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Women pick serviceberries in downtown Toronto as part of a Not Far from the Tree initiative. (Photo: Celeste Ceres)

Canadians are taking advantage of our urban harvest

Look closely in cities across the country, and you’ll find alleyways, backyards and campus lawns brimming with fruit. Much of it used to simply rot, but that’s changing as more people discover the hidden treasures of the urban orchard.

By Jonathan Forani

As Helena Moncrieff plucked serviceberries from a sidewalk tree near the old Honest Ed’s discount store in Toronto, a woman walked by askance. The berries couldn’t possibly be safe to eat. But Moncrieff assured her they were and continued picking, placing the fruit in a dry yogurt container she had brought along. She offered the woman a second container, and she joined in. Soon another person stopped to pluck some berries of their own. “We started talking about recipes, where the food was going,” said Moncrieff, a writer and instructor at Humber College. “It was like being in Honest Ed’s looking for the bargains on the table.”

Moncrieff was taking advantage of an untapped food resource. Though some berries are poisonous, the serviceberries she picked that day are just one example of perfectly healthy fruit that many cities have to offer. Across Canada, there are sidewalks like this one, college campus fields, private backyards and front yards brimming with unused fruit, from grapes and plums, to figs and apples. Planted generations earlier, many of these fruit trees and plants will rot because they are presumed poisonous or because their new owners don’t have the knowledge or resources to maintain them.

A growing number of organizations across Canada — nearly 20 from Victoria to Halifax — are tapping into the urban forest. Many of these groups will harvest fruit for free, giving a portion to the homeowner, a portion to volunteers and a portion to food banks and other local charities. The pickings are plentiful. In Victoria, the Lifecycles Fruit Tree Project brought in over 19,000 kilograms of fruit in 2015. In Toronto last year, a similar group called Not Far from the Tree gathered more than 5,500 kilograms and sent more than a third of it to different agencies across the city.

For Moncrieff, who wrote the book on urban fruit (The Fruitful City: The Enduring Power of the Urban Food Forest, ECW Press, $22.95), the plants don’t just offer unexpected bounty, but also teach us about our history. She calls them “agricultural graffiti marks” that can reveal who was here before us, such as yards full of fig trees exposing an area’s Italian roots.

Their presence provides a sense of connection not unlike what you’d find at a worship service or neighbourhood centre, “except it’s less organized,” says Moncrieff. “You build communities around these trees.”

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