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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