Senior Collectors collect local fruit to distribute to groups in Encinitas, Oceanside, Escondido and elsewhere
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, are Senior Collectors from San Diego County, a volunteer group with county-wide picking teams.
Their name comes from Biblical times when “gatherers” followed behind and gathered up 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 out.
“We’re almost done with the tangerines; now come the lemons and oranges; they’re 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 Gleaner volunteers to pick it up. You can also ask for directions to the nearest food pantry that collects food for those in need. It doesn’t cost a penny — it’s part of the effort to not waste food.
Right now, the biggest choices are in Vista, Rancho Santa Fe, Escondido, and Jamul.
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.
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.”
Joseph Ghougassian of Escondido has a 50 year old tangelo tree. Last year, the Harvesters harvested 15,000 pounds of fruit from about 200 trees. At one time, this area of Escondido had acres of tangelos; the trees are the largest remaining groves in the area.
Ghougassian used to sell his fruit, but during the pandemic, he decided to “give it away to help feed people”. He did so because of the tradition of “the American spirit of volunteering and giving.”
It’s the only country in the world, he said, where so many people like to donate and help others. He added that he helps volunteers who come to pick the fruit — “they are good people and always cheerful.”
And besides, it was fun and everyone enjoyed the time we spent together. We are the link to bring food to people who need it.”
— Daryush Bastani, longtime Senior Gleaner volunteer
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,” he says. “And besides that, it’s fun and everyone enjoys the time we spend together. 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 ask for volunteer assistance for half a day, one day a week. Each team in each section 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 North District locations:
Brother Benno Foundation, Oceanside
Center for Community Resources, Encinitas
Interfaith Community Services, Carlsbad and Escondido
Mesa View Baptist Church, Poway
4 Caring for Community, Rancho Bernardo
Bread of Life, Seaside
Brookview Village Senior Living, Poway
JW August has been a longtime San Diego digital and broadcast journalist.