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Thursday, July 23, 2009 07:31 am

Free food can be yours for the picking

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Years ago, a young, sorta-hippyish couple who lived nearby knocked on my front door. They had noticed that fig trees in my side yard were laden with ripening fruit. “If you’re not going to pick all the figs for yourself,” asked the couple, “could we harvest some of them?” Sure, I said, have at ’em. About a week later, to my delight, I found at my doorstep a nice surprise: two sparkling jars of fig jam.

A little common neighborliness can be delicious, in so many ways.

I remembered this happy fig exchange recently when I read that a fast-growing, underground fruit economy is spreading in cities across America. Well, the movement is underground, but — like my figs — the fruit is in plain sight.

“Urban fruit foraging” is a grassroots phenomenon that has arisen spontaneously as local folks have taken a look around their neighborhoods and suddenly noticed that yard after yard contains all sorts of trees bearing a cornucopia of apples, plums, pears, oranges, peaches, loquats, pecans, avocados, lemons, mulberries, pomegranates ... and so much more. The “aha” moment comes when these folks realize that most of this abundance goes unpicked.

So, rather than just let it rot, why not find new ways to gather, distribute and share this free food with the larger community? From coast to coast, people are doing exactly that, with each group finding their own clever ways to spread the concept of “public fruit.”

One of the simplest is in Oakland, Calif., where neighbors created a small exchange they call Forage Oakland. Some 200 people have signed up — those with lemon trees, for example, open their yards for harvest when the fruit ripens; in exchange, they get access to other yards when their fruits come in.

The Portland Fruit Tree Project in Oregon, an all-volunteer group, maintains an online registry (including maps) of about 300 edible trees across the city. Noting that a family can only eat so many pounds of a tree’s fruit production, one of the project’s organizers points out, “A fruit tree is really made for sharing.”

Here’s how the sharing happens in Portland: A couple of weeks before the fruits or nuts in a particular yard are ready for picking, the registered owner notifies the group, which schedules a harvesting party; volunteers arrive, the communal picking is done, and the bounty is divvied — half to the volunteers and half to local food pantries.

The project also conducts workshops, holds “pruning parties” and offers hands-on “preservation parties” to teach canning, drying and other ways to extend nature’s bounty.

Another approach is to grow more public fruit by planting trees in city spaces and vacant lots. Urban Orchards in Boston, for example, has planted hundreds of fruit and nut trees across the metro area, and the Philadelphia Orchard Project is turning abandoned inner-city lots into orchards. This not only beautifies and humanizes blighted neighborhoods, but also provides nutritional relief in areas that locals call a “food desert,” where only junk food had been sprouting.

Good eats are only the most obvious benefit of the urban foraging movement. It’s also a powerful way of connecting people to nature, to each other and to the American ethic of sharing with our community. It’s a modern expression of an ageless idea: We’re all in this together.

A century ago, Jim Hogg, one of only a handful of really good governors that my state of Texas has produced, practiced this idea of the common good all the way to his grave. In lieu of a tombstone atop his eternal resting place, Hogg asked that a pecan tree be planted at the head of the grave and a walnut at the foot, directing that the fruit of the trees “be given out among the plain people, and make Texas a land of trees.”

Maybe you’d like to spread your own community’s abundance. If so, here are a few Web sites to help you get going: forageoakland.blogspot.com, portlandfruit.org, earthworksboston.org, phillyorchards.org, fallenfruit.org and neighborhoodfruit.com

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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