‘Gathering’ Volunteers Harvest Frequently Discarded Fruit in Urban San Diego to Feed the Hungry

Senior Gatherer with fruit
Volunteers with picked fruit in an orchard in the San Diego area. Courtesy of the San Diego County Senior Collector

Orange trees in San Diego County are full this time of year. It’s not uncommon to see backyard trees and orchards full of tangerines, oranges, and grapefruits now that we’re at the height of citrus season.

Although many trees were plucked cleanly, the citrus fruit still hung heavily and was not picked from the thousands of regional trees. When they fall to the ground, the fruit is wasted, meaning loss of a potential food source for many of the district’s residents.

Saving those oranges, as well as figs, grapes, and apples, is the goal of the San Diego Stake Senior Collectors, a volunteer group with teams of pickers throughout our county.

Their name comes from Biblical times when “gatherers” followed and gathered the crop residue left by the reapers.

Every part of San Diego County has a team of volunteers who will go out and pick trees. Right now they need more volunteers to help.

“We’re almost done with the tangerines, now come the lemons and oranges, next,” said Margaret Burton, president of the San Diego group.

Like other volunteers, Burton drives his own truck to the picking locations, filling crates of bananas and bags they get from the grocery store with ripe oranges and other fruit his team picks.

Whether it’s a few lemon trees in San Diego’s backyard, a grapefruit orchard in North County, or oranges in East County, people should contact the Scavengers about any leftovers they know of.

Volunteers will go out and clean their fruit trees, or if you pick your own excess fruit you can ask a Gleaner volunteer to pick it up or you can ask for directions to the nearest food pantry to collect food for those in need. It doesn’t cost a penny, and is part of an effort not to waste food.

Currently the largest selection is in Jamul, Escondido, Rancho Santa Fe, and Vista. While the Gleaners have picked 1,000 persimmon trees with 19,200 pounds of fruit from one Pauma Valley forest, Monte Turner, the group’s former president, says picking large quantities is not their main source of work.

“As little as one tree per homeowner is our bread and butter,” he says.

Candice Kvigne lives in the Mission Bay area and has used Gleaners to pick oranges and clementine tangerines for 11 years. “My tree is very old and fertile, I really like that the fruit is used to feed people and not go to waste.”

A plus for him is that picking the fruit helps keep the tree healthy. He also noted, “I don’t like fruit falling to the ground because it attracts rats.” The Gleaners have picked as much as 800 pounds of fruit from the Kvigne tree.

Volunteers with fruit sent to San Diego Jewish Family Services. Courtesy of the San Diego County Senior Collector

A network of charities and tree owners has been created to provide fresh fruit to organizations throughout San Diego County. In addition, they take unsold produce at grocery stores, with it all going to various non-profit organizations that feed thousands of people.

Turner notes that while food banks get “canned goods and commodities, they need fresh fruit and citrus, and that’s what we provide.”

Longtime volunteer Daryush Bastani says he planted 40 trees in his backyard in Clairemont in 1987. Now his plantings provide lemons, oranges and mulberries for others to eat.

“I grew up on a farm, and this brought me back to my roots, and besides that it was fun and everyone enjoyed the time we spent together,” he said. “We are the link to bring food to people who need it.”

Called the “Senior” Gleaners because the picking team uses volunteers aged over 55, they started locally in 1994 when the group’s founder was traveling around Escondido and saw a tree full of oranges and the ground covered in fallen fruit. Since then, the organization has picked an estimated 7.7 million pounds of fruit.

Gleaners enlist the help of volunteers for half a day each week. The team in each part of the county has a captain who will provide gloves, ladders and everything else needed to do the job.

It takes individuals who are able to transport several boxes of bananas filled with fruit in their own vehicle. Most deliveries are within 10 miles of the pickup location. There are 64 locations that get deliveries. Here are some of them:

  • Imperial Coast Senior Center
  • Feeding the Flock at Lakeside
  • City Heights Community Refrigerator
  • The Brother Beanos Foundation in Oceanside

As well as seeking volunteers at this time, Senior Gleaners are looking to donate a van that can be used to transport oranges and fruit from the fields to the many locations they serve.

Group president Burton said that one thing that was different about this year’s harvest season was Senate Bill 1383, which aims to reduce emissions by reducing the collection of organic waste that goes to landfills. For Collectors, that means an increase in demand from grocery stores and private homes requesting pick-ups from groups of volunteers.

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