By ALEX PATTON
Concrete Jungle is a nonprofit organization based in Atlanta, founded in 2009 by two Georgia Tech students to eliminate food waste and hunger by harvesting neglected produce. In less than a decade, Concrete Jungle has gathered so much community support that it is able to host out-of-state produce picks, hold large community events and even run its own urban farm, all maintained by volunteers.
ATLANTA — Concrete Jungle is fighting an epidemic of hunger and food waste by harvesting neglected food from the streets and backyards of Atlanta.
Atlanta residents Craig Durkin and Aubrey Daniels founded Concrete Jungle in 2009 as a volunteer-led nonprofit dedicated to eliminating food waste and feeding the hungry. The organization emphasizes community engagement, always pushing to collaborate with local businesses and bring in new volunteers.
“We see so much hunger and poverty in the city, and I think most people want to do something about it but just don’t know how,” Durkin said. “We started Concrete Jungle to give those people in our community a way to do something to help.”
Durkin, Daniels and their small army of volunteers are passionate about organizing the local community to solve its own hunger and food waste epidemic. The funny thing, they said, is that it all came together by accident.
Ciderfest, the accidental festival
Durkin and Daniels’ first partnership happened by chance in the summer of 2004, when the two were classmates at Georgia Tech. They were given an apple cider press by a mutual friend and decided to pick wild apples from trees growing around campus. The cider that Durkin and Daniels made with those locally-harvested apples went to provide for a small block party which they called “Ciderfest.”
“We made so much cider we didn’t know what to do with it all,” Daniels said. “So many people showed up for the first Ciderfest but we still didn’t run out. That really should show how many wild apples we were able to harvest, just from around the Georgia Tech campus.”
Ciderfest grew into a successful and popular annual community event, and the volunteers decided to start picking more fruit than just apples. They began harvesting any wild fruits, nuts and edible berries they could find and started Concrete Jungle as a nonprofit organization to donate their harvest to Atlanta charities and food drives.
Harvesting from the streets
Concrete Jungle regularly hosts guided harvests around Atlanta’s more fertile neighborhoods, sometimes harvesting produce from trees near the sidewalk or even residential yards. Jasen Johns, a senior arborist with the City of Atlanta’s Office of Parks, often volunteers to guide Concrete Jungle harvests, leading groups of new volunteers to teach them about wild foraging.
“All kinds of edible fruits and nuts grow wild in Atlanta, on private property and sometimes right next to the sidewalk,” Johns said. “We’re doing the city and the residents a favor by picking up the wasted produce on the ground.”
Most plant seeds are spread by wild birds and other animals, who eat the plants in one area and then pass the seeds in another. Johns said that some wild plants grow so easily that humans often accidentally plant seeds just from eating the fruit.
“I actually encourage people to throw their apple cores and other seeds out the window of their car while they’re driving, as long as the seed goes somewhere it can root,” Johns said. “That’s how we get fruit trees on the side of the road. Maybe you’ll end up harvesting it yourself after a few years.”
Lawn decoration or food?
In the front yards of some neighborhoods in Atlanta, plants bearing edible fruit and nuts are often grown for practical or aesthetic purposes. They add value to the property and contribute to the local ecosystem.
Sometimes property owners inherit plants from a previous owner or don’t have as much time to take care of their plants as they used to. As a result, edible produce often ends up rotting on the ground before anyone can harvest them.
“Sometimes we find colorful fruit growing in the front of people’s yards just for decoration,” Johns said. “We call that ‘lawn flair.’”
Johns said that aesthetic lawn flair accounts for a large portion of Concrete Jungle’s harvests. Apples are also a very common lawn flair fruit, which is one of the reasons why the first Ciderfest was so successful.
The community farm
In 2012, Concrete Jungle established Doghead Farm, a small produce farm in the Sylvan Hills neighborhood of southwest Atlanta. The site was once a residence, destroyed in the 70s and overrun by nature until Concrete Jungle bought the land more than 40 years later.
Volunteers work to grow root vegetables, peppers, potatoes and other edible plants on the plot, which is donated to charities along with the wild harvests. They use a farming technique called hugelkultur, which involves burying wood among the plants to enrich the soil as it decomposes.
“It’s easy to forget that food actually comes from the Earth when you’re so used to buying it from a store,” said Concrete Jungle’s business director Katherine Kennedy. “People who live in cities can especially lose touch with the edible plants growing on the streets around them.”
Concrete Jungle tries to keep the work fun at the farm, often hosting events like “Weed Dating” singles meetups to draw more volunteers. According to their website, Concrete Jungle has grown more than 5,383 pounds of food since the first harvest.
A friendly brew
In early 2017, Concrete Jungle partnered with Wild Heaven Brewery to brew a collaborative beer with a with a local flavor. The beer, which is named after Concrete Jungle, was brewed with a blend of cherries, mulberries, serviceberries, apples and plums hand-picked by Concrete Jungle volunteers and barrel-aged for a year.
“This was a great partnership for us because normally we have to do a fair amount of sorting and cleaning of those fruits,” Durkin said. “Wild Heaven didn’t want any of that because they wanted as much natural yeast as possible.”
The Decatur brewery is well-known in the Atlanta craft beer community for their experimental barrel-aged fruited sours, which founder Nick Purdy said makes them a perfect partner for local foragers like Concrete Jungle.
“Local fruits bring a sense of place and the local terroir, adding to the story of the beer,” Purdy said. “Having ripe, local fruit provides more raw material for the barrel-aging process to draw out unique, complex flavors.
The Spectacular Fruit Ramble
Concrete Jungle’s 4th-annual Spectacular Fruit Ramble will take place May 5, at Ration + Dram cocktail bar. Every year at the beginning of summer, Concrete Jungle hosts Spectacular Fruit Ramble, a community fundraiser and tour through some particularly fertile neighborhoods.
The tours are on foot or bike and are meant to get potential and experienced volunteers excited about the harvest season. All ages are welcome to go on the tour and attend a fruit-themed carnival after.
Kennedy said that last year, the Ramble at Orpheus Brewing drew more than 200 attendees. Concrete Jungle gains many volunteers and social media followers from events like the Ramble, and they are always a good opportunity to collaborate with local businesses.
Community functions like the Fruit Ramble bring Concrete Jungle more volunteers every year, and the organization just keeps getting bigger as more local businesses collaborate with them. Anyone interested in volunteering for harvest or farm work can visit their website to get involved.