Someone, years ago, planted an oak tree on a narrow, forlorn divider toward the edge of a barren parking lot by a large building near my home. Largely ignored, this lone tree staunchly persevered and sank its roots deep into its diminutive field. It was noticeable, not because of the tree itself, which was just a modest, slight thing, but because of its acorns. They were everywhere — a bumper crop heaped upon the ground, where one had to tread carefully to keep one's feet firmly planted.
It seemed such a waste, all of those nuts lying unwanted on the ground with no wildlife to eat them. If they were walnuts or chestnuts, I thought, that would be wonderful. I could gather up this windfall to roast and cook them. I began to wonder: Are acorns edible? With all of the hunger in our midst, can we use them for good? Can people eat them? It turns out acorn meal is edible if we take the right steps to prepare it. In fact, acorn meal was a staple part of our native ancestors' diet — and if we can eat acorns, maybe there are other local, overlooked "crops" we can eat.
It is said that there are more than 20,000 species of edible plants in the world today, yet fewer than 20 species provide 90 percent of humanity's food. As we struggle to address hunger, health and soil issues, this artificial constriction about what we eat is both bad land management and a wasteful allocation of resources.
Could local vegetation help not only the landscape of our cities but the hunger of our neighbors? How many trees can be found in our urban areas whose fruit goes to waste while people go hungry just a few streets away? And with all of the vacant, underused and ill-managed land in our midst (including expansive lawns), can we create urban orchards, food forests, tree gardens — call them what you will — throughout the city? These pocket orchards can provide free local food, reclaim wasted land, and create green areas of respite and a bit of enchantment in our urban and suburban neighborhoods.
One recent study from Philadelphia reported that planting a few trees in a vacant lot lowered the incidence of crime, vandalism and stress in that neighborhood and increased the amount of exercise the locals got. Layer on top of that fruit trees bring pleasing scents in the spring when they blossom, welcome shade in the summer and healthy fruit in the fall. Throw in art projects for neighborhood residents and children so that the orchard becomes a local pocket park for refuge and recreation.
Baltimore is a national leader in urban agriculture and creating new ways to get healthy food to its neediest residents. It has programs that reclaim vacant lots and turn them into community gardens, programs that enable residents far from well-stocked grocery stores to pick up food orders in local libraries. How much better would the city be if we could also increase the presence of neighborhood fruit trees?
These trees can offer seasonal fruit as well as increase the city's tree canopy. Trees are the ultimate multi-taskers: They take up stormwater (which rushes from streets, yards and sidewalks, picking up every sort of rubbish and chemicals that wash straight into rivers, the harbor and bay); cool our overheated streets; provide a calming effect to the neighborhood; increase property values; improve air quality by absorbing pollutants; clean up toxins in the soil; absorb carbon dioxide; and, in commercial areas, induce people to linger and buy more.
People used to plant fruit trees as both commercial endeavors and welcome ornamentals. Baby boomers remember picking peaches, pears, apples and figs from trees in their grandparents' yards. Somewhere along the way, fruit trees fell out of fashion. But they seem to be on the verge of making a comeback.
Because one healthy tree can bring forth a bounteous harvest, much too much for any one home to consume, neighborhoods can organize harvesting events, where volunteers pick the fruit at the height of its ripeness, clean up fallen fruit and distribute the healthy abundance to those who need it most.
A handful of cities are pioneering this idea. The Baltimore Orchard Project is working on this. Imagine if, in 20 years, along with our buildings and homes becoming net producers of energy, our yards and vacant lots become producers of food and places of biological vitality. That is a tangible gift we can bequeath to our children. And we can start right now.
Nina Beth Cardin writes from Baltimore, where she is a rabbi and director of the Baltimore Orchard Project (www.baltimoreorchard.org). This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.