Food shelf organizers have grown accustomed to getting by with what they are given – expired and unwanted canned goods, products that flop with consumers and store-brand items that occupy the bottom shelves of the supermarket.
While thankful for anything they are given, food shelf organizers say they are increasingly interested in providing those in need with fresh, locally sourced fruits and vegetables.
One way to feed that demand – at least between the months of August and October – is to take advantage of often overlooked fruit trees that dot the metropolitan landscape.
Enter the Minnesota Project and its Fruits of the City initiative. The program connects fruit-tree owners and food shelves in an attempt to infuse apples and pears into the diets of the disadvantaged. The fruit-tree owners allow volunteer fruit pickers onto their property, and the fruit that is picked is donated to food shelves.
How to get involved
To volunteer with the Minnesota Project’s Fruits of the City Program, visit their website or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. A kick-off event will also be held on Wednesday, July 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Jaycees Shelter in Roseville Central Park, Roseville.
The so-called fruit gleaning effort, inspired by a similar initiative in Seattle, Wash., began in the Twin Cities three years ago and has grown rapidly since its inception.
After collecting 16,000 pounds of fruit from trees around Minneapolis, St. Paul and surrounding suburbs during the first year, last year’s collection grew to 23,000 pounds of fruit. The goal this year is to collect more than 36,000 pounds.
“We saw all these trees in the area in home owner’s yards where the food would just fall to the ground and go to waste,” said Heidi Coe, who is leading the Fruits of the City project this year. “We chose to utilize that valuable resource that was going to waste and help in a small way to work towards solving the hunger issue.”
The Fruits of the City project, which will host a kick-off event on July 27, is hoping to get access to fruit trees from at least 100 property owners this year. They are also looking for more than 200 volunteer fruit pickers and neighborhood coordinators who can manage a particular area and check in on the health of the trees.
Fruit that is collected this year – primarily apples and pears that store easily – will be distributed to around a dozen food shelves in Minneapolis and St. Paul until the harvest tapers off this fall.
The Little Kitchen Food Shelf, based at the Northeast Community Lutheran Church, is among the organizations that are expecting to benefit from the harvesting efforts.
Jennifer Schultz, the food shelf’s coordinator, said the pantry got around 1,000 pounds of fruit when it participated for the first time last year. That was enough to provide fruit to about 600 people, she said.
Like other food shelf organizers, Schultz said that she sees the fruit gleaning effort as an important part of a broader mission to provide food shelf clients with more nutrirional food.
Though its impact remains small, any amount of fresh produce is welcome and appreciated, she said.
“We’re recognizing the right that people have to healthy, nutritious food and not to just getting what they can,” Schultz said.
Little Kitchen and other area food shelves are also working with area co-ops, farmer’s markets and planting their own community gardens in an effort to increase access to fresh produce.
The need for such food is growing.
The number of visits to Minnesota food shelves has climbed 62 percent over the last two years, and is up 97 percent in the nine-county metro area, according to the St. Paul-based hunger relief organization Hunger Solutions.
Through early July, the Little Kitchen Food Shelf had served 3,150 individuals, almost the same number they served in all of 2010. At the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul, which also will get fruit this year, about 800 people are visiting each month, nearly double the number from last year.
Josh Grinolds, the community center’s food shelf director, said the expanding need makes it more important than ever to focus on fighting hunger, but to also do so in a way that provides healthy food to those in need.
Grinolds, who coordinated the Fruits of the City project in 2010, has also organized a local food drive and a first-of-its-kind fresh food night in August to show people how to cook with and store fresh food.
Fresh produce is also a rarity at the Hallie Q. Brown Food Shelf, but Grinolds said he is confident more fruits and vegetables will be available their and at other food shelves in the years ahead.
“I see this as a work in progress ,” he said. “We’re starting out very small, but I’m pretty optimistic for the future.”
One group that may help in that effort is St. Paul-based Gardening Matters.
The gardening advocacy organization started a task force earlier this year to look at how the gleaning concept could move beyond fruit. Their plan is to encourage backyard gardeners and the more the more than 300 community gardens in the Twin Cities to donate excess food to shelves in the community.
Kirsten Saylor, the executive director at Gardening Matters, said such donations are already occurring on an informal basis, but that food shelves and growers are tracking contributions this summer to see what exists and develop ideas about how more could be done.
Harvesting, distribution and storage are among the obstacles that need to be overcome, she said.
Like Grinolds, Saylor said she is hopeful that more can and will be done, though, and that its impact will go beyond the dinner table.
“It’s another way of knitting a community together,” Saylor said. “In my mind, it’s like neighbors reaching out to neighbors you just may not ever really know who your neighbor is.”