Sharing the Bounty

Volunteer fruit harvesters help the hungry

A persimmon orchard in Morgan Hill is harvested by Village Harvest volunteer Chris Hays.

Photograph courtesy Village Harvest

Pounds of fresh fruit growing in local backyards offer an abundant supply of produce for Village Harvest, an organization that brings food from treetops to tabletops at Bay Area shelters.

“We’re connecting points of abundance to points of scarcity in our community,” says Joni Diserens, founder and executive director of Village Harvest in San Jose.

Since 2001, Diserens has organized a growing volunteer base to harvest citrus, apricots, peaches, apples, and other seasonal tree fruit, bringing what is often the sole source of fresh produce to those in need. Local volunteers roll up their sleeves to partake in the Santa Clara Valley tradition of community fruit harvesting.

“It can be very rewarding to volunteers because they see the immediate results—a mountain of food that would otherwise have gone to waste,” she says. In a single harvesting event, an average of 1,500 pounds of fruit is gathered over three hours.

Homeowners value the help Village Harvest provides in clearing their properties of excess fruit. “Recently I got a call from a couple of homeowners in their 70s with back problems. Even the dropped fruit on their property was too much for them to handle,” Diserens says.
Susan Osofsky, team leader for Palo Alto volunteers, says, “One homeowner told all her neighbors about us. We were able to stop and harvest on just one street—get the whole neighborhood at one time.” 

A benefit to the rigorous harvest work is the so-called “culled,” or blemished fruit, which can’t be stored or transported. “Whatever fruit we’ve culled is what volunteers can take home,” Osofsky says. Ripe apricots, for example, can’t be stored or transported easily, so volunteers often enjoy fresh surplus.

The Santa Clara Valley has always been a premier fruit-growing region due to the fertility of the soil and favorable climate. Fruit harvesting events occur all year round. Village Harvest volunteers normally carry 500 pounds or more of fruit in their cars, delivering it to one of several community service agencies, including San Jose Family Shelter, Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara County, and Cupertino Community Services, where the food is distributed.

A side benefit of this transport is the reduction in auto emissions. Harvesters may only drive 15 miles between an orchard and the agency where it will be distributed. By contrast, commercial fruit often requires 1,500 miles of transport from the starting point to the destination, according to Diserens. “We do something that makes sense—feed the neighbor down the block.”

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