Reno Gleaning Project harvests tons of fruit from neighborhood trees in an effort to change local food culture

by Brian Bahouth

Image - Brian Bahouth

Pamela Mayne is founder of the Reno Gleaning Project. This time of year her volunteers are busy picking literally tons of fruit from local trees, but for Mayne, her nonprofit is not to be confused with a yard cleanup service. The hand-sorted local fruits are rare food and distributed through the Hands of Hope Fresh Foods Bank as well as other faith-based pantries that support the working impoverished. The mother of two brings a personal and spirited dedication to the notion of food as medicine for individuals and society. Mayne says that access to local, high-quality food is a key to breaking the cycle of food insecurity, poverty and sickness. On this edition of the Wild Hare podcast, we speak with Pamela Mayne about the essential qualities of northern Nevada’s regional diet.

Download this edition of the Wild Hare. See music credits at the end of the text below.

Pamela Mayne’s thinking about food changed when she was unable to become pregnant.

“I have certain goals for what my family eats. Those goals started before I had my children, and it had a lot to do with the fact that I got married at 30 and found myself infertile for five years, unable to conceive. I went to every doctor. We have one of the best infertility specialists in town. He evaluated me and he said, ‘there is nothing wrong with you, except that you have cysts all over your ovaries. A woman like you shouldn’t have those because you don’t look Polycystic. It’s a disorder. And you shouldn’t have it from the way your body is shaped the way you look, the way your hormones are.

“I did a little bit of research and found that petroleum-based chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, and plastics specifically are an estrogen mimic. If we expose ourselves to a lot of pesticides, fertilizers and plastics, which most of our food is packaged in plastic, certain people are more susceptible to absorbing those BPA materials which are estrogen mimicers. They act as birth control. So I greened my diet. I bought all organic food. I got rid of all the plastic containers in my house and I was pregnant in six months.”

After having two children, Mayne said her commitment to high quality food extended beyond herself to her family. That devotion to local, pesticide-and-plastic-packaging-free food was made manifest in the Reno Gleaning Project, now eleven seasons old.

“Once I had those babies, I don’t want to wreck the babies that I just had. I had two beautiful babies. When I had the second one in 2009, I was able to take six months of unpaid leave so I had that time to create the Gleaning Project, and that was a very big fruit year. I now had this interest in organic food, local food, food that doesn’t need to be packaged, to get from the place where it’s grown to the person that’s eating it, so that we can avoid all that plastic packaging and stuff like that. That’s how I started knocking on doors. Every door I knocked on the people were like, ’oh, thank you for coming. I need your help. Please take it all.’

“It was hundreds of pounds of fruit very quickly.  Then I needed to find an outlet for that, so I eventually made my way to the food banks. Now we really enjoy the Boys and Girls Club. I started to realize that if people grew up not eating fruit, they wouldn’t start because of the texture of the food. They’re used to dry feed.”

Reno peaches – image – the Reno Gleaning Project

Local food supply imbalance and northern Nevada as a Confined Human Feeding Operation (CHFO)

If you draw a line around Reno, Sparks and Carson City, within that area there is an imbalance balance between the amount of food consumed that is grown within the area and the amount of food consumed that is brought in from somewhere else, a local food balance. Through her gleaning work, Mayne has visited more than 1,000 Reno area gardens over the past decade and is acutely aware of the region’s segmented, agricultural potential. In the context of a severe local food deficit, Mayne thinks of Reno and environs as a massive Confined Human Feeding Operation.

“When you are growing animals for consumption, commercially grown animals, and you put them at a place where there is not enough food for those animals to eat, you bring food in to feed those animals. That is done for one reason, to fatten the animals. When we live in a home and we don’t produce any food in that home that we live in and we are bringing all of the food in from the outside. What’s happening to us? I’ll tell you what’s happening. We’re fattening. We’re fattening as a society as a civilization, and it’s because we don’t really know what we’re eating. Somebody else is in control of what we eat. We feel that we have to go to work and make money to buy the food that we then bring to our feedlot, which we call home. A feedlot, if you’ve ever been to one or done any research on it is not a home. It’s God’s waiting room.”

The Gleaning Project is a step toward correcting the local food imbalance. Mayne said there needs to be a bigger societal change in the food source value system that inspires people to grow and eat as much of their own food as they can.

“I really think homegrown food is pure love and I want people to have access to it.  I want people to grow food where they live so that they are taking ownership and they feel a sense of sustainability because they know how to produce something with their own resources on their own property or in their own home that they can then eat. It’s freeing and it’s a kind of an ancient thing that we’ve lost.”

Eating local is not an abstraction for Mayne and her family.

“I glean the wilderness for meat. I belong to a local farmshare where I process my own chickens and turkeys. My children have learned to do that. All of this is with the focus on being free and on being self-sustaining. I feel like Nevada has a strong focus on a manifest destiny. We have a lot of freedom here. We’re Mavericks. We’re a maverick state, and people want to be free. I moved here from California. I’m a recovering Californian. I moved here in the ‘90s, early ‘90s. I did that because I wanted space, I wanted air to breathe. I wanted freedom, you know from a lot of what’s happening in the very, very populated places.

