Every September, Minneapolis resident Denise Dross watches as her yard fills up with rotting apples and pears from her three fruit trees.
"It's way too much fruit," she said. "I try to give it away, but at a certain point, it starts dropping, and then the bees come out."
So when Dross learned about a new program that sends volunteers to pick fruit and then donates it to local food shelves, she eagerly signed up. "It's a win-win situation," she said.
The program, called Fruits of the City, held its first "gleaning" on Saturday. About twenty volunteers fanned out across the Twin Cities, armed with long fruit pickers, ladders, and boxes, on a mission to bring ripe fruit from homeowners' yards to local food shelves.
Their first stop was Dross' backyard, where volunteers reached into the upper tree branches with their pickers, and pulled down pounds and pounds of ripe fruit.
After a stop in south Minneapolis to pick apples, the group headed to another yard with two large pear trees.
"Look at that branch," said program manager Jennifer Blecha, gesturing upward. "It's so full."
A neighbor stopped by and explained that the previous owner used to make pear preserves and jam, but since then, most of the pears have gone unused.
Blecha pointed out several fresh branches that needed pruning. "People just don't have access to information about how to care for these trees," she said. "We've lost that knowledge."
Ron Williams, one of the volunteers, grabbed a handful of pears. Williams, who grew up on a farm, said he was excited when he saw a flyer about the program at his local food co-op.
"Here you are collecting fruit that would go to waste, and giving it to people who need it," he said. "It's a no-brainer."
So far, fifty households have registered their trees for picking with Fruits of the City, and about 100 volunteers have signed up as pickers. The program is run by the Minnesota Project, a non-profit environmental organization.
On Monday, volunteers dropped off over 700 pounds of pears and apples at Keystone Community Services in St. Paul and NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in Minneapolis.
At NorthPoint, a food shelf worker unloaded the fruit boxes onto a long conveyor belt that led from the parking lot into the building.
"This is amazing," said Mustafa Sundiata, the food shelf supervisor, as he watched the fruit descend into the storage area. "It's like, 'Bing!' The light goes off."
Ten minutes later, Mamie Patterson parked her shopping cart in front of the fruit display and grabbed a plastic bag. Patterson, 70, has been coming to the food shelf for 30 years. She lives with her disabled son and grandson and said that money has always been tight.
"I'll definitely make some pies with this," she said, gathering several pears and apples. Patterson, who has diabetes, said that she struggles to find affordable healthy food.
"It's such a great thing to get up and donate your fruit," she said. "That's beautiful."
Sundiata said that demand at the north Minneapolis food shelf is up about 7 percent from last year, but several grants have allowed the facility to stay well stocked.
In the past several years, he said, food shelves have worked to add fresh produce and rely less on canned goods.
"It's a huge, big difference," he said. "The focus should've always been on nutrition, not just on any food. That whole mindset has done a U-turn."
Fruits of the City plans to hold several more gleanings in the next two months. A series of workshops on how to prune and maintain fruit trees and a community orchard initiative are also in the works.
Blecha said she hopes the program will also raise awareness about urban agriculture. "Maybe fruit growing shouldn't just be left to the big-scale orchards and big-scale farms," she said. "If all our neighbors each grew one different fruit tree, I think the whole urban landscape would be enriched."
Twin Cities residents can register their pear, apple, and plum trees with Fruits of the City at 651-789-3320 or email: email@example.com.