Not Far from the Tree
A Toronto organization has an ingenious system for connecting urbanites to conservation and to one another. And there’s free fruit for everyone!
With the arrival of autumn, farmers’ and gardeners’ thoughts turn to bringing in the harvest. In fields and orchards across Canada fruit is ripening. In cities too, fruit trees are groaning with bounty. Yet so many urban homeowners or tenants gather nothing from their trees. The result is the waste of fresh — and free — produce, and mushy yards strewn with rotting fruit attracting vermin and pests. Over time, some exasperated homeowners resort to removing the trees, destroying a precious resource.
Just over a decade ago, in cities and towns across Canada, “fruit tree” projects started to appear in response, almost organically. In Toronto in 2008, Not Far from the Tree was started by a young woman named Laura Reinsborough who had recently earned her master’s in Environmental Science and was interested in the issue of food security. Perhaps the result of some variation on Isaac Newton’s apple-induced eureka moment, Reinsborough twigged to the idea that there was fruit to share that was going to waste. In that first year, working only in her own neighbourhood, she and the scores of volunteers she had recruited, collected 1,400 kg from 40 properties.
According to Sue Arndt, who has been running it since 2015, the key aspect of Not Far from the Tree is the divvying up of the fruits of this labour. The harvest is split three ways: one third to the homeowner; a third to the volunteer pickers, and a third to a community kitchen, shelter, foodbank or similar agency located nearby.
The numbers are impressive: 70,000 kg of fruit harvested, nearly 20,000 kg provided to more than 35 local social service agencies, more than 1,600 trees registered, 2000-plus volunteers wrangled to help with the harvest.
Picking season that begins with cherries in June and goes to apples in October (with serviceberries, apricots, pears, grapes and quince along the way). In a busy year, they do 450 picks in five months. There is a tonne of logistics behind it: there are 11 cargo bikes garaged around the city, equipped with all the necessary gear, ready to be picked up by key volunteers (or as they call them, “supreme gleaners”) and a robust web-based portal for communicating with tree owners and volunteers, dispatching help when and where needed.
It is a brilliant response to several urban challenges simultaneously, addressing the lack of fresh fruit in “food deserts,” educating and inspiring an appreciation for nature while fostering and deepening connections among often remote urban neighbours. “Our most fruitful neighbourhoods,” says Arndt, “have long histories of immigrants from parts of the world where having fruit-bearing trees was a given. All these years later we all still benefit from those traditions.”a
It is a response to several urban challenges simultaneously: addressing the lack of fresh fruit in urban “food deserts,” educating and inspiring an appreciation for nature, and fostering and deepening connections among often-remote city neighbours