It’s not often you stumble upon a win-win-win situation. But two years ago, Rashidah Grinage, executive director of People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO), thought up a way to help homeowners, urban youth, senior citizens, and the environment, all at the same time. Her idea was simple: Create an ultra-local urban food chain by paying youth to pick fruit from peoples’ yards and deliver it to low-income seniors. She called the program Urban Youth Harvest, and the team is now finishing its second summer of harvesting. Looking back, Grinage calls the idea “a no-brainer.”
In 2006, Grinage was facing a squishy, messy problem. Despite making as many jams, jellies, and pies as she could manage, most of apples, plums, oranges, and blackberries in her backyard was going to waste. There had to be a way to get that food to the people that she knew really needed it.
The Alameda County Community Food Bank would only take the fruit if Grinage harvested and bagged it herself. But like many busy homeowners, she didn’t have the time to make that happen. What she really wanted was an organization she could call to come gather the fruit and distribute it to those in need. No such organization existed—so Grinage started one herself.
Rather than relying on volunteer labor, Grinage decided she’d pay young people to harvest and deliver the fruit, creating jobs in a city that desperately needs them. For three weeks during the summer of 2007, and six weeks in 2008, Urban Youth Harvest worked with the Mayor’s Summer Jobs Program; donations paid four young staffers to gather the fruit. The harvesters spent around twenty hours a week on the job, which included training about nutrition, gardening, and food justice issues. When possible, they rode bikes to the harvest sites. “It’s a much better summer job than filing or flipping burgers,” Grinage says.
Mike Saechao, age 23, liked everything about his summer working with Urban Youth Harvest. He credits the program for helping him get over his shyness; after spending the summer talking to the strangers whose trees he was harvesting, he’s much more comfortable in such situations. And he liked that his work was helping his community: “Every time I was picking I felt happy to be doing something for someone out there. That’s why I loved it.”
Once they gathered the fruit, Mike and his co-harvesters delivered it to local organizations that serve low-income seniors. They tried to find suitable takers as close to the harvest sites as possible, in order to minimize the impact of transporting the food. They hope the fruit will help combat the growing health crisis among seniors, whose lack of access to fresh produce contributes to high rates of diet-related illnesses such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.
This summer alone, Urban Youth Harvest workers delivered over a ton of fruit to seniors. For Grinage, that’s just a start. If she can find the funding, she plans to keep expanding the program. Future plans include mapping the city’s fruit trees using aerial photographs, harvesting year-round, and hiring more young people. “There’s more fruit out there than anybody ever realized,” says Grinage. “At this point, we don’t really know how big this could be.”
For more information or to donate to the program: www.peopleunited.org/uyh