Urban Harvest program starting to see the fruits of its labour

November 21, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Mike Baker

Martina Rowley has never walked past a fruit tree she didn’t want to pick. Now, the Orangeville resident is taking that compulsion and directing it towards “something amazing” in the form of a community Urban Harvest program. 

Launched last year through Sustainable Orangeville, a Town-led committee, the program is designed to ensure fresh fruit and vegetables grown in the community don’t go to waste. 

“This whole thing started in the most informal way. When I first moved here in 2017, I noticed a large number of apple and pear trees in people’s gardens that looked like they weren’t being harvested. So, I started talking to people about this and, when I joined Sustainable Orangeville last year, decided I wanted to do something about it,” Ms. Rowley told the Citizen.

She added, “The program itself is similar to many other urban harvest programs. There’s a big one in Toronto. Essentially, individuals will go and harvest produce, then the homeowners are offered a third of everything picked, which they often don’t accept, the volunteers are allowed to take a third, but never do, and a third is donated to the food bank. More often than not though, the food bank actually receives most, if not all, of what is picked.”

What started off as a one-person operation quickly blossomed into something special. During that first year, which Ms. Rowley noted was always going to be a work in progress, her team managed to pick 912 pounds of fruit and vegetables, all of which was donated to the Orangeville Food Bank.

While the bulk of last year’s harvest was made up of squash, picked from a local farmer’s field, 2019 was absolutely, positively the year of the apple, Ms. Rowley stated. 

“We’ve had apples coming out of our ears – it’s been an absolutely fantastic year for apples,” Ms. Rowley said.

In total, the group picked 1,679 pounds of produce in 2019 – surpassing their initial target of 1,500 pounds. Of that amount, 1,129 pounds was donated to the Orangeville Food Bank. 

“The whole point of this is for the majority of the harvest to go to the Food Bank. We’ve had a really good year – we donated apples, pears, some other vegetables. It was a fantastic haul,” Ms. Rowley stated. “In terms of actual weight, the Food Banks of Canada, the overarching federal organization, stipulates that every pound of food donated to food banks is worth $2.60. So, if you were to look at it in terms of dollar value, 1,129 pounds of food equates to $2,935.”

Due to the abundant supply of apples this year, the Orangeville Food Bank actually had to turn some donations away – even after distributing its excess to its many partner agencies, including the food bank in Shelburne, the Westside Secondary School culinary program, and breakfast programs at other area schools. Not to be deterred, Ms. Rowley found another way to make a difference, partnering with Spirit Tree Cidery in Caledon to help turn an overabundance of apples into freshly squeezed juice. 

The local brewer took in 453 pounds of apples and turned that into approximately 300 litres of apple juice. The juice has been packaged into three-litre jugs and is being sold at the Cidery, with $3 of each sale going directly to the Orangeville Food Bank. 

It’s been an encouraging year of growth for the program, both in terms of produce and people. Starting out with a handful of pickers in 2018, the program had 20 registered volunteers this year. Also up is the number of properties registered that have fruit or vegetable available to be harvested. In total 40 properties were on the list in 2019.

The big driving force for Ms. Rowley, and the rest of the people behind the program, is helping to diminish the amount of food waste in the community.

“The current food waste situation is a huge deal for me, probably because of my upbringing. I grew up in Germany, my mum grew up in post-war Germany – she didn’t have much food. There was lots of scraping around. Then, when I was growing up, we grew a lot of foods and fruit in our garden. Everything was made from scratch and nothing was wasted,” Ms. Rowley said. “I grew up in a farming village in the countryside. I could go for a walk and find a pear tree, or peaches by the river. It’s part of my background. I wouldn’t think twice about going and picking something and eating it. To me, it’s free, organic fruit that is literally ripe for the picking.”

Coun. Grant Peters, head of Sustainable Orangeville, noted the Urban Harvest program, in the two years since it was launched, has brought about thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh produce for the Orangeville Food Bank, at less than $1,000 total investment on the part of the committee.

“Our committee has a history of building these partnerships and turning limited committee dollars into big benefits for the community, both economically and in other ways,” Coun. Peters stated. “The Food Bank, you know, helping them is about the best thing anyone in the town can do.”

Sharing in Ms. Rowley’s overarching vision to drastically reduce food waste in town, Coun. Peters is calling on all residents to be more mindful of the things that may be growing on their property.

“This is about getting people to recognize the value of food. It’s not only the food we buy, but the food we grow, whether we mean to or not. Everyone with a (fruit) tree in their backyard has a potential to harvest that fruit. It gives people the chance to essentially donate the value of their land to the community and, in this case, the food bank,” Coun. Peters said. “As much as this was the kind of apples year, any sort of edible fruit or vegetable is gratefully accepted. We’re not picky about the type of produce a homeowner is willing to have us come and collect.”

Now, Coun. Peters is hoping to see the program grow and become one of Sustainable Orangeville’s many success stories.

“There’s a lot of untapped potential here that we’re really trying to capitalize on. The more volunteers we can get in future years for programs like this, the better. Martina has a list an arms’ length of properties in the area with viable food to harvest. This is food that is more or less free, that is able to be shared. It really is a fantastic initiative.”

If you are looking to volunteer, or have a fruit tree or vegetables you know will need to be harvested next year, and you want to help with the Urban Harvest program, contact Martina Rowley at urbanharvest 

“The sooner I know how many properties I’ll have, the better it is, as I’ll be able to plan accordingly, and will know how many volunteers I’ll need,” Ms. Rowley said. “Sadly, we didn’t make it out to everyone this year before the temperature dropped. I’m walking around the community now and seeing trees that could have been harvested. I’d like to make sure that doesn’t happen again next year.”


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