Fruit trees in Seattle produce thousands of pounds of food each year. Most of this fruit falls to the ground and rots, as the tress go unnoticed, overgrown and uncared for.
But with the help of volunteers and a nonprofit organization, sacks of apples, plums and pears go into the pantries of local low-income people, helping balance food bank offerings this time of year.
Last summer, City Fruit volunteers and employees picked more than 10,000 lbs of fruit from the backyards of homes throughout the city. About 9,000 lbs of it was donated to food banks around the city. With this year’s harvest underway, volunteers and staffers are hoping to hit the same goals.
When the nonprofit organization began picking fruit three years ago, the goal was to pick fruit that otherwise would go to waste.
“We are trying to remind people that fruit is a healthy part of their diet and it’s a great local food source,” City Fruit President James Rooney said.
Volunteers of America Greenwood Food Bank, one of the food banks that received City Fruit donations last year, says demand is strong, with people asking about when the fruit will be arriving.
With an economy driving more people to use food banks and other emergency food services, fresh fruit is much appreciated, Sydney Pawlak community outreach coordinator for Volunteers of America Greenwood Food Bank said.
Last May, the Volunteers of America Greenwood Food Bank had more than 4,000 visits from people needing food assistance, an all time record high for that location.
During the summer they expect to get even more people coming into the food bank.
“Kids are out of school and aren’t getting the federally funded lunches and breakfasts,” she said. “We get an influx of children who suddenly miss those meals throughout the day.”
These children in particular have already started asking for the fruit, she said.
“It’s one of the only things people don’t wait to eat,” Pawlak said. “They are out the door and they start eating the fruit.”
“Our harvest hasn’t necessarily grown these past years due to capacity but our programs have,” Rooney said.
In addition to harvesting, the organization offers a number of other services like classes on how to prune, plant and take care of a fruit trees. The money from the class fees covers a portion of the costs of the harvest.
This year, City Fruit also received a grant from the Department of Natural Resources to help develop a community stewardship program to care for fruit trees in five parks.
More than 30 public Seattle parks have fruit trees, which historically have been neglected because park employees often don’t have the time or resources to dedicate to the maintenance of these trees.
Barb Burrill, a volunteer involved in the maintenance of the apple trees along the Burke–Gilman Trail said many people walk past these trees and don’t realize they are a food source.
She said when she began working on the trees they were overgrown with laurel and blackberry bushes. Since then, she and the other nine volunteers have worked to clean up the fallen fruit, prune, water, and thin the trees.
“Most people have no idea how to take care of fruit trees,” she said. “City Fruit’s strength is reaching out to people to improve health of the tree.”
When City Fruit began three years ago, their goal was to create a financially self-sustaining harvest program, Rooney said.
Their first harvest was almost all funded by two grants from The Seattle Foundation and Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods.
Last year, about 60 percent of it was funded by a grant from the Department of Neighborhoods, while the rest of the funds came from membership fees, fruit sales, donations and revenue generated by City Fruit classes.
This year Rooney estimates it will be less than 40 percent funded by grants.
While most of the fruit harvested gets donated, fruits like figs and crab apples, which are the types of food that food banks don’t want or don’t know what to do with, get sold to local business or farmer’s markets.
“It’s a way to raise money to help support the harvest without taking food away from people who need it,” Rooney said.
While most of the harvest is volunteer run, they also have two paid harvesters who are responsible for picking almost all the fruit in the south end of the city, which makes up an estimated 60 percent of the total harvest.
“One of the things we want to do is see if we can build the financially sustaining model and not only harvest food to donate but also create jobs,” Rooney said.
Last year, the organization harvested from about 100 to 125 trees in various neighborhoods throughout the city.
In the beginning, Rooney said they biked around looking for fruit trees and left City Fruit pamphlets in mailboxes of houses that had fruit trees on the property.
Now City Fruit’s website has an online mapping tool where anyone can upload a location of a fruit tree. Rooney said because of the online map they know of many more trees, almost 900, than they have the capacity to harvest.