Portland Fruit Tree Project strengthens communities through shared harvests and healthful food access

Take a stroll around Portland, Oregon in the summer and fall, and you are likely to notice the occasional fruit tree. Either planted in a neighbor’s yard, or lining a street, the branches of these trees are often bursting with fruit. But, unpicked, the fruit will eventually fall to the ground–the natural abundance slowly rotting away in yards or on sidewalks (much to the delight of local insects and squirrels).

Noticing the untouched bounty of urban fruit trees across Portland is exactly what spurred the formation of Portland Fruit Tree Project in 2006. Collecting the fruit that would otherwise go to waste seemed like a simple solution to help combat high rates of food insecurity across Multnomah County. But, as Heather Keisler Fornes, current Executive Director of Portland Fruit Tree Project says, “Nothing is easy, and if it were easy, it would have already been done.”

“Nothing is easy, and if it were easy, it would have already been done.”

Heather Keisler Fornes, current Executive Director of Portland Fruit Tree Project

It’s not easy because food insecurity is a complex issue that is rooted in an unjust food system–shaped by policies that cause inequitable distribution of foods, inequitable access to foods, and differential experiences of hunger depending on race and class. Data from the Oregon Hunger Task Force show that in 2019 almost 14% of Multnomah County residents were food insecure, defined as having limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Food insecurity is disproportionately experienced by Black, Native American, Latinx, and Asian American Pacific Islander communities in Oregon– and the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified this inequity. Currently communities of color experience hunger at rates 2-3 times higher than the general Oregon population.

Tackling hunger and food insecurity as it is experienced in communities requires a shift toward food justice. At the beginning of 2020, Portland Fruit Tree Project started to re-envision what being a hunger-free Portland looks like. Before this shift, their activities consisted primarily of harvesting and caring for trees, donating fruit, and planting urban orchards. Now, they have adjusted their organizational focus towards food advocacy work, forming partnerships with local community organizations, and empowering community members to share in the harvest and care of city-grown produce.

This refocus on equity starts with actively listening to communities, identifying their needs and wants, and designing programs that feel safe and inclusive. For a long time urban homesteading and gardening have been predominantly white realms. Portland Fruit Tree Projects acknowledges this, and has launched an inclusivity project that dedicates resources by thoughtfully engaging communities of color and learning what they need to feel included and valued within urban agricultural spaces. Part of this work involves acknowledging the cultural value of food and partnering with Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC)-led organizations, such as MudBone Grown and Taking Ownership PDX.

Keisler Fornes sees food justice as people having, “no barriers between them and the food they actually want to eat.” Oftentimes, food distribution or donation sites don’t operate with cultural food needs and preferences in mind. Portland Fruit Tree Project works to match produce donations to community distribution sites based on cultural wants to ensure that the produce is “used and loved.” For instance, a local senior center that serves low-income Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders prioritizes distributing food that their community members are familiar with and enjoy. The Portland Fruit Tree Project’s fall and winter persimmon harvest is always earmarked for them.

Though you will still find Portland Fruit Tree Project staff and volunteers clipping saplings, pruning, and picking fruit from trees across the city, their work is now centered around people rather than produce. They are committed to actively listening to community members and designing programs and services that will meet their needs. That, as well as partnership-building and advocacy, is essential for advancing food justice. The Portland Fruit Tree Project is harnessing unused natural resources and doing their part to help create an equitable, sustainable and community-oriented food system – working toward a future when organizations like theirs will no longer be needed.


Learn about food justice

Learn more about food justice and organizations in our community that are working to advance equity to change food systems.  


Share your excess urban produce

Have a fruit tree in your yard or in your community with excess produce? Portland Fruit Tree Project has resources for learning how to harvest yourself! The produce can then be brought to the public-access Fruit Fridge for distribution to community organizations based on needs/wants. If you’re not in a position to be able to harvest the produce yourself, Portland Fruit Tree Project can help for a sliding scale fee.  


Join a food advocacy organization

Take action!! Join forces with local organizations that are engaging in food advocacy work to influence policy makers and advance change. This starts with reaching out to organizations and asking where they could use support or energy. As Oregon Food Bank says, “ending hunger starts with community power and a commitment to ending the unfair systems that create unequal access to food.”