For much of the Jewish Diaspora, Shavuot is cheese blintzes, and little girls in froofy white dresses, boys in starched white shirts looking uncomfortable with wet, combed hair. Both are accessorized with fruit baskets filled with produce from the local grocery on their willing shoulders, reenacting the yearly Shavuot Temple offering.
But what if these baskets could be filled for free from local trees instead?
“Many people find it strange that food could be free,” says Ethan Welty, cofounder of FallingFruit.org. “They are amazed a tree in an urban environment could be producing food you can eat from.”
The new open-source website maps fruit trees and other edible plants available for free harvesting in urban environments all over the world. Anyone can download its data, and all are welcome to update and add more sources of potential bounty.
Though based in the United States, the tailored Google map is ever-growing and currently has pin drops from a dozen countries. Since its quiet late-March launch, it’s had some 40,000 visits from all over the world, from Israel to Israel-friendly Micronesia.
It is not the first of its kind; there are already several urban-foraging sites up on the Internet. But what Falling Fruit is trying to achieve is a community of foragers, sharing information and creating a dialogue between them — and donating excess largess to local food charities.
Essentially the principle behind Falling Fruit is “waste not, want not,” an idea that jibes well with the festival of Shavuot as observed through reading the Book of Ruth: Having fallen on hard times, Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, feed themselves through gleaning in their distant relative Boaz’s fields. (Spoiler alert: By the end of the book, Ruth marries Boaz and begets an ancestor of the future King David.)
Falling Fruit too is a merger of charitable impulses. Shortly after returning from a Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel, Welty, a University of Colorado PhD student in glaciology (the study of glaciers), met Falling Fruit cofounder, computer science professor Caleb Phillips. Fittingly, they became acquainted at a volunteers’ meeting for Boulder Food Rescue, a bicycle-based delivery network for rapidly moving excess retail produce and baked goods to organizations that feed the hungry.
Welty explains the ideological germination of the Falling Fruit project: “One summer I foraged for all my fruit and had enough to make jams, reductions, beers, apple cider… and started thinking about ways to make it more than just about me.”
From his PhD studies he was already familiar with municipal maps which, among other information, include types of trees and their locations for maintenance and pruning.
Endless data, plus two idealistic scientists, equals Falling Fruit.
Welty calls himself “the curator of the edible world.” He is the “data wrangler,” incorporating and finding new sources, with payloads in municipal and university lists of types of trees and their locations. Phillips is the tech guy.
“I’ve had to learn all these names, research species, whether they were of interest to native Americans — maybe past cultures used them as food and we’re not aware of it,” says Welty very late at night via Skype from his Boulder home. He speaks quietly so not to wake his sleeping roommates, at one point briefly excusing himself to pull a pizza made from “rescued” dough from the oven. “This next year, I’ll be able to meet these trees once the growing season begins.”
Though there’s a “Donate” button where visitors can help cover the costs of the server, or “Buy them a beer,” this is a volunteer, all-encompassing, time-sucking, labor of love for Welty and Phillips, who are passionate about reducing food waste.
“I’m the guy who has no shame in asking someone if they’re going to finish that plate. I have a strong aversion to waste, especially in food, and have overcome any squeamishness with expiration dates,” says Welty, who grew up in France and has a love of good cuisine.
A lot of his personal outlook, he says, comes from his Holocaust-survivor grandmother, who was always very active in her community and extremely generous.
Welty also sees some common denominators between his project and the kibbutz movement he experienced while visiting relatives in Israel last year. He says both are about “sharing and escaping the very rigid concepts we have of private property and food held under lock and key.”
‘The Jewish tradition adamantly emphasizes again and again that the earth is not our own and that we ought not waste its fruits’
Orthodox Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, Founder and president of justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, says Jewish tradition is all for sharing Mother Earth’s wealth.
“The Jewish tradition adamantly emphasizes again and again that the earth is not our own and that we ought not waste its fruits,” he says. ”Falling Fruit has raised the bar, offering the potential to take the Biblical mandate to another level from reacting to fallen fruit to being proactive to address hunger and deeply cherish God’s creation.”
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman from Newton’s Reconstructionist Shir Hadash community agrees.
“That we live in a world with fruit-bearing trees and that, as our blessing reminds us, bread comes forth from the earth, is no less than a miracle and we must harness the holiness of this fact by utilizing this produce in wise and equitable ways,” she comments.
According to Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, Shavuot is one of the four days of judgment. On this holiday of the first fruits (Hag Habikurim), the world is judged through trees’ produce, and assumably, what becomes of it.
Falling Fruit may just help tip the scales.