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Hidden Harvest: Nonprofit will put city's wasted produce to good use

"[Tree-owners] might not even realize what they have in their backyard is edible."


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On Rose Smiechowski's block in Friendship there are four types of edible fruit trees. Near Carolyn Barber's home in Highland Park, there are five.

In total, Pittsburgh is home to more than 20 varieties of edible trees whose fruit — including mulberries, pears, apples and figs — frequently lays wasted on city sidewalks. But Smiechowski and Barber are working to put this produce to good use.

That's why they founded Hidden Harvest, a nonprofit organization that will take produce from trees throughout the city and donate it to local food banks.

"There are food deserts in Pittsburgh where people don't have access to fresh food," says Barber. "We can't solve major food-security issues, but we can contribute by educating people and raising awareness about food options."

Right now, Hidden Harvest is working to register trees and volunteers. A lot of their work will involve reaching out to private tree-owners to see if they are interested in having their trees harvested. The harvest from each tree will be split equally between the volunteers, the tree owner, and the food bank.

"[Tree owners] might not even realize what they have in their backyard is edible but they do know that it drops berries and it makes a mess every year," Smiechowski says.

While interest in foraging and urban gardening is growing throughout the city, Hidden Harvest will be the first organization of its kind in Pittsburgh. There are about 60 similar organizations throughout North America.

Hidden Harvest is modeled after "Not Far from the Tree," a fruit-tree project based in Barber's native Toronto. Since it was founded in 2008, the Canadian organization has collected more than 70,000 pounds of fruit, and donated 22,000 pounds to social-service agencies.

"Just seeing how many thousands of pounds of food has been harvested in these different places is inspiring," Smiechowski says. "And some of these things happening in other parts of the country are just really small community groups, and they're still making an impact."

Smiechowski and Barber plan to partner with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank as part of the nonprofit's community harvest program, which allows gardeners to donate excess produce.

"We encourage gardeners to donate their excess fruit and vegetables," says Jeralyn Beach, food-bank produce coordinator. "So we're excited that [Hidden Harvest is] trying to get this organized. We know harvesting these trees can be difficult, so if we can get folks who are willing to do that, there is a need and we'll make sure they can get that food into the right hands."

While food banks have traditionally been focused on distributing non-perishable items, the food bank redoubled its efforts more than two decades ago to distribute more fresh produce.

"We're about providing people with a full, balanced, nutritious meal, and it is hard to do without fresh produce," Beach says. "These donations are just a small part of all the produce we distribute, but it adds up."

While the organization will be primarily supported on the backs of volunteers who register to harvest the fruit, in the future Smiechowski and Barber plan to seek funding for equipment like apple pickers and baskets to make the job easier. They hope to hold their first harvest before the end of the summer.

In addition to fruit harvesting, the group will also be tackling food scarcity through educational programs.

"We may be donating food to the food bank, but I also imagine that with outreach and education there might be a single mom who has a mulberry tree in her back yard and suddenly realizes, ‘I can go pick what's in my back yard and I can eat that,'" Smiechowski says.

Hidden Harvest will also be educating the community on how to use the food collected from trees. Its website will feature recipes for jams, pies, marmalades, breads and more. The founders are especially interested in finding unique ways of using uncommon ingredients in order to eliminate the stigma associated with them.

"There are a lot of things, like mulberries and ginkgo nuts, that are really maligned and people just think they're completely bothersome," Barber says. "I don't know if we can change people's minds completely, but we can certainly try."


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