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Fruit-picking project scaled back as funds dry up

After a month-long fundraising campaign in June collected less than half its $25,000 goal, LifeCycles says it has to cut back programs
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Tim Fryatt of LifeCycles Project Society checks pink lady apples growing in Welland Community Orchard in View Royal. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Thousands of kilograms of plums, apples and pears could end up rotting on the ground this summer, as a group that picks tree fruit for food banks reduces its services due to lack of funding.

For the past 29 years, homeowners with fruit trees in their gardens have had their trees picked by volunteers with LifeCycles’ Fruit Tree Project.

On an average year, volunteers pick about 14,000 kilograms of fruit from around 340 neighbourhood gardens. Apples and plums are abundant in the region, with pears, figs and quince rounding out the annual fruit-tree harvest.

The homeowners keep a portion of the fruit, with the remainder shared with the pickers, the Mustard Seed — the largest food bank on Vancouver Island — and as many as 40 social-service agencies, providing food for almost 13,000 people, the group estimates.

Some fruit is also turned into products such as cider, vinegar and quince paste by a social enterprise operated by LifeCycles.

But this fall will be different.

After a month-long fundraising campaign in June collected just $10,000 — less than half its $25,000 goal — LifeCycles says it has to cut back programs as it considers the future of the organization.

“We have to scale back significantly, as funding has dried up,” said Jess Gunnarson, chair of the board of the non-profit organization. “While we do incredible, meaningful work with single-year grants, private donations and generous volunteers, what we need is multi-year funding that we can rely on.”

He said that while a version of the Fruit Tree Project will continue this year, it will involve a much smaller team serving fewer households.

“It is fair to say that there will be likely thousands of kilograms of fruit left unpicked or rotting on the ground this fall.”

Another project that isn’t likely to return this fall is the Growing Schools educational program, which teaches children and youth how to grow food.

Gunnarson said the funding landscape has changed in the past few years.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization enjoyed stability for a period as money flowed in for food security. But since then, sources of funding have dried up.

“The demand for food has risen, but the funding hasn’t increased to cover growing costs,” said Gunnarson, who sits on an eight-person board.

He said the organization’s staff members have been leaving to seek more stable positions. As of next week, the organization will operate with just two paid positions, following a number of departures since the beginning of the year. The paid staff members oversee hundreds of volunteers who perform thousands of hours of work every year.

“We are looking at all options. Questions we ask ourselves are: How do we remain sustainable? Is it still viable? Should we partner with other organizations to carry forward our food-security programs?” said Gunnarson. “It’s a great shame, as we provide a significant social and community service.”

Gunnarson said the group needs stable core funding of about $50,000 a year to “form a financial backbone that we can build on.”

If $15,000 is donated in the next few months, programs will be able to continue until the end of the year, he said.

Along with the Fruit Tree Project and Growing Schools, programs offered by LifeCycles include: farm gleaning, where volunteers collect excess produce from local farms; Victoria Seed Library, where people can check out locally adapted vegetable seeds in the spring and return in the fall with seeds from the propagated plant; and Welland Community Orchard in View Royal, a community garden that is home to almost 200 fruit trees and vines.

For more information or to donate, go to lifecyclesproject.ca.

parrais@timescolonist.com