Growing up in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, I was surrounded by fruit trees – almost all citrus. Once the LA Aqueduct arrived, fruit cultivation was the area’s biggest industry, with four packing houses throughout the valley floor. And although most of these orchards are long gone, there are reminders of our citrus past everywhere you look. Walking around my neighborhood alone, you would run into a multitude of Valencia and Navel orange trees, lemon and grapefruit trees, as well as a few non-citrus delights as well.
Sadly… and interestingly… I rarely see my neighbors picking their own fruit. Much of it ends up on the ground (or in the greedy little paws of our neighborhood squirrels!). The founders of Food Forward noticed, too, and in 2009 created a grassroots effort to do something about it. Food Forward is a volunteer-powered group who gather at private residences, public spaces, and farmers and wholesale markets to recover excess fruit and vegetables. These are then donated, 100%, to local direct-service agencies, who in turn feed those in need within our community.
This week I headed out to my first pick. It happened to be at a house down the street from mine. A house I have driven past my entire life (and which has been occupied for 56 years by the same family). I stare at Bernadette’s beautiful row of orange trees nearly every day and today she had invited Food Forward to pick her backyard citrus trees – full of oranges, grapefruits, and lemons.
There were about 10 of us on this pick, half were first timers and Greg, a sweet retiree, had over 100 under his belt. Amir, operations manager for Food Forward, gave us our instructions and off we went. I must say picking fruit on a cool spring morning is not a bad way to start the day.
These picks can range in size from just a few trees on a private residence to full orchards with hundreds of trees. And what started out as just harvesting on these properties has now developed into farmers market and wholesale recoveries as well. If you are at an LA-based farmers market at the end of the day, you may very well see a team of volunteers collecting leftover produce from the vendors, which, again, gets 100% donated to local food banks within 72 hours.
I have to say it was eye opening to see how much fruit came off Bernadette’s handful of trees and we didn’t even pick them bare. So how did we do on our little hour-and-a-half pick? We collected 31 boxes: 600 pounds of Navel oranges, 200 pounds of grapefruit and 500 pounds of Valencia Oranges (plus a smattering of lemons, as they weren’t quite ripe yet) equaling 1600 pounds of fruit! In an hour and a half! Crazy right? (Yes, I am patting myself and the other pickers on the back because those numbers feel awesome!) This fruit most likely would have fallen off the trees and rotted but instead will bring nutrition to families in need. Food Forward delivers their food to 100 agencies who then service up to 100,000 people a month with the fruit and produce they harvest or recover. The produce from this particular pick went to SOVA.
It’s pretty amazing to think about the scale of what is being done by simply picking fruit that would otherwise go to waste. It is really astounding to grasp how many families will benefit from the fruit we collected just on this one morning in one person’s backyard when it is all laid out in front of you.
I’ll definitely be joining Food Forward again and, if you are interested, you can find a list of their events here. It really seems like there is one almost every single day. They are also spread throughout the greater Los Angeles area and into Ventura County, so you can find one near you.