I've never thought of myself as a community organizer of any kind. But, a few months ago, having grown tired of seeing wasted fruit from my neighbors trees littering the yards and sidewalks of my neighborhood, and frustrated with the knowledge that in the last year alone food pantries across the nation have seen an over forty-percent up tick, I acted. I formed a grassroots all-volunteer effort that's since been named Food Forward. Its mission: to simultaneously alleviate urban hunger while fostering community interaction at a local level. In a nutshell, myself and a growing corps of Angelinos venture out weekly to glean people's excess fruit and donate 100% of it to local food pantries.
Though many know that LA's multi-million person bedroom community, the San Fernando Valley (home of "The Brady Bunch" and infamous Sherman Oaks Galleria) used to be endless fruit and nut orchards, few realize thousands of those trees planted decades ago which survived hideous strip malls and suburban sprawl each still bear upwards of a quarter ton of fruit annually. Unfortunately, most of this massive bounty falls to the ground and rots or is absconded with by a variety of well-fed rodents.
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?"
After a pick, each harvesting between 300-600 pounds of fruit in just a few hours, we drop the fruit at our main receiving partner: SOVA Food Pantry, a non-sectarian project of Los Angeles Jewish Family Services based in Van Nuys which services upwards of 7,700 clients a month at its three LA area locations. In a short three months we've harvested over 10,000 lbs of fruit - all of it going to the hungry in our city.
Within a month of beginning our work together SOVA and Food Forward were approached by a homeowner in Chatsworth with over 300 orange trees on his and his husband's property, and the idea for "The Big Pick" was born. In early March, thanks to a viral net campaign on Facebook, Craigslist and the likes that brought my network together with food-friendly groups like Slow Food LA, over sixty volunteers convened at a four-acre estate on a picture perfect Sunday. We shared a potluck picnic and by day's end had harvested nearly 5,000 pounds of Valencia oranges. (We are currently laying plans for our next Big Pick, an event we hope to hold quarterly.)
If you ask Fred Summers, SOVA's Operation Manager, he's convinced of the need for a program like this: "Many of the people we see who are living on low incomes have very poor diets. Not just that they don't have enough food, but they're eating the wrong foods." The added fresh oranges, grapefruit, lemons and tangerines that make up the bulk of Food Forward's weekly harvests are exactly the healthy boost pantry clients are in need of.
Though Food Forward is not the first group to approach the concept of urban fruit gleaning (San Jose and Portland, Oregon have very active programs), we see the San Fernando Valley as an important untapped gleaning resource due to its early history as commercial citrus orchards which dates back to the 1880s and 90s.
Though keeping up with maintaining a group of this sort is no small task, I hope this is just the beginning. With the new corps of volunteers who came together for "The Big Pick," we've added weekday "sunset" picks and expanded the group's geography to include Burbank, Hollywood, Pasadena and beyond. As summer approaches we're on the hunt for stone fruit, avocados, and the likes. It's been a win-win and though the work is shared by a great group of volunteers, I guess I can feel OK with adding yet another hyphen to my title: community organizer.
If you'd like to join us on a pick, small or large, sign up to have your mature fruit trees gleaned, or want to learn how you can start your own group, please visit us at: www.foodforward.org.
Rick Nahmias is a photographer, writer, filmmaker, and community organizer who lives in Los Angeles.