Concrete Jungle has everything Millennials could want from a nonprofit. The organization has a focus on local food and environmentalism, a slew of young volunteers looking for a good time, and Katherine Kennedy, a 30-something Executive Director with a brilliant smile and energy for days.
Though Concrete Jungle is one of Atlanta’s nonprofit darlings, it has managed to maintain its youthful glow while growing up over the past few years. Concrete Jungle has always packed a heck of an impact punch with its mission of transforming underutilized fruit trees and land into sustenance for food banks, shelters and people in need. Yet the organization continues to evolve. Last year they donated 16,762 pounds of delicious, scavenged produce, which translates to 67,050 servings of food for Georgia’s homeless and hungry. This year, they have already donated 17,051 pounds or 68,204 servings and are growing a number of new initiatives.
We chatted with Katherine about Concrete Jungle’s continued scrappy progress, benefits of partnering with the tech sector and this week’s boozy sunset soiree.
Y’all have grown so much since you started. Can you talk about that evolution?
Concrete Jungle started with a present – a pedal-powered cider press that was given to our founders, Aubrey Daniels and Craig Durkin. As college kids, they didn’t have much money to buy apples for cider, so they started searching for free fruit around Atlanta. They discovered fruit trees all over the city — once you learn what an apple tree looks like you realize that they are everywhere. For five years, their picking efforts went towards throwing an annual Ciderfest party, a fun, family-friendly shindig we still have today.
To prep for our 2009 Ciderfest, we casually picked 3,300 pounds of apples, which makes more cider than you could ever give all of Atlanta. This excess pushed Aubrey and Craig to consider the thousands of hungry people across the city. So, we officially became a nonprofit in 2010.
Five years ago, a friend donated land to us, suggesting we also grow vegetables for food insecure communities; that land has since grown into Doghead Farm. The farm is an amazing example of why Concrete Jungle works in Atlanta, the local climate and rich soil means we can grow and donate food year-round.
Our big addition last year was Adventure Picks. Those are long-haul excursions during which volunteers glean, or collect food after a farmer is done with it. There are a variety of reasons this tactic works: sometimes the food isn’t perfect so the farmer can’t sell it, sometimes the farmer runs out of labor, or sometimes the farmer has already fulfilled a contract. In the last year, we have been to North Carolina, North Georgia and South Georgia. It’s a great way to spread our impact geographically because we always try to donate the food we pick back to those rural communities. That food goes a long way since Adventure Picks pull in a staggering amount of produce. For example, our volunteers collected 12,000 pounds of corn from South Georgia in a single day and that is insane. But one of the best parts of Adventure Picks is that we always try to do something fun in that area like eat amazing Southern food, drink beers at a roadside bar, or swim in a local lake.
This year, we are trying to focus on being smarter about the ways in which we donate food. We’re trying to plug into those places where there are deeper needs and fewer resources. For example, we donate produce to Mercy Church that feeds lunch to the folks waiting for work outside the Home Depot on Ponce. Many of those folks live in shelters and are deeply food insecure. We have realized that we can have a bigger impact if we partner with places like Mercy. By working with under resourced groups that have boots on the ground, we are both sensitive to the needs of the community and helping strapped organizations be efficient with what they have.
Tell us more about the technology behind what you do.
Access to resources like universities is another thing that makes Atlanta unique. We are so fortunate to have local universities that plug into the mission of Concrete Jungle. Georgia Tech’s Design Research Studio, Public Design Workshop, has been making our tech ideas a reality.
Our map of 2,900 fruit trees is always our biggest tech draw. But even with that map, I am one person and can’t go check in with all 2,900 trees regularly. To address this issue, Georgia Tech built us drones four years ago. We had autonomous drones that would send us images of produce ripening on trees. But we have since shifted and we are now focusing on sensors. We use one type of sensor that measures the arc of a fruit tree branch. As fruit ripens and gets heavier, there is more mass and the tree branches bend. Another type of sensor we use smells the trees to check for gasses released from ripe fruit. The drawback is that there are so many outside factors when dealing with nature. For example, a squirrel can throw off the branch sensors or a strong breeze can make fruit harder to smell. We’re trying to figure out how to work with our technology in such a non-controlled environment.
What’s on deck for you guys?
We want to look at small-scale processing of fruit to make less work for shelters. Even something like cutting apples is helpful for understaffed shelters since many homeless people have dental issues that make it hard to eat whole apples. So, we are trying to figure out a system for mobile fruit processing where people could be picking and processing in the same place.
We’re also super excited about the Concrete Jungle cookbook! We’re creating a cookbook featuring fruits, nuts, and flowers you can forage around Georgia. The cookbook will feature recipes from local chefs as well as recipes from the shelters, soup kitchens and volunteers that we work with. We have tons of local photographers jumping in to help so the book will hopefully be a beautiful and engaging way to tell the story of Concrete Jungle and local food.
This all sounds so exciting. How can folks plug in?
Besides volunteering, we would love people to come to the Rooftop Sunset Fundraiser. We are raising funds to support the last 3-4 Adventure Picks for the season and feature cocktails from fruit that we have picked recently. We would love to have people out for that fundraiser but roof space is limited so get your tickets now!
Headline and first in-line photos are property and courtesy of Jonathan Buiel. Second in-line photo – 1st in the set of 4 – is property of Dessa Lohrey. Third in-line photo – 2nd in the set of 4 – is property of Ethan Payne. All other images are property of Concrete Jungle.