Not at all a “dessert”

Food Deserts are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. 

Before today, I had never known such a seemingly harsh but honest term existed to describe the serious lack of food access for overwhelming large populations throughout the the globe. A desert is a barren, arid and seemingly endless landscape devoid of any true vegetation or water sources. This metaphor for areas in which food is not accessible for the populations living there speaks to the magnitude and severity of the issue.

My time spent at the Portland Fruit Tree Project has compounded my belief in food as a basic human right. And not just food; real food, food that is nutritious and will sustain a body throughout life. Food is just as essential as water to drink and air to breathe- it is crucial to life, and has many powers beyond just simply that.

I came across this article today on Huffington Post:

This article mainly focuses on the influential role of such nutritional programs as SNAP and WIC in this issue. While these programs do seek to increase food access and equity specifically in food deserts, the article says this:

“Yet, SNAP’s 47 million participants face numerous barriers to eating a nutritious diet, including insufficient benefit amounts and the high cost of healthy foods. Families on SNAP report a desire to eat healthfully but sometimes have to “compromise nutrition and variety in their diets to ensure that they could provide enough food for the least expense.”

Not terribly surprising when considering the expense of food just by strolling into the closest supermarket- that food which contains the highest amounts of fats and sodium and pesticides, often times generic brands or mass produced produce, stand to nearly always be the cheapest option. Fresh and organic items are displayed on their own, proving to be sometimes doubly or triply as expensive as other options.

So, while these programs are crucial on such a broad scale as far as our national food security is concerned, it just further emphasizes the need for local grassroots efforts such as Portland Fruit Tree Project. Clearly, there are limitations. We cannot reach every hungry individual in the city of Portland, and we cannot overcome the existing food desert in the NE portion of the city on our own. By comparison to many other food pantries and organizations, our reach is small. But we are working with a coalition of other organizations that are seeking the very same goal as us. In considering the benefits but also the downfalls of government food programs, it is more vital than ever that other opportunities exist to supplement the nutrition that is continuing to lack in poverty stricken communities.

Perhaps someday, some of these deserts can be transformed into lush rainforests, rich in a diverse array of healthful opportunities and food will no longer be a barrier to leading healthy and productive lives. 


Harvest with Bienestar de la Familia

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to co-lead one of several “group harvests” this season. A group harvest is one that involves in particular low-income and groups that face food security issues on a regular basis by partnering with organizations that serve these populations. One such organization is Bienestar de la Familia, a social service program that works to address the basic needs of the Latino community in Portland. Certainly fresh foods are hard to come by for some of these people, so it was a great organization for us to partner with.

I personally was very much hoping to be a part of one of the group harvests, just to get to continue working with diverse populations and those that could truly benefit from fresh foods. I was a bit apprehensive for this harvest, as I knew it would be a Somali Women’s group that was not fluent in English, and so a Somali translator would be accompanying the group, in addition to the staff person, Julia. Nonetheless I was excited to hear the different language being spoken and harvest some fruit.

The 3.5 hours in which the harvest took place during were complete and utter chaos, from start to finish. At 10:30 AM, a massive white van pulled up the first residence and out poured some two dozen people, women in beautiful colored traditional gowns and intricate sandals and too many children to count. The noise of raised and excited voices was nearly deafening, and before I could even blink, the women and children had begun pulling at the branches and fruit was falling like rain. So flustered, I tried to locate the translator to get every individual accounted for and waivers signed, which you can imagine would be a struggle with only one person able to write in everyone’s names/addresses/phone numbers etc.

Once we jumped that hurdle, it was all but impossible to get everyone to stop harvesting to brush over safety protocol and harvesting procedures. It was a far cry from harvests I have led in the past, where everyone sits quietly (for the most part) during introductions and then calmly start picking, each person separated by a noticeable personal space bubble. This group had no such reservations, and were not afraid to jump in and help each other out with ladders or perhaps less helpfully and more aggressively, steal a spot on the tree from someone else. It was a very no-nonsense approach to harvesting- it was clear that everyone knew the goal was fruit, and there was nothing that could deter them from that goal. They were extremely efficient pickers, albeit taking sizable branches down from the tree in the process. Again, and again, I tried to stress “gentle” to everyone, to no avail.

