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Denver yards can yield food aplenty, grad says

If you were to meet Jason Barton at a party and ask what he did for a living, he’d probably tell you: “I’m a garbage man.”

An odd occupation, you might think, for someone with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from DU, a master’s in English from the University of Montana and a nearly complete doctorate in economics focused on biofuels from the University of British Columbia. But Barton’s interest in refuse isn’t traditional either. In his two jobs, he looks at ways to reclaim the materials that often don’t make it to compost heaps or recycling centers but end up spoiling the ground or the waterways instead.

By day, Barton works for recycOil, a Boulder-based company that collects and recycles used fryer oil for biodiesel production.  And in his so-called spare time, Barton is launching Denver Yard Harvest, a nonprofit organization that collects excess fruit from homeowners’ trees — with their permission — and donates the bounty to people in need.

“For homeowners, it’s a pain in the neck [to harvest all the fruit their trees produce]. If they don’t have ladders, if they don’t have time, they end up with a couple hundred pounds of rotting, stinking garbage,” Barton says. “And yet so many people don’t have access to fresh food.”

Homeowners who register their trees with Yard Harvest simply notify the group when their fruit is ripe. Barton’s volunteer crew shows up within a few days, to maximize the harvest, and picks all the apples, peaches, plums and cherries, leaving a large bagful for the homeowner. The volunteers take a small amount for themselves and donate at least 85 percent of the harvest to food banks, nursing homes, day care centers and the like.

“We want the majority to go to folks who are at risk of not having that food,” Barton says.

Anything on the ground is considered compost, so Yard Harvest can’t legally donate it. But Barton says he’s willing to do the dirty work and toss it in the owner’s compost pile, or his own, if the homeowner doesn’t have one.

When Barton worked for a similar organization in Vancouver, he discovered even more rules governed the process.

“You can’t just go around giving hundreds of pounds of food to little kids,” he says. So he enlisted help from DU law students to make sure his approach would be safe and legal. In Colorado, he’s fine as long as Yard Harvest is not preparing the food; and because it’s a nonprofit, it’s covered under “good Samaritan” laws, he says.

“We [picked] over 12,000 pounds of fruit in the two years I was doing this in Vancouver,” Barton says.

While noting that Colorado is not nearly as moist and lush, he still has high hopes.

“We’re really thinking long term on this, so we don’t want to make promises that this is going to be a banner year. Our goal for our first year is 2,000 pounds. If we achieve that in year one, I’d be ecstatic.”

Yard Harvest needs more infrastructure to make it happen. Its greatest need, Barton says, is for vehicles that can accommodate long ladders and big buckets of fruit. It doesn’t have to be fancy — his Subaru wagon does the trick nicely, he says. Beyond that, he needs volunteers and homeowners willing to register their trees.

Yard Harvest is having a kickoff party on June 16 at Fuel Café, where he hopes to attract both types of supporters.

“They have a garden outside their restaurant where they get a lot of herbs and veggies, and they have similar ideals to us — maintaining that connection between the food we eat and its origins,” he says.

The one group he’s not worried about attracting are recipients.

“If we have trouble giving this stuff away, then we’re doing something wrong,” he says.

The Yard Harvest Kickoff Party will be a casual drop-in event where people can learn more information about the nonprofit. The party takes place from 5:30–9:30 p.m. June 16 at Fuel Café, 3455 Ringsby Court in Denver. For more information, visit

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