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Benevolent Roots

The New Orleans Fruit Tree Project helps undernourished communities by harvesting good produce that would have otherwise gone to waste.

Eugenia Uhl Photograph

Living in New Orleans, I’ve consumed many culinary delights: cochon de lait poor boy at Jazz Fest, turtle soup from Mandina’s and cannoli from Brocato’s. But by far the best morsel I ever ate was found on the corner of Desaix Boulevard and Tunica Street, 30-some years ago. A delightful octogenarian sat in the warm sun offering small baskets of persimmons gathered from her backyard tree. I’d never eaten a persimmon. She cut one open for me to sample; it was simply and sweetly divine.

There is really no surprise in how delicious that persimmon was, because there’s nothing quite like enjoying a freshly picked fruit. That’s why so many New Orleanians plant trees in their yards. They want to indulge in the joy of eating scrumptious fruit just footsteps from their homes.

However, though you may start with an adorable 4-foot lemon or orange tree, you will soon discover that your tree is producing more fruit than you can manage to eat, pick, preserve or give away. The fruit ends up eaten by the birds or rotten and wasted.
Fruit falls to the ground, uneaten, all over the world. Sure, a bit of fallen fruit is good – for the soil, for the animals and bugs, for the perpetuation of more fruit trees. But a global grassroots movement has identified a highly effective ingredient for building community: fruit.

“Fruit tree projects” are popping up all over the world. Some distribute fruit harvests to undernourished communities; many celebrate the harvest by processing the fruit into delicacies.

It’s an effort some are calling “fruitanthropy”: the act of picking, donating or distributing fruit for humanitarian purposes.
In New Orleans, The New Orleans Fruit Tree Project leads this effort. Using a tree-owner registration and volunteer time, NOFTP harvests fruit from private residential property that would otherwise go to waste. The harvested produce is then donated to local organizations to feed the hungry.

NOFTP began in January 2011 as a program of Hollygrove Market & Farm. With just a 12-foot ladder, a couple of fruit pickers and a few dedicated volunteers, NOFTP harvested more than 3,000 pounds of fruit from six New Orleans neighborhoods and one orchard in Belle Chasse during the 2011 Citrus Season.

According to Megan Nuismer, NOFTP’s executive director, last citrus season the organization harvested 6,000 pounds of fruit with help from 50 volunteers. The year before, with a better season, they harvested more than 10,000 pounds of fruit.
“I love this project because it gives people who their love their trees an opportunity to watch their fruit go to a food pantry and make a very direct link to help with hunger in city,” Nuismer says.

It’s a simple process: Fruit tree owners register their trees and notify NOFTP when their fruit is ready to be picked. NOFTP then organizes a group of volunteers to come and collect the fruit. They supply all the equipment, and all volunteers are trained and sign liability waivers prior to every harvest. Fruit tree owners are welcome to a portion of their harvest or can choose to donate it all.

“We have a mature persimmon tree that gives us way too much fruit every year that just would go to waste,” says Patrick Ashton, owner of Ashton’s B&B, a historic New Orleans bed-and-breakfast on the Esplanade Ridge. “I love that the fruit will not be wasted. It’s also nice that they come and pick the entire tree, which eliminates messy and smelly fallen rotten fruit. As a busy innkeeper, it’s hard to find time to go out and pick all that fruit.”

The volunteers who pick the food are also rewarded.Many feel the immediate gratification of seeing what a few hours of fun in the sun can accomplish, and knowing that their picking efforts rescued the fruit, helped the trees and provided nutritious food to the hungry.

Harvesting starts in November and goes through March, when the city’s trees will be full of oranges, persimmons, kumquats, grapefruits, satsumas and lemons.

If you are interested in volunteering or registering your tree, now is the time to contact NOFTP. You can register online at nolafruit.org/tree-registration or e-mail them at nolafruit@gmail.com

There is something so satisfying about planting fruit trees. It somehow signifies that you are putting down roots of a more permanent nature. And now, while enjoying the deliciousness of your fruit, you can also get a warm feeling knowing you are helping others enjoy fresh fruit that is simply and sweetly divine.

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