It was interesting to see the attention we drew from accompanying houses and neighbors, who seemed quite confused as to why there was a large Somali group rapidly harvesting trees with bright orange fruit pickers on a Friday morning. Certainly everyone we talked to was supportive of our organization and its mission, some perhaps a little bit too interested. One woman, for example, took the opportunity to grab her large DSLR camera and snap dozens and dozens of photos of the children, perhaps without their knowing and understanding consent. It certainly felt like more than a little bit of white privilege being shoved into the faces of some darker skinned and impoverished people that most likely didn’t understand her purpose for being there. The children seemed to love the camera though, and wanted her to take pictures of them jumping and dancing around. 

The harvest ended with some squabbles and complaints from the women about the fruit shares- we made sure to divvy up the fruit and label it before they took it home with them. Overall, it was certainly a wild experience, and one that I am very grateful to have had. The benefit for those people of fresh fruit is certainly valuable, and the perspective I gained cannot be undervalued. 

So, thank you Bienestar de la Familia for a very unexpected but equally rewarding Friday afternoon!

Harvesting Galore!

In all the harvesting hubbub and mountainous piles of tasks around the Portland Fruit Tree Project during the summer months, it is tough to find moments to reflect and appreciate the wonderful work that is being accomplished. But, this critical reflection is crucial in always keeping the mission of the organization present, and ensuring that our continuing work is always supporting food access and equity in the Portland area.

I do feel lucky to be a part of such a genuinely good thing. To see the excitement and hard work of the volunteers that come out to harvest, as well as the passion and commitments made by the dozens of individuals that volunteer their time to lead these harvests is truly inspiring. I think it certainly speaks to the quality of the organization, and the importance of community building throughout the globe. These grassroots efforts and nonprofit organizations may seem trivial at some moments, but in thinking about the hundreds of families and people that are directly benefiting from the Portland Fruit Tree Project in combination with millions of people connected to other small organizations, it seems as though this may be where the most work is being accomplished.

Thinking about my role as a 6 month intern at one of hundreds of nonprofits in the area doesn’t diminish the fact that I have gotten to be in community with so many wonderful individuals, and it is the work that I have done and I continue to do that makes these opportunities possible. Harvesting fruit trees is, I believe, a way to be in solidarity with a diverse array of people from all over the Portland area, even if just for a couple of hours. Picking the fruit side by side where we all work together to reach a singular goal is humbling, and allows me to learn so much from others. Undoubtedly, my favorite part of the harvests are those moments when I get to hear the life stories of others, while reaching for ripe apples off the branches, or sitting in a circle of several and sorting the fruits of our labor that will benefit many others, not so different from us. Every evening harvest proves to be different and special from all the others before it, and that is what motivates me to continue more.

In such a rapid and technological world, these moments of togetherness with one another and connecting back to nature are what make life so meaningful.

“We must give more in order to get more. It is the generous giving of ourselves that produces the generous harvest.”

-Orison Swett Marden

This quote, while perhaps figurative statement by Mr. Marden, also applies literally to the work I have been involved with for the past month and a half. We are well into the harvesting season here at the Portland Fruit Tree Project, and it is easily apparent upon walking into the office. In the main area we have slapped up on the wall two large whiteboards depicting the number of registered tree sites that have contacted us reporting ripening fruit. Each notification requires a site visit- a quick look around at the tree and surrounding area in which we assess several factors, such as fruit quantity, quality, accessibility, safety  etc. Most all tree owners have been very gracious about the trek I make to their house to see the trees, although it has happened more than once when a homeowner comes to the door, rumpled from sleeping and eyes my clipboard suspiciously, perhaps thinking I am selling some product or service. But it all works out by the end- though the visits only last fifteen minutes at most, I feel as though I get a glimpse into the lives of a very diverse array of people. Getting to speak with them, meet their dogs or see beautiful yards and gardens, it just further reinforces my passion for working for and with people to better the environment, even just on a micro scale.

The harvesting parties themselves are, on my part, a frantic but incredibly rewarding experience. I will never again underestimate the amount of behind the scenes work that is required to make any event possible. One might think for a simple harvest of a tree, everyone shows up and picks some fruit and bam, good to go. That, friends, could not be further from the truth, so I have discovered. There is equipment to prepare and paperwork to organize- during the harvesting party there is proper fruit harvesting technique and safety to monitor, fruit to sort and weigh, communication with the tree owner, more packing and trucking to the next site. It is a process that must be learned through repetition. I do constantly have to remind myself to not get caught up in the details, and enjoy the experience. Once I see the excitement of the harvesters and the progress we make in such a short amount of time, those some of most the redeeming moments.

