save the food banks' funds by providing nutritious and enjoyable food that most food banks can't afford to purchase while continuing to serve their clients. Plus, City Fruit provides a great resource for we urban gardeners with fruit trees that we need and want! They help us all!! Hats off to City Fruit!!


    Posted Fri, Sep 13, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

    Great job and keep it up, Dusty and City Fruit!! Don't let those delicious figs go to waste!

    Posted Fri, Sep 13, 10:38 a.m. Inappropriate

    Great article Eric! I steward the fruit trees in a Seattle park. City Fruit makes it possible for me to care for the trees and harvest the fruit. They are a great organization. I hope the City can help fund their work. A city commitment would allow the program to expand and serve more people in need. As the climate changes and our food supplies get stressed it will be more important to produce and access local food from in the city.


    Posted Fri, Sep 13, 10:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    CityFruit is a terrific organization that deserves everyone's (including the city ) support. They do so much with so little. Harvesting and donating thousands of pounds of fruit each year , planting over a hundred fruit trees last year including dozens of fruit trees at the Beacon Food Forest, mentoring orchard stewards in over a dozen city parks to care for fruit trees, holding dozens of classes on pruning and general care of fruit trees , canning, etc.

    Dave Beeman

    Posted Fri, Sep 13, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

    What an amazing organization! Great job Dusty and City Fruit. Keep up the great work!


    Posted Fri, Sep 13, 11:25 a.m. Inappropriate

    Kudos to CityFruit and shame on the negligent homeowners who let their fruits and veggies rot and attract rats.


    Posted Fri, Sep 13, 7:31 p.m. Inappropriate

    A bigger shame on jugemental you who thinks it is your business as to why someone cannot climb their own tree to pick up fruit they cannot use.

    You're just mean for no reason.

    Posted Mon, Sep 16, 8:23 a.m. Inappropriate

    I see planty of able-bodied people who won't maintain their yards. If they can't/won't climb up, they can certainly sweep up and dispose of the fruit - not just let it rot on the ground.


    Posted Fri, Sep 13, 1:03 p.m. Inappropriate

    Connecting wasted food surplus to food banks in need is perhaps the most brilliantly obvious idea I've ever heard. This is a great example of a community finding solutions within itself. And on top of all that, you get a burly hunk like Dusty to come and work in your backyard for free. Keep up the good work City Fruit!

    Posted Sun, Sep 15, 6:58 p.m. Inappropriate

    It was one of the few really marvelous surprises on coming to Seattle in June of 1994 to find that not only was the city drenched in black berries but it had all these alleys, these very very rural alleys with fruit growing across fences and hedges, lots of grapes, cherries, and plums.


    Posted Wed, Sep 18, 4:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    good job City Fruit!

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