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Together at the Tree: An Interview with Jared Walhowe

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jared Walhowe, who works with two programs — The Garden Gleaning Project and Fruits of the City — housed within the Minnesota Project. If you had the opportunity to come to our most recent Free First Saturday you may have met one of the wonderful people representing […]

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jared Walhowe, who works with two programs — The Garden Gleaning Project and Fruits of the City — housed within the Minnesota Project. If you had the opportunity to come to our most recent Free First Saturday you may have met one of the wonderful people representing the Garden Gleaning Project and may even have taken home a lettuce or cabbage plant for your home garden. My conversation with Jared focused on his work in relation to some of the themes found in Fritz Haeg: At Home in the City.

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How did the Garden Gleaning Project come to be?

We started informally in 2010 or 2011. At the time I was working at a food shelf called Waite House, as well as Gardening Matters. Gardening Matters is a local gardening organization and emergency food shelf network that supports all of the local food shelves, as well as the food banks that these food shelves order from. At first it was just a couple food shelves and nonprofits that got together and talked about how to get more fresh foods and vegetables on the shelves and how to get gardeners to help. They hosted the meetings and it turned into the Garden Gleaning Project. That first year it was myself with Waite House and the Little Kitchen Food Shelf in our spare time.

The next year we received funding from Hennepin County which allowed us to hire community coordinators to serve as liaisons between the gardens and the food shelves. We’ve been able to do a lot more outreach than before; many people didn’t know you could donate fresh produce, or what foods the shelves were even looking for. We had neighbors that didn’t know about us. A really localized effort is our strategy: just that neighborhood around that food shelf. The coordinators make connections, advocate for the food shelves in the community, and build relationships with farmers and gardeners.

Food shelves are stretched; a lot of them are exclusively volunteer-run, some are open one or two days of the week, some are open every day but include one paid manager that works 24/7. Some have volunteer coordinators, but we’ve found that accountability increases with a stipend position. The little money we put toward that stipend position comes back many times over. It’s more than just the pounds of food; now our neighbors knows about the food shelf. Maybe they weren’t interested in giving money, but now that they know about other ways we need help they are more than willing to volunteer at home or at the community garden. But the program is really about building relationships.

We have another sister program that’s a little bit older called Fruits of the City. Fruits of the City has a class every month in relation to growing food, usually fruit trees, but smaller plants, too. The main thing that program does is to connect with fruit tree owners and get them to register their trees with us. Last year we harvested 40,000 lbs of apples – most of it was from backyards. There’s a lot of community building in that too, and that’s what I’m interest in. I have neighbors meet neighbors whom they had never met before, because they came out and volunteered at their neighbors’ house. There are different ways to engage in both the programs, and both of them are trying to explore getting more healthy food into food shelves and building those connections and relationships.

Part of your aim is to create a Toolkit to serve as a model to help other food shelves and gardeners connect on their own. Can you tell me a little about the resources you’ve compiled to help people build these gardener/food shelf relationships elsewhere?

Well, it’s a growing model. In addition to having a coordinator at each of these food shelves, a larger, much more long-term goal is to create resources to help food shelves do this work. Hennepin County funded this project, but they want our model to help food shelves everywhere. We were able to finish this last winter. The neighborhood coordinators contributed pieces, all of those nonprofits in the back contributed, and a lot of it is coming from the food shelves and what has worked for them.

What I think is really great about this is that we’ve gotten people to download it across the US and internationally as well. My hope is that our Garden Gleaning Project Toolkit changes so it can be useful in, say, the Southwest in the same way it’s useful here. It doesn’t have all the answers, but I think this can start the conversation and we want to extend the invitation to talk with us and help us build a stronger Tool Kit.

The role I want to play is in starting that conversation, and having done this project, we’ve had people reach out and share their own gleaning experiences. So my new question is how can we learn from and share information between all of these disparate organizations that are doing similar work and find out what’s working for them? I think soon there’ll be a conference or something, because it seems like people are starting to know about each other. I mean, Fruits of the City started doing it really autonomously; they basically just geocached the trees and let people do whatever they wanted. Garden Gleaning is a little more organized, because we want to bring people together at the tree. I want to see more of those gatherings.

Fritz Haeg said a great thing in an interview with Paul Schmelzer that I wanted to share with you, “The projects I’m most interested in are the ones that exist in this fantastic, ideal notion of what the city I want to live in looks like—creating some small piece of that and putting it into the least likely part of the city to see that contrast between the city we want and the city we have.” I was curious what your ideal city looks like and how your work with The Minnesota Project relates to that?

I guess ideally we wouldn’t need food shelves. Ideally everyone would have access to land. There would be public spaces where folks could harvest food for themselves and others.

We do have a little bit of that. There are some fruit trees on our greenways and public spaces, and that’s a beautiful thing. We really want to support this idea of a community orchard, that is, a public space that anyone is welcome to, where food is free. It’s accessible and there are no stigmas or barriers surrounding it.

We worked with the the Frogtown neighborhood to do a pop-up tree nursery where we took a vacant lot that used to be a liquor store and planted a bunch of tiny fruit trees and let them grow for a while. Seitu Jones headed up this project and distributed them to neighbors in the area. Anyone who wanted fruit trees could have them. Because of this project, we have lots of new fruit tree owners using land that wasn’t being utilized otherwise and making fresh fruit more accessible.

And these food/forest concepts of turning underutilized spots into very diverse, really open and accessible edible gardens, like Fritz Haeg’s Foraging Circle that are perennial, come back year after year, and don’t require a lot of maintenance are part of the city I want to live in.

The goal of parks is to serve everyone – you can’t have one person come and pick all the apples. My thought is that we don’t have enough apple trees. If there aren’t enough for everyone, we don’t have enough. We have laws that say foraging is illegal on park land and I think the Foraging Circle is going to help us break ground on that issue and raise questions about these regulations. It’s kind of a wavering line between an art piece and a park, and that helps show it’s possible. and I’m really excited that that happened. That the Foraging Circle is a permanent installment is incredible.

I mean, we aren’t an arts non-profit. I love that he [Fritz] is doing this work. It may help us make connections and maybe get more traditional art-goers to think about food in these realms and start conversations about food in terms of access and where it exists in those spaces.

The Garden Gleaning Project is relationship-based thing as well, and it doesn’t seem as tangible as the orchard, it’s more nebulous. We have constellations of gardeners growing a tiny bit here and a tiny bit there. But I think those are real things.

Going back to that quote, if we can incorporate more edibles and community orchards, community gardens, who’s to say it isn’t art? Who’s to say it is? And how do we bring the art outside? We think of art as in a museum, but how can we think of art as something that lives everywhere and is accessible? It’s not behind walls, there’s no admission. I’m very interested in that.

If you would like to donate your time or lovingly grown produce to your local food shelf, please register your garden at gardengleaning.org/register or your fruit trees by sending an email to fruits@mnproject.org .