At the last harvest party I co-led, I witnessed some of the most beautiful examples of compassion and genuine kindness between every day people. It was at the second site, a designated tree care team site, and owned by an older man i’ll call Mr. R. Incredibly knowledgeable about fruit trees, Mr. R became a paraplegic while tending to them a decade back. A high fall off the ladder and a vertebrae slashed his spinal cord, forcing him into an electric wheelchair for the rest of his life. No bitterness remains though, and Mr. R comes out to observe the work being done and to chat with the participants. I imagine that he loves the company- and the company certainly loves him. Before I even had the chance to invite Mr. R into our group photo at the end of the harvesting party 4 separate people insisted in a whisper that he be in the photo too. And in saying goodbyes to the harvesters afterward, an older woman approached me, saying that she lives nearby the site and was planning on bringing over a plum cobbler to Mr. R from her harvest share. It is this valuable work that, despite all of the negative things happening in the world, make it a little bit better.



Some Weekend Updates!

This past weekend proved to be a busy, workin’ weekend for the Portland Fruit Tree Project! I assisted in two different events on Saturday and Sunday, and both proved to be successful and rain-free (yes!).

Before I go into detail, it might be helpful for me to briefly outline the different types of programs that PFTP serves. The first, as I mentioned before and serves as the bulk of programming for PFTP, are the harvesting parties. These events take place at tree owner’s residences throughout Portland, typically beginning in late June and lasting throughout September. Folks can be considered for a harvesting party by registering their tree or trees online or by phone. We then input their information into our database (including the trees!) and we ask to be notified roughly two weeks prior to fruit ripening to set up a site visit and organize a harvest party for that site.

Throughout the entirety of the year, PFTP has four different Tree Care Teams (Southeast, Green Thumb, North and Northeast TCTs) that can be registered by anyone with interest in the Fall and lasting for 12 months, with one session a month. Typically, it includes a classroom session and then a work party afterward at various sites, each session with a different theme or emphasis. There are also advanced tree care teams, which are much more independently run by the members on those teams.

In addition to the TCTs, we also have several Tree Care Workshops that are free for registered tree owners to attend, and provide hands on opportunities to learn about year-round, holistic and organic care for their trees. To complement tree care, there are also a few food preservation workshops that are very helpful for tree owners to attend and to learn how to make the most of their harvest.

Finally, the Portland Fruit Tree Project helps co-manage several community orchards throughout the Portland area, which undoubtedly are my favorite events to be a part of. So far, I have been able to attend the groundbreaking event at the newly established North Portland Orchard, located in the New Columbia neighborhood in conjunction with Village Gardens, as well as the Sabin Community Orchard this past weekend.

So this past weekend was the May session for all four Tree Care Teams, with an emphasis on Pest & Disease Management and Fruit Thinning. I assisted Program Coordinator Bob Hatton with the SE TCT, with the session running from 10AM-1PM. In actuality, loading up and packing the truck, arriving to set up, partaking in the session, cleaning up and putting supplies away at the office took from 8:45AM-2:30PM. There is a lot of behind the scenes work that has to be done to make sure these sessions run smoothly! My favorite part of the session was physically working at the site, a woman’s orchard who isn’t able to care for it any longer and needs our help to maintain it. I did some fruit thinning and weeding, and generally took note of which trees were receiving different types of care. After a solid hour of work, there was some difference in the orchard and also, plans for the next visit.

On Sunday, I assisted PFTP’s Americorps member Spencer Masterson with a work party at the Sabin Community Orchard. Though the sky looked threatening, the rain held off and the sun even happened to peek out for a bit. The Sabin Orchard is a lovely small plot that is co-managed with the Sabin Neighborhood Association, and really serves to bring a diverse array of the community together. We had participants from all ages and backgrounds out working with us. Over the course of two hours and 15 volunteers, we managed to weed and fertilize all the fruit trees and fruiting vines, shape the fill the newly developed pathway and ID tag all of the trees. It was incredible to see how hard folks worked over those two hours, shoveling and weeding not for simply personal benefit, but for the good of the community. By the end of the work party, the orchard looked so healthy and vibrant, and I saw smiles on many faces as they walked away, admiring their work. 

All in all, it was a busy and beautiful weekend, and I look forward to more upcoming events!