We live in a county where almost anything can grow. Citrus and other fruit trees literally line our yards and streets, and their produce often drops to the ground unwanted and wasted.
Given this circumstance, it’s shocking and strange that so many people in Alameda County lack healthy food. A social phenomenon called gleaning is springing up to heal this disconnect by harvesting the surplus fruit and distributing it to those in need.
Gleaners are well organized and active in northern Alameda County and in Santa Clara County, where weekly troops of volunteers gather to harvest fruit from residents who’ve requested help. In our area, the charge is being led by , which offers gleaned produce from San Leandro and Castro Valley homeowners at its monthly food pantry at the church at 911 Dowling Street.
“San Leandro has so much abundance,” said Linda LeBoa, a volunteer at All Saints’ food pantry. “It just needs to go to the right place.
“It’s so sad when people don’t take advantage of what’s growing in their backyards,” LeBoa said. “I see food falling to the ground, and I think, ‘People could use that.’”
All Saints sends out volunteer crews to harvest fruit from residents who request it. The fruit, along with other groceries from the Alameda County Food Bank’s central distribution facility in Oakland, is then distributed to pantry clients, called “guests,” on the first Saturday of each month.
“Fresh produce is what everyone wants from the food bank. And it’s what they have the least of,” said LeBoa, who is one of four lead volunteers, or “shoppers,” who fetch food each month from the Oakland facility to All Saints for distribution.
Most fresh produce needs special storage, if not expensive refrigeration, so it’s rarely handled by large-volume food banks such as Alameda County’s, LeBoa explained.
“When I went to pick up the food last time, the only produce they had was onions,” LeBoa said. For similar reasons, convenience stores, which are the only place to buy groceries in many low-income neighborhoods, generally don’t carry fresh produce either. Therefore, neighborhood tree fruit is always welcome at All Saints.
As citrus season wanes and spring planting begins, All Saints volunteers begin to hope for surplus produce from local gardens. Tomatoes will be especially welcome, particularly if they’re still a bit underripe and thus easier to handle. Also welcome are squash, zucchini and stone fruit such as plums.
“My mother-in-law has a garden in Oakland,” LeBoa said. “She gave us 200 pounds of extra tomatoes last year and we quickly distributed it all.”
The All Saints food pantry serves roughly 150 client households monthly. Any Alameda County resident may get food; most guests are senior citizens or working parents hard-hit by the recession. Many of the volunteers come from All Saints’ sister parish in Castro Valley, Holy Cross Episcopal Church.
Other local organizations are also getting in on the gleaning trend. Recently, Girl Scouts from San Leandro’s sent out leaflets in the school’s weekly family envelope, offering gleaning services to people with surplus tree fruit.
If you garden, consider joining the campaign to Plant A Row For the Hungry, which helps connect backyard gardeners with food pantries. Home gardeners across the country have donated 14 million pounds of produce through the program.
If you would like to learn more about gleaning, check out Village Harvest, a highly organized San Jose-based volunteer group that coordinates harvests from Milpitas to Palo Alto all year long.
For inspiration, check out the film The Gleaners and I by French director Agnes Varda, who was intrigued by the people in her own country who lived by salvaging food others had left behind. Varda found a symbol of hope, and empathy, in the heart-shaped potatoes her gleaners scrounged from the fields where commercial processors had left them behind.
Like All Saints’ gleaners and volunteers, Varda saw herself in the people whom the gleaned food served.
All Saints’ food pantry is open the first Saturday of every month. Volunteer set-up begins at 11 a.m., and food is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis from 1 p.m. - 2 p.m. Any Alameda County resident is welcome to get food; there is no eligibility test.
If you would like to donate tree fruit or other garden produce and need help with harvesting or pickup, please call All Saints in advance at 510-569-7020 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or simply drop by with the fruit at 10:30 a.m. on the morning of the food distribution.