Bread for the City plants fruit orchard in Beltsville to feed D.C.’s poor

April 12, 2012

This spring, Bread for the City is expanding its food program by building City Orchard, a 2.75-acre fruit orchard in Beltsville.

The Maryland orchard will have 1,000 organically maintained saplings growing apples, Asian pears, blueberries, blackberries and persimmons.

“It’s a huge project for a food pantry to take on, but it’s in line with our nutrition initiative to provide balanced options,” said Jeffrey Wankel, 25, a Shaw resident who works as the food program specialist for Bread for the City, a nonprofit organization that provides food and medical and legal services to the District’s poor.

The organization, which feeds an average of 300 households a day, has been gradually expanding its food program over the past 10 years. Four years ago, it partnered with local farms to launch Glean for the City, an initiative that brought surplus produce from the farms to food pantries in the District. In 2010 and 2011, Bread for the City’s centers in Northwest and Southeast opened rooftop gardens so staff members could teach clients to grow their own food.

But as the price of fruit increased, so did the demand for it.

“Gleaning fruit has been tricky,” said Kristin Valentine, 30, Bread for the City’s director of development. “Some of our farming partners have had to shut down due to infestation or eminent domain, so we needed another reliable, affordable option. City Orchard was the best way for us to take our food program to the next level.”

At City Orchard, staff members will be able to provide greater quantities of fresh produce, as well as recipes and tools for how their clients can utilize it. Valentine said the orchard’s proximity (it’s 14 miles away) allows Bread for the City’s clients to be instrumental in the orchard’s success: They can visit the site to help plant the seedlings and attend educational workshops about urban agriculture.

If all goes according to plan, the orchard will be fully functioning by 2014 and will provide 40,000 pounds of free, fresh produce each year. That will save the organization $80,000 in food costs.

The project began two years ago when Bread for the City’s chief operating officer, Jeannine Sanford, called Casey Trees, a nonprofit group that plants trees throughout the District, in search of donations from homeowners growing fruit in their back yards. Casey Tree’s executive director, Mark Buscaino, connected Sanford to the University of the District of Columbia, which owns the land in Beltsville and had been looking to put it to good use. The start-up costs for the orchard, including the saplings, were paid for by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also pays for a farmer to maintain the property.

“When we first started exploring this concept of urban foraging, we never expected it to fall together as serendipitously as it has,” Wankel said.

On March 25, Casey Trees volunteers taught Bread for the City’s staff members to plant the first 200 saplings. On Saturday and Sunday, they’ll plant the remaining 800.

Wankel predicts that it won’t be long before other nonprofit groups and food pantries begin similar projects, although he cautioned that it takes a great deal of collaboration to succeed.

“There is definitely a movement toward urban agriculture and sustainability,” he said. “Food prices aren’t going down, nutrition is an issue, so if we’re going to commit to providing healthy options, we need to get creative.”

For information about the orchard, visit www.breadforthecity.org/orchard.

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