Rootstock Radio Interview with Katy Kolker

Air date: July 27, 2015

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. Equal access to healthy food is a topic that we at Rootstock Radio are passionate about. We believe that everyone, regardless of income, race, gender, social status, age, or any other factor, everyone deserves to have good, healthy, fresh food on their plates. Today we’re speaking with a nonprofit organization that is addressing this critical need in the Portland, Oregon, area by caring for urban fruit trees and then sharing the harvest with community members who need it most. Please welcome the wonderful Katy Kolker, founder and executive director of the Portland Fruit Tree Project.

It is my honor and privilege today to be introducing you to Katy Kolker, who is the founder and executive director of the Portland Fruit Tree Project. And I am so delighted to be talking with her today because Katy is doing something that is so needed and so creative. And that is bringing access to good, healthy food to folks who really want it and need it. So welcome, Katy.

KATY KOLKER: Thank you.

TM: And I’m going to be so happy to be hearing more about your project and what motivated you to starting it. So maybe you could tell us about your project and a little bit about what made you think about wanting to do this.

KK: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here. So Portland Fruit Tree Project started in 2006 with a mission to increase equitable access to healthful food and strengthen communities. And we do that by empowering neighbors to share in the harvest and care of city-grown food resources. And of course our focus, as the name implies, is on fruit trees. And essentially we started by, we saw all of this fruit going to waste, all around our city. For those of you who don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, you probably know that it’s an area where we just grow fruit abundantly. It’s a great climate for growing, especially pome fruits and stone fruits—so apples, pears, plums. And in Portland neighborhoods the streets are just covered in fruit trees that are often just dripping with fruit. And so much of this fruit was going to waste. So a lot of tree owners who have fruit trees in their backyards are not necessarily the ones who planted the trees, and even if they are, a large fruit tree produces so much fruit that it’s really difficult to keep up with. So we had this huge abundance of fruit that was going to waste around our city. And at the same time, we live in a state with one of the highest rates of hunger and food insecurity in the nation. Oregon currently has over 14 percent of its residents experience hunger, food insecurity each year. And we have the highest rate of childhood hunger in the nation. And more locally, in Portland there are just so many families, folks who struggle to feed their families healthy food and fresh produce, which can be just really difficult to afford, especially organic produce in the store. And so we just saw this really obvious opportunity to connect this abundant resource that was going to waste in our community with folks who want it and need it. And through that process, we realized just the incredible potential for additional benefits as people come together to share in the harvest and connect with people from different backgrounds around this wonderful activity of harvesting a fruit tree together, and of sharing the produce with others who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

TM: So what happened? You were on your bicycle, and you were bicycling around the city, and you were, wow, look at all this fruit that’s going to waste! I mean, what really was the moment where you thought, gee, I really want to do this?

KK: You know, I think it was almost a slower evolution. Just seeing this fruit go to waste year after year on neighborhoods all around the city. And you know, of course I was noticing it most in my own neighborhood. And I had been working in the fields of sort of social justice and food equity for a little while. And I just was really sort of acutely aware of the need for food access. And so in 2006 I was actually serving as an AmeriCorps member with another nonprofit that works on food justice issues. And as an AmeriCorps member I had the opportunity to dedicate a percentage of my service hours towards a community project. So that was sort of the impetus for me to actually spend some time formulating this project that had been an idea in the back of my head. And honestly, since starting it, I wasn’t the first to come up with this idea. I mean, people have been aware of this fruit going to waste for decades. But I just happened to be the person who was able to make it happen and rally this wonderful community effort around it. So although I was sort of the initiator, it’s definitely an idea that many folks have had in the past and that many folks have come on board very quickly to help move forward and grow.

TM: Exciting! So it became, it started out for you as an AmeriCorps project. So, you know, how does it exactly work? Do you kind of just cruise around neighborhoods and find trees? And by the way, I have two pear trees in my yard, so you could come over. But you know, give us an idea of how it works.

