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Falling Fruit: A global collaborative foraging map

November 1st

Ruth Stokes

Ruth Stokes tells The Ecologist about an ingenious new online tool that encourages all of us, especially the yet-to-be-converted, to indulge in the free edible goodness found throughout our urban spaces

It has pedagogical value, is good for the soul and matches people with an unused resource

Foraging for fruit just got easier, with a map bringing together foraging data around the world. Thought to be the first effort on such a large scale, Falling Fruit is a massive, collaborative urban harvesting map that aims to reduce waste while reconnecting people to their environments. 

Around 500 species are currently shown on the map, across locations as diverse as Australia, India, Mauritius, Israel and the Netherlands. It's just launched in the UK, collating more than 30 isolated maps from across Britain. 

Falling Fruit is the creation of two Americans, photographer and environmental studies researcher Ethan Welty and University of Colorado computer science adjunct professor Caleb Phillips, who met at Boulder Food Rescue, a not-for-profit that redistributes food thrown away by retailers to organisations that feed the hungry. The pair bonded over an interest in sharing the urban harvest with as many people as possible. 

The map is open source, and new locations for fruit trees can be uploaded by anyone. The site also offers the option to set up a personal account, for those who want to access additional features. These include “foraging range” emails, which update users on what's been added in their area, and a “routes” feature, which allows people to string together their favourite foraging locations into a walking or biking tour and share the itinerary with friends. 

Ethan and Caleb report that they've been overwhelmed by the positive response to the map. The project has generally been well received by foragers and new locations are being added every day. They believe it could be the first step towards something much bigger. 

Ethan says he sees the map as part of a larger movement towards the rethinking of urban spaces, driven by the way many of us have been distanced from our food and the renewed interest in self-sustenance. 

“The first goal is to be the global authority on the urban harvest in foraging locations around the world,” he explains. “But a more lofty goal is to make a platform that's so impressive in its scale that it'll reach people who haven't had this idea before themselves. So we want to reach non-converts and get them thinking about and indulging in foraging in their neighbourhoods.” 

At some point, they would like to expand to give organisations or groups caretaker roles over different areas, and to allow produce donations to be received. “If you look at the data, if gives you the sense that the activity is localised. There are hot spots of activity,” says Ethan. “It's composed of clusters of users. What we want to do is facilitate the creation of, or support existing, communities, people and fruit picking organisations that are doing the work locally. So we're thinking about how to connect people to people, or people to organisations.” 

And, he adds, “the ultimate goal is to start to reimagine what our cities can be in the future and deliberately make them more edible - by growing the community and starting conversations with city officials and people who are active in urban foraging and agriculture communities.” 

But could foraging really ever become mainstream enough to make this type of reinvention work? Ethan is positive about its potential for growth. As an example, he points out that people in Israel don't think of foraging as something unusual – there, everyone does it. “I had a really interesting talk with an Israeli reporter recently, and he told me the country has planted thousands and thousands of olive trees, and there are lots of public orchards,” he explains. “There's this awareness of this resource and they have grown it deliberately.”

He also cites localised examples where whole communities have embraced the edible – in particular, Incredible Edible Todmorden and Incredible Edible Wilmslow in the UK, where fruit and vegetables have been planted throughout the town and are available to everyone. 

“I'm not saying we could meet all our needs through urban harvesting; it wouldn't be the most efficient way of doing it,” he adds. “But by popularising the concept that food grows in cities – because there are lot of peope who don't really think about it – and showing it's there for the taking, it leads us to think whether we can plant more. It has pedagogical value, is good for the soul and matches people with an unused resource. Now we have this demand, maybe we can make it into something bigger.” 

Even in it's current incarnation, however, Falling Fruit is contributing to efforts to build a more sustainable world. By connecting people to an underused resource, it is helping to reduce waste, and acting as a central resource for foragers to share knowledge and find potential food sources quickly and easily. 

As to the big picture stuff, the conversation with officials has already begun - in a way. Falling Fruit is put together using data held by local institutions.“It turns out that a lot of universities and muncipalities - and I think councils in your part of the world - have this data for management purposes,” says Ethan. 

He prompts any foragers interested in adding to the map to try getting this data – because, of course, for the project to reach its full potential it needs contributions from as many people as possible. “I would encourage people to write to their city to help build the map,” says Ethan. “In the UK, it will probably be town councils that have the data. It's just about asking the right city official.” 

Visit the map and add your own source.

Watch the Boulder Food Resuce video here

Ruth Stokes is a freelance journalist and author of The Armchair Activist's Handbook. Www.ruthstokes.com @ruth_stokes

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