August 16th, 2010 | Published in | 4 Comments
Photos by Lisa Bauso
Urban foraging, the art of gathering free food from the median strips and overgrown backyards of the urban fabric, is growing across the nation, and Portland is a key hot spot.
“It’s not so amazing,” said John Kallas of Portland’s Wild Food Adventures, which provides expertise and resources, including tours and workshops, on wild urban edibles. “There are only five big wild food teachers in this country, and I’m one of them. Thousands of students have gone through my workshops – that in itself has a cascading effect.”
Kallas says he sees two trends keeping his classes full and interest in foraging high.
“The first is that feeling of big revolution post-Obama, there was a sort of celebratory effect in the environmental community, which is causing a resurgence in primitivism,” he said. “The other thing is simply the economy. During hard times people start thinking of food security.”
Pinpointing the exact number of foragers in Portland is not easy. However, Portland Fruit Tree Project, an organization started five years ago by Kathy Kolker, does have some intriguing data.
Last year, Portland Fruit Tree Project organized 15 inner city harvest “parties” – interested volunteers gathering in groups of around a dozen to help neighbors glean ripe fruit from trees in their yards. The total crop from those 15 parties in 2009 was 15,000 pounds of produce. The bulk of it was donated to local food banks, and gleaners also took home a share. This year, 30 parties are planned, and by the end of the summer season, Portland Fruit Tree Project expects about 25,000 pounds of fruit will be harvested.
That represents an enormous amount of free food that might otherwise fall to the ground only to be picked over by bugs, bees, and other roaming wildlife.
Yet Portland Fruit Tree Project’s harvests have a triple bounty, demonstrated during a recent inner Southeast gathering party. They are a source of fresh produce to nourish local communities and bring neighbors together with a common task that has a sweet yield. In addition, they are a boon for tree owners like Molly Carnahan, who is responsible for the care of a decades-old, prolific King fig tree that dominates the front half of her backyard.
“I am just so happy you are helping,” she told the dozen volunteers from Portland Fruit Tree Project before they started a night’s gleaning in mid-August. “It’s just too much for me to handle on my own.” Later, as volunteers climbed ladders to gently twist delicate figs from branches (and eat a few sticky, perfectly ripe figs in the process), Carnahan waxed enthusiastic on the role of the organization in partnering tree owners with ready hands. “I’ve learned so much about my trees from them, and that’s so much easier than reading a book.”
Portland Fruit Tree Project represents an organized response to urban dwellers’ desire to connect to nature and eat free food, and it is replicated in projects in other cities, most notably Philadelphia and Los Angeles.