KK: Yeah, so folks who have fruit trees and want to share the harvest hear about us through a number of different avenues. When we first started we actually mostly focused on free sort of neighborhood newsletters and a lot of face-to-face outreach. But since then we’ve evolved. So we, in our second year, created a Tree Scout program, where we actually engage volunteers in going out in their own neighborhoods, looking for trees whose fruit was not being harvested, knocking on people’s doors, telling them about the program and asking if they’d like to sign up. A lot of it is word of mouth, folks hearing about us from a neighbor or hearing about us on a radio show like this, and saying, “Hey, I have all this fruit—I hate to see it go to waste.” And when we first started the project, we knew that there were going to be tons of people who wanted to come out and harvest with us. We knew that the food pantries to whom we’re donating the produce would be very excited to get this huge amount of fresh fruit. What we weren’t that sure about was how open tree owners would be to have groups of volunteers who they’ve never met come onto their properties and harvest their fruit. And people are just thrilled. Once they’re assured that, you know, the volunteers are well trained and that we have sort of liability issues considered, they’re just so thrilled to not see this fruit going to waste and to not have to deal with the mess, and to know that this fruit tree in their backyard is providing a resource for the community.

TM: And you have quite a few volunteers?

KK: We do, yes. So just in…so we actually have four programs. The Harvest Program, which I’ve been talking about primarily since we started, had about 1,200 participants this past year, in 2014. We did 102 harvesting events, and so over 1,200 people in that alone.

TM: Wow, 102 harvesting events—like trees.

KK: So it was more than 102 trees. At each event we harvest anywhere from 1 to 100 or more trees. And each event has either one site or two sites at which we’re harvesting. So I actually don’t know the exact number off the top of my head, but I can definitely share that with you.

TM: Yeah, that’s a lot!

KK: But yeah, it was 102 events. We harvested over 50,000 pounds of fruit that would have otherwise gone to waste. So we always reserve half of the slots for harvest participants for people living on low income. So one of the focuses of our mission and our work is to engage folks who might otherwise have limited access to fresh produce. And so we really, for the reasons that we were talking about before, about people wanting to cooperate and wanting to bring people together around diverse backgrounds around this wonderful activity of sharing fruit together and harvesting together, we also want to make sure that the programs are most accessible to those who might not otherwise be able to afford fresh produce. So we reserve half the participant slots for folks living on low incomes. And we do a lot of face-to-face outreach to engage sort of our target population, being folks at high risk of food insecurity. And then half of the fruit goes home with the harvest participants, and the other half goes to local food pantries. And so we try to actually keep the fruit within the neighborhood that we’re harvesting, so we partner with food pantries all across the city. And so we estimate that the fruit went to about 7,600 families or households this past year.

TM: Yeah, I would think that part of the real effort here is the distribution and making sure it gets to the right places. So are there a lot of food pantries around Portland?

KK: Oh, there are tons. Anywhere from really large pantries that serve hundreds of people a day to the smaller pantries that maybe serve 15 people a day. And so we have partnerships with a number of different pantries around the city. We work, I’d say we work with some of the smaller pantries, some of the larger pantries. We need to work with pantries that have some cold storage capacity because we’re bringing them hundreds of pounds of fruit at a time. But we work with all sorts of pantries. And then we have, there’s a larger food bank that’s based here in Portland but distributes statewide, called the Oregon Food Bank. And when we do much larger harvests we will distribute directly to them, though they actually serve more as a warehouse. So they distribute, they collect food and distribute it to the smaller pantries. So we try to distri— So instead of going through them as a middleman, we, under their recommendation, distribute to smaller pantries most of the time. But when we have way more fruit than one single pantry can handle and distribute, we’ll work with the larger food bank.

TM: You said you had four programs. And so the Harvest Program is one of them, and that, I’m sure, is quite seasonal.

KK: It is, yes. So we just began the harvest season for this year, so it’s mid-June through the end of November; we usually end around Thanksgiving, is our harvest season. But we definitely stay busy all year round. We have three other programs. So we have our Community Orchards Program, and in that program we manage public fruit orchards, or fruit orchards on publicly accessible lands. And we currently manage five community orchards. Each one is in a different part of the city.

TM: Are they like parks or…?

