Berkeley’s Natasha Boissier Forages Fruit, Feeds Hungry

by Sarah Henry on February 4, 2011 · 27 comments

in berkeley bites,civil eats,food foraging,food security,fruit,sfgate site

North Berkeley Harvest volunteers Dan Alpert and Sarah Pyle with founder Natasha Boissier (far right).

Driving around North Berkeley with Natasha Boissier is an educational experience; where others see a quiet residential area she sees streets lined with potential pickings and delights when she spots prospective bounty or familiar fruit.

Boissier is a part of a growing movement of urban gleaners who pick fruit from people’s yards (with permission) and donate this surplus produce to food banks, senior centers, and schools who can put this fresh food to good use.

Some residents view an abundant fruit tree as a problem but the 42-year-old clinical social worker sees a simple solution to excess bounty and a way to fill a community need.

Boissier grew up, in part, in Switzerland and remembers climbing her favorite walnut tree during her childhood. She’s turned her love of fruit picking into a kind of foraging philanthropy as the founder of North Berkeley Harvest.

Since the summer of 2007 Boissier and her loose-knit volunteer crew (about 30 in all, around 10 regulars) has harvested a cornucopia of fruit including apples, pears, Asian pears, oranges, lemons, limes, plums, peaches, figs, nectarines, apricots, persimmons, feijoas, grapefruits, sour cherries, walnuts, quinces, and loquats.

Word spread quickly about her gleaning for good effort after local media coverage and a nod in a New York Times story on backyard bounty finding its way to food banks. She has expanded her reach beyond Berkeley to include neighboring El Cerrito, Albany, Richmond, and parts of Oakland too.

Last year North Berkeley Harvest picked 3,602 pounds of fruit from 43 homes, many the group visit every year. During peak picking season volunteers meet about once a week.

Boissier delivers the bags and boxes of fresh fruit to several local non-profit organizations, including Berkeley Food and Housing Project, Berkeley Unified School District’s Central Kitchen at King Middle School, and the senior lunch program and after-school children’s program at Jewish Community Center of the East Bay.

She lives in North Berkeley with her partner and two young children. We met this week first for fruit foraging and later for lunch at Au Coquelet Cafe.

 

Foraged apples./Photo: Courtesy of North Berkeley Harvest

How did you get started?

I was walking in my neighborhood while on maternity leave with my newborn son and I was struck by how many fruit trees there are here, how abundant they are, and how much of their fruit is allowed to drop and rot. It was a light-bulb moment: Picking this unused fruit seemed like a natural way to address waste and deal with hunger. So I went home and wrote up a flyer. That’s how North Berkeley Harvest came into fruition.

Do you have standards for the fruit you forage?

I taste test and only pick fruit that I would eat myself. I harvest fruit that hasn’t been sprayed or fertilized with any chemicals. It’s perfectly fine if the fruit comes in funny shapes, that’s how it is in nature, but it has to taste good.

What’s the most unusual use for the fruit you pick?

We harvest grapefruits but the ones here in Berkeley don’t taste so good to humans. A woman from an animal sanctuary called PAWS collects them for her elephants. She says they eat them like bonbons.

How has this project impacted your life?

It has brought me tremendous satisfaction. I work at UCSF’s [University of California at San Francisco's] Memory and Aging Center, counseling families dealing with dementia in their elderly loved ones. It’s rewarding work but it’s often very sad.

I’m also the mother of two young children with all the challenges that come with parenting. So sometimes I enjoy just going to harvest on my own. It’s a meditative, contemplative time for me. A very restorative hobby.

I particularly like picking fruit for seniors, many of whom can no longer climb a ladder or aren’t able to do physical labor anymore. They come out and talk with me while I work and I appreciate and respect their wisdom and experience, and hearing about the ups and downs of having lived life. These moments of connection have brought me — and I hope them — a great deal of unexpected joy.

 

Have there been other unforeseen benefits of this work?

Serendipity. A friend I lost touch with, Sarah Pyle, read about my work and contacted me; now she’s one of my most regular volunteers. And sometimes a resident will recognize one of the volunteers — from way back — and they’re so happy to see each other again. I love it when these kind of things happen.

 

Meyer lemons harvested this week./Photo: Sarah Henry

Do you have a preference for where you pick?

