Bridging the Opportunity Divide

In Atlanta, This Group Fights Hunger With Tech and Found Fruit

July 13, 2017
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In Atlanta, This Group Fights Hunger With Tech and Found Fruit
Maura Friedman
They’re the Peach State’s pickers.

Off the Atlanta BeltLine, about 20 feet from the Freedom Parkway bridge, as teenagers skateboarded, joggers pushed strollers and couples walked hand-in-hand, Logan Pool looks up.

“Do you think this tree can hold my weight?” he asks Katherine Kennedy, executive director of Concrete Jungle, the nonprofit that organized the day’s fruit pick.

Kennedy chuckles. “I’ll let you make that call,” she says.

The branches above him hang heavy with reddening plums the size of golfballs. Farther up the hill, six volunteers pull plums from other trees, filling quart-sized containers with the sticky-sweet fruit.

Concrete Jungle aims to address two connected issues. On the one hand, thousands of fruit trees grow unattended — their ripened fruits drop and rot, contributing to the 40 percent of agricultural products in the U.S. that go to waste, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And alongside that food waste, people are going hungry. In Atlanta 19 percent of adults and 28 percent of kids are food insecure — a phrase that, in practical terms, means skipping one meal a day based on necessity. Although food pantries and soup kitchens alleviate some of that need, it’s often with donated pantry staples and processed foods, rather than fresh, vitamin- and mineral-rich ones.

Since 2009, the organization has mapped 4,700 neglected trees to create Atlanta’s only fruit-tree map. It’s allowed the small group — which has just one employee and 10 board members — and their volunteers to maximize the harvest and minimize wasted fruit. To date, more than 33,000 pounds of produce have been donated to those in need.

For most of the 10 hunger-relief organizations that partner with Concrete Jungle, this is the only fresh produce they can provide to the families they serve. Subsequently, in places where Concrete Jungle drops off contributions, the fresh produce is used immediately, whether it’s set out for people to grab or set aside for volunteers to prepare as part of a meal.

“Concrete Jungle was the first and remains the most consistent donor of fresh-picked and farm-grown fruits and vegetables for our community,” Chad Hyatt, pastor at Atlanta’s Mercy Community Church, says. “Getting food donations isn’t hard; getting healthy, nutritious, fresh food is.”

Growing Roots

Concrete Jungle started with two friends and some apples. Craig Durkin and Aubrey Daniels had a cider press but, as broke students at the Georgia Institute of Technology, they didn’t have the money for the abundance of fruit required to use it. So they scouted out apple trees in the area and started picking. Before long, they realized the scope of the fruit available in Atlanta — a metro area with so much lush green space it’s widely known as “the city in the forest.”

Sometimes referred to as “gleaning,” this age-old practice gathers whatever crops remain on a farmer’s land after it was harvested. And Concrete Jungle isn’t alone in gleaning food donations. “Urban fruit foraging” organizations — a more modern term for the practice — have popped up in cities such as Seattle; Louisville, Ky.; Philadelphia; Boulder, Colo.; and Los Angeles.

For volunteers, these organizations provide a novel experience that harkens back to childhood tree-climbing or family trips to orchards. “They can now see Atlanta in a new light,” Kennedy says. “They can see fruit trees all over the place.”

That was one of the main draws for Erin Croom, who came out to the plum pick with her two sons, five-year-old Thomas and four-year-old Henry.

“I love showing them that there is magic in ordinary and familiar spaces,” says Croom. “They are so proud to gain new knowledge — like being able to identify new trees — and do something that helps others.”

Back by the parkway bridge, Pool has successfully climbed the plum tree and is diligently harvesting from halfway up its branches, although a few plums have ended up in his mouth.

“I’m only eating the bruised ones!” he calls down, laughing.

A Better Bounty

Beyond a growing volunteer base, Concrete Jungle has technology on its side. Because it’s difficult to keep an eye on the thousands of trees the group has mapped all across Atlanta, they’ve partnered with the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Public Design Workshop to better monitor their potential crops.

First, to reduce the amount of time spent driving to a picking site, the team deployed drones to take photos and videos of the trees. (The drone is currently grounded due to FAA regulations and licensing requirements.) Now they’re creating sensors that will be directly placed in trees to monitor fruit growth. Cameras take weekly pictures of tree branches, and a bend sensor measures a branch’s angle (as fruit grows bigger and heavier, it weighs the branch down). And an electronic nose, still very much in the development phase, aims to “smell” gases as they’re released from growing fruit. Once the gases reach a certain level, the fruit is ready to pick.

Last year Concrete Jungle donated 16,000 pounds of produce, a harvest record they’re hoping to double this year.

On this afternoon, eight volunteers collect 98 pounds of plums, some of which end up at Mercy Community Church, hand-delivered, like most donations, by Kennedy.

A group of predominantly homeless men is gathered for breakfast and prayer. Pastor Hyatt loads some of the plums into a bowl and passes it around. “Concrete Jungle is an example of fundamental justice,” he says, “of seeing a resource and a need and doing the right thing by rolling up your sleeves and dirtying your hands to get the resource to those who need it.”

Correction: This article originally referred to Atlanta’s BeltLine as the Beltway. NationSwell regrets the error.

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