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A Colorado-developed 'gleaning' database details sweet, low-hanging fruit

In his weekly "Flash in the Pan" column, Indy freelancer Ari LeVaux recently noted that 33 percent of food grown worldwide — $750 billion worth, annually — fails to be consumed before going to waste, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. And as it decomposes in landfills, it reportedly releases between 6 and 10 percent of the planet's greenhouse gases.

One solution, LeVaux points out, is more gleaning.

Salvaging unharvested food is as old as agriculture, he says: Think of the medieval poor prowling landowners' harvested fields for leftovers. Today, gleaning can also mean Dumpster diving, or people working to connect markets and restaurants with food pantries and shelter organizations to use excess perishables.

Colorado Springs Food Rescue, for example, has salvaged 25,000 pounds of food since launching 10 months ago as the brainchild of Colorado College student Shane Lory. He formed the group, which delivers most of its goods by bike, after volunteering at the like-structured Boulder Food Rescue. There's also a Denver-based Food Rescue Alliance that incubates food rescue groups in other cities.

You may also hear these gleaners referred to as foragers, foresters or freegans. But LeVaux also promotes urban gleaning from residences and public lands. And for that, you need to meet the website of Falling Fruit, at fallingfruit.org.

Blooming Boulder

Unlike mushroom hunters, notorious for defending their secret spots, many urban gleaners share info on harvests.

I type "80903" into Falling Fruit's international urban harvest map, and out of 573,000 listings in the U.S. that detail 767 different edibles, I find myself zoomed in on 10 Colorado Springs listings. Pulling up enlargements detailing what each item is, its rated quality and yield, and any necessary instructions, I learn that there's a peach tree of both "excellent" quality and yield located just blocks from the Indy office, in the atrium of the parking garage behind the city bus terminal.

Soon I'm virtual-touring through chokecherries and prickly pear in Bear Creek Regional Park, another peach tree in Red Rock Canyon Open Space, sand cherries near Holmes Middle School, and gooseberries just outside Palmer Park. Sondermann Park is its own salad bowl, with salsify, chokecherry, apples, cattail, asparagus, burdock, Chickasaw plum and catnip identified.

Scanning northward, I find more than 250 Denver listings, then guffaw when I hit Boulder's 11,000. With so many little red dots on the map, the city looks like it's got chickenpox.

Falling Fruit co-founder Ethan Welty, a Boulder-based photographer, explains that his high local number resulted from mining Boulder's tree inventory and inputting all edible species. Someone in Toronto apparently did the same thing to prolific listing effect, and Welty recently received a request from Austin, Texas' forestry division to add their notes.

"It's amazing how much data, often not meant for that purpose, is just lying around, forgotten," says Welty, who notes that individuals add locations daily, too. "One big component of what we do, as a technological clearing-house for the foraging community, is mass-aggregating data from all these different sources into a single format."

After reaching Jay Hein, newly appointed city forester for Colorado Springs, I learn that our own municipal tree inventory hasn't been updated since 2008. It's also undergone some sort of software migration from a master's student's project into an internal database that's not available to the public.

Building community

Hein says a new inventory "is on our radar — funding allowed," noting that Denver is going through the same process of seeking contractor bids to categorize each of its trees, too, by species, height, pruning needs, etc. It will be costly and could take years. But some good news: No city fruit trees are sprayed with pesticides, so anything you glean on public lands here should be clean. And so long as no trees are damaged by climbing, Hein sees no problem with citizens picking fruit from city property. (Regarding other public lands, inquire if you're concerned about legality.)

As for private lands, Welty notes an etiquette for gaining permission to glean there, e.g., a neighborly knock at the door. Not only is it polite, it allows an opportunity to "[build] community around a shared resource" via ensuing conversations and awareness.

Boulder Food Rescue was where Welty, a volunteer, met Caleb Phillips in January 2013. By that March they'd merged similar ideas and went live with Falling Fruit; this past February, they took on a third partner and incorporated as a nonprofit. Welty originally had the idea for this type of database in summer 2012, while seeking apples to make cider and finding the city tree inventory. Soon, he wasn't going to stores at all for his fruit needs.

"It doesn't mean much at a gut level until you're peering into a Dumpster, or surrounded by trees not being picked," he says. "You start to see city and public spaces in a separate way ... foraging as a gateway-drug to urban agriculture and the potential for food production."

Not to mention waste elimination. In April, Falling Fruit added a Dumpster-diving database (fallingfruit.org/dumpsters). Translations into other languages will follow the app, as will a map for pollen and nectar sources for bees in collaboration with area beekeeping clubs. Welty's also working on a more focused Community Fruit Rescue to effect a work-share between homeowners with fruit trees and willing pickers and charities.

Ultimately, better identification, organization and communication appear to be the keys to fighting this kind of food waste. So if you know a local source for some overlooked goodies, help populate Falling Fruit with the info.

Aftertaste

I make a mid-morning pilgrimage to the parking-garage peach tree downtown. As detailed, there's a strip of open land, with dirt, broken glass and weeds, but there stands a still-young-looking tree, its top foliage just catching the day's sun. Beset by faint bus fumes and city noise, it appears the most unlikely of perennial plants, as magical as the weirwood heart tree in Game of Thrones.

Except, despite a small flower bloom, this peach tree hasn't produced fruit yet this season, say cashier Anita Wenham and maintenance supervisor Rudy Vasquez. They speculate about a late frost or hail storms.

Employees for Standard Parking, which manages the garage for the city, they've observed the homeless eyeing its annual growth, patiently awaiting a picking day.

"I've eaten a peach off that tree this big," Vasquez says, forming his palms around an imaginary sphere roughly softball size.

"On good years there's quite a bit," Wenham says. "They're very sweet."

On years like that, the two will pick peaches and fill bags that they leave on the sidewalk for anyone to take. The true magic here is that pre-database and pre-app, their simple generosity ensured that no food went to waste.

matthew@csindy.com

  • A Colorado-developed 'gleaning' database details sweet, low-hanging fruit

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