If I have to prioritize during the busy harvest season I’ll choose to pick fruit from the homes of elderly residents, many of whom are treasures who have tended these trees for decades. There are some really old trees in town.

Do you have advice for others who want to forage fruit for donation?

Yes, it’s simple and straightforward. This doesn’t need to be a big, organizational undertaking. Write a flyer and put it in people’s mailboxes in your local area. Enlist family and friends for your initial harvest and start small. The only equipment you need is a ladder, a fruit picker — you can buy one at Home Depot for about $30 — clippers, gloves, and some bags or boxes for the bounty. Identify some local groups that could use the fruit and get in touch in advance to find out what and how much they can accept (sometimes more isn’t better).

Have a contact person for your drop-off days but keep in mind these organizations are often staffed by low-paid workers or volunteers and there’s high turn over. They’re also very busy; so don’t expect a lot of accolades. Just deliver and go and know in your heart you’re doing good. I remember one resident at a shelter yelling at me: “Why are you bringing us fruit?” We’re grown men–we need meat!” I thought it was funny.

Have you met any interesting people harvesting?

There have been so many. One elderly couple come to mind: He’s a retired UC Berkeley expert on moss, she’s interested in lichen. I’ve been picking their apple tree for the last few years. I call her the Lichen Lady because she showed me her notebook full of these watercolor sketches of all the different lichen she’s seen in her travels around the world. They were just exquisite.

This is a place that celebrates people’s uniqueness. This town is full of intense, quirky, opinionated, and passionate people. I come into contact with some of them picking fruit. I call them the Berkeley specials. They keep things fun.

What’s next?

I’d like to take young school children on fruit harvesting field trips. It’s an area ripe with educational experiences: Nature, growing produce, tasting food, and sharing abundance.

Do you have a preferred place where you like to donate?

My first stop is often the men’s shelter. I’m not sure why. They’re often last in line for services — I mean, of course, women and children first — but these men are often blamed for what’s wrong with them. I see them early in the morning standing out in the cold after enduring a night of who knows what and I want to give them a piece of fruit to offer a moment’s respite from their pain and suffering. That’s my hope: To provide something tangible, simple, and sweet in their lives.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside, was republished on Civil Eats and cross posted on SFGate.

You might also like:

Canning for a Cause: Let’s Preserve
The Lemon Lady: Feeding the Hungry, One Bag of Produce at a Time
Spiral Gardens Helps Needy Feed Themselves
Wild Man Iso Rabins: A New Food Entrepreneur
Food Foraging 101

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Diana February 5, 2011 at 9:03 am

What important work, and what a lovely interview — it brought tears to my eyes, especially the close.

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 11:34 am

Thanks, Diana, appreciate finding out how this post affected you. I found Natasha a compelling interview subject, so I’m glad to hear that came through.

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Kris Bordessa February 8, 2011 at 12:08 pm

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Hunger is a huge issue in my community and yet people have trees dripping with fruit that’s going to waste. I’ve been pondering how to get this food into the hands of the food banks, so I appreciate the inspiration.
Kris Bordessa´s last [type] ..Grill it Yourself at the Shore Bird in Waikiki

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Glad to be of service, Kris. I hope you start your own group.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi February 8, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Wonderful to see people taking food that would go to waste and putting it straight to use. Even if it isn’t always appreciated, I think it is fantastic.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Book Review- Green Interior Design

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Agreed, M!

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Ruth Pennebaker February 8, 2011 at 12:46 pm

What a great, uplifting post! Reading it made my day a little brighter.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Speaking of Shame

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 1:08 pm

So glad to hear that, Ruth.

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Sheryl February 8, 2011 at 1:02 pm

I am so impressed at the kindness of this. What a fabulous way to spread the wealth.

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Yes, Sheryl, I think it’s the kindness of this act that really touched me too.

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Melanie February 8, 2011 at 7:15 pm

This post was so reassuring to me! I go running in the mornings and invariably come home with pockets stuffed with lemons, figs, pears, and whatever else I find in my ramblings; I just can’t stand to see fruit rotting on the ground or over-ripening unpicked on the tree! My family teases me and says it’s “stealing” but I say, if no one’s going to use it I’m doing them a favor and taking it off their hands!

