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How One Community Is Redirecting Thousands Of Pounds Of Fruit From Suburban Backyards To Local Tables

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Courtesy of June Johnsen and Gerry Raycraft
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Gleaners at work with pickers in hand in Solano.

Carol Collison lives in a cream two story house in Northwest Vacaville. In her backyard, tucked between a deck and some rose bushes, is a beautiful lemon tree. It’s about eight feet tall, and its branches are heavy with bright yellow lemons.

“That fruit's getting old and there's a ton of fruit on the tree. You think you're going to use it? And then you don't,” says Carol.

To help manage her excess fruit, Carol’s invited some gleaners from the rotary club to help pick and distribute the fruit she won’t use. Gleaners are people who pick the excess food leftover on private land after owners have had their fill. Usually gleaners work in rural agricultural areas, but today I’m here to meet a team of gleaners working in suburban Solano County.

When I arrive, I meet June Johnsen and Kimber Smith sitting in a car outside Carol’s house. Kimber, June and the other volunteers have been harvesting hundreds of pounds of fruit from suburban yards for months now ––distributing what they collect for free to people around the county.

Soon another volunteer named Gerry Raycraft pulls-up in an old blue Chevy pick-up.

Gerry’s got the tools. We walk around to the back of Gerry’s car and he pulls white painters buckets and pickers - basically long poles with a basket on one end - out of the cargo bed. The pickers have clearly gotten some use. Some of their tines are held together with zip ties and a few have grey circles of foam in them. “Why do you have the foam in the bottom of the baskets?” I ask. “To protect the fruit when it falls in,” he explains.

There are also ladders in Gerry’s truck but for Carol’s lemon tree, it’s decided we don’t need them. The pickers extend and besides, ladders aren’t the only way to get up into a tree. “Sometimes we climb trees,” says June.

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Courtesy of June Johnsen and Gerry Raycraft
Gleaners in the trees

Carrying buckets and pickers, we follow Carol around the house, through a gate and into her backyard. On the way, June and Kimber tell me they’ve picked all sorts of fruits, including oranges, plums, avocados, and persimmons.

“I’d never had a persimmon in my life,” reflects Gerry. “Oh I always go when there’s persimmons!” says June.

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Courtesy of June Johnsen and Gerry Raycraft
Collected Fruits

We set down the tools near the base of the lemon tree. The tree is bordered by rose bushes on one side, and Gerry goes off to get a pair of thick gloves from his truck to protect his arms as he moves through them. I grab a picker and June shows me the ropes.

“So the key is to put these hooks under the fruit. To grab the fruit and then pull. And then it'll just fall right in the basket,” she says. It sounds easy enough, but maneuvering the long pole through the branches and placing the hook is tough. I place my picker hooks around a clump of oranges and start to pull, and suddenly the picker pole starts to extend.

“See how awkward it is when you first start out,” she says. “I was the same way. I was like, I can't figure this out!”

Making the Most of a Local Resource

Solano County has a great climate for fruit trees and because of that, a long history of commercially successful fruit farms. As housing moved in where orchards used to be, some Solano residents ended up with fruit trees in their yards.

Heather Pierini runs another gleaning group here called the Solano Gleaning Initiative. She says that gleaning helps communities deal with some of the issues surrounding fruit-trees in residential neighborhoods. According to her, having volunteer pickers can help people “that have become elderly, or that don't have the time or resources to pick their trees.” It diverts food from the waste stream and she says, “sometimes if there's fallen fruit on the ground, a lot of pests will come at it,” so gleaning can help prevent that too.

“One way towards food sustainability and security is being able to grow your own food. But then there's all these fruit trees that are already planted that are bearing fruit still. And that resource, locally, is valuable.”

But it does more than just that, she adds. “One way towards food sustainability and security is being able to grow your own food. But then there's all these fruit trees that are already planted that are bearing fruit still. And that resource, locally, is valuable.” In order to access that resource, it requires trust between neighbors.

“In America, when we invite someone, beyond the garden gate, we're inviting them into our home. And for someone to invite you into their backyard to pick something that they've grown, it's personal,” she says.

It can be awkward to ask people for permission to pick their trees. “It takes guts because you have to go