By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun
4:38 PM EDT, April 21, 2012
A new nonprofit organization aims to turn the fruits of its labors into fresh food for the hungry.
The Baltimore Orchard Project will glean gather otherwise unwanted fruit from trees on public and private land and donate the harvest to food banks, congregations and soup kitchens, says founder and director Nina Beth Cardin, a rabbi and community activist.
The group's founding team has 25 members from such agencies as the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, Tree Baltimore and Baltimore Green Space.
"The more I heard about food deserts, the more I became interested in helping satisfy the need and desire for fresh fruits," Cardin said.
A food desert is typically a low-income neighborhood with little access to private or public transportation and which is not within walking distance of a grocery store, she said.
"Fresh fruits and vegetables are craved by clients," who say they already get "plenty of pasta, canned food and nonperishable items," she said.
"Trees are dropping their fruit, and people aren't using it," she said. "It makes sense to bring the abundance and the need together."
Cardin said nonprofit organizations on the West Coast, where there are more fruit trees and a longer growing season, are ahead of their East Coast counterparts in taking advantage of gathering and distributing fruit that would otherwise rot.
"We are undertaking an inventory of civic spaces and private yards to find these fruit trees," she said. In one month, 120 trees have been identified within three locations. A registry on the group's website, baltimoreorchard.org, allows users to identify trees for potential inclusion in the program.
Some trees are mature and productive, while others have been neglected and must be pruned and restored to health before they can produce fruit of usable quality and quantity.
Another aspect of the project, which will incorporate properties in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, will be to encourage public and private landowners to plant fruit trees with the express purpose of donating their bounty.
"Ornamental trees were often planted in the 1940s and '50s; it was the 'mod-ish' thing to do," she said. "But now it seems wasteful to plant something that consumes precious resources, like land and water, but doesn't deliver any.
"We can't afford the concept of waste; we need to banish it from our vocabulary," she said.
Choosing to plant fruit trees is not opting against investing in beauty, Cardin stressed. "Trees are multitaskers that provide shade, soak up storm water and do other things, while feeding people all at the same time."
Erik Dihle, city arborist, said he gives the Baltimore Orchard Project "a big thumbs up" for bringing this issue to the forefront. And with 6,000 trees being planted in the city every spring and fall, "we can certainly bring fruit trees into the equation."
Tree varieties wouldn't be restricted to apple and plum in the urban forest, either. Such native specimens as persimmon, papaw and serviceberry will be added to the mix, he said.
"Trees have many benefits, and bringing communities together to glean and harvest their fruits adds to everyone's quality of life," he said.
One of the best side-effects of the project will be its impact on community life, Cardin said. Where healthy trees appear, a vision of play spaces, gathering spots and art projects develops in tandem with nature's transformation.
Members are also requesting tours of parks and getting permission to plant more trees in communities, which in turn will help reclaim abandoned lots and "create charmed neighborhood refuges," she said. A college intern will also be working to unearth the public locations of historic settlements that may contain fruit trees.
Miriam Avins, executive director of Baltimore Green Space, said fruit trees could be used as a component of new and existing open spaces by the communities whose land her organization serves to protect.
"Trees require a different kind of commitment than a vegetable bed, yet it's amazing how much interest and enthusiasm this idea has generated," she said.
Volunteers — "who don't have to be rocket scientists," Cardin said — are needed to help assess trees and help harvest fruit in conjunction with master gardeners, landscape architects and other experts willing to donate their time.
"Trees that are planted in the fall will obviously require an investment in time and patience" before they can be expected to bear fruit, Cardin said.
"To people who say it takes decades for trees to mature and who call our efforts futile, we say that just as our ancestors planted for us, we are planting for our children and their children," she said.
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