KK: So each one is different. Four of the five are on public property; two are on parks land—two of those four are on parks land. One is on land owned by the Bureau of Transportation, and one is on land that’s actually owned by a railroad company but is on very long-term lease, like 100-year lease, to Home Forward, which is our local housing authority. And then the fifth orchard, which we just broke ground on, is on a church property that’s publicly accessible. And so the reason we started this program is because we recognized that the vast majority of the trees that we’re working with are on private property, when we’re harvesting; and we also do tree care education, which I’ll mention in a bit. And while tree owners are really open and welcoming volunteer groups onto their property, we just saw incredible value that could come for folks to have long-term access to fruit trees, both for education, for food access, and really for that sense of ownership and empowerment that comes from people being able to cultivate their own fruit trees on sort of their community orchard, and having that wonderful sense of place and community gathering space. And it’s really been a wonderful program. It’s only a five-year, we’ve only been doing it for about five years. Two of the orchards that we started managing were already in existence, so they were older orchards that were sort of neglected that we were sort of bringing back into health. And then three of the orchards we started from scratch and planted those fruit trees.

TM: Wow, okay, so you’re doing both taking care of orchards that already exist and backyard orchards in a community, different households, as well as planting orchards.

KK: That’s right.

TM: That’s right. And so we’ve got two of your programs: the Harvest Program and then the Community Orchards Program. What are your other two? You said…I expect one of them has to do with taking care of the trees.

KK: That’s right, yeah. So we call it out Fruit Tree Stewardship program. And we started this program because we recognized that most of the tree owners who were not harvesting their trees were also not caring for their trees, or weren’t fully caring for their trees. And we heard many reasons why folks weren’t doing so. One was some people just didn’t know how or didn’t have the sort of skills or resources that they needed to do that. And then another reason was just that they maybe weren’t ever going to be able to, whether they didn’t have time, they didn’t have the physical ability. Frankly some just don’t have the interest. And so wanting to provide opportunities for folks to learn, who want to care for their own trees, and also to provide opportunities for trees that have high potential to yield fruit for the community to be cared for. So fruit trees need actually quite a lot of care in order to be healthy and productive. They’re pretty high maintenance. And pruning and care for fruit trees is pretty different than most other trees that grow in our climate. So we do two things through our Fruit Tree Stewardship program. One is a workshop series in which we offer a series of tree care workshops on different seasonal topics throughout the year, with a focus on organic methods. And then we also offer our Tree Care Teams program. And this program is sort of unique. It’s kind of like a service-learning program. Folks sign up at the beginning of the year. It’s like a ten-month program. They commit to doing ten sessions over the course of the year, and each season there is a classroom session. And so essentially the participants, the Tree Care Team members, are getting classroom training in addition to hands-on training. And then, as teams, the Tree Care Team members are also caring for trees that are being harvested by Portland Fruit Tree Project’s Harvest Program. So they get to work together in a team led by one or two lead volunteers who are experts in organic methods of tree care. And then they are not only getting to get more intensive learning but also to help us care for the trees that are producing fruit for the community. So this past year, in 2014, we cared for over 200 trees through that program, which is just a fraction of the number of trees that we harvested, but it’s still making a difference for 200 trees. And we’ve really seen a lot of improvement in the fruit production and fruit quality for those trees. And then we’ve also just seen really this amazing blossoming of enthusiasm and knowledge around tree care in Portland. When we first started the Fruit Tree Stewardship Program, there weren’t that many folks in Portland that we knew of that could help teach others about fruit tree care. We kind of, all of our workshops and Tree Care Teams are led by volunteers. And so we were kind of going back to the same volunteers over and over, saying, “Hey, will you teach this workshop? Hey, do you want to lead a Tree Care Team?” And now that we’ve been doing the Tree Care Teams for five years, we’ve just seen the number of people in the community who are passionate about tree care and who feel confident to either teach tree care to others or to just help their neighbor with their trees, or what have you, has really grown so much as we’ve graduated about 50 people every year.

TM: That is so fantastic. I mean, talk about a win-win-win-win. People are going to eat delicious, healthful food; owners of and public places get to have this wonderful community space as well as have their trees taken care of; and now you’re actually training people how to care for the trees. Are there—I’m just curious, how…a lot of these trees, are they people who planted them in their yards? Or are you working with former big orchards?

