Turning the tables on community hunger: Trees to Tables project connects residents in need with truly local food

October 9, 2013

Ottawa Trees To Tables Project from Hidden Harvest Ottawa on Vimeo.

This Thanksgiving, you could see inventive dishes such as crabapple-cranberry chutney, heartnut and wild rice salad and elderberry pie on the tables of Ottawa residents. Although they might sound exotic, the main ingredients in these dishes are all grown locally—and not on the rural farms surrounding the city, but on trees in Ottawa parks, residential streets and other city-owned spaces.

Most people overlook the nutritious (and delicious) potential of public trees, but Hidden Harvest Ottawa wants to put them to good use. That’s why the social purpose business has partnered with the Ottawa Food Bank and Cisco Systems to launch the Trees to Tables project, which is helping alleviate community hunger by connecting residents in need with truly local food sources.

Supported by OCE’s Social Innovation program, Trees to Tables addresses an important community problem in an innovative way. Due to the rising prices and perishable nature of fresh food, the Ottawa Food Bank often lacks donations of fruits and vegetables, meaning that the 48,000 citizens per month who depend on the agency may not be getting enough of this important food group. Hidden Harvest Ottawa saw a solution in the more than 4,000 food-bearing trees owned by the City of Ottawa.

“We heard from people in every single ward telling us about a [food-bearing] tree they knew of in their neighbourhood, but many of those trees were in public parks or publicly-owned roadway allowances where we didn’t have permission to harvest,” says Jason Garlough, co-founder, Hidden Harvest Ottawa. “By engaging the City of Ottawa on the project we can now get the necessary permits in a very timely fashion and ensure this food is going to people who need it instead of going to waste.”

As the project lead, Hidden Harvest Ottawa mobilizes its network of volunteers to gather food from trees around the city at Trees to Tables harvest events. The events are a win-win for everyone; the volunteers not only get to help fellow citizens in need, but also get to literally share in the fruits of their labour. After every harvesting event, one half of the yield is donated to the Ottawa Food Bank, one quarter is divided among volunteers, and the remaining quarter is donated or processed by Hidden Harvest Ottawa to make products that help fund the organization.

So far more than 30 publicly-owned trees have been harvested through Trees to Tables, resulting in over 556 pounds of fresh food being donated to Ottawa Food Bank agencies, including apples, plums, serviceberries, elderberries, crabapples and butternuts. The food from these local trees has reached 1,112 families through the food bank programs, plus an additional 114 families through the volunteer harvesters. Community involvement in the project has been overwhelmingly positive, as 139 volunteers have participated and more than 300 individuals have requested to attend future harvest events.  

Trees to Tables has also received praise at the government level, and Hidden Harvest Ottawa was recently invited to participate in the Savour Fall event at the Governor General’s residence.  Although the Social Innovation project wraps up this October, Hidden Harvest Ottawa looks forward to continuing the Trees to Tables initiative for future harvest seasons.