The voice on the phone gave me directions to a house in a residential neighborhood. The way she spoke made me feel vaguely like James Bond receiving a secret assignment from M.
The owners gave permission for the tree to be picked, but they dont get home from work until two. Before then, dont even knock on the door because they have two yipper dogs that will go crazy, she said. The tree is really tall, and I think it might be grafted, which means the upper cherries could be better than the lower ones, so if you have a ladder you should bring it.
My assigning officer had information about 100 or more trees around town, including 23 apricot, 52 apple, 16 plum and seven pear, as well as grapes, cherries and berries. Anytime shes out and about, she takes note of new ones, knocks on doors, and asks residents if they plan to pick their fruit. If not, she asks permission to send harvesters like me to do the picking.
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 33 percent of the food grown worldwide some $750 billion worth goes to waste without being consumed. It would take a farm the size of Mexico to produce this much throwaway food. When it rots in a landfill, the gases created account for 6 to 10 percent of all of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. If global food waste were a country, Grist.org reports, it would be the worlds third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Most of the focus on feeding a growing world has been on producing more food. A less sexy approach would be to reduce the amount of already-existing food that is being wasted. Enter the gleaners. The act of gleaning is as old as agriculture itself. In ancient times, poor people used to prowl the fields of landowners after the harvest in order to pick the grains or vegetables left behind. In my college a few years ago, gleaners were just called scroungers, people who gathered in the cafeteria corner where trays were dropped off. If something on a tray looked good, a scrounger would politely say something along the lines of, Hey, mind if I snag that lasagna?
More recently, in cities around the United States, activist groups have emerged to forge relationships with grocers, caterers, restaurants and growers at the supply end, and with food pantries, homeless shelters and other organizations feeding the hungry at the demand end.
Then there are the rogue gleaners like myself, working alone or in cahoots with the likes of the woman who told me about the cherry tree. Beginning in mid-summer, its easy to walk the streets and alleyways looking for trees from which ripe fruit is dropping. All it takes is a knock on the door to determine if the homeowner would be open to you picking the fruit.
Then, if everything goes according to plan, I have a lot of fruit on my hands. It can be frozen, whole or juiced, or turned into jam or dehydrated my method of choice. I prefer dehydrating fruit because its simple and doesnt involve any extra ingredients. The finished product takes up little space, and I can take it with me on hikes.
Later in the season, Ill turn my attention to fall vegetables, like kale, which gets sweeter after a frost. During the last few markets of the season, Ill strike deals with growers to acquire large amounts of their kale before it meets the plough.
Sometimes a grower will invite me to come glean it myself, old-school style. But more often theyll offer to harvest a massive amount and sell it to me at a bargain rate. Technically speaking, food thats acquired in this manner isnt gleaned, but recovered. Either way, its food that wasnt wasted. And for those who dont have an associate like the woman who guided me to the cherry tree, a smart phone can make a good substitute.
A new organization called Falling Fruit (Fallingfruit.org) is building a worldwide database of urban edibles, including, according to a video on the site, Apples, apricots, plums, avocados, star fruit, citrus, nuts, berries, vegetables, spices, herbs, mushrooms (and) mangos. A smartphone app is under development.
I loaded the map onto my laptop and took a look. Within blocks of my house, it showed apples, apricots, plums, peaches and grapes. So I took a walk, and there they were. There was also a nice gooseberry bush. Many trees were hanging over fences above the sidewalk. There were no mangos, but I pigged out nonetheless.
Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about food in Albuquerque, New Mexico.