KK: Yeah, so it sort of runs the gamut. There are some neighborhoods where you can see there’s the same type of tree that’s about the same age in many people’s yards, and you can tell that that area used to be an orchard. Or sometimes someone who’s lived there for a long time will say, “Yep, you know, this area was an orchard before they built these houses here.” And so we see that for sure. And then we do also see a lot of trees that were planted singularly in someone’s yard, or someone planted a few trees that are now mature. So it really is that and anywhere in between.

TM: And like for us, we bought a house, and it had two fruit trees on it already. And so there we have, we inherited two fruit trees that we had no clue how to take care of.

KK: Uh-huh. Yeah, and I would say that’s like pretty typical for the folks that we work with who have fruit trees, is most people… I mean, fruit trees will live up to a hundred or more years, and so most people who have mature fruit trees are not the ones who planted them. And even if they’re excited about the fruit, they don’t necessarily have the interest or time to harvest and preserve like 300 pounds of apples that they might bear. And so even if… So most folks who have fruit trees in their backyard have some excess that they want to share. Some want to share all of the excess, some want to share just a portion of it. And some people have even shared their fruit with us in the past, and then once they see the enthusiasm of the volunteers and maybe they attend one of our Food Preservation Workshops, they start using all the fruit themselves. And that’s wonderful. We love to see that too, because we know that there is plenty of fruit out there to harvest, and the more that folks are being able to use the fruit themselves, the more we know that we’re really building food security in our communities.

TM: So you’ve just said that you were doing some fruit preservation. So why don’t you tell us more about that.

KK: Great. Yeah, so that’s the fourth program I wanted to tell you about. So our Food Education Program has two elements. One is a Food Preservation Workshop Series. And so we’ve done a number of workshops every summer and fall that teach folks various methods of food preservation, from canning to drying to pickling, things like that, so folks can make the bounties that are available seasonally last throughout the year. And we do a few public workshops, and then we also do workshops in partnership with our Group Harvest Partners. So I haven’t yet talked about that, and I’ll talk about it in a second. But I want to also mention that we also do our, the other element of our Food Education Program is something very simple that are what we call Fruit Info Cards, where we recognize that a lot of the fruit types that we’re harvesting and distributing, folks might not have familiarity with. So either they’re fruits that are less common to be seen in stores, or, you know, we have such a multicultural society here in Portland that there are people from all over the world who might not have ever cooked with an apple before, or a plum. So we are providing these Info Cards that have just really basic information on what this fruit is, how you can use it, and one or two really simple recipes. And they’ll be distributed in multiple languages. So that’s something new that we’re working on. We’ve had the Info Cards just in English and we’re producing them in multiple languages for this harvest season. And then the Group Harvest Program that I wanted to mention… So as part of our larger Harvest Program we have a few different types of harvest that we do. So I mentioned our harvesting parties, which are open to anyone, with half of the slots reserved for folks living on low incomes. Another type of harvest we do we call Group Harvests. And these are events that are coordinated in partnership with other organizations that specifically serve folks who are living on limited incomes or experiencing food insecurity. And we organize private harvesting that’s just for their clients. And we’ve found these to be really wonderful ways for folks who might otherwise have barriers to accessing our programs to come out and harvest with us. So, you know, language barriers, transportations barriers, things like that. So we’ve been able to partner with a number of really wonderful organizations in doing Group Harvests. And then the folks who participate in those harvests get to choose if they want to take all the fruit home themselves, if they want to take some back to their agency, if they want to take it to their neighbors. It’s just a wonderful program. And we, through that program, are also offering on a very limited basis some Food Preservation Workshops as well. So folks who are really excited to learn how to preserve the fruit, we’ll offer—

TM: You mean like making jam?

KK: Yeah, so we’ll offer the opportunity for maybe the next day for the group to come together and make jam together.

TM: Do you have a goal of just how many people you wish you could reach with this?

