By Jane Zhang
I walk into the shipping container-like building on the corner of Rue Roy and Avenue Coloniale, coloured with wall art and greenery. It's a hive of activity inside. Volunteers and staff members are preparing for their annual street fair, Portes Ouvertes, Rue Fermier!, complete with an Iron Chef competition between local restaurants.
Santropol Roulant, the home base of Les Fruit Défendus and numerous initiatives in food security and community engagement. Source.
I meet Andrea Spector, an urban planning student and coordinator of Les Fruits Défendus (Forbidden Fruit collective), who leads me to the lounge area behind the buzz of activity.
Santropol Roulant, whose mission is to use food to cultivate community, is best known for their Meals-on-Wheels elderly food delivery program and urban agriculture programs across the city. The Montreal-based organization also incubates budding initiatives such as the beekeeping collective, SantroVélo bike shop, and even a mushroom collective. Among them is Les Fruits Défendus, now in its fourth season.
Santropol's famed rooftop garden, in the heart of The Plateau neighborhood. Source.
Andrea tells me that "[Les Fruits Défendus] began with a small group of Montrealers who thought they were doing something innovative, then realized fruit sharing programs already existed in a whole bunch of other places", like Toronto, British Columbia, and the States.
The idea was simple: many fruit trees in gardens across the city were left unharvested every year, so why not give fruit picking access to the community? Volunteers harvest fruit trees in willing homeowners' yards, and the reap is split three ways: a third for homeowners, a third for volunteers, and a third for local food security organizations like Santropol Roulant and community kitchens. The volunteer-run collective aims to reduce food waste and increase access to fresh, local fruits for all community members.
The philosophy of Les Fruit Défendus. Source.
Throughout the harvest season between June and October, Andrea, the only paid staff member of the program, sends out harvest callouts anywhere between zero and fifteen times a week for volunteers to pick fruit trees across Montreal, mainly in the Plateau and Mile End areas. Volunteers of diverse ages and backgrounds mount their bikes and trailers and gather in locals' gardens to harvest cherries, Saskatoon berries, plums, apples, and pears.
Andrea says, "We have about 90 odd trees now. We've been growing a lot... the first season we didn't do very much, the second season we had about 500 pounds, the third season we did 5000! Unfortunately because of the [harsh] winter we got, the trees don't as much fruit this year."
Volunteers harvesting cherries in someone's backyard. Source: Facebook.
While many volunteer-run programs face the challenge of low volunteer turnout, Les Fruits Défendus is in fact teeming with helping hands, with hundreds of volunteers on their mailing list. It is hard to say "no" to free, fresh, local fruit right in your neighborhood! The main challenge for the collective is getting enough fruit trees for folks to pick.
Most homeowners are happy about the project. "We might get someone interested who would say, hey, check out our neighbor's tree too!" Andrea recounts. True to their objective of community involvement, Les Fruits Défendus cultivates community bonds while making good use of the urban fruit harvest.
A fresh pick of local cherries. Source: Facebook.
Les Fruits Défendus is looking to expand the program to other areas of the city, in particular NDG, Laurier, and Parc X. During their off-season, the collective meets to plan for the next harvest season, and they hope to engage local organizations that can host fruit-picking sessions in other neighborhoods.
Andrea is modest about the role Les Fruits Défendus plays in the urban agriculture movement. "I'd say we fall under the umbrella of urban ag[riculture], but along the entire process of planting to harvesting, we do just the harvesting".
If one sees urban agriculture as an opportunity for education and community engagement instead of simply food production, Les Fruits Défendus certainly feeds the movement. In addition to bridging community ties and providing access to urban food resources, Les Fruits Défendus hopes to develop competency and literacy around fruit tree maintenance and care. "Every year we get better, but we don't consider ourselves experts yet", she says. Wherever possible, the group tries to bring in local allies with expert knowledge.
The collective is realistic about its goals, and doesn't dream of, say, owning a giant fruit orchard ten years down the line. Instead, Andrea says, "we promote people planting trees in the city, and people doing proper maintenance on their trees". Les Fruits Défendus just wants to encourage what people are already doing, and help them reap the most out of their urban food experience.