Gleaning in the trees

Local food banks use your excess produce to feed the poor

Let it rot on the tree? Not with Harvest Sacramento volunteer Kelsey Easterly (left) and a colleague on the case.

Let it rot on the tree? Not with Harvest Sacramento volunteer Kelsey Easterly (left) and a colleague on the case.

Photo By sena christian

Jay Erker eyed the apple in his hand. Next to him sat a bucket of Asian pears, but he didn’t grab one. He only likes pears. He loves apples.

“Mmm, it looks so good, I have to eat one,” said Erker, a graduate student at UC Davis.

“We should have brought a 5-gallon jar of peanut butter,” joked Randy Stannard, as both men, along with several other volunteers, sorted through buckets and wheelbarrows of apples, tossing aside the blemished ones. The good ones got put in buckets, weighed and loaded into a truck.

These apples and pears—almost 4,000 pounds worth—would be donated to the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, with some also going to the Food Bank of Yolo County, as part of a gleaning event hosted by Harvest Sacramento. Members of this nonprofit group pick excess or unwanted produce from abandoned orchards and residential backyards.

Earlier this month, about 25 volunteers gathered at an orchard off Garden Highway. The Sacramento Regional Flood Control Agency owns the land, which until a few years ago had been a working orchard.

On a warm fall morning, volunteers separated themselves into pickers, runners and sorters. Smashed fruit littered the ground, which had been overgrown with weeds. As Erker and Stannard sorted produce, Valerie Wood picked apples.

“I’m not a person that likes to see food go to waste,” Wood said.

Harvest Sacramento is the brainchild of two McKinley Park residents who grew frustrated with all the rotting oranges they saw piling up in their neighborhood’s streets. This past winter, they gathered 30 volunteers to glean 3,000 pounds of citrus.

The group has since become a formalized collaboration between Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services and Soil Born Farms. This year, volunteers have harvested more than 13,000 pounds of apples, figs, tomatoes, oranges, lemons, plums, pears and grapefruit, most of which have gone to local food-assistance programs.

“We’re really pushing toward healthy food in our program,” said Courtney Cagle, a food bank volunteer. “We want to get away from processed foods.”

The food bank’s program serves 15,000 people every month. Clients receive vegetables, whole grains and nonperishables. Additionally, they receive nutrition information, such as healthy recipes, advice for planting gardens and the benefits of eating locally grown, seasonal produce.

“Our goal is to not only assist people with their immediate needs, but to give them the tools to become successful and self-sufficient,” said Shannin Saulnier, operations manager for the food bank.

The program has received more than 10,000 pounds of produce from community-gleaning events this year: “We have been able to distribute more produce to our clients,” Saulnier said.

In August, Harvest Sacramento completed a pear harvest at a golf course in the Delta, gleaning more than 3,300 pounds. The group hosted two events at the apple orchard in October. Volunteers will soon pick pecans and walnuts.

“I’ve never been out in the field harvesting. Aside from the prickly bushes, it’s great,” said Justin Chan, a senior at UC Davis. “Let’s salvage whatever we can.”

Chan was one of a handful of members from the Davis Gleaning Project, a student-run group at the university.

“My major interest is in food security,” said the group’s co-organizer, Liz Fitzgerald. “I think about how much [food] access I have, but there’re so many people that don’t have that privilege.”

Harvest Sacramento encourages those who share this sentiment to lend a hand at future gleaning events. Right now, the group has about 60 volunteers and a database of 30 households with trees.

“My guess is volunteers will be the limiting factor more than fruit,” Stannard said.

As for Erker, he volunteered because he understands the importance of food. He grew up with the “typical American diet.” Now he’s a vegan with an interest in local-food systems.

“We could get food from Sacramento, instead of shipping it from Chile, Mexico and New Zealand,” Erker said. “It’s one of those things that makes me stop and say, ‘Food matters.’”