Fruits of their labor

On a warm December afternoon, half a dozen college students gathered around an orange tree in the front yard of an elegant Uptown home. Wearing large blue shoulder bags, they pulled and clipped while the sweet smell of fresh oranges filled the air.

From high on a ladder one of them called down, “Hey, I’m really enjoying this — it’s actually pretty therapeutic.”

New Orleans Fruit Tree Project organizer Megan Nuismer laughed and threw out a big number: 15,000 pounds. That’s how much citrus fruit her organization will harvest and donate to hungry New Orleanians between now and spring.

“There’s no way we could get up there and pick all that fruit, and I just couldn’t stand the thought of it all going to waste,” said Shara Hammet. “My husband found out about this organization, and it’s just so great. They do all the work and we get to know that someone who needs it here in New Orleans will enjoy the fruit.”

Instead of rotting away in the yard, the Hammet’s fruit will go to either the Second Harvest Food Bank or the Tulane Community Health Center. “In the next few weeks we’re planning on extending our reach to the Daughters of Charity WIC Program,” Nuismer said.

Second Harvest Food Bank gets most of the gleaned fruit. Children receive it as part of the free Kids’ Café meals Second Harvest delivers around the city, said Natalie Jayroe, President and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank.

“It’s so great to see kids just start tearing into the satsumas before they even start on their meal,” Jayroe said. “They just love getting the treat of enjoying fresh local fruit.”

Three years ago the New Orleans Fruit Tree Project was nothing more than an idea Nuismer had while working at Hollygrove Market & Farm through the Americorp VISTA program.

“I kept having people come in and say, ‘You know I have this tree, maybe you could come pick it and use the fruit?’ After a while I thought, actually, yes I could.”

Inspired by a similar organization she learned about while living in Portland, Ore., Nuismer grabbed some volunteers and, with backing from Hollygrove Market & Farm, got to work.

From January 2011 through that spring, volunteers harvested 3,000 pounds of fruit from six New Orleans neighborhoods and one orchard.

In its second year, the NOLA Fruit Tree Project more than tripled that number, meeting its 10,000-pound goal with 35 volunteers working on 26 urban harvests and three orchards.

While her idea of saving fruit from going to waste seemed simple enough, it quickly proved overwhelming, Nuismer said.

“During the harvest of our second tree I found myself in the French Quarter staring up at one 40-foot tree from which we had just harvested over 600 pounds of grapefruits,” she said. “At that point I remember thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ”

The answer seems to be something that just keeps growing.

“Thanks to the warmer weather, and I think more awareness, we’re busier than we’ve ever been,” Nuismer said.

While the citrus harvest season typically runs from about November through March, this year things are moving about a month ahead of schedule.

Currently close to 100 trees have been scheduled for harvest by homeowners from Kenner to the West Bank.

When picking season is over this year, the New Orleans Fruit Tree Project will undertake a new challenge.

The organization has teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to develop nine lots in the Upper 9th Ward into orchards.

“We really want to show the importance of local citrus — it’s a large part of our local economy, and I think people can forget that,” Nuismer said.

“We want to show people that they really can grow their own food right in their back yard and we can help them do it.”

For more information on The New Orleans Fruit Tree Project, including how to volunteer or schedule a tree for harvest, visit http://www.nolafruit.org.