FRUIT ISN'T THE only sweet treat that can be havested from the tree, according to a creative group of green-minded residents.
More than 10,000 pounds of edible bounty later, the locals behind Not Far From the Tree are looking at branching out into maple syrup, says founder Laura Reinsborough.
The local resident’s original concept for Not Far From the Tree was simple: beginning in July, teams of volunteers would harvest trees on behalf of interested homeowners, and then the fruits of their labour would be divvied up three ways. A third would be offered to homeowners, a third would go to volunteers, and at least a third would be donated to community organizations that run food programs.
Her mission was to round up fruit around the neighbourhood that would otherwise go to waste.
We’d Tap That is a pilot project that recently had volunteers tapping area maple trees for their sap. They then boiled down the sap and held the Sugaring Off Party, where the public was free to come and sample the syrup.
The future and shape of the new initiative has yet to be determined though, says Reinsborough.
At the moment, Not Far From the Tree operates as a project of a non-profit called The Catalyst Cente. However, she says they’re looking at registering it as an independent non-profit later this year.
From a hobby to a volunteer activity to a paying position, Reinsborough’s current role as project coordinator has become a full-time job. Not Far From the Tree also employs a small staff — one person to oversee each neighbourhood — when it comes time to harvest fruit.
For Reinsborough, the biggest reward has been the bond she has formed with her neighbourhood.
“It’s a real community-building project because people are working across fences and across different barriers that would otherwise separate us,” she says.
When Reinsborough started the program, she says she worried that there might not be enough fruit in the area for it to make sense.
But in Not Far From the Tree’s first year, more than 3,000 pounds of fruit was collected by its 150 volunteers.
Based on this experience, Reinsborough estimates that there are around 1.5 million pounds of fruit — from apples to cherries to pears — across the city of Toronto.
“There’s really an abundance of fruit here,” she says.
Some of the trees are left over from old orchards, as in the case of Reinsborough’s neighbourhood. Some came with waves of immigration, such as apricot trees, which have cultural links to Italian and Portuguese communities, she says. Others were simply planted for ornamental purposes.
In 2009, with almost triple the number of volunteers, they rounded up more than 8,000 pounds of food.
With a focus on food security, Reinsborough says donating at least one third of the food that is collected to social service agencies, including NaMeRes and Humewood House, is an important aspect of the program.
Not Far From The Tree also does its part to address the challenges of climate change by reducing how far food must travel to the kitchen table and by delivering fruit by foot or by bike.
Another goal of Reinsborough’s has been to raise awareness by showing people a different side of their city. “It changes our perception of the soil underneath our feet and of its potential to grow beautiful things,” she says.
In the beginning, Reinsborough comments, people would question whether or not fruit grown in Toronto was safe to eat.
She sees it as a mark of success that people have largely stopped asking this. The fruit is local, organic and edible, she says, not to mention delicious.
“People have come to see that the city can be a really healthy place,” says Reinsborough.
She still recalls the first fruit she ever ate fresh off the tree - the Baldwin apple, a heritage variety found at the Spadina Museum.
It had a sweetness to it she had never tasted before, she says. “It’s a pretty neat thing to bite into the history of Toronto that way.”