“The more populated places become, the more we have of these CHFOs or Confined Human Feeding Operations. Because there’s not enough land to produce the food, the food is being produced elsewhere. It’s being brought in and being processed, it’s been dried, it’s been canned, it’s been bagged. Lots of stuff is happening to this food in order for it to just even make the trip. And then when we get it, we’re eating it but we really don’t have control over it. We really don’t know how to get it unless we have money. And that is actually a very depressing and anxiotropic concept. You wonder why people are depressed and anxious, because they feel tied and indentured to these jobs because that’s the only way to get food, and that’s not true. You can grow a herb garden on your windowsill even if you live in an apartment. Every time you snip those herbs, you’re free. You just sprinkle it on your food and you taste the freedom.

”If you buy a handful of green onions and you put those in water, you can snip the green part off the top, and they’ll grow again. Then you can snip another green part off the top next week, and you’re free. I want to encourage this. I want to encourage people to grow food at home, without the fear of it going to waste because if you grow a big tree, you have too much and I need to help you and I want to honor the effort of tree husbandry and people watering their trees and pruning them and caring for them and loving them. I want to honor that with some work and I’ve got a lot of people that want to work and to honor that, that effort on the part of the homeowner.”

Mayne has been training homeowners with fruit trees to prune the trees like they do in orchards to prevent overly laden branches from breaking. Homeowners need to call her nonprofit well in advance of the fruit being ripe so it can be harvested at the right time. Mayne said many people called her early this year and that makes her feel like the Gleaning Project is succeeding in training a new type of urban farmer.

“We’re trying to coach people about shaping their trees into the shape of a wine glass. Right now a lot of those trees are shaped like an umbrella and then the trees will break under heavy fruiting. We want people to kind of cut it back. That will improve the quality of the fruit and will reduce breakage in the tree. It will reduce mess in their yard.”

Timing is critical.

“We can’t take crab apples because they’re not edible. We’re looking for ripe edible fruit, but not too ripe. Timing is key. It’s been a lot of education to educate the community on calling us early when the fruit is still green, so we can come and check it and we can make sure that what we’re picking is on the firm side, just starting to ripen. It’s turned color. The best sign of ripeness is when the birds are eating it. As soon as the birds start eating it, I’m ready to pick it because it will continue to ripen off the tree, especially stone fruit.”

Picking fruit early allows food pantries to distribute the fruit over a period of weeks.

“If we pick for instance, peaches when they’re nice and firm. We have crates that are donated to us from the Food Bank actually. They stack perfectly. We give that to the Food Bank, and then they have a week to hand them out. They’re really quite glorious. They’re just perfection. We we’ve had a lot of people call us early this year, so I feel like we’re reaching the culture in Reno to the point where people know about us. I have 1200 followers on Facebook. You think about if they tell two friends, and they tell two friends and so on and so on and so on.”

Plums gleaned from a residence in northern Nevada – image – the Reno Gleaning Project

People who volunteer for the challenging work of picking fruit for the Gleaning Project can take as much fruit as they want. Mayne said many volunteers can or dehydrate what they don’t eat. Agencies like the Food Bank do not have the ability to lay up fruit for later distribution. As a result they have a cost-of-care challenge with fresh fruit. Mayne said there are several barriers getting fruit to low income citizens. The preventable tragedy for Mayne is that families and society are losing the battle between fresh fruit and candy, which according to Mayne is an important aspect of food insecurity and the cycle of poverty. The problem is, low-quality food stores well.

“The Food Bank has a cost-of-care challenge. They are really trying to provide the maximum number of calories to a needy community. The first thing they’re going to buy is nonperishable food because it doesn’t rot. They’re also going to take donations. A lot of the donations they ask for them to be nonperishable, because they can’t say who is going to show up day-to-day to take the food. But if they do get fruits and vegetables, a lot of times those are fruits and vegetables that are either very green, and they have purchased those with their with their modest budget, or they have been donated by say, an organization like Walmart.

“Walmart is donating massive amounts of green fruit to the food bank of Northern Nevada. I’ve been to the facility. I’ve seen it. It’s a great thing that they do that as an organization and as a corporation. The only problem with very green fruit is that green bananas and sour grapes and mealy Red Delicious apples do not entice children to eat fruit. Unfortunately, it teaches them that fruit really isn’t that good. It’s just okay. It can’t compete with Sour Patch Kids and it can’t compete with Jolly Ranchers, so we’re losing that battle. We are losing the battle, fruit against snack food and candy, soda.

“The good news is that a homegrown piece of fruit can compete because the homegrown piece of fruit hasn’t been picked green. We’re picking it right. We’re picking it when it’s been it’s been ripened on the tree. It is tart and it is sweet, so there we have something that can compete with Sour Patch Kids. In fact, a plum is the Jolly Rancher of the fruit world. We’re seeing kids at Boys and Girls Club take this fruit and want to eat it. Maybe not even being able to stop eating it. So we just give them a little because we don’t want anyone to get a tummy ache, but realistically speaking, we need to get people started very early eating fruit and realizing what it is.”

