While citrus groves no longer dot the landscape, trees in backyards across Orange County still yield an abundance of produce that sadly often goes to waste. But thanks to the efforts of the Harvest Club of Orange County, a volunteer-based organization that gleans fruit from neighborhood trees, much of this excess backyard bounty now goes to help feed the hungry.
The gleaning operation started informally in Huntington Beach.
“In 2009 a couple of friends had fruit trees they could not finish,” says Lindsey Harrison, coordinator of volunteers for the Harvest Club. “Others helped pick trees and donated extra fruit to the food bank.”
More and more neighbors got on board and as word spread, the organization began to grow and solidify. In 2011 the Harvest Club became a project of the Orange County Food Access Coalition (OCFAC). By this time Harvest Club’s coverage area had already expanded beyond its Huntington Beach roots, but the new association with OCFAC served to further boost its countywide presence.
According to Harrison, 400 households have signed up as participating growers, and fruit that would otherwise remain uneaten goes to 30 different county food banks.
Harrison credits information that’s spread by word of mouth for most of the Harvest Club’s rapid growth. But she says that an article published last year in The Orange County Register caused a major uptick in interest.
As a result, 900 people have signed up as volunteers.
“Thirty or 40 people express an interest every week,” Harrison says.
Many volunteers are certainly needed, because once a homeowner expresses an interest in donating extra fruit, people are needed to go check out fruit trees on the property. And of course, more volunteers means more fruit can be picked and put to good use.
Becoming part of the Orange County Food Access Coalition has also helped the Harvest Club expand its impact. In the past, volunteers had to supply their own harvesting poles and storage containers. Now, these tools are provided.
Through experience, the Harvest Club has streamlined its fruit-picking operation. Harvest captains train and supervise volunteers and once fruit is plucked from trees, it’s not long before it reaches its final destination.
“It’s a short time between harvest and the food bank,” says Harrison.
Volunteers are the backbone of this effort. Captains serve as managers for teams of harvesters, tree scouts make advance visits to determine if fruits or vegetables are suitable to send to a food bank and ascertain when harvesting needs to take place, ambassadors let homeowners know about the Harvest Club’s services, and drivers deliver the freshly-picked produce. None of this would be possible without the myriad of volunteer home fruit growers who live throughout Orange County.
While oranges comprise much of what volunteers pick, The Harvest Club handles a large variety of fruit.
“We deal with a lot of citrus—Orange County has its name for a reason,” Harrison says. “But persimmons are big during winter, and we also harvest apples and limes.”
Tangerines, tangelos and other fruit types are also gleaned by Harvest Club volunteers, as are vegetables from backyard gardens.
Thanks to generous equipment donations and several community and state grants, the entire harvesting process is free to both growers and food banks.
So while neither cost nor availability of fruit are obstacles, Harrison says that a lack of volunteer help still poses a significant challenge. This is true even though many Orange County residents have signed up to help. Certainly, more volunteers will be needed if the Harvest Club is to hit a goal that Harrison has put forth.
“This year we’re breaking records,” she says. “Normally we harvest 50,000 pounds of fruit a year—now we’re already up to 30,000 pounds. My goal is to hit 100,000 pounds in one year.”
To register as a grower or volunteer, visit The Harvest Club’s Join Us page.