Urban fruit gleaning – harvesting homegrown produce for free

I’ve always been a fan of free stuff, especially when that “stuff” equals healthy food for my family. Although we aren’t struggling to put food on the table, I can still appreciate using food that would otherwise go to waste. It wasn’t until recently that I learned there is a phrase for collecting and using other people’s fruits and vegetables – it’s called urban fruit (or vegetable) gleaning.

So far this year I’ve gleaned 17 lbs. of zucchini and yellow squash, a large bowl of strawberries, a couple pounds of plums and several pounds of apples. Last year I gleaned a couple bowls of raspberries, cucumbers and enough concord grapes to make 20 jars of jelly.

Fruit and vegetable gleaning is a practice that has been going on for ages (traditionally, it is “the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest”), but it’s slowly moving into the spotlight recently as websites devoted to finding locations for giving or harvesting produce pop up across the Internet. Neighborhood Fruit, Veggie Trader and Fallen Fruit are three such sites.

  • Neighborhood Fruit allows users to both share and find fruit, vegetables and herbs, including the ability to register fruit trees on public ground or on your own property
  • Veggie Trader is “Your place to trade, buy or sell local homegrown produce”
  • Fallen Fruit – “‘Public Fruit’ is the concept behind Fallen Fruit, an activist art project which started as a mapping of all the public fruit in our neighborhood.”

You can also list your excess produce on sites like Freecycle (where I scored 17 lbs. of squash this year) or Craigslist.

Why glean fruit?
Tressa Eaton from Serious Eats says, “Urban fruit-harvesting engages a community, makes community members aware of their own local (and often organic) food resources, provides an opportunity for neighbors to meet over the boughs of fruit trees, and brings up important questions about public space. And in this economy the price is right.”

There are some “rules” or rather proper etiquette involved in urban fruit gleaning.

  • Ask for permission first – While technically any fruit that is hanging over or fallen onto public property is legal to take (according to a report done on KCRW’s Good Food), it is best to ask the owner first. Last year my brother-in-law (with eight kids to feed) had no qualms about knocking on people’s doors asking them if they were going to use all of their apples, pears, or whatever and if not, did they mind if he picked some. Most people are happy to see the fruit go to good use. Or as Granola Mama says, “If you are like me and have a fruit tree in your backyard, reaping the harvest can be both exciting, and well… a major pain in the ass.” After trying to harvest as many of her plums as she could, she called the “gleaners” to pick the rest and take to a food bank, which I will talk about more below.
  • Don’t take more than you can use
  • Be friendly and appreciative
  • Optional: take some of whatever of your finished product is (jar of jam, apple sauce, muffins, etc.) back to the person who gave you their produce. It’s a nice way to say thank you.
  • It’s also suggested that you arrive on foot, bring a friend, share your food, and say hi to strangers

Other ways to give or receive produce:
Using sites like Neighborhood Fruit or Freecycle aren’t the only way to find homegrown produce in your area. At the office where my husband works, someone recently brought in some of their excess zucchini and sent out an office-wide email to let people know where it was in case they wanted it. Others thought it was a great idea and now people are regularly bringing in their extra fruits or vegetables. Just this past weekend we stopped by the office and found several pounds of apples and plums there for the taking.

Ask friends or relatives if they have any produce to share and vice versa, let them know if you have any.

I also recommend walking or riding your bike around your neighborhood and paying attention to the trees in the yards. On a bike ride yesterday I discovered 10 apple trees (several of them just loaded with fruit) within a few blocks of my house, and a couple pear trees in my nearby park. I’d been down these streets many times before, but without really looking for the trees, I never noticed them. I hope to stop by one or two of the houses to ask about gleaning some of their fruit. I’d love to pick some for my family and then donate a few bags to the food bank which brings me to my next point.

Donating to local food banks:
Another excellent option for getting rid of your unwanted produce is to take it to your local food bank. The Society of St. Andrew “is a grassroots hunger relief ministry that relies on volunteers to glean nutritious produce from farmers’ fields and orchards after harvest and deliver it to people in need across the United States.”

A post and video on Cooking Up A Story tells of an organization that harvests produce to help out the local community.

Portland Fruit Tree Project provides a valuable service that helps communities benefit directly from local resources. Fresh fruit that grows on neighborhood trees is collected by volunteers, and dropped off at local Food Banks for distribution to those in need. The great thing about this program is that in large part, the fruit would not be harvested or eaten by anyone—if not for fruit gleaning.

