Paying it Forward With Fresh Fruit

On a recent warm Saturday morning, several dozen people assembled outside the entrance to the Huntington Library. The gates wouldn’t open for another hour and a half, but these early birds weren’t there to see the art galleries, the library or the botanical gardens. What they were after was fruit — specifically, the seven acres of Valencia oranges adjacent to the Huntington’s north entry road.
For the past four years, the Huntington has opened its historic orange grove to volunteers from Food Forward, a nonprofit dedicated to putting fresh produce into the hands of those who need it. Since its founding in 2009, the organization has gleaned and donated more than 11 million pounds of fruit and vegetables from farms, farmers’ markets and its backyard harvest program.
The Huntington, which hosts monthly picking sessions each citrus season, is Food Forward’s largest harvest site in the San Gabriel Valley. Some of the trees in the orange grove date back to Henry E. Huntington’s original purchase of the 600-acre land in 1910, when it was used for commercial agriculture. Food Forward provides the institution a common sense solution to an old and irksome issue.
“It’s an important part of our history for us to express to the public, so we maintained the trees as part of their value,” said Scott Kleinrock, the Huntington’s landscape design and planting coordinator. “But they also happen to produce a lot of fruit, and we never really had the staff or ability to maximize the use of that fruit, because it takes a lot of labor just to harvest. Food Forward provides the volunteer labor to do the harvesting, and then we know that all of that fruit is going to a great [purpose] and not being wasted.”
As volunteers in sun hats and work clothes donned gardening gloves and assembled basket pickers, pick leader Charles Zinkl took a moment to brief them on the rules: no climbing the trees, no gleaning from the front-most row of trees, and no leaves or branches in the harvest boxes — a measure to prevent the spread of the Asian citrus psyllid, a parasite that has been wreaking havoc on commercial citrus farmers.
“The mission for today is to harvest as many of these oranges as we can,” said Zinkl, gesturing toward the fruit-laden grove behind him. “Citrus fruit is super valuable right now, in part because a lot of the citrus trees in the Central Valley are not getting enough water and dying off. Florida has a citrus shortage from the parasite, so this kind of volunteerism is getting more and more valuable.”
Food Forward currently has 3,600 active volunteers across Los Angeles and Ventura counties. It serves 95 receiving agencies directly and 250 indirectly, among them food banks, homeless shelters and outreach ministries. This particular harvest at the Huntington — the first of the year — was headed for the food bank at MEND Poverty, a poverty-relief organization based in the San Fernando Valley, and to residents of Skid Row via #Hashtag Lunchbag, a meal delivery program for the homeless.
In San Marino, the Huntington may have the biggest backyard, but certainly not the only fruit trees, which is why Food Forward has been working to establish more relationships with organizations and homeowners in the community. Pastor Donald Shenk of San Marino Congregational United Church of Christ, a longtime supporter of Food Forward, is helping to lead that charge.
“There are a lot of incredibly generous people in San Marino, and they’re looking for ways to give back and to give what they have,” said Shenk, who volunteers as a pick leader. “So to know that your beautiful fruit is going to a good purpose instead of your gardener’s waste cans, it’s a wonderful way to give back to people in other communities that are in such need.”
For the past three years, Shenk has led volunteers from his congregation on backyard harvests the first Saturday of every month. The church has become a San Gabriel Valley hub for Food Forward, providing equipment and storage for picks in San Marino and neighboring communities.
“I love the hands-on immediacy of it,” said Shenk. “So much of what we do in mission work and service projects, you don’t really get to see the benefit of it, and with this, you’re picking fruit and they’re often handing it out that day. So there’s fresh fruit for people who would not have it, and it’s coming from San Marino’s backyards.”
To donate their fruit, homeowners can simply contact Food Forward, which assesses the property before coordinating a harvest at the residents’ convenience. Food Forward supplies the equipment and volunteers and transports the gleaned fruit to a receiving agency, where it is used within three days. Residents can also harvest their own fruit, with Food Forward dropping off equipment and boxes in the morning, then picking up the fruit later in the day. For homeowners, the process yields not only a cleaner yard, but a nice tax break — a charitable donation based on the pounds of fruit harvested.
“It also fosters community,” added Shenk. “We’ve gone out to a couple of San Marino houses and we get to know our neighbors that way.”
In addition to finding new pick sites in the community, Food Forward also hopes to find a fresh crop of San Marino pick leaders and volunteers. Leaders undergo special training and are required to lead a minimum of one pick per month, while volunteers can check Food Forward’s online calendar periodically to register for upcoming harvest opportunities.
According to Feeding America, some 70 billion pounds of safe, edible food is wasted in the United States each year, and up to 40% of food grown in the U.S. never reaches consumers’ plates. At the same time, 49 million people are facing hunger nationwide. Despite the abundance of fresh food grown in Southern California, in Los Angeles County, one in four children does not get enough food and 1.5 million people are food insecure — the highest such population in the country.
“We have an incredible year-round growing season, 220 farmers’ markets every week, thousands of backyard fruit trees, and we’re home to the second-largest wholesale produce market in the entire country,” said Rachael Maysels, Food Forward’s Backyard Harvest manager. “This, unfortunately, means we have a mind-blowing amount of produce waste happening every day. But this also allows Food Forward an incredible opportunity to redirect this waste to our community’s food insecure.”
To spare unwanted food the fate of the landfill, Food Forward has a multi-pronged approach to procuring its produce: collecting unsold items from 15 farmers’ markets across Los Angeles, forsaken fruit from the Downtown Los Angeles Wholesale Terminal and “ugly” vegetables from a handful of partnering farms in Ventura County. Then there’s the Backyard Harvest Program, which currently sources fruit from more than 1,800 residential properties in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
Back at the Huntington’s orange grove, Food Forward intern Jack Heer emptied buckets of oranges into large cardboard boxes as the end of the harvest neared.
“It hits you in two ways,” the 19-year-old said, surveying the fruits of the morning’s labor. “When you see all the fruit you picked and you imagine who it’s going to help, and when you see your work go into the mouths of the people who need it and the gratitude they have for something so small, that’s something we take for granted. And it’s so easy to do.”

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