Picking the parking strips: the gleaning fruit movement

Last week was my first "official" gleaning, and my first experience with what looks a lot like a lacrosse stick.

Actually, it's a little harvesting basket on the end of a long stick. A significant difference, as we'll see.

Asiya Wadud is profiled in a June New York Times article, along with other urban fruit foragers, who believe that "neighborhood fruit tastes best when it's free" -- part of a movement of unknown size and velocity to harvest and use the ripe fruit hanging in public spaces and private residences. With permission, of course.

There are two sorts of gleaners: the sorts who organize and the sorts who are more spontaneous and anarchic. The spontaneous and anarchic ones are entirely non-new, but getting (perhaps) more energized about the idea, which is essentially based on these principles: local food is good, picking and eating fruit when ripe and at its peak of flavor is wonderful, one should not let food go to waste, one should use food growing around us to feed the hungry (even if the hungry is you, and if you are not especially poverty-stricken). And while I disagree with the premise of the New York Times article -- that's it's all about the freebie -- I am now a part of both sides of the gleaning spectrum.

Katy Kolker is profiled in the New York Times piece, too. She is young and idealistic, and wears her bent on her American-Apparel-made Portland Fruit Tree Project T-shirt. I ask her why she got involved in the organization, which organizes harvesting parties from late July through October, sending half of the fruit home with the volunteer harvesters and the other half to the nearest food bank. She says that she has "always" had the idea, and always believed in "food justice," and she shines with passion.

We pick from a plum tree in a parking strip in the neighborhood where I grew up: though I've walked and biked past this tree dozens -- hundreds -- of times, I've never noticed these plums, dark purple and just as you imagine when you hear the word "plum." The group of about eight harvesters ranges from an overweight mother and her teenage daughter -- mouth full of braces -- to a college student sporting athletic shorts, long, long legs, and blonde hair straight out of a shampoo commercial. We pick plums, inexpertly, and talk about food justice.

The next stop is a business with a large patio and the most heavily-laden plum tree I've ever seen. These are the little plums, barely bigger than cherries, and they are delicious and there are thousands of them. I climb a ladder and spend the next half-hour gloriously shaking branches while the rest of the group holds a tarp to catch the plums below.

The law is this, in most states, cities and 'burbs: if trees are growing in or over public space, including sidewalks, alleys and parking strips, they are public property, and anyone may pick them. This is absolutely not the generally-accepted etiquette, however, and people found picking fruit from parking strip trees will often find themselves accosted by angry property owners and neighbors. (Even if you've tried to ask and watched fruit go rotten on the trees, unpicked, in years past. I say this because I know.) Most public parks allow for consumption while on the property -- eat all the huckleberries you can swallow! -- but not for removing fruit without permission or, if it is to be offered for sale, a permit.

But grocery shopping in the parking strip has vast benefits. In my case, I made friends and heard stories and met a few people from my neighborhood -- those I never would have met otherwise. I kept mushy, rotten fruit from mucking up people's sidewalks. I taught my children how to pick a cherry and to ask permission. I got pounds and pounds of fruit free, yes; but even better I took little jars of jam to neighbors and new friends as a "thank you."

Next year maybe they'll want to pick their own; hopefully, I'll be there to help.

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