Volunteers with Concrete Jungle collect thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables each year which they donate to food banks, homeless shelters and feeding programs. (Bo Emerson/AJC)

Foraging for food in Atlanta’s urban forest with Concrete Jungle

On a recent drizzly Tuesday, Katherine Kennedy and five volunteers wrestled with a mulberry tree on Pearl Street.

While four members of the foraging party held the corners of a blue tarp, the tallest, Riley Perszyk, stood on the bed of a pickup truck, grabbed a high branch of the tree and shook it like a Polaroid picture.

Down came a hail of dark fruit, along with a shower of raindrops, prompting gasps and laughter.

The mulberries rolled into the tarp. More shaking, more mulberries. Then the harvesters settled down to gather up the prizes, packing about 8 quarts of the sweet fruit into plastic containers.

Riley Perszyk, a pharmacologist and dedicated bicyclist, shakes the branch of a mulberry tree during a recent, rainy gathering of volunteers with Concrete Jungle. The nonprofit gathers fruit that would otherwise go to waste, and delivers it to helping agencies who provide meals for the homeless. BO EMERSON / BEMERSON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Moving into an alleyway behind the street, they found another tree and the shakedown continued.

Many of the branches were out of reach for midsize Matt Blumenstyk, a lawyer who rode his bike to the assignment. “I might not be the best person for this job,” he joked. “Maybe blueberry bushes would be easier?”

Kathleen Tucker, a retired New York transplant, threw herself into the fray, whacking a high branch with a metal extension arm. “This is better than therapy,” she said.

After an hour and a half, the ensemble had collected about 20 quarts of purple treats, not including the handfuls that they nibbled along the way.

Volunteers with Concrete Jungle occasionally stage “rambles,” fundraising parties when they gather at a fruitful site to pick what’s in season and enjoy food, beer, music, and bicycle tours. The Spectacular Fruit Ramble on May 20 will kick off the 2018 picking season. CONTRIBUTED BY CONCRETE JUNGLE
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The crew was part of a group called Concrete Jungle, an organization that has been gleaning goodness off the Atlanta landscape since 2009.

From May through December, these conscripts sweep through the city, picking the fruits and vegetables that would otherwise fall to the ground and go to waste. The group delivers thousands of pounds of the fresh fruit to homeless shelters around the city each year.

They work from an elaborate and detailed map, with a database of almost 3,000 trees, which pinpoints the mulberry, apple, fig, persimmon and peach trees; muscadine vines; blueberry, blackberry and serviceberry bushes; and other sources of edible fruits that are in public rights of way, or are in yards where homeowners have agreed to share their bounty.

They also occasionally assemble at farms, where, through arrangement with the owners, they pick over rows of vegetables that have already been mechanically harvested.

Siran He, a volunteer picker, samples a serviceberry during an outing with Concrete Jungle. CONTRIBUTED BY RACHEL LEVY
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Concrete Jungle began in 2009 when founders Craig Durkin and Aubrey Daniels began staging a Ciderfest with apples collected from neglected trees on public property or on private land (with owner approval).

Their yearly cider parties changed when they realized how much fresh fruit was going to waste in Atlanta. They resolved to contribute fruit to feed the hungry, and Concrete Jungle was born.

The amount of food rescued each year has expanded drastically. “Last year, we collected 25,000 pounds of fruit,” said Kennedy, the executive director and one of the only paid members of the team. “There is so much food out there, we’re just scratching the surface.”

The group also owns tiny Doghead Farm in the Sylvan Hills area of Southwest Atlanta. According to the Concrete Jungle website, the 1-acre farm produces 4,000 pounds of beets, carrots, collards, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, potatoes, radishes, summer squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnips and winter squash every year.

The farm is operated with volunteer labor and financed with donations, including money from fundraisers called “rambles.”

The Spectacular Fruit Ramble, their biggest fundraiser of the year, will take place from 3-9 p.m. Sunday, May 20, with walking and bike tours among the fruit trees of Edgewood and Candler Park, culminating with a carnival, dinner and specialty fruit cocktails at Ration and Dram on Arizona Avenue. (Find more information here.)

Concrete Jungle tries to keep tabs on the trees that are part of their map, but they’re looking for a better system to track fruit as it ripens. Working with engineers at Georgia Tech, they’re trying to create an electronic “nose” stationed on trees that can smell for ripeness.

In the meantime, their network of members keeps them up to date. Mulberries and figs will still be coming in during the Spectacular Fruit Ramble, and serviceberries, from the Amelanchier genus, will be starting to ripen.

“They’re great,” said Blumenstyk, of the bright red berries, “but they’re harder to shake,” said Kennedy.

EVENT PREVIEW

Concrete Jungle’s Spectacular Fruit Ramble

3-9 p.m. Sunday, May 20. Walking and bike tours start from Ration and Dram, 130 Arizona Ave., Atlanta. $35, adult and family tickets; $10, children. Adult and family tickets include two drinks (ages 21 and up) and dinner at Ration and Dram. concrete-jungle.org.

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