The Big Question
Why is it that each year thousands of pounds of fruit rot on backyard fruit trees while some Americans go hungry?
It’s not that homeowners don’t want to share. The problem is one of coordination. How do we get the fruit from trees to people who need the food—and do it efficiently? Gleaning, the act of collecting leftover crops for the needy, is an ancient idea dating back to the Old Testament. In modern times, individuals and communities have organized groups, large and small, to move freshly harvested excess food from donors to those who need it.
Unfortunately, most of these operations are short-lived, possibly because coordinators burn out, or people worry that volunteering for such an effort would require too much of their time. It’s true that backyard harvest operations, while fun, are “coordination intensive.” Within a community, the word must get out that gleaners are willing, fruit trees with excess crop must be registered, volunteers must be recruited, harvest routes and schedules must be planned, and the collected food must make its way to hunger relief agencies. Homeowners and volunteers need information, legal and administrative structures must be maintained, and the receiving agencies’ hours and preferences must be known. This is a lot of interdependent work.
Group action just got easier!
Today, these obstacles are melting away. Easily available technologies, such as e-mail and smart phones, are catalyzing social change. It’s easier than ever for people with a mission to find each other, get together, communicate, organize, and take collective action. The best-known examples of successful group collaboration within a networked community are open-source software and Wikipedia. These wonderful additions to our toolkit were created by large groups of people, each freely donating a little work. These two inventions are creating profound social value—and even more, they showed how people can work together to fulfill a vision.
At the Urban Farmers, we believe that open-source collaboration can be extended beyond software and knowledge. We are borrowing that idea and applying it to the various tasks that are involved in hunger relief. We are building tools, software systems, and organizational processes to make harvesting and delivering food an efficient, community-based effort. We believe that when the work of many people, each doing a small amount of work, is coordinated through a reliable system, it can create significant results. Furthermore, such a project is more likely to attract volunteers, who know they are free at any time to choose how much time to devote to the cause, and when.
A new and better world
It’s a new way of doing things that can change human affairs by empowering groups and individuals to create durable communal results. If you care about hunger in our region and want to be part of an experiment in social production, please join us. We promise that the work to be light and fun, the concepts to be challenging and exciting and the results to be worthwhile. To change the world for the better, we just need a lot of people to do a little.
Here are some of the things you can do with the Urban Farmers hunger project:
On the day of harvest we need 10 to 12 volunteers to help harvest the fruit. We typically start between 9 and 10 am and end by 1 pm. On average, we visit 4 to 5 homes near each other on any given day. These jobs are straightforward but are critical to the success of the operation.
We reach out to the community and connect with homeowners that have more fruit that they can use. From time to time we receive inquiries (mostly by e-mail and sometimes by telephone) from people who have questions. We need a focal person to receive and answer these questions from the community. Our current volume of email is less than 10 per week. We provide you with a list of frequently asked questions and the answers to them. These FAQ resolve 90% of all questions.
A week or two before each harvest, the Harvest Planner reviews our database of trees that are ripe in a given area and selects candidate sites. Our system will then send an e-mail to these homeowners, notifying them of our intent to visit them. The Harvest Planner, based on replies received, determines the final route. This job takes less than 2 hours for each harvest.
Boss for the day! On the day of the event, the Harvest Leader greets and checks in the volunteers, directs the crew, distributes tools and interfaces with the homeowner. All the paperwork for a specific harvest, including receipts and thank you notes, are generated by our system and sent to the Harvest Leader before the event. After the harvest, a few pieces of data must be entered into the system. When that is done, the Harvest Leader’s job for that day is complete.
Volunteer Your Talents
Just because we have found one way to do things, does not mean that it’s the best way. Your talents and skills can help us do a better job. We need handy men and women, writers, event planners, computer programmers, graphic designers, and a whole lot of other people. We would love to have your creative ideas, your knowledge about running a volunteer organization, and anything else you’d like to contribute. We welcome your participation.