Whether you glean for yourself and your family or to give to others, remember the etiquette above, feel good about all of the food you are keeping from rotting on the ground, and have fun!

Related posts:
From Sarah Gilbert at Wallet Pop: Picking the parking strips: the gleaning fruit movement
From Kim Severson at NY Times: Neighbor, Can You Spare a Plum?
From Kyeann Sayer at TreeHugger: Fallen Fruit: Free Produce on Los Angeles Streets
From Katy at Good is in the Air: Three Ways You Can Donate Food by Gleaning
From Julia at Homesteading – Mindful Living in Minnesota: Apple Picking!

Cross-posted on BlogHer

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13 thoughts on “Urban fruit gleaning – harvesting homegrown produce for free

  1. We have a local fruit tree project like Portland does: the Boulder Fruit Tree project (http://www.boulderfruittreeproject.com/). Fruit trees are such a part of Boulder County’s history and landscape, but so few people have the knowledge and energy to care for their trees. So these folks will pick your tree for you (they also help with trees on public property) and donate the apples to the food bank. Picking up groundfall apples helps with several types of apple diseases/pests and helps control bear activity in populated areas too, so it’s good all around!

    I plan to trade pruning services with several friends and neighbors for their apples until my trees are big enough to produce. Didn’t realize there was a name for it though :)

  2. Great info! I had no idea there were so many resources for finding and sharing produce. More than once I’ve seen people have more grapefruit (or peppers or what have you) than they or their family/co-workers/neighbors can use, so it’s great to see ways you can expand the circle and connect with more people who can use it.

    We’re going to try a vegetable garden in our little patch of ground this fall. Last time was not so successful, but I would love to have enough to share!

  3. Awesome. :) We love gleaning. Our neighbor let’s us use all sorts of good things from her place. I put up loads of rhubarb this year for later use. She asked me to pick the rest of her gooseberries when she was done. I think I got 3 quarts. Yum!
    We also pick off the old apple trees, wild plums and wild grapes along the roadsides and the ranch where I grew up. And don’t forget the chokecherries! Dan and I used to find loads of apricots up in Fort Collins. Good eats for hungry college students. ;)

    The bears are having a grand time around Lyons. I have never seen so much bear poop!

    We gleaned today at Miller Farms. I think I will be up for another few hours…..

  4. I have never heard of this, but am interested in more information about it.

    How do you know the food you are getting from some total stranger is safe?

    We always go to this cover bridge festival in the fall, and its a long drive through the country to get to the festival. And you always see tons of people selling fruits and veggies, and i am always tempted to buy some, I cant help but worry about it not being safe.

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  7. Great post!

    My dad had 350 apple trees. We used to get a lot of people helping themselves when it wasn’t welcome. If they would have just come up to the house, we would have shared! There’s a certain way to pick an apple. Those that were stealing often pulled the apple off instead of twisting it off–this keeps an apple from developing next year. So, not only did they take when they hadn’t asked, but they kept apples from growing next year.

    We were always looking for people to “glean” the trees at the end of the season. This was very important for next year’s harvest. A few apples MUST be left for the health of the tree.

    Something you can also do is take the tree falls for animal feed–chickens, horses, cows, etc love fallen fruit (and the critters in it!)

    Don’t eat fruit from the ground, though. You can get very sick or eat a lot of bugs and worms!

    Great post Amy. Our food shelves are desperate for fresh produce. If you have the time or produce to share, this is a great thing to do.

  8. I wish I had known about this a few years ago when I had hundreds of eggplants, cherry tomatoes, and peppers and couldn’t find anyone to take them. :(

    Now we have an itty bitty garden and I’d like to find my former h self with too much to handle. :)

  9. Lovely article. Colorful photos. Nice to see this going on in Colorado. Just validated what I already knew, urban fruit is available Any Town, USA. I’ve taken gleaning to the next level. Almost $100,000 worth of fruit and veggies harvested, hauled and delivered to local food pantries in one year. One Woman. One Tree. It all begins somewhere. Have you picked a tree lately? Perhaps you’d enjoy my blog too:
    http://www.thelemonlady.blogspot.com
    Keep up the good work! Sincerely, Anna Chan, The Lemon Lady in Northern California. AnnaAndAva@gmail.com

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