05/19/2010 01:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Fixing America's Hunger Crisis, in Your Own Backyard

From time to time, the e-mails, meetings and phone calls that flood the daily lives and me and my coworkers can distract us from our real mission: we're there to make tangible differences. That's why, at least once a month, we get our hands dirty at a real volunteer opportunity.

On Saturday morning, a few of the more energetic morning people on the Causecast and HuffPost Impact team drove up to Canoga Park (for all you non-L.A. people, that's in "The Valley," about 20 miles northwest of Downtown), to glean some fruit trees.

We met Erica Kenner and learned about Food Forward, an all-volunteer organization that visits private residences to remove unwanted fruit from their trees. They deliver it to nearby food pantries, where it's usually consumed fresh within a day. Food Forward founder Rick Nahmias wrote about his organization last May on HuffPost:

I started this as a neighborhood project with zero experience. I'd get on my bike, and when I'd see someone with a tree, I'd stop and talk to them, saying something along the lines of, "Hi, we're Food Forward, this is what we do...Would you be interested in letting us empty your tree and get a charitable tax deduction in the bargain?"

It was really that simple. Nahmias saw two things: an excess of discarded fruit and thousands of hungry people. The equation couldn't have been more straightforward.

So, after a quick tutorial, we got our gloves on and started picking oranges from three large trees. Inspired by my natural competitiveness, it wasn't long before I started climbing the tree to get the fruit higher up -- generally embarrassing my coworkers, but it helped us succeed in filling up all the cartons we had available. Kenner estimated that the final total would be about 500 lbs of fruit, just a fraction of the 100,000 lbs they collect each year.

"We have this really amazing energy driven by our volunteers," she told me. In just under a year and a half, the organization has grown from Nahmias and his friends to an fruit-picking army of 1,200 -- all volunteers.

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Erica Kenner picks oranges in the San Fernando Valley.

It was a great experience for all of us who went, and it made me realize that there's always a way to get involved, even if you have no money, even if you can't travel anywhere.

After the earthquake in Haiti in January, the most frequent question sent to was, "Can I go to Haiti to help?" At the time, the answer was unequivocally, "No." Obviously, that's not the answer people want to hear. Volunteering with Food Forward this weekend, however, made me realize that encouraging people to fix something in their own community can give one the same feeling of accomplishment, and make the process of giving back much more tangible. So many of us gave $10 through a text message back in January, and it's good that we did. But nothing can match the feeling of knowing that just two hours of work helped fill a few hungry stomachs.

Follow the Food Forward blog, volunteer for a pick, or let them know if you've got a few extra fruit trees in your backyard.

Working on HuffPost Impact, it's very apparent how many dire issues there are in the world -- but giving just a few hours of one's time can make an immediate difference, and it is that message that we strive to consistently reiterate.