KK: Yeah, I mean, a really big-picture vision—which we, I’m sure, share with so many of the different people, organizations, and groups that are striving toward food security—is we envision a day when no one is hungry. We feel that access to food, especially access to fresh, healthful, whole foods, should be a human right, especially in a country like ours where there is so much abundance and so much wealth that there’s really, like you were saying, it’s really a distribution issue and an injustice in terms of access to resources. So, big picture, we would love to see a time when folks who cannot afford to purchase fresh fruit can have access to fresh fruit, regardless of their income. So we would love to see that happen. So we’re just continuing to grow, basically, as much as we can. We currently have waiting lists for the majority of our harvesting events. During the very peak of harvest season we’re still not quite able to get to all of the trees because there are so many folks who want to share their fruit with us. And of course there’s just so much need for access to fresh produce at the food pantries. So we just strive to grow year after year. And we have been—when we first started, we did, I think the first year we just did 4 harvesting parties; the next year we did 8; the next year we did 16. The next year we did 32, then 49, and up and up until this past year we did 102 events. And then this year, in 2015, we’re aiming to increase again by about 10 percent. So we’re just trying to just do as much as we can, but mindful of our own very limited capacity as a very small nonprofit organization. So…

TM: I am so impressed with the comprehensiveness of your program, that you’ve got it all figured out, because it certainly is not just harvesting. It’s a lot of all the other things that have to go into caring for a tree. Tell me about the different kinds of fruits that you’re harvesting.

KK: Yeah, so apples, pears, Asian pears, quince—one of the types of fruits people don’t often, sometimes don’t know. Quince are related to apples and pears, and they’re delicious. You can’t really eat them fresh but you can make delicious preserves with them. We harvest cherries, plums, figs. We do actually a lot of vining fruits as well. We’ll do kiwis and grapes, primarily are the vining fruits that we harvest. Persimmons in November—we harvest a lot of persimmons. If folks aren’t familiar with persimmons, they’re this delicious, delicious fruit. There’s an American persimmon and then there’s also an Asian persimmon, and the Asian persimmon is the type that grows best here and produces huge amounts of fruits that actually are best to eat once there has been a frost. And so usually they’re ready after all the other tree fruits are already gone.

TM: They are delicious.

KK: Yeah, and the trees are beautiful.

TM: A ripe one—they are just, mmm, they’re so delicious. It’s like eating candy almost. And we all, of course, know the health benefits of fruit... And what better… I mean, every mom knows that they’re always giving their children fruit. So what a great delicious treat for children as well.

KK: Mm-hmm. Well, this just happens over and over again, where parents will come to an event with their children, and they’ll say, “Oh, you know, he doesn’t really like apples,” or whatever. And then once the young person has a chance to pick fruit with their own two hands and they are just amidst this excitement about fruit, of course they get excited to bite into it. And they’re like “Hey, this is delicious!” And they’re just, you know, then eating as many apples as they can get their hands on. So we see a lot of kids who might otherwise be sort of “Meh, fruit? Whatever, I’m not that into it,” go from that to being really excited about eating fruit in a harvest. And you were talking about the food preservation. Another story that I love to share is a few years ago there was a family that was coming out to a lot of harvesting events. And she had heard about us through the emergency food system—she and her family have been getting emergency food boxes from the food pantry for a while. And she was just so excited when she heard about this opportunity to come out, and she could bring her kids, and it was super fun for them, and they got to take home all this fruit every time they came out. And then she came out to one of our canning classes. And then after that she actually went back and, with some other friends, they started making baby food together. And so she said for the rest of that summer and fall, after she harvested, she would then make baby food and that she was also doing it with her friends, and her friends were learning about it too. So that was sort of an example of a family that really was making the fruit last throughout the year.

TM: Wow, that’s fantastic. Well, I just want to say thank you so much, Katy, for your devotion to what you’re doing and your vision and your leadership. It’s just really an inspiration, I think, for all of us. And to think that not only are you taking food that’s being wasted and giving it to the people who really love it and want it and need it, good food, it’s just another dimension of the Good Food Movement that we don’t hear a lot about, that is just full of hope. So I love that, and I want to just thank you so much for both being on our show today but also for all that great work you do.

KK: Thank you so much for your interest and for the opportunity to share a little bit about what we do. And I just want to say, it’s just a huge community effort, so—

TM: Thank you so much.

KK: Thank you.

TM: What a wonderful way to sustainably feed your community. Learn more about the Portland Fruit Trees Project programs, events, and volunteer opportunities at

Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.

Share on LinkedIn
Share on Pinterest
Share with email
« Back to Blog Home