There’s more to glean from harvesting a season’s bounty with a group than a bucket of fruit. Three years in, the Okanagan Fruit Tree Project is overflowing with offers as it looks to provide food and unique opportunities to those in need, while filling a void for orchardists, veggie farmers and anyone with a garden bounty they simply cannot pick through…
As the owner of Tantalus Vineyards, Jane Hatch may concentrate on refining her Riesling, but when she acquired a property with eight apple trees, it wasn’t grapes gnawing at her conscience.
“I picked an 800-pound bin of apples and had it pressed for juice, and I still had a lot of fruit left over on the trees,” she said. “That was a real concern to me. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do with them and it felt terribly wasteful to just let them fall on the ground.”
A little research produced a phone number for the Okanagan Fruit Tree Project.
Now in its third season, the phenomenally successful gleaning initiative-cum-non-profit organization has managed to significantly out-pick established organizations in the Lower Mainland, though it boasts only a two-person board of directors, a part-time coordinator and has just landed its first pot of grant dollars.
Its initial mission was simple: Feed the hungry with backyard fruit that would otherwise go to waste.
Yet, as the tight crew of founders venture into vegetables, connect with farmers and network with organizations designed to serve needy families and provide marginalized individuals with meaningful work, they are fast becoming much more.
“I feel like this year was the turning point,” said Casey Hamilton, president of the newly solidified board of directors.
It recently split from the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council. Fostered as a committee of the council, the project was developed by Hamilton, a dietitian who was working for the Interior Health Authority at the time, and a handful of her dietetic interns. As the interns moved on, she connected with a former business analyst for Tetley Tea and Safeway, Jane Kellet, and an international relations student well-versed in food security issues, Ailsa Beischer, and the committee blossomed to a full-blown organization.
As of this summer, Beischer is a seasonal, though full-time employee, and there are 300 people who volunteer routinely with expectations of picking nearly 20,000 pounds of fruit by year’s end.
“I think there’s an unmet need here,” said Hamilton. “We have received tons of phone calls from all over the Okanagan from people wanting us to pick fruit and we would love to expand and explore those opportunities.”
Like any new venture, the challenges are as plentiful as the potential.
How the food will be distributed provides an ongoing debate, for example. A little goes to the pickers. A little goes to the owners of the fruit or vegetables on offer, and a good chunk goes to a long list of charitable organizations from the Kelowna Food Bank to The Living Positive Resource Centre to the Okanagan Boys and Girls Clubs.
“We’re trying to keep it loose and flexible and see what works for this community,” Hamilton explained, noting many organizations set hard-and-fast one-third, one-third, one-third policies.
Hauling in some 17,700 pounds of food last year, with 10,000 pounds under its belt this season and the heavy harvest still to come—apples, filberts, walnuts and potatoes—those in need have taken notice. Although it distributes to organizations not individuals, the calls from low-income families have started and the group has had to creatively adapt to each situation.
“It’s a complex area, food insecurity,” said Hamilton. “People who are living in poverty are there for a lot of reasons. Some are there because of unfortunate circumstance and some are there because it’s a multi-generational problem; this is how it’s always been for their family. It’s hard to get out of that cycle. So, we’re not going to get at the root cause of poverty, but what this does do is it provides access to fresh, healthy food for people who can’t afford to buy it or who can’t afford to buy enough of it.”
The vision for the organization includes a social enterprise business, which could produce a value-added product from its harvest—or a few. The group wants to employ the socially and economically marginalized individuals it is already working with and find a stable funding base without having to use grant dollars.
Last November, Beischer won it a $3,000 prize at Okanagan Change UP 2013, a competition put on by Okanagan Changemakers to foster social enterprise organizations and businesses. The group is hoping to start research to make its venture happen this fall.
In the meantime, they’ve won the confidence of the City of Kelowna and Central Okanagan Foundation, which each awarded the project funds for the first time this spring. And now it’s rolling along on a $23,500 budget, with money from apple juice sales topping up the pot just enough to get Beischer on salary full-time to coordinate picks.
“We could expand almost indefinitely. There seems to be an endless amount of fruit around and we’re only scratching the surface,” said Kellet, adding she’s constantly surprised by the number of volunteers who jump on board saying they had no idea such a thing existed.
For now, they’ve drawn their geographical line at Penticton.
One other gleaning organization, Okanagan Gleaners, harvests fruit throughout the valley, processing it into soups and shipping it to developing nations. It is a Christian organization based in Oliver and has been working the concept since 1994.
Hamilton says she’s impressed with its project, but wants her organization to chart a different trajectory—serving the local community, targeting inclusiveness at every turn. She’s reaching out to organizations working with marginalized members of society, like those with mental illness specifically, to encourage this style of growth.
This fall, they will work with Cool Arts, an organization providing arts opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities, on a project called Re-Produce.
Cool Arts artists have gleaned two batches of plums and will soon be doing apples. Along the way, they are sketching the fruit, creating fruit-inspired pottery with the Potter’s Addict Ceramic Art Centre and photographing their work. It will all go on display at the Grow Local Fair in October at the B.C. Orchard Industry Museum.
As Cool Arts executive director Rena Warren explains, the project as a hands-on experience targeted at community learning. The community learns about harvesting and the abilities of those with developmental disabilities. The Cool Arts participants learn about food and where it comes from, and they take some home along the way. She loves the Okanagan Fruit Tree Project’s approach to community development.
“Rather than just say here, I am going to lend a helping hand, the way (the project) is working provides people with more dignity as they’re involved in the process,” she said.
Hamilton intends to keep it this way.
The Okanagan Fruit Tree Project is on Facebook and is always looking for volunteers and fruit or vegetables to pick in the Central Okanagan or Penticton.
PHOTOS above: (A) Dawn Buehner and her family moved to the Okanagan from Calgary and are really excited to be out picking fruit as it’s not something a family can easily participate in on the prairies. (B) Founding members of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Project Christina Grieve, Laura Hsu, Alisa Senecal and Casey Hamilton (far right) launched the project three years ago. Hsu stayed on to help Hamilton foster the 300 volunteer strong society it is today.