Waste Not: Community Harvests and Preserves an Urban Bounty

Sam Christy hates wasting food. So much so that he’s not only started a yogurt-making coop in Somerville, but is also heavily involved in the League of Urban Canners, which has been harvesting and preserving fruit that would otherwise rot in Cambridge and Somerville.

“I got obsessed with the waste of plastic containers,” longtime Somerville resident Sam Christy said. To that end, he was making yogurt at home for his family once a week. One day he realized that making more yogurt wouldn’t really add that much work and began wondering whether others in the area would join his weekly production line.

Christy thought a church would be the perfect setting for the yogurt-making because it would be equipped with a huge kitchen with industrial sinks and gas stoves. The Somerville Yogurt Coop settled on Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church, though they have since moved operations to First Church Somerville.

“There’s an efficiency of having people work together,” Christy said. “It’s a testament to the area to be able to start a yogurt coop.”

To avoid waste, all the milk is delivered from Crescent Ridge Farm in Sharon, Mass., in reusable glass bottles and the yogurt is stored in quart glass jars that are also reused. The Coop doesn’t even use electricity to make the yogurt, instead relying on coolers filled with hot water to incubate it.

The yogurt itself is thick and creamy with a distinct tang. If you like the now-ubiquitous Greek yogurt style, you’ll love this yogurt version, which comes in both whole and nonfat varieties.

“I wasn’t interested in crafting the perfect yogurt,” Christy said. “I wanted to craft a good yogurt. Each week, different people make it.” This sometimes lead to mistakes in the early days, but some of those mistakes proved fruitful when developing the thick, creamy, tart yogurt that the Coop members enjoy today.

“It’s really, really good,” Christy said. “Like pudding.”

The Coop costs $60 for 24 weeks/quarts of yogurt with a one-time $12 deposit for the glass bottles. There are anywhere from 16-20 people in the Coop right now and they take turns making the yogurt on Tuesday nights.

“There’s a core group that’s been really dedicated since the beginning,” Christy said. “It’s a good community. We have quarterly potlucks. People take pride in being a part of it.”

Many of these same people are now actively involved in the League of Urban Canners, a group of people working to harvest fruit around Cambridge and Somerville that would otherwise go to waste, but is being preserved instead.

The whole venture started when Christy and his family found themselves in possession of 15 pounds of strawberries from their community garden plot. Even the biggest berry-lover would have trouble eating all of that fruit before it could rot, so Christy’s daughter suggested canning it.

“My wife got canning equipment 25 years ago, but we never used it for fear of killing someone,” Christy said. “But then you have it for a year and you survive.”

So Christy thought it would be a good idea to preserve some of the bounty from the local farmers markets.

“You go to farmers markets, but you can’t eat it all at once,” Christy said. “It doesn’t make sense. It would be nice to know how to preserve the food from the markets.”

But after making tomato sauce with 100 pounds of farmers market tomatoes and discovering that it was a pretty expensive process, he scrapped that idea. Until he noticed an apple tree 100 yards from his Somerville home.

“It’s amazing how much fruit there is,” Christy said. Since he noticed that first apple tree, the League of Urban Canners has identified more 200 sites in the area where fruit like pears, apricots, grapes and mulberries are growing and harvested nearly a ton of fruit in 2012 alone.

The League of Urban Canners has even been harvesting crab apples to make jelly after Christy bravely tried one.

“I kept going by these trees and eating them,” Christy said. “Most things are safe. I’m surprised at how good they taste.” After being given a sample of the crab apple jelly, I can attest that it was delicious, both tart and sweet (and a great complement to the yogurt).

The League of Urban Canners goes out to sites to harvest fruit and then makes jams, jellies and preserves from the fruit. The owners of the fruit trees get 10% back and the harvesters and canners divide up the rest of the bounty. On a recent Saturday, the League harvested 400 pounds of apples (some pictured below) and were going to press them to make cider.

Christy said that during the harvests, people on the street often stop to see what’s going on.

“People come by and get excited local about eating,” Christy said. “You meet people from all walks of life.”

Like a woman Christy recently encountered with peach trees in her yard. She has lived in the same house for 95 years (yes, you read that right). She told Christy she moved into the house when she was only one year old and has lived there ever since.

Nothing could make Christy happier than the fact that he’s bringing people together and eliminating waste through the Coop and League. “There’s no waste and the pantry’s full. We are making sure [the fruit] is getting harvested and not wasted,” Christy said.

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