Waste not, want not: Kelowna starts gleaning and processing tree fruit
There’s a group of young professionals in Kelowna with a fantastic idea: Why not feed people in need with the food going to waste on local fruit trees?
It’s not their idea, per se. Across North America, what’s termed “gleaning” projects are helping non-profit organizations feed the homeless, supply food to children’s programs and re-introduce the convenience-food addicted masses to a healthier lifestyle.
In the South Okanagan, for instance, the Christian-based Okanagan Gleaner’s Society harvests surplus produce to make dried soups for developing nations; it has been doing so for 20 years.
And on Vancouver Island, Nanaimo Community Gardens spearheads a project that’s seen 72,000 pounds of produce gleaned to provide 14 agencies with fresh food in just nine years.
Yet here in the Central Okanagan, where tree fruits are so plentiful vast amounts of apples and pears, apricots and peaches become hazardous bear-attracting, insect-feeding beacons, an organized effort to redistribute this free food source has gone largely untouched.
“We just heard a tremendous amount of feedback on how the Okanagan really needs to have a gleaning program because we do have all this fruit,” said Casey Hamilton, chairwoman of the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council.
A UBCO student and local orchardist’s son, Raja Wariach, had tried to get the ball rolling by producing an interesting website, Glean Canada, offering an online registry for orchardists to register their excesses for harvest; but it hasn’t taken off.
The Kelowna Community Food Bank runs a Plant a Row, Grow a Row program so anyone can grow for the food bank, and keep some for themselves in the process.
But an organized volunteer network of gleaners prepared to put in the time to harvest and process the abundance of fruit growing on hobby farms and in local backyards—and take a little free food home for their own pantry—had yet to materialize.
The food council wants to make it happen this summer.
Putting out posters for a picnic information session this Sunday, they’ve already got a decent network of volunteer gleaners willing to help. Now what they need is fruit tree owners to offer a place to start.
“We figure the first fruit to go will be apricots, but we’re open to everything,” said Laura Hsu, a food council volunteer.
With at least 20 people involved, it’s hoped the Central Okanagan Tree Fruit Project will draw pears and apples into the mix before fall to provide free produce for the Kelowna Community Food Bank and other charities like the Okanagan Boys and Girls Clubs, Kelowna Gospel Mission and Karis Support Society. And their efforts are greatly appreciated.
“The Kelowna Food Bank is thrilled to be a part of the inaugural fruit tree project," said Lenetta Perry, associate executive director at the food bank. “…Of course, gleaning is an ancient tradition that many participate in, but this will be the first coordinated effort by a group of volunteers willing to go out and glean the gardens and fruit trees of strangers so that fresh, local produce will not go to waste and can reach the tables of those in need instead.”
Getting the program up and running is going to take supplies, and while they’re looking at donations, the food council is also considering ways to generate a little money on the side with options like canning and jamming products they can sell as a fundraiser.
A quick look at their Facebook Page shows the group is young, ambitious and connected to a wider network of similarly upwardly mobile trendsetters who’ve taken an interest in sustainability, food security, urban farming, 100-mile diets and global environmental movements largely associated with the upper middle class.
“It’s a demographic shift in food,” explained Patricia Guest, one of the Okanagan’s organic pioneers.
The one-time owner of My Country Garden, at Benvoulin and KLO, Guest trained as a chef in Vancouver and watched the organic movement burgeon in the metropolis before moving into growing herself.
The return to organic and local foods among the middle class was entirely predictable given the health benefits of eating local, and the demand over-processing, mass produced food puts on the earth’s resources, Guest figures.
In the 1950s and ’60s, only the poor would consider growing and canning their own food, while the rich were stocking up on white bread and Cheese Whiz, the very processed foods the rich now strive to eradicate.
But by the early ’90s, when she arrived in the Okanagan, Guest was watching Dona Denison, of Little Creek Salad Dressings, and her husband Dale Ziech, start producing “gourmet” locally-grown organic produce and value-added toppings.
Joe and Jessica Klein, of The Homestead Organic Farm, then started the wildly successful Penticton Farmers’ Market, selling the healthy, pesticide-free message.
John and Sher Alcock created Sunshine Farms, producing organic fruits, vegetables and seeds intended to protect genetic diversity from an increasingly genetically modified, monocrop-based food supply.
Only a few restaurants, in particular chef Rod Butters (RauDZ), were buying from these organic producers.
Grocers wanted Guest to pick her produce while it was so green she was embarrassed to let people know it came from her farm. But realizing good health comes with local and environmentally sustainable products, the wealthy and educated are returning to locally produced foods, Guest said.
And they’re bringing a new community-minded focus to the table.
Last week, Guest taught a canning workshop to the Kelowna Community Kitchen crew, an ad hoc group on Facebook that meets monthly to produce healthy food in a collaborative environment that cuts costs and reduces the load on individual cooks.
The Kitchen’s demographic is far younger than one might figure a community canning workshop would attract were it scheduled even 10 years ago—and yet she had 14 participants.
“It’s become a popular way to save money and preserve the flavours of the season,” said Elana Westers, a 30-something cook and sustainability expert who runs her own business, Sustainworks (soon to be renamed Growing Inspired).
Like Guest, who teaches regular canning workshops, Westers has run a handful of canning cook-offs through the city’s recreation programs, teaching water-bath methods and the intricacies of pectin and flavour mixing to a generation who might not have even see their mothers canning.
“I highlight recipes that are flavourful,” she said. “People really want to enjoy the flavours of fresh foods and if you add a lot of sugar, you end up giving it away.”
She teaches her participants to use fruit juice and calcium pectin to reduce sugar content and focuses on including interesting herbs and fruit combinations that can stand on their own, without the extra sweetener.
The workshops are popular and build on a trend that’s seen the Central Okanagan Community Garden’s popularity explode in recent years.
This new civic-minded foodie crowd is keen for solutions that protect the earth, their own families and build strong local networks—both socially and on the food security front.
It’s the very definition of the Central Okanagan Fruit Tree Project.
When their Pick-nic is held this Sunday, the volunteer directors will explain that in exchange for offering picking services, or fruit trees to be picked, those who choose to participate will be contributing to that community building effort, preventing food from going to waste and will earn some healthy, locally-grown free food for their own pantry.
The Central Okanagan Fruit Tree Project Pick-nic Info Session runs Sunday, June 17, from noon to 2 p.m., at Sutton Glen Park next to the community garden, 464 Sutton Cres. in Glenmore.
Participants are asked to bring some food to share. To register a fruit tree, sign up as a volunteer or find more information, Laura Hsu can be contacted at 778-214-5664 or email email@example.com. They also have a Facebook Page.
Follow Jennifer Smith on Twitter: @jaswrites