Words you don’t expect to hear when you turn up for a gentle spot of fruit harvesting: ‘If you die, please don’t sue me.’
Nor do you expect to find people strapping on cycle helmets. Or signing health and safety disclaimers. As for statements like: ‘I took one right on the head the other day.’ Again, not so much. This, however, is what you get when you go urban harvesting. The idea is to pick fruit from London trees whose bounty is usually left to rot. In this case the spoils are turned into cider and apple juice by community projects. I’m spending a day with a volunteer-led programme run by Feedback, the anti-food-waste organisation whose campaigns have included mega-parties that feed 5,000 people at a time from ingredients that would otherwise have gone in the bin.
Londoners are starting to care more about the environmental impact of our eating habits. In September, hundreds of volunteers at a Disco Soup event turned unwanted food into a meal. Anti-food-waste café Save the Date now has a ‘pay what you feel’ stall at Hackney’s Well Street Market. And this city is filling up with sustainable restaurants and urban farms. But some of London’s tastiest, most environmentally friendly food has been around us all along. It just takes volunteers foraging to make the most of it.
Today, that foraging involves standing beside a road in Tottenham while we stare at a tree whose boughs are heavy with scarlet fruit. And, it turns out, there may be a good reason why these volunteers are so worried about safety.
‘Bombs away!’ yells James Turner – Feedback’s co-ordinator for London-based food gathering events – who is ten feet up the tree, wearing a climbing harness. He lunges at the trunk, grasps it with both hands and begins throttling it so violently you’d think he’d just caught it making off with his laptop. Below him, squeals of panic fill the air as seven volunteers are confronted with the reality of holding out a tarpaulin to catch apples that are falling so hard and fast it’s like a fruity recreation of the Blitz.
‘I’m having to close my eyes – I’m a bit scared!’ giggles one nervous dungaree-clad participant, before the others all follow her lead and snap their peepers shut. Occasionally there’s a noise like a cricket bat smacking a pumpkin accompanied by a squeal as a hit on a helmet is scored. The volunteers seem to be enjoying the danger, though – like they’ve turned apple-scrumping into an extreme sport. ‘It is fun,’ says James, ‘but every time they scream, I feel like I’ve killed someone!’
By now, passers-by are starting to wonder what’s going on. A man in his fifties wearing a leather jacket wanders up looking unhappy. ‘You’re nicking our apples, you know!’ he says, accusingly, before lapsing into silent scepticism when a volunteer tells him to help himself. Feedback was turned on to this tree by a local group who’ve agreed with residents that they can harvest the bounty if they leave some fruit behind. Shortly afterwards, a concerned motorist stops to check that he isn’t witnessing a man attempting to jump to his death from a fruit tree while the local community use a tarpaulin to try and stop him. ‘Fucking hell!’ he says, when told that this is all in aid of apple-collecting. ‘There’s a shop down there you know!’
Feedback aren’t the first people to do something like this. London Glider has spent seven years making Camra award-winning cider from the capital’s unwanted apples. Forgotten fruit trees in east London have long been chronicled by the Hackney Harvest website and an active community of north London fruit-pickers attend Urban Harvest events that involve them hunting out cherry plums on Tottenham Marshes. While Feedback’s project is currently in its pilot phase – operating only in Hackney and Haringey – they’re going to roll it out in other areas across the city in 2018, making it the biggest urban harvesting scheme in London.‘On this one tree alone there are more apples than ten people could eat over the course of a year,’ says James. ‘Once you scale that up to the whole of London, the environmental impact is massive.’
It’s also going down well with the locals. Mr Nicking Our Apples is now so firmly on board with the project that he’s clutching a bin liner and scooping up fruit. An older woman announces: ‘This reminds me of when I was in Jamaica eating guavas from off me tree!’, before running up to a bus to hand fruit through the windows to passengers. It’s a genuinely lovely thing to watch.
‘That’s the best thing about this,’ says James. ‘You get a real sense of community when you help people reconnect with the beauty around them.’ As we move to our next location – a Manor House back garden – it’s hard to disagree. The owner of the tree invited Feedback down after an accident stopped her harvesting her apples herself. Some of the fruit will go to FoodCycle hubs (which cook meals for isolated people), some will be donated to community group the Orchard Project. The rest will be turned into cider and juice as part of a ‘pressing day’ in the gardens of Manor House’s Castle Climbing Centre, where locals can use a mechanical press to squeeze the fruit.
Frankly, I assumed the volunteers I’ve been harvesting with – students and teachers on half-term – would be in it for the free cider, but half of them don’t even realise that the apples will be turned into booze. Instead, they pick fruit with obvious enjoyment while saying things like ‘Why am I here? Well, who wants food to be wasted?’
Not me. As I bid farewell to beaming volunteers tucking into the harvest, I help myself to an apple and realise what they’re so happy about. It tastes great. ‘Good, eh?’ says James. ‘That’s the great thing about food waste, you get to have an amazing time while fighting climate change!’ He’s not wrong, although he would say that. This project is, after all, the apple of his eye.