Solution to hunger may be trees that bear fruit

fruit_tree_webRobby Astrove has a vision of a future in which one solution for hunger is as simple as picking fruit off a tree while walking down a street.

Astrove, an arborist and environmental education activist, has been on a mission for some time to turn urban and suburban green spaces into places where fruit trees can be planted. His idea, which he’s been working on for well over a decade, is to have fruit-bearing trees easily accessible to the people who need it most.

Astrove said that one of metro Atlanta’s major problems is limited accessibility to fresh fruits and vegetables for many residents, especially those living in poor communities. These areas where grocery stores and fresh fruits and vegetables are available are often referred to as “food deserts.”

“My idea is a very easy and simple solution,” said Astrove. “Let’s put food where it’s needed the most. Some people have tried to create healthy corner stores. That’s a very tricky venture. Some people have created community gardens and that’s great but it takes a lot of work.”

Astrove said fruit trees have the potential to provide food for decades and generally require little maintenance. He favors trees such as persimmon, plum, fig, pear and apple.

“I am very serious about solving this problem of food deserts,” he said.

Astrove said trees provide a wealth of benefits to communities including cleaning the air and soil, assisting with erosion control and adding to the value of homes and neighborhoods.

“Trees are just like the bomb,” said Astrove with a smile. 

“I am just looking at what nature does and she does it really, really well.”

For the past several years, Astrove had been involved in several tree planting projects in southwest Atlanta. He estimates there are about 50 to 60 orchards on various plots throughout Atlanta, however, there are few in DeKalb County.

One early adopter of Astrove’s ideal is Johnny Waits, president of Flat Rock Archives, an organization dedicated to preserving and sharing rural African-American history in Georgia. On the archives’ property in Lithonia, several fruit trees have been planted with the purpose of being a source of fresh food for the community. Granny Smith apples, plum and fig trees dot the property where his family has lived since 1915.

“When he approached me he said he wanted to put some fruit tree on the property. I said ‘That’s great man,’” shared Waits.

“A lot of the kids who visit from the YMCA don’t get to see fruit trees and wild chickens,” he said. “I show them how you plant vegetables and they actually carry some of the vegetables back home.”

Waits said some of the trees have produced fruit, others have not so far, but he remains hopeful.

“I hope they can pick it right off the tree and eat it,” Waits said.

On the last day of school before the winter break in December, several fourth-grade classes at Stoneview Elementary School in Lithonia spent part of their morning in the school’s garden, digging holes, gathering mulch, putting peach, fig and plum trees into the ground and giving them water. 

Under the watchful eyes of Astrove and teachers Ruth Small and Patrice Jones, about 50 students worked enthusiastically.

 Principal Ledra Jemison said the project came about after a chance meeting with Astrove at the Lithonia Farmers Market where they gushed over the juiciest of peaches.

 “It’s amazing,” said Jemison as she looked over the activity in the garden. “This is the place where they really learn to make good choices.

While officials with some organizations have an interest in using some of their land for the planting of fruit trees, Astrove said often they’re not willing to make a long-term commitment. Places such as churches often have available land but won’t rule out that the land might be needed for a bigger parking lot or other structure one day and the orchards then would have to go.

“These fruit trees are going to last decades. I am not going to put them just anywhere. They need long-term protection,” he said.

Astrove, who is also a park ranger at the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve in Lithonia, said he has been working with the Atlanta Regional Commission as well as churches, synagogues and mosques in finding possible green space for the trees. Of 20 places of worship he’s contacted and pitched his ideas to, three have turned him down for various reasons such as future capital projects. He’s hopeful that some of the others will participate.

He said places of worship in many ways are ideal since “They already have an incredible culture of stewardship…and many ministries feed the needy.”

Astrove said he’s secured funding for the plantings and has developed “orchard kits” with gloves, pruning tools, rain barrels as well as offering workshop training. “Everything needed to have success,” he said.

Astrove said he’s been talking with leaders at First Afrikan Presbyterian Church of Lithonia about possibly establishing an orchard on their grounds in 2017. And leaders at the church said they are excited about adding an orchard to their existing community garden where beets, lettuce, kale, carrot, tomatoes and more are grown.

 “It’s a resource for the community, something that we don’t have in this area,” said Lucius Gundy, an elder in the church.

The church’s Creation Care Ministry is a non-profit organization with the goal of promoting healthy living. At the church’s quarter-acre community garden a range of vegetables are grown which are offered along with canned good at the church’s weekly food pantry. Gundy said some 120 families a week take advantage of the garden’s and pantry’s offerings.

Gundy said the church hopes to plant between 20 and 40 fruit trees

“These fruit trees will absolutely benefit people in the community,” he said.

Nikki Venson, project coordinator with the ministry, expressed excitement about the tree project and trees’ longevity.

“Once you plant a fruit tree they will be there when our grandchildren are adults,” said Venson.

She said once the trees are planted she hopes to also offer teach classes ways to use the fruit, such as canning classes.

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