An army of more than 200 volunteers are picking fruit from overladen trees in backyards and public spaces in the region and donating it to support food relief efforts.
Not-for-profit group The Hidden Orchard has harvested just under 400 kilograms of fruit in the three weeks since the 2021 season started.
Most of it has been donated to food relief organisations like Food Is Free, SecondBite, Uniting and Salvation Army.
President and co-founder Ellen Burns said the team was keen to get back into the harvest after ending last year's season early due to COVID-19 restrictions and more people experiencing food insecurity.
"Speaking to the food relief charities they are all pretty overwhelmed with the amount of people needing food relief at the moment, including groups needing food relief who haven't ever accessed it before," she said.
"We are getting our fruit out as fast as we can harvest. We have delivered to Breezeway a few times in the past week when they were completely out of fruit, so they were pretty happy to receive it."
More than 220 Hidden Orchard volunteers help pick the fruit that is donated to 35 food relief charities.
Ms Burns delivered a box of fruit to Food Is Free on Wednesday and said the not-for-profit offered an important model of food relief for the community.
"It is so important to have an openly accessible source of free food in Ballarat because people aren't necessarily accessing food relief even when they need it," she said.
We are getting our fruit out as fast as we can harvest.Ellen Burns, The Hidden Orchard
"There is a lot of stigma around that, especially if they have never needed it in the past.
"It is so important to have food at places like Food Is Free where everyone can come and it is for everyone. You don't have to prove anything to come here and take it."
Food is Free director and founder Lou Ridsdale said donations from Hidden Orchard helped Food Is Free keep up with demand for food.
"We can't keep up with demand as people wander through the laneway looking for food," she said.
Ms Ridsdale said she loved seeing children in particularly understand the seasonality of food and where fruit comes from.
"The kids squeal when they haven't seen a plum before or weren't aware apples grew on trees and they see the leaves on the stems rather than the pristine state they are in at the supermarket."
Fruit is harvested from fruit trees mainly on private property, including the properties of elderly people who are not able to climb up a ladder anymore and renters who often do not know what the fruit is.
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Ms Burns said education was an important element, particularly with people who may not know about the fruit on their trees.
She said she visited the house of one renter and identified elderberry tree. She informed the tenant the fruit was poisonous when eaten raw.
Ms Burns said many trees they harvested were not well cared for and she was looking to set up a Hidden Orchard pruning service.
The volunteer-led harvests have saved thousands of kilograms of fruit from going to waste in the four years since the group began.
"It is incredible how much fruit you can get from one tree," Ms Burns said.
"The smallest tree we would get would be about 10 kilos. When you look at a tree you wouldn't necessarily see how much fruit it is."
Fruit left to drop on the ground can attract pests and be a slipping hazard if falling over a driveway or walking path.
Any damaged fruit found by volunteers is donated to the Ballarat Wildlife Park and Wala Animal Sanctuary.
The Hidden Orchard is looking for a secretary to join the committee and more harvest leaders.
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