FruitShare: Making the most of the season – for everyone! (photo by Tom Newton)
Local nonprofits working to feed their neighbors
Houston’s identity as a food destination just keeps growing, with residents dining out more each week than in any other city in America. But our appetite for giving is equally impressive, taking many different forms. At this time of the year devoted to showing gratitude and caring for others, it felt appropriate to showcase a few of the food-related nonprofit groups that have found inventive ways to give back 365 days a year in Houston.
Fruit Share Houston
Each winter, citrus trees in the greater Houston area sag under the bounty of ripe grapefruit, oranges, lemons and limes waiting to be picked. Some trees get so large it’s tough for owners to reach much of the fruit. Some fruit tree owners aren’t able to get out and tend trees. It’s not unusual for much of the citrus and other locally grown fruits in Houston to fall to the ground unused.
Fruit Share Houston capitalizes on the overflowing bounty of the Bayou City’s numerous citrus trees, sending volunteers and equipment to harvest fruit, which is then distributed to people in need. A couple who live in The Heights neighborhood, Karen Gordon and Kent Keith, began reaching out to neighbors about harvesting the bounty in 2013. With ladders strapped to the top of their compact car, they enlisted help from friends and collected more than 8,000 pounds of fruit for 400 needy families.
Last year, the numbers doubled, as word spread about the group. They’ve acquired some equipment, become a part of the nonprofit Neighborhood Centers, Inc., group, and are generally willing to go wherever they’re called in the Greater Houston area. “It seems like it’s taken on a life of its own without our really promoting it,” Gordon says. About 5% of the trees picked have been referred by “complete and total strangers” who have contacted her online, Gordon says. The group is always looking for spotters in far-flung neighborhoods who know of potential overloaded trees, and especially those who are willing to hand out flyers explaining what the group does.
Volunteers can support the abundant harvest by donating equipment, time, resources or all of the above during fruit-collecting season, October through April. In exchange for the fruit of their labor, they’ll have the gratitude of hundreds of families sitting down to meals inspired by juicy, healthy citrus.
Photo 1: Executive Chef Maurizio Ferrarese prepares a pickup. Four Seasons Hotel became a food donor in August 2015.
Photo 2: Shaken or stirred, all profits go to charity at OKRA Charity Saloon (styled by Julie Hettiger)
Photo 3: OKRA voting booth
Photo 4: Barbara Bronstein (back) delivers to Magnificat House, a shelter community in Midtown.
In 2011, a group of independent restaurant and bar owners in Houston came together when a proposed change in city policy regarding parking requirements threatened to cut into profits in a significant way.
With that crisis resolved, the dream team of food and drink professionals kept meeting, and formally organized as OKRA: Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs. In 2012, OKRA decided to collaborate on a project designed to highlight the responsibility local businesses have to give back to the community that supports them. They opened OKRA Charity Saloon in one of the oldest buildings in Houston, helping to revitalize the Market Square section of downtown in the process.
OKRA Charity Saloon operates as a bar with light food offerings where 100% of the profits go to local charities, a tangible thank you to the city and people who’ve helped propel their prosperity. With every drink they purchase, patrons get to vote for one of four charitable groups vying for donations each month. Scott Repass, current OKRA president and owner of, among others, Poison Girl and Antidote, explains the group’s motivation: “We all really love Houston, and giving back to downtown was something we really wanted to do. The city and the people have been so generous to us, we felt like we should use our talents and resources to give back.”
The group of business owners, initially led by Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge, includes Ryan Pera of Coltivare and Revival Market, Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, Paul Petronella of Paulie’s and Justin Yu of Oxheart, among several others. “One of the fun things is, it’s kind of like being on an NBA all-star team,” Repass says.
While the OKRA owners can’t always be on the premises, they’ve shared recipes, techniques and fun memories, like getting to name a four-legged member of the Houston Police Department Mounted Patrol, “Okra,” or having an armored Humvee parked outside when a U.S. veterans group was trying for donations, Repass says. But seeing crowds of patrons and knowing their presence is helping fuel nonprofit groups in a significant way is most gratifying. The saloon has given away $600,000-plus since its opening.