Seattle, we came so close to losing our entire fruit harvest for the year.
“We had to close our office earlier this year because of a funding crisis, and not knowing if we would have enough money to get through the 2021 harvest,” says Annie Nguyen, Executive Director of City Fruit. For years, the nonprofit has coordinated the harvesting of tens of thousands of pounds of fruit from urban trees, as well as distribution to food banks and other local organizations.
In normal times, City Fruit gets around $80,000 to $100,000 from the City of Seattle to help harvest fruit from trees city-owned property. It makes good sense: The food will grow there anyway, so we might as well devote a fraction of the city’s budget to collecting it and getting it to people in need.
Last year, the city reduced their payout to $70,000, Nguyen says. And in December of 2020, they learned that they’d be getting nothing for 2021. Just like that, a third of their entire budget was gone. They had enough to make it to the start of harvest season, but no further. Without some emergency measures, the organization’s future was in jeopardy, and thousands of pounds of food would go to waste.
Fortunately, a combination of difficult cost-cutting and fortunate local donations managed to avert disaster. “Our community really supported us,” Nguyen says. A grant came through from the Longbrake Family Foundation, and another from Impact West Seattle. That was followed by individual donations that helped keep the lights on, and later in the year an award from Seattle Public Utilities.
In fact, rather than having to close, City Fruit was able to grow their community giveaway program known as Fruit for All.
“This year with Fruit for All we were able to increase the number of fruit stands,” Nguyen says, from 12 last year to 18 in 2021. They were able to expand to new locations in Delridge and at Meadowbrook Community Center. Working with the Phinney Neighborhood Association, City Fruit established fruit giveaways in the morning at summer youth programs, so summer camp kids had access to fresh local fruit on-site. They were also able to donate a significant volume of food to the Refugee Women’s Alliance, as well as a thousand pounds of fruit to an elementary school where a snack program had been eliminated.
Meanwhile, Seattle's Parks Department took the lead on collecting fruit from public parks this year. They collected about 20,000 pounds, according to a spokesperson; of that, about 13,000 pounds were composted and just over 6,000 pounds were distributed, mostly to food banks.
With the harvest nearly — but not quite — complete, City Fruit has harvested and distributed 30,000 pounds of fruit, ten thousand pounds more than last year, from a mix of public and private land. Not only does that mean that they were able to serve more people, it also improves the diversity of available offerings. This year there were a lot of grapes in the harvest (a relief for neighbors who might be tired of getting so many apples), along with a handful of quince, persimmon, kiwi, and pawpaw. (Update: The kiwis and pawpaws will be ready soon, but in the meantime there are figs.)
Italian plums had a banner year, but Asian pears were in shorter supply than usual. That’s partly due to an infestation of destructive codling moths, which may be exacerbated by climate change. “We weren’t able to harvest a lot of our Asian pear fruit trees because the damage was so bad in some areas of Seattle,” Nguyen says. “I’d like to raise more awareness of how damaging these pests are on fruit trees.” (Advice for preventing moth damage can be found here.)
City Fruit is hoping for further growth in 2022. They’ve actively looking for more diverse food sources, and want to hear from schools or other community groups that might benefit from donations.
They’ve also managed to secure a new office space that has room for a commercial refrigerator and freezer. Being able to freeze some produce would be a boon, Nguyen says, because sometimes food banks reach a limit and can’t accept new donations for another few weeks. It would also allow City Fruit to harvest fruits that need processing before they can be donated.
For example, this year City Fruit collected 400 pounds of crabapples, which can’t be eaten raw — they need to be frozen so they don’t go bad, then turned into jam once the rush of the harvest is over. But the only available storage space was Nguyen’s home freezer, which had to be crammed to the brink with frozen crabapples. That worked as a stop-gap measure this year, but asking staff to clear freezer space in their homes isn’t sustainable.
To raise money for dedicated refrigeration, City Fruit will hold a silent auction on Saturday, November 6, from 11 am to 3 pm at their new office, 4000 Aurora Ave N. Bid on items like local ciders and beers, desserts, airline and sports tickets, cookbooks, and more, with proceeds going towards the refrigerator fund. (Another update: The fundraiser will cover a variety of costs, and coincides with a pick-up event with fruit-based beer and cider.)
“Ramping back up after the pandemic was a challenge,” Nguyen says, and they’re not back to normal: The city still isn’t working with City Fruit to harvest food from public parks. So for now, the nonprofit is shifting focus to gathering food from privately-owned trees instead.
“That’s going to be our priority going forward,” Nguyen says, “to save more fruit from being wasted.”