On the heels of massive job loss caused by the coronavirus has come greater food insecurity throughout the country. Here in Maine, where lack of food was already a substantial issue, Good Shepherd Food Bank expects a 40 percent rise in need. This corresponds to data from Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services in California. Unfortunately, this is not a circumstance that’s going to get better quickly. To take care of our fellow Mainers, all of us must step up and step in, right now. The question is, how? The “how” for me comes in the form of an endeavor I call Forgotten Orchard.

The idea was born a couple of years ago when we had an extraordinary windfall of apples. On the ground, rotting. The idea that there was such a huge quantity of perfectly good food filling sidewalks and backyards and fields rather than a child’s belly was not only appalling to me as a Master Gardener and former chef, it was galvanizing. I made a vow to fix it; that vow became Forgotten Orchard. “Forgotten,” because most of this fruit is growing along roadsides or produced by trees that are remnants of landscapes installed by a home’s original owner but no longer prized, no longer tended, by the current one. “Orchard,” because these trees, gathered together, would comprise one. Since they exist in a matrix, though, rather than a single spot, we see only one or two trees at a time and the whole goes unrecognized. That we don’t see it as a unit means we don’t see it as a significant resource. More importantly, we don’t treat it as a significant resource. We don’t locate them, we don’t tend them, we don’t harvest them.

I’d intended to start up a pilot program, work out the kinks and, in a couple of years, present a viable model for others to use. Coronavirus has compressed that timeline, so I’m offering an idea to follow rather than a plan. My hope is that we, collectively, can get this up and running to help feed our neighbors. The initial effort may be clunky and a bit awkward, but that’s OK because the potential good here is vast and the need pervasive. I’m asking all of you to jump in with me.

Wherever you are – city, suburb, small town or rural area – take a look around at all the beauty that’s in bloom. Map the edibles you see along roadsides and in yards; be brave enough to knock on doors and ask homeowners if they’re willing to share some of the fruit. It can be hard to knock on a stranger’s door, but it might help to know that I’ve been turned down only by two people, both deer hunters who wanted the lure of the apples. Everyone else not only has said, “Yes,” they’ve said, “Hell yes.”

The next step is to coordinate the harvest, because many hands will be needed to pick, pack and deliver your bounty to food banks. Contact your county’s Cooperative Extension (operated in partnership with the University of Maine) and ask the Master Gardeners to get involved. If you’re a Scout or a Scout leader, ask your troop to pitch in. Ask fellow members of your church, synagogue or mosque. Reach out to chefs in your area and ask them to help process the fruit into juices, fruit leathers or dehydrated slices for snacking. Rally the aunties and the grandmas to make applesauce for babies. Mobilize your book club, your Facebook friends, your new Zoom cohorts; reach out to any network you have.

Whatever you can do, do. Whatever I can help you do, ask. More people are hungry every day, and this fall there will again be food rotting on the ground unless we act. Find your piece of the orchard – fruit trees, elderberries, quince, rhubarb, whatever grows in your area – and see that it gets harvested. See that it gets distributed. Look around and see the true bounty of nature; let that bounty be the gift we give our neighbors in these difficult times.

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