The sun beats down on a dozen or so volunteers from food-based nonprofit Food is Free Albuquerque (FIFABQ). It’s a hot day, and there are so many apricots laying on the dusty road one can practically smell them baking in the summer heat. Nearby lay hundreds more of the stone fruit, rotting away or crushed by passing vehicles. Today is one of FIFABQ’s first runs in Santa Fe, and co-founder Erin Garrison hypothesizes they’ll wind up with hundreds of pounds of fruit by the time they’re finished—an eye-openingly regular occurrence for the relatively young organization.
“Harvesting every year really depends,” Garrison tells SFR, “but usually we can get up to 700 pounds from one tree.”
Garrison can eyeball an apricot and know its next step. She considers the fruit’s texture and color to determine if it needs to be instantly cooked and preserved, or if it has a few extra days left to be given out as fresh as possible. It’s just something she and FIFABQ co-founder Trista Teeter have picked up since they started the organization in 2014. Today’s harvest turns out so bountiful, in fact, crates are filled to the brim and stacked tightly into a transport van. It’s only the middle of the day at this point, but Garrison, Teeter and their volunteers—which include their children—aren’t close to being done.
It’s a long way from what began as a fruit canning hobby for Garrison and Teeter. Wanting to do more, the pair put up a Craigslist ad in search of overwhelmed property owners looking for help with unruly fruiting trees. As soon as they began, Garrison recalls, they were netting roughly 200 pounds of fruit per tree. That number has only grown, as has the overall scope of FIFABQ
“When we first started doing this, I believe in our first year, we weren’t really even an organization,” she explains. “We used to hibernate just like the trees. As we’ve grown, that [slowdown between harvests] has become a shorter and shorter timespan. We’re scheduling around Mother Nature, not around our calendar.”
Since then, a combination of regional networking and word-of-mouth has turned Garrison and Teeter’s hobby into full time work.
“First it was only fruit trees, now it’s farms, small gardens and fruit trees. We do home pick ups now, too,” Garrison tells SFR. “Sometimes for farmers, their crop is so abundant that they call us to help get the food out. Or there’s a freeze coming, and we’ve got to go in...so it doesn’t go to waste. Sometimes they just want to donate.”
Mother Nature, of course, also brought along the events of 2020, during which FIFABQ partnered with the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women to build garden boxes available free to the public with enough seeds for a potential 80,000 pounds of produce. With supply lines strangled by COVID-19, fresh foods were harder to come by at the height of the pandemic, especially, as always, for minority communities.
The National Resources Defense Council finds roughly 40% of all the food in the United States isn’t eaten, while the EPA estimates wasted food makes up 24% of all landfill materials, the largest block of any individual group. To top that off, a 2010 study from the United States Department of Agriculture finds 18.4 billion pounds of fruit goes to waste each year. FIFABQ’s leading philosophy is that fresh foods are a human right—especially in a time where food insecurity is on the rise, and one out of four children in Santa Fe County are classified as food insecure.
“Money and time are both barriers to families trying to make healthy food choices,” writes Derek Lin in his report Ending Childhood Food Insecurity. The report was commissioned by New Mexico Voices for Children, an advocacy nonprofit dedicated to addressing childhood hunger and well-being. “Fresh, nutritious foods take more time to prepare and are generally more expensive than processed foods,” Lin continues, “which can make them impractical choices for low-income families. Those facing cost constraints purchase less fresh produce.”
That’s where FIFABQ comes in. According to Garrison, property owners who have apricot trees often find themselves overwhelmed when the fruiting season rolls around. While ripe and fallen fruit provides sustenance for birds, bugs and other creatures, humans often miss out. FIFABQ wants to fill that gap, though oftentimes, Garrison tells SFR, property owners don’t even understand fresh fruit can be donated. However they get the fruit, the nonprofit’s donations to charities and organizations such as The Food Depot, various mutual aid groups and religious organizations such as the food pantry at St. John’s Methodist Church help address what Garrison describes as a “genuine fruit emergency.” More than anything, the goal is simply to get food to people as fresh as possible.
“We’re sharing with people, and people are sharing with us,” Garrison says. “We’re just sharing with one another, because there’s a bounty all around us.”
Get more info, schedule harvests and volunteer with FIFAQ at fifabq.org.