Stretching high with her long, lean arms, Asiya Wadud picks an apple covered in riotous red-orange stripes, then bends to put it in the satchel by her feet. While Wadud harvests the tree, I collect rotten fruit off the ground so Wadud can save the seeds.
The tree, its branches laden with more apples than one family could dream of eating fresh, grows in the backyard of someone’s three-bedroom home in the Berkeley flats. Without Forage Oakland, Wadud’s urban fruit collection and redistribution organization, most of the fruit would fall to the ground to rot.
I take a bite from one of the striped apples. It tastes crisp, juicy and alive with tart flavor. “These are delicious…” I say.
“They’ll be perfect for a pie or apple butter,” Wadud agrees.
A foraging revolution germinates
The inspiration for Forage Oakland took root four years ago when Wadud, a native of Washington, DC, joined Americorps and traveled to the Bay Area. She began teaching children how to garden at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School’s Edible Schoolyard, and was amazed by the length of the growing season and the variety of plants that thrived in the Bay Area’s coastal climate.
During long bike rides around her new neighborhood in the Temescal, says Wadud, “I started to notice the pure mass of unharvested fruit and I wanted to change how much of it was going to waste.” Wadud soon developed a serious foraging hobby. “I started making little maps of the neighborhood and of edible things in people’s backyards, like fruit trees and forageable greens,” she explains. After years of taking fruit to her neighbors and keeping a bit for herself, she decided to expand her delicious pastime into a barter organization. “I thought it would be great if people who have a surplus of fruit could donate it,” she ays. “From there, Forage Oakland was born.”
In April 2008, Wadud created a blog, posted her plan online, and began contacting her neighbors about donating their extra produce. The enrollment process is simple: anyone living in Oakland, Berkeley or San Francisco can contact Forage Oakland by e-mail or phone and establish a harvesting day based on when the fruit is expected to be ripe. Forage Oakland volunteers will arrive only on the pre-established date, and if the fruit is not yet ready, they will reschedule. If the donor wishes to receive fruit in exchange, on picking day Wadud will typically bring a mixed selection of locally harvested fruit. As of now, the program is only open to those who can barter with produce already growing in their backyards, but Wadud hopes to eventually expand Forage Oakland’s services with a weekly pick-up/drop-off site—much like a Community Supported Agriculture box—that will also distribute produce based on need.
Support for the program has been nearly universal. Heightened awareness about eating locally and sustainably aided Forage Oakland’s mission, and according to Wadud, most people appreciate that their fruit is not wasted. “You know, you can go to the grocery store and get apples and grapes from Chile, or nuts imported from New Zealand, or you can go to your neighbors’ yard and harvest their apples and their grapes,” Wadud says. “Why buy an apple that has been shipped 3,000 miles when we have almost everything we need right here?”
Forage Oakland grows …fast
“It can get a bit overwhelming because it’s really taking off, but it’s also just getting started,” Wadud says as we load the bags of apples onto her bike and head off to our next Berkeley foraging location: a house on Derby Street with an Asian pear tree and grapes.
Wadud has been busy the past five months. What started as a few donating households and leisurely harvesting dates with her friends has exploded into an expansive network of fruit “pledged” and ready to be picked. Since July, Forage Oakland added over fifty households to its roster and now boasts about eighty fruit tree locations.
A core group of five volunteers, most of whom also work at Chez Panisse where Wadud bartends, are responsible for harvesting, sorting and redistributing the bags of fruit. Everything is picked by hand, and most harvesting missions are completed by bike. “It is a small handful of us, volunteering our time without pay,” Wadud says. “But it really does bring me so much joy, and I can honestly say that there is little that makes me feel as happy as eating a fresh plum, just harvested by my own hands.”
The recognition Forage Oakland has received over the last two months also tastes pretty sweet. On August 29, at the Slow Food Nation extravaganza in San Francisco, Wadud displayed and served (I am double checking that Asiya actually served the foraged fruit. She wrote that it was enjoyed by the dinner guests, which I took to mean eaten, but I called her today to clarify.) foraged fruit at the 500-person dinner. The next day she picked pounds of Meyer lemons, elderberries, blackberries and oranges to make jam and preserves for Jam Jam, a Slow Food Nation-sponsored event. Over thirty people converged at 18 Reasons, a gallery in the Mission district of San Francisco, to prep, cook, and can nearly 100 jars of jam and preserves. Also, since September 5, Wadud’s hand-made foraging maps have been on display at Urban Inventions, a design and architecture show that seeks to re-imagine the urban landscape of San Francisco.
For Wadud, the early success of Forage Oakland proves that people not only appreciate the barter program, but are also seeking to reexamine their relationship with food. She hopes that the increasing visibility of her organization can help reconnect people to their neighborhoods, the growing seasons, and encourage Bay Area residents to be more intentional about what they consume and why. Eating, Wadud says, is political.
“I think there can be a serious disconnect between our food, who cultivated it, how it was harvested, and the resources that went in to it finally appearing on our plates,” Wadud explains. “Forage Oakland is a simple project that takes out the extraneous steps and demystifies the process. It is simple: produce is foraged from a backyard of a Forage Oakland member; I notify you of its harvest; you consume it; and you thank your neighbor for making their produce available to you.”
To volunteer or sign up for the redistribution program call Asiya Wadud at (510) 289-7557 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information and photos: www.forageoakland.blogspot.com