Before the cold snapped us from summer to fall weather in late October, four people were busily tending a tree laden with ripe, red apples. It was the Glean Team at work on the Milwaukee VA Medical Center grounds.
Matt Rudman with Groundwork Milwaukee is coordinating its inaugural season.
“We start by cleaning up the ground. All the fruit that’s fallen, we sort it. Windfallen ones that are still usable and could be baked. Or if they’re rotting, we clean up the hard and get them over to a composting facility — it’s not going to the landfill,” Rudman says.
The idea is to make sure the tree owner is happy and the tree’s fruit doesn’t go to waste.
“Talking with the facilities crew, they spent a lot of time cleaning up the ground as they were mowing the lawn,” Rudman adds. "We screen for pesticides and spraying. So, all of the gleans we do are non-chemically treated.”
Rudman is confident there are lots of fruit trees waiting to be harvested. This season the crew tended 12 trees from Milwaukee’s south side to Glendale – some apple trees, others pear.
“Not including this one, it was 1,633 pounds precisely. I had to actually put together a report. With this tree, we’re hoping today to get to that 2,000 mark, and there’s a couple more we can still get in this season,” Rudman says.
Glean Team’s parent organization, Groundwork Milwaukee, doesn’t only harvest fruit from private tree owners. Ten miles northeast of here, the group grows vegetables in 11 large hoop houses and distributes them to families who might not otherwise enjoy fresh, healthy food.
“We have various pantry partners. The Gathering does a lot of the processing, the day of sort of stuff. The Riverwest Food Pantry, the Center for Vets Issues gets a lot — we host our cooking and preserving classes there,” he says.
Rudman says the Glean Team’s contribution augments what they can offer food pantry patrons.
Gleaner Emily Breffle believes the program can also build community.
“We’re talking about scouting group out there. When you see a tree, knock on folks’ doors. ‘Hey, I see you have a beautiful apple in your front yard. What do you do with all of the apples? Are you a pie maker? Do you need a hand with those," Breffle says.
She hopes the Glean Team can ultimately include all of the fruit trees in the city, "And then working towards getting teams together who can come out this day or that day,” Breffle says.
Coordinator Matt Rudman says next steps include adding more trees to the gleaning inventory and folding in gardens where people grow more than they can eat. And Rudman plans to fold in another existing Groundwork Milwaukee program — its teen brigade called the Green Team.
He says pantries are important to outreach, but additional avenues are needed. Teens can help tremendously, Rudman says.
“They designate areas in which they would go to. From there they would take food that we glean and harvest and have pop-up market stands. Pay as you want donations,” he says.
Rudman draws inspiration from a sister organization in Denver, Colo. Groundwork Denver helped pilot the food recovery system and created the glean app, he says, which the Glean Team will implement next year.
“It’s a way for you to register your house, your garden bed, your tree, if you’re a grocery store, a restaurant. You can fill out any information — like if you’re a homeowner, you can say the tree is in the back right or I left a bag on the front porch,” Rudman explains.
Rudman sees the Milwaukee Glean Team augmented by teen workers picking, picking up and distributing vast amounts of fresh produce. He envisions Milwaukee’s food deserts becoming food oases.
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