The creators of Neighborhood Fruit set out to solve two related problems: Some homeowners have fruit trees on their properties that produce more fruit than they can eat, while others peer longingly over their neighbors’ fences at the fruit being wasted. The Neighborhood Fruit website and mobile app connect these two groups of people by allowing the former to advertise fruit surpluses and the latter to search for them (by map or the type of fruit tree). The app also allows people to locate trees on public land, which are often planted for ornamental purposes and never harvested. Over 10,000 trees have been registered on their website so far, and the founders hope that the service will encourage Americans to eat more fresh, local foods.
The problem of food waste is not insignificant. A single tree can produce hundreds of pounds of fruit, which will often go wasted unless it is diligently harvested and eaten. The USDA estimates that Americans discard over 100 billion pounds of food each year (as much as 20% of the national food supply).
By connecting fruit growers and harvesters, Neighborhood Fruit fosters exchange relations based on the associative system of exchange. Strategic alliances are established when two (or more) actors can mutually benefit from an exchange. As with the price system of exchange, actors operating under the associative system of exchange make decisions based on instrumental rationality -- that is, they employ a decision-making calculus that aims to maximize efficiency and minimize costs. But unlike the price system of exchange, actors operating under the associative system find it in their best interest to form strategic alliances based on complementary needs and strengths. In other words, exchange relations in the associative system arise when both parties believe that their bottom line will improve by working together rather than remaining autonomous. In this case, the owners of the fruit trees benefit by reducing their burden of harvesting, and they also avoid the mess of dealing with lots of rotting fruit. The gleaners benefit from gaining access to fruit that would have otherwise been locked in someone else’s backyard. There is essentially an exchange of free labor for free fruit.
In addition to the associative logic of exchange, a moral logic is also at work in the Neighborhood Fruit exchanges. Both the fruit tree owners and the gleaners may be influenced by a desire not to waste food. Other similar organizations involve a more explicit moral impetus. For example, many communities have established gleaning organizations to harvest fruit and donate it to local food banks. Not only do these programs employ an associative logic by mutually benefitting growers and eaters, but they employ a moral logic by working to reduce hunger in their communities.
One such organization is Village Harvest, a non-profit organization operating in the San Francisco Bay Area. Village Harvest organizes groups of volunteers to pick fruit from local orchards and backyards, and they donate it to nearby hunger relief organizations. Since their founding in 2001, volunteers have harvested over a million pounds of fruit, or about 3.6 million servings. Additionally, Village Harvest provides educational materials on fruit tree maintenance and harvesting in order to promote sustainable use of natural resources.
UC Davis Olive Oil is another gleaning organization with an explicit moral focus. University groundkeepers had long been burdened with the task of cleaning the fruit that dropped from campus olive trees, and an associate vice-chancellor saw this as an opportunity to practice more sustainable resource management. Now, the university harvests olives from the trees to make olive oil, and they use the proceeds from olive oil sales to support education and research.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2009.) Let’s Glean!: United We Serve Toolkit. Washington D.C. (http://www.usda.gov/documents/usda_gleaning_toolkit.pdf).
- Biggart, Nicole and Rick Delbridge. (2004). “Systems of Exchange.” Academy of Management Review 29(1): pp. 35-36.