The logic is that by bringing more fruit to people who otherwise could not afford it, especially children, the cycle of food insecurity and poverty has a better chance at being broken.

“That’s part of food insecurity and the cycle of poverty. People have not had exposure to fresh fruit, especially not homegrown or organic, because they can afford it. And if they go, if they get money, and they go to the store to buy food, they are economically shamed into buying the cheapest calorie, and that is 10 boxes of mac and cheese for $10. It’s 10,000 calories. If they use that $10 on fruit, it’s 500 calories. So they’re not going to do it. They just don’t.

“So I use what I’ve learned in business, is that if you have a really good product, you can afford to give people samples, and they will decide to spend their money on, it if it’s superior. I feel that way about this organic food … we’re giving people samples and we’re giving them to kids when they’re young, so that when they grow up, they can make a healthier choice for their body. They could even choose to plant a tree and care for it or they could choose to forage fruit from the sidewalks. There’s thousands and thousands of trees in this town. There’s a lot of opportunity. I just got a call for a tree that’s in a park. That’s a free tree. Anyone could pick that, but people don’t because they don’t know its food. We’re trying to educate and we’re trying to change the food culture in Reno and beyond possibly.”

After a decade running the Gleaning Project, Mayne is not naïve. The local fruit revolution is tempered by practical matters endemic to homeless and low-income populations.

“It’s very easy to judge from a comfy position in your fancy car and your cozy home that people should be eating healthier and living healthier lives. But it has been my experience at the food banks and on the streets trying to give this fruit to people that are domestically challenged, that they don’t have a bathroom to use on the regular, so they are careful about what they consume because they don’t have a place to go to the bathroom. If you eat enough fruit, you will have diarrhea. It’s probably not the best thing to talk about on a radio show, but realistically speaking, we always have access if we’re clean and dressed in a certain way, and we can walk into any public restroom and use it. We don’t even think about that, but a homeless person who’s dirty, maybe hasn’t had a shower in a while, they really do think about that. They also are dentally challenged. They don’t all have great teeth, so when it comes to the apple season, we have challenges giving away the apples because when we’re delivering 500 to 1,000 pounds with every delivery, and that’s happening on the daily, after a couple weeks of doing that, the food banks start to be saturated.”

This year Mayne says she’s going to focus her apple crop on the Boys and Girl’s Club.

“We’re really going to try to get our apples out to school children. We’re going to try to get them out to Boys and Girls Club where there’s a huge volume of kids coming through. The Boys and Girls Club kitchen managers have been excellent at packing up that fruit and sending bags home with each family, so we’re really getting this fruit to the homes of the working impoverished because that’s who uses Boys and Girls Club. People use Boys and Girls Club because they need someone to watch their kids in the morning before school starts and in the afternoon when it’s over, while they’re still at work. I’ve used Boys and Girls Club myself. I really want to support the working impoverished because they work a full time job and they still don’t have enough expendable income for organic fruit. They may live in a rental and they don’t have land where they can even grow a fruit tree. Those people should not be missing out when we have thousands of trees in this town and thousands of pounds of fruit that are going to end up in the big green trash can if we don’t save it.”

Beyond gleaning what is already growing, Mayne asks residents to grow some food.

“Grow something at home that you eat at your house and you break that cycle. Start thinking about buying food in your local community, and then you’re eliminating the need for it to be packaged in plastic and brought to you, and talk to your neighbors about their trees. You will be shocked and amazed at how much they want you to take their food … there’s a lot of beautiful food out there, and people need help and we want to help them. I could use more people helping me with my lofty quest for everybody to eat free and for everybody to understand that food grows on trees.”

Music credits in order of appearance as reported through the Public Radio Exchange:

Song: Greenland
Artist: Emanicipator
Album: Safe in the Steep Cliffs
Label: Loci Records
Year: 2010
Duration: 1:25

Song: D Song
Artist: Bonobo
Album: Dial “M” for Monkey
Label: Ninja Tune
Year: 2009
Duration: 1:52

Song: Gypsy
Artist: Bonobo
Album: Animal Magic
Label: Tru Thoughts
Year: 2000
Duration: 1:32

Song: Oirectine
Artist: Boards of Canada
Album: Twoism
Label: Warp Records
Year: 2002
Duration: 1:19

Song: Aquarius
Artist: Boards of Canada
Album: Music Has the Right to Children
Label: Warp Records
Year: 2013
Duration: 1:28

Song: State Troopers (Part 1) (Album Version)
Artist: Cornershop
Album: When I was born for the 7th Time
Label: Warner Records
Year: 2010
Duration: 2:33

Song: Zipper
Artist: Floating Stone
Album: Arcos Third Eye
Label: Netmusiczone Records
Year: 2007
Duration: 4:34

Song: Eyesdown
Artist: Bonobo
Album: Black Sands
Label: Ninja Tune
Year: 2010
Duration: 2:00

Song: Planet X [Dark Underground Mix]
Artist: Floating Stone
Album: Arcos Third Eye
Label: Netmusiczone Records
Year: 2007
Duration: 2:01

Song: Sefi Ramirez
Artist: Kutiman
Album: White Monkey
Label: Siyal
Year: 2017
Duration: 1:17