Changing How We Live and Eat, One Fig at a Time
At 2 o'clock in the morning, most people in this college town are holed up studying, headed home from a bar or curled up in bed.
Asiya Wadud, however, is reaching for the weeping branches of a tree on the south side of the UC Berkeley campus, picking olives. A handful of her friends are helping. There is a little beer, a little wine; it's part merrymaking, part urban harvest.
"Don't worry about sorting them," she says, dropping a handful into a paper bag. An alarming fraction of the fruits are mottled and a little wormy-looking. "We'll do that tomorrow."
Wadud, a bartender at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, has become obsessed with saving city-grown fruit from being wasted, which is why she heads out in the darkness, stripping smallish green orbs from the branches of this unassuming tree rooted in a patch of grass between the street and a concrete wall.
She's also part of a growing movement of super-local eaters and activists interested in food not from the nearest farm, but from down the block. When she moved to south Berkeley four years ago from Ohio, she was struck by California's ubiquitous fruit and by the way people let it rot, as if backyard apples and figs were something unremarkable.
She gathered the courage to knock on strangers' doors and ask whether she might try one of their ripe plums, or sample a pear. No one refused; in fact, she says, people seemed relieved to share, as if the prospect of wasted food were a constant weight she was helping to lift.
Forage Oakland blog
So last spring, she created Forage Oakland, a blog on which she details her foraging adventures and where people can barter their excess backyard bounty, trading apples for figs and lemons for lavender.
The response has been enthusiastic - more than 120 people have registered, and now she spends her free time bicycling through East Bay neighborhoods, harvesting at one home and delivering to another. Wadud doesn't pick anything without asking for permission - difficult at first for a born introvert. But now, the moments she spends with strangers and neighbors in their backyards, trying to thread a long-handled picker through tree branches to reach the highest-hanging fruit, are tiny revolutions against the anomie that is so common in urban life.
"People can live somewhere for years and never really know who's next door," she says. "But food binds us all, and it becomes this very simple way to connect."
As food prices rise and interest in locally grown food intensifies, foraging has also become an inexpensive way to eat healthfully.
Between May and October of last year, the 27-year-old didn't buy any fruit from the grocery store or farmers' market. By then, she had made a map of forageable food sources in her neighborhood in south Berkeley.
"Making dinner, I'd check the map to find rosemary for the roast chicken," she says. "Or if I wanted tea, I'd go over to Miles and Cavour (streets) and get lemon verbena. It's more exciting to eat when you have this immediate connection with your food."
Sustainable living has always been important to Wadud and was part of the reason she packed up and moved to Berkeley after graduating from the College of Wooster in Ohio with an urban sociology degree.
For example, when her boyfriend won a trip to Rome last year, her first thought was not what to pack, but rather, "What's going to happen to the persimmons? Who's going to harvest the persimmons? That's my dilemma. It's why I lie awake at night."
Berkeley graduate student Georgia Seamans stumbled on Forage Oakland when she was surfing the Internet, looking for a recipe for nocino, an Italian liqueur made from walnuts.
She left a comment: "There's a walnut tree on my block. Hopefully the squirrels will let me share in this year's bounty." Wadud wrote back offering walnuts, and in return Seamans gave her garden herbs. "We've been trading ever since. Our last trade, I gave her some end-of-season tomatoes and I got some hachiya persimmons."
Those persimmons may have come from Boston transplant Diana Sherman, whose backyard tree hangs heavy with hachiyas. Their goopiness and delicate taste make them hard to give away in large quantities, she says. Last year, most of them ended up in the compost bin. "It was our first year here," she says of the home in Oakland's Westlake district that she shares with her husband. "The persimmons ripened just as we moved in, and we were totally drowning in them. We really didn't know what to do with them."
Not money-making gig
Chez Panisse regularly buys foraged foods for its gourmet menus, but for Wadud, capitalism and Forage Oakland have nothing to do with one another. Foraging, as she practices it, requires creativity, a certain do-it-yourselfness, and a willingness to share. Trading cash for goods requires none of those. It's a way to say a little something about the world as she imagines it could be, instead of the world as it is.
"She's not making any money, and she's probably never going to make any money for this," says San Franciscan Iso Rabins, who is in the midst of launching a foraged-foods business using a community-supported agriculture model, in which customers would pay a set amount to receive a weekly box of locally foraged foods. "She spends her whole day riding her bike around, picking fruit and giving it away to other people. It's totally noble."
There are similar projects, like Oakland's People United for a Better Life in Oakland, or PUEBLO, which hires urban teenagers to pick produce and deliver it to senior citizens who have limited access to fresh fruit. Other Bay Area groups like North Berkeley Harvest and San Jose's Village Harvest Project connect homeowners with too much fruit with volunteer parties who are willing to pick and take the gleanings to local food banks. Portland, Ore., Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston are among the other cities with similar programs.
"There's a whole revolution," says Matias Viegener, one of three Los Angeles artists who started a public fruit mapping project in 2004. When, calling themselves Fallen Fruit, they started posting fruit tree maps online and leading foraging tours through their Silver Lake neighborhood, they seemed unusual. "But in the last year," Viegener says, "it's kind of boomed. We often get to trees we know and they've been picked bare."
New vision for city
Each of these projects, including Forage Oakland, issues a challenge to reconsider the city as a plentiful and generous place.
"This is not idealistic," Wadud writes. "Rather it is necessary, pragmatic and creative - especially in times when much of the world is suffering from lack of access to healthful and satisfying fresh food."
On a daytime foraging mission in Oakland's Temescal district, she wheels her bicycle past a narrow home to a giant, hidden backyard, where pears and apples litter the ground. The air is heavy with the sweet stink of rot, but there are plenty of perfectly good specimens still hanging in the trees, and in another corner of the yard, oranges are just beginning to ripen.
She gathers pears and apples into two bags - one to leave for the trees' owner, in thanks for allowing her to pick, and one for Forage Oakland, to be exchanged for something else.
"It's overwhelming," she says. "There is just so much fruit."
Foraging ethics are a matter of some debate. Asiya Wadud always asks permission before picking a neighbor's fruit. Others abide by the concept of "usufruct," which allows one person to enjoy the benefits of another person's property, as long as that property isn't damaged in the process. In fruit-tree terms, that means that it's legal to pick fruit from a branch of a tree you don't own that is hanging over public property.
Forage Oakland: ForageOakland.blogspot.com.
PUEBLO: People United for a Better Life in Oakland/Urban Youth Harvest: Peopleunited.org. Teens pick excess bounty from neighborhood trees and distribute it to low-income seniors.
North Berkeley Harvest: Northberkeleyharvest.org. Volunteers come to your backyard and harvest, and fruit is donated to local food initiatives. Drop-off donations of organic, edible fruit also accepted.
Village Harvest Project (San Jose): VillageHarvest.org. Arranges volunteer harvests, provides educational materials and advice on fruit-tree care and harvesting, and on food preservation such as making jams and preserves from home-grown fruit.
Portland Fruit Tree Project: PortlandFruit.org.
Philadelphia Orchard Project: PhillyOrchards.org.
Earthworks Boston: EarthworksBoston.org.