03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

10,000 Trees Registered for Community Fruit Exchange

Imagine a community where fresh, seasonal, affordable, local fruit is easily accessible to everyone--from low-income families to fancy foodies. Instead of eating fruit that was raised in water-intensive orchards and shipped 1,500 miles, families could eat seasonal fruit grown in their own neighborhood. Instead of fruit falling onto the ground and going to waste, it would find its way into nearby homes.

Sharing local fruit with neighbors is the vision of two young entrepreneurs, Kaytea Petro and Oriana Sarac, who hold master's degrees in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, California.

The idea for a community fruit exchange came to Kaytea one morning as she was sitting at her computer trying to find a Web site that, the day before, had enabled her to locate and then pick apples off her neighbor's tree. Unable to find the Web site, Kaytea looked around her kitchen, puzzled that she also couldn't find the apples. Then she realized that she had imagined these events. There were no apples, and there was no Web site. The entire scenario had been a dream.

In that instant, Neighborhood Fruit was born. Backyard bounty and fruit growing on public land that might otherwise go to waste could be shared with neighbors who would love fresh, seasonal, affordable fruit. All that was missing was a system to organize and communicate the information so growers and families could contact each other. Kaytea's partner, Oriana Sarac, knew she could develop such a system. Oriana, a native of Sarajevo, was excited about the business concept because she could use her background in software engineering to leverage technology, thereby making a positive impact on the environment and people.

The dream became a reality in January 2009 with the launch of Neighborhood Fruit. By June 1, 2009, the program was operational.

Founders Oriana Sarac and Kaytea Petro

When Kaytea and I met, I was struck by this innovative idea. Given the difficulty of finding fresh fruit in rural areas and inner cities, I asked Kaytea and Oriana to explain how their business works.

Why did you start the business? What was the inspiration?

We want food, especially fruits and vegetables, to be grown where people live, not 1,500 miles away on a factory orchard requiring intensive amounts of water. We want to expand access to healthful fruit and simultaneously reduce the impact on the environment. And we want the fruit to be affordable. 

How does the program work for the person who has surplus fruit? How does it work for the person who wants to acquire fruit?

Fruit growers start by registering their fruit-bearing trees and answering a few simple questions, such as the type of fruit they are producing, location and harvest information. When the fruit is ripe, fruit growers use the Share My Fruit Form to notify the community that the fruit is ready. Trees must be registered before their fruit can be shared.

Once the registration is completed, the following information is available to the neighborhood community: type of fruit, who picks, contact method to arrange pickup and approximate location. To protect people's privacy, the fruit grower's personal information and address are not visible. The fruit grower also indicates the preferred contact method (e-mail, phone or address), which is then shared only with a member who completes a registered request. More information about how Neighborhood Fruit works can be found here.

What are the costs to participate?

Users who share their fruit pay no fees, and a map showing available fruit on public land is freely accessible to all users. In 2010, persons seeking information on available fruit from private parties will be charged a modest fee.

Are the people who give away produce constrained by liability issues? How are these matters addressed?

Liability is always a concern with everything we do, but there are protections for growers. First, we require a signed liability waiver from participants seeking produce, indicating that they will not hold growers responsible for any injury or illnesses that result from picking or eating the fruit. To reduce the risk of falling, we suggest members avoid climbing ladders and trees to pick fruit and suggest instead that they use poles or extension fruit pickers.

Additionally, in many situations, the law provides liability protection to people who donate food to the needy. According to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, growers are exempt (with some exceptions) from liability if they give their excess harvest to a nonprofit organization for distribution to needy individuals. The act also covers food that caterers or restaurants donate to charities. Of course, not everyone who receives fruit through this program is classified as needy or meets the definition of a nonprofit organization. Nevertheless, in some situations, the act will apply and give growers protection.

Perhaps most importantly, very few lawsuits to date have resulted from any of the food donations, probably because of the goodwill represented by the growers. More answers to liability questions are available here.

What is the current level of participation? What geographical area is the business operating in? How do you measure success?

Before the launch, we had hoped that the service would really take off in 2009 in the San Francisco Bay Area. To our surprise, our program is operational all over the United States! We have about 200 visitors a day, with about 20 percent of these representing returning families. Over 10,000 trees are registered in about 20 metropolitan areas. Even though the business is just in its infancy, we consider ourselves already more successful than we ever could have imagined.

How can individuals participate?

If you have a fruit tree, visit our site and register the tree. If you have excess fruit to share, register with our fruit fulfillment program and let us know about your experience. If you are looking for locally grown fruit, sign up and find out about produce that may be available in your neighborhood. And tell your friends about this program. Word of mouth is the most effective way we have for expanding this effort.

To learn more about the Neighborhood Fruit exchange program, go here. While you're at the site, be sure to register. You'll be helping to create a future where the bulk of backyard fruit is no longer wasted but shared between neighbors. And you'll be forwarding Kaytea and Oriana's project of creating communities where the fruit families eat is truly fresh, seasonal and local.