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Sarah Henry February 8, 2011 at 10:47 pm

I’m curious to know whether any residents have ever confronted you about your fruit foraging, Melanie, or have you picked when people aren’t around?

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Jennifer Margulis February 9, 2011 at 11:06 am

Here in southern Oregon we have a group called Neighborhood Harvest that picks abandoned fruit and nuts, etc. It’s such a good idea.

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Sarah Henry February 9, 2011 at 11:39 am

Yep, these foraging efforts are sprouting all over the country, and harken back to earlier times (the Depression, WWII, etc.) when food was scarce and the community rallied to make sure nothing edible went to waste.

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Kerry Dexter February 9, 2011 at 1:36 pm

“Just deliver and go and know in your heart you’re doing good.” applies to other situations in life too, doesn’t it?

this is an inspiring story, Sarah, thank you for it, and thanks to Natasha for the good work she is doing.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] ..Celtic Connections 2011- images

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Sarah Henry February 9, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Yes, so true, Kerry. I’m glad I can share Natasha’s work with others and I hope it inspires similar efforts elsewhere in the country.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. February 10, 2011 at 8:12 am

This is so cool – you’re lucky to live in an area that has both an abundance of fruit and fruit tree owners who are amenable/generous enough to realize it shouldn’t go to waste. A perfect solution.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Ditch Dogs- Seeing is Believing

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Sarah Henry February 10, 2011 at 8:36 am

Well said, Casey. And for anyone in the area: Yesterday I interviewed a local forager who’s also running a nascent jam company and she recommended if folks here want to plant fruit trees you get best results, given our micro-climate, with Meyer lemons or Santa Rose plums (so much for my dream of having a Cara Cara orange tree.)

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Anna, The Lemon Lady February 10, 2011 at 8:45 am

Sarah, So glad to see you highlighting what goes on in the Bay Area. I’ve been to Berkeley often lately, and I see the same trees. Maybe I can help Natasha drop fliers in Berkeley too?

When you begin to look around you, you will see the vibrant color just popping out at you. Yes, Natasha is correct. A simple flier and a kind heart to pick fruit is all that is needed to bring something fresh to all these organizations. The “easy” part is almost hard to believe to many service groups. I continue public speaking at Garden Clubs, Rotary, etc. I encourage service groups to help put fliers on doorsteps, mention in newsletters. That’s all it takes. A simple flier, and oftentimes the homeowner will harvest the fruit. Then, all you do is haul the fruit. :) It is so easy, only a handful of us are out there doing it. One day, I dream that thousands of school children will flier their neighborhoods. When you pass a fruit tree, what do you do? Do nothing, nothing will ever get done. I have all kinds of silly sayings. It’s the truth, though.

I believe I did email Natasha a few years back. Fruit foragers have a way of knowing others. :) I wasn’t sure she was still harvesting and I’m so glad to see this article and hear the updates. I have fruit tree donors who contact me from Albany and El Cerrito with trees and permission to pick the fruit. I’ll have to refer out to Natasha when that happens.

I wish we can enlist more volunteers in every city. One Tree at a time…

We don’t have a hunger problem. We have a food (fruit) distribution problem.

Still foraging Concord, Clayton, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, Alamo, Danville, Martinez, Pacheco. Volunteers Welcome this side of the tunnel too.

Great article Sarah! Great inspiration. Most Excellent work, Natasha. Cheery Photos too.
Sincerely,
Anna, the lemon lady
http://www.thelemonlady.blogspot.com
AnnaAndAva@gmail.com
510.406.1625

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Sarah Henry February 10, 2011 at 9:45 am

Hi Anna, you and Natasha are kindred spirits serving either side of the tunnel, as you say. We need more folks like you two finding good homes for fruit.

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MyKidsEatSquid February 12, 2011 at 8:10 am

This is such a great idea. I can’t imagine fruit trees where I live. It’s too cold.

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Sarah Henry February 13, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Well, MKES, I recently learned that it’s too cold here to grow Cara Cara oranges, my favorite kind. In fact, it’s too cold to grow much fruit that truly tastes great, according to a knowledgeable source, aside from Meyer lemons and Santa Rosa plums. Curious to hear if others agree…

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Natasha February 19, 2011 at 6:54 am

There are some very good orange trees here and apple trees, but they do vary from yard to yard… Also persimmon, figs, and strawberries.

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