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Hidden Fruit: Not Far From The Tree faces the challenges of being a growing sustainable non-profit

The Toronto non-profit, Not Far From The Tree, looked like it was doing a great job. In three short years it had gone from picking 3,000 lbs of fruit from 40 city trees located on private property to almost 20,000 lbs this season. Volunteers had grown as had the number of trees registered by home owners and the social service agencies that benefited from the delivery of fresh fruit that would otherwise have gone rotten.  It was a tiny, perfect solution to the waste created by trees that could do a lot more than just look pretty in the spring.

But such fast growth came at a price. With over 900 trees registered to be harvested, it was obvious that the 700 volunteers could not pick the ripened fruit from all. Almost three-quarters of the potential fruit had been left on the trees. Worse was the realization that with growth came a $50,000 budgetary shortfall.

It's no wonder then that for founder Laura Reinsborough, tonight's fundraiser, Hand-picked, featuring food by Jamie Kennedy, Cowbell's Mark Cutrara and Bus Kitchen owner Carole Ferrari as well as remarks from outgoing Mayor, David Miller, at the SHAMBA Foundation, has not come soon enough. It helps that SHAMBA, the charitable arm of Globalive Communications, not only hosts the event, it actually provides organizational support to non-profits who have little experience in fundraising.

"We had been successful in getting some funding from government and some foundations, but we haven't really let our fans and friends know that we need their support as well," she says.

Dealing with this issue is particularly critical this year. Although they recently received funding from the Metcalf Foundation, a multi-year provincial grant has run its course and there is some insecurity about the future of environmental projects funded by the City of Toronto after the recent election.

Not Far from the Tree was born out of Reinsborough's experience volunteering at Spadina Museum where she picked fruit from a tree for the very first time in her life.

"They had ugly fruit, really ugly fruit with little scab marks on them," remembers Reinsborough. "But a lot of them were heritage varieties. The taste was just incredible."

Although she was working at a couple of galleries as well as in community arts for the Art Gallery of Ontario, that winter she held a meeting of like-minded folk at her home to see what they could do with the Spadina Museum experience.  Almost thirty people showed up, including chefs and farmers, intrigued by the idea of joining an 'urban fruit scavenging collective' in a city full of hidden fruit trees, in alleyways and backyards, just waiting to be plucked.

Their plan was to keep things simple. Begin in one neighbourhood and transport everything by bike; it would be their ward-based "hub" model approach.  Registered tree owners would get their fruit picked at no cost, unlike in other communities which charge for the service of harvesting. The bounty was split three-ways -- one-third to the property-owner, a third to the volunteer pickers (or "gleaners" as such work has traditionally been called), and the remaining third would be donated to food agencies within the neighbourhood. 

This community-based approach has led to many accolades including an Environmental Award of Excellence from the City of Toronto in 2009 and a 2010 Urban Leadership Award from the Canadian Urban Institute.

Today Not Far From The Tree is based out of 5 city neighbourhoods and works with 25 agencies in St. Clair West, East York, Riverdale, Trinity-Spadina, and Parkdale-High Park. The fruit they pick includes apricots, pears, plums, peaches, elderberries, and even gingko nuts. Reinsborough sees their growth as organic with agencies approaching them to expand into new areas.

One reason for the organization's success is that Toronto was once home to many apple and cherry orchards. For example, north of Danforth Ave near the Playter Estates was once a thriving orchard as were the lands around St. Clair West, which still had intact orchards in the 1940s.

For Reinsborough, it is almost distressing to consider what is wasted in the GTA.

"The soil is really fertile with 80% of the GTA covered in class 1 agricultural land. And it is producing delicious, wonderful, sweet fruit without a real concerted effort."

Not Far From The Tree estimates that across Toronto, approximate 1.5 million lbs of fruit are being grown each year, most of it going wasted rather than feeding the city. One of their newer challenges is the number of trees signed up in Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York, but without the capacity yet to service these areas.

Although they have tried raising money through selling fruit at farmer's markets or online sales of cute T-shirts, Reinsborough is quick to point out that T-shirts are not going to fund their programs. It is the most important challenge they currently face.

 "We know that we run a highly successful program that works. We know there is a fair need. All we need is support to facilitate this," she says. "But there is still a long ways to go.

 There's a lot of fruit out there."

Hand-picked starts at 6 pm tonight at The SHAMBA Foundation, 48 Yonge Street, 12th Floor. Tickets cost $50.

Piali Roy is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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