This regular online series will feature interviews with fascinating and influential urban thinkers, with a focus on discussing how Toronto can become a more engaged, accessible, and sustainable city.
Continuing our series of interviews with local “Foodfighters,” Spacing sat down with Laura Reinsborough of Not Far From the Tree (NFFTT). A volunteer-based organization, NFFTT has harvested more than 30,000 lbs. of fresh fruit from Torontonians’ backyards in a little over four years. Reinsborough discusses what inspired her and explains other aspects of NFFTT’s program, including environmental education, community building, as well as neighbourhood action and activism.
**Also, remember to check the latest issue of Spacing entitled “The Hungry City.” Now available through subscription and at select stores.
Spacing: Where did the inspiration for NFFTT come from?
Reinsborough: I was working at the AGO when I started NFFTT. I was interested in art-making as a way to engage individuals in environmental issues. Instead, I found that simply teaching about the environment actually made it harder to engage and connect with the larger issues. I began planning for NFFTT after realizing that seeing the environment required effort and that people needed to be brought to the environment to understand it. I thought that fruit trees could offer an urban environmental education as well as create a meaningful and memorable experience. The activity of fruit picking, or “gleaning,” as we call it, takes place in your own neighbourhood and it offers people an opportunity to connect with food in a profoundly different way. It’s an incredible connector for people to bite into something that they themselves harvested. For me, the deepest inspiration for the project was about having people connect more meaningfully with the environment that’s directly around them.
Spacing: What kind of fruit does NFFTT usually collect?
Reinsborough: We’ve picked sweet cherries, sour cherries, serviceberries, mulberries, apricots, plums, apples, crabapples, pears, elderberries, black walnut, and gingko. Last year’s yield amounted to approximately 20,000 lbs. of fruit in seven city wards. This year we expanded to 14 wards but the yield was much lower due to factors beyond our control.
Spacing: Where does NFFTT harvest fruit?
Reinsborough: We currently harvest from residential properties in conjunction with homeowners. They identify a need then we organize and dispatch a team of volunteers. We’re in 14 of the city’s 44 wards but we hope one day to be across the whole city. We like to draw our volunteers from the same neighbourhood where the pick is organized and we also donate a share of the harvest to community agencies located in the same area.
Spacing: Does NFFTT ever harvest fruit that’s grown on public land?
Reinsborough: We have on occasion, though there’s grey area in policy around that, and the City, almost unknowingly, has planted numerous fruit-bearing trees. There was one pick that we did in the middle of University Avenue on a traffic island that had 8 crabapple trees growing on it. It was a bit of a showy pick on our behalf because we knew that we would get people’s attention. We didn’t have City permission but we also didn’t not have City permission. The police officer that came to investigate us was quite interested but had no exact bylaws to quote. We, in turn, didn’t have any bylaw to support us.
The only City bylaw regarding fruit trees growing on boulevards suggests that adjacent homeowners can request to have them removed. That speaks partially to the role of NFFTT. Fruit trees, when un-harvested and untended, become a nuisance: They produce so much fruit, which falls, rots, and attracts pests. The tree becomes a hazard. But, when you harvest the fruit and put it to good purposes, the tree then becomes an asset for the whole community in terms of community engagement, neighbourhood action, and charity.
Spacing: What’s your idea of community engagement?
Reinsborough: Each time we step onto somebody’s private property something quasi-magical happens in that private property temporarily transforms into public space as strangers are invited in to harvest fruit. The fences dividing property lines are temporarily dismantled. Our volunteers, most of whom are initially strangers, gather in someone’s yard and then leave having shared a fairly intimate experience of climbing a tree and collecting fruit together. The homeowner is engaged as well. We try to coordinate having more volunteers than is required so that the pick becomes more of a social event. We’ve also had really great feedback from community agencies about how much more connected they feel knowing that the fruit they’ve received has come from their residential neighbours and such a meaningful neighhourhood activity.
Spacing: How does NFFTT fit within a broader context of healthy food access and availability?
Reinsborough: I believe it can offer a bit of insight into the global issues that we face. Around the world there is enough food to feed everybody and yet a billion go hungry everyday. The real issues are about access and distribution; it’s about property lines and political borders. Toronto is just a microcosm: We have an excess of food yet people go hungry in our city. NFFTT is about coordinating the effort locally to get across private property boundaries to make food available. We’re an intermediary —providing that step of knocking on a stranger’s door and asking “Hey, can we harvest your fruit?”
Spacing: Harvesting fruit inside a city is something of a juxtaposition. Do you think NFFTT is helping to redefine what is meant by the term “urban”?
Reinsborough: I hope that NFFTT impacts they way people perceive the city. When we first started out, residents would often ask if the fruit we picked was safe to eat. I consider it a measure of our success that we no longer get asked that. People trust it more, but even more importantly, they’re changing their perception of the city. They no longer think the fruit is dirty or contaminated just because it grows in an urban centre. I always considered that to be an unfortunate reflection of the opinion we have of our own city. In some small way we’ve been able to put trust back into our own backyard soil.
Photo by notfarfromthetree