They had scurried away around the tool shed, giggling and obvious, when I pulled up on the tractor just after five o'clock. No one else was around, and when I started walking around to lock up the sheds, they came back.
"Can we have some strawberries?"
"Oh!" I act surprised. "Are there strawberries over there on the picnic table?" I already know the answer. They're number twos, slightly imperfect but still red-ripe delicious and just sitting there, waiting to start rotting overnight.
Their heads bob up and down, pigtails flopping and bike helmet sloshing.
"Yeah, you can have some of those strawberries. Thanks for asking. Always ask."
They smile and say thank you and rush over to stuff their mouths full. "Can we have one of these too?!" They point to the bucket of tomatoes on the seat next to them. I hesitate. The first tomatoes.
"Sure, you can have one of those too," I offer as I hold up the bucket for them to reach in, then carry it away to the shed to store overnight.
"You're really nice!" the little girl calls to me. They shout their names to me, and I call mine back and wave. Good to meet you. The girl has a little daisy in her hair. The boy's glasses are thick-rimmed and falling down his nose. I already recognize them: two of the neighborhood kids that swarm in and out around the park next door. They come in pairs or small groups to use the water fountain, and inevitably ask for fruit or carrots to try. I'm always torn, trying to get home for the day, not sure if being a kid- a kid whose parents sleep in the middle of the day and leave you to roam around the neighborhood with no shoes and an empty stomach- entitles any of them to score produce whenever they ask.
So far, I keep landing on yes. Yes, you can try one. Yes, thanks for asking. Yes, please let us know if you see anyone stealing apples. Yes, you can have more if you come help us out. Yes, come back: this is a safe, nice place in your neighborhood.
And they learn. "Sorry, the pears won't be ripe for another few months!" and "No, the apples still aren't ripe." Why carrots split into two spears, and radishes burst open. When peppers are in season, and how produce looks that isn't perfect enough for a store. They can see it all, cruising in and out of this space.
As I march by again to lock up more sheds, they're off near the greenhouses. There's a scattering of stems and half-eaten fruit on the table. I pull a pint of peas from the cooler as the kids settle back in to strawberry-eating mode. When I pass back by the table, I gesture across the road and ask them to please always put their stems in the big compost pile. They nod again, vigorously this time. I hand them each two plump pods from my pint and their eyes widen.
"Wow," the girl says as I walk backward toward my car, "you're even nicer than I thought!" And I wonder if this interaction means that there'll be a hoard of kids picking peas in the field tonight, or if it's teaching them that sneaking around isn't needed. We'll share, if they just ask. As a community food bank farm, how in the world could we say no?