LONDON: Ollie Galvin is perched near the top of one tree while Daniele Rinaudo balances precariously in another. Others scrabble about in the undergrowth below, catching and boxing the apples that they drop. Both men, in their mid-20s, deftly move to the uppermost branches, expertly spreading their weight and negotiating tricky routes to even the hardest-to-reach fruit.
Galvin is a man with a van, which is useful. He’s also a man with a passion for rock climbing, which is evident. Both he and Rinaudo are clearly having fun, even if they are six metres up and clinging to creaking branches. A drizzly Sunday morning in Sheffield, in the north of England, is regularly punctuated by Galvin’s warning cry of “Heads!” as loose fruit tumbles through the foliage.
“I was scared of heights before I started doing this,” says Rinaudo. “Going picking was quite a drastic way to face that fear, but now I love the climbing.” The owners of this overgrown back garden in suburban Sheffield are either away or still in bed, so we’re helping ourselves.” Similar scenes are repeated across the UK at this time of year, of course, but the fruits of these labours will be distributed to good causes in the city.
Rinaudo is the organiser for the south Sheffield branch of Abundance, a voluntary organisation that picks unwanted fruit and vegetables from the city’s gardens and public spaces, and gives the lion’s share to projects such as Sure Start children’s centres and Salvation Army shelters for homeless people. The best fruit is given whole, and the less appetising is turned into chutney, jam and juice. Volunteers can also take some for themselves, and the rest is left for the owners of the trees. The kindly neighbour who interrupts his breakfast to give the group access to his garden and garage roof is rewarded with a basket of apples — although his wife asks for just “one or two”, and looks a bit suspicious of the fruit.
It’s something Abundance volunteers come across a lot. These are delicious apples, at their most nutritious, but are by no means supermarket standard in aesthetic terms. These owners, too, are happy to give their apples away. “We’ll leave them a few, but they’re not bothered really,” Rinaudo says. “This is the third year we’ve done these trees. Initially, volunteers saw the trees and approached them, and ever since they’ve been happy for us to come and harvest.”
The irony is that many of the owners Abundance deals with give their home-grown fruit away, and buy apples from a supermarket. So there is an educational element to the Abundance philosophy, as these urban harvests reconnect local people with a plentiful source of local, fresh and seasonal food. Not all new volunteers realise that harvesting apples is likely to involve climbing trees.
Climbing, picking, shaking and sorting still takes the best part of a couple of hours for three trees. By the end, there are five boxes packed with cookers, eaters and juicers. Back at base — the underused back room of one of Rinaudo’s friends — there is a similar haul from the two other groups that have been harvesting in south Sheffield this morning. Since groups can go out two or three times a week at harvest time, the morning’s haul gives some indication of just how much unwanted produce there is in suburban Sheffield. Before Abundance came along, most of it would have been left to ripen, fall and rot.