The fruit of the tree of good and ... free

A good forager knows that, while very little fruit is available in the spring, the spring is the time to scout. Perhaps the lack of overgrowth and the often clear view of the trees in public rights-of-way is the reason why USA Today ran a story Monday about the sorts of people who, like me, are always on the hunt for free fruit and nuts from public trees. It's always a great time, however, to evaluate the great resource for free, nutritious food that's so often going to waste, right in our own neighborhoods, on both public and private land.

I thought about this topic deeply last in October, when one day I walked a few blocks from my home to Trader Joe's and found a situation that made my cheeks hot with our peculiar cultural blindness.

There in a strip of dirt at the edge of the store's parking lot were a row of apple trees, heavy with gloriously red fruit. It was falling on the ground due to neglect. On the other end of the store was a rental house in whose yard is an enormous fig tree, one that's listed on the Neighborhood Fruit web site as free for public picking.

But just inside Trader Joe's were apples and figs, picked by (it's sure) terribly-paid workers and packed states away in plastic, wrapped again in plastic, set on trucks and moved hundreds or thousands of miles, in and out of distribution centers, and finally to this store where one could purchase them for 59 cents apiece.

Or, one could walk outside and reach up into a tree and pick one's own, for free. No packaging, no questionable labor practices, no pesticides, no cost.

I didn't pick the apples that day; but I did pick the figs. (I've picked from that fig tree for years now, and have the fig quince relish and fig jam in my pantry to show for it.) And since then, I've never been able to buy fruit from Trader Joe's; I don't blame the chain but really, modern America! What are you thinking? Each September and October, the food banks are begging for more donations, and under our car tires we hear the crunchcrunchCRUNK of chestnuts and walnuts and hazelnuts popping into squirrel snacks. Apples and figs and plums and oh so many cherries fall to the ground, creating a sticky mess, instead of neat rows of quart jars full of jam and preserves and chutneys. We say, "oh, we can't afford organic!" all the while spreading herbicides that make frogs into eunuchs and distributing carbon dioxide from here to California and scraping the plum gunk from the bottoms of our shoes.

Something can be done. The first thing is easy: using Neighborhood Fruit's web site or iPhone app, you can find fruit on public property, or on private property where the owners register available trees, right in your neighborhood. I have an eye on a newly-discovered plum tree near a park, and plan to register another half-dozen I know of (and can't possibly pick all by myself) in an alley a few blocks away. There are other web sites, too; this New York Times article from July lists several.

The second thing is a bit harder, and that is to join an organization that picks fruit from public or private-but-permission-granted trees. I wrote about one such organization here in Portland; it, like others of its ilk, donates half of the fruit picked to food banks. Third is the most challenging; that's to join or organize a group that plants, maintains and harvests fruit and nut trees on public land. The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, a non-profit from California, helps mobilize and pay for such programs.

If your city or town doesn't have any listings, and you can't imagine fighting City Hall to get cherry trees planted in parks, there's a final choice that's the best of all: as I am right now, scout your neighborhood for blossoming fruit trees. When you find the ones you like, knock on doors. "Can I help you harvest your cherry tree this June?" is a great way to start a conversation that could end with buckets of free food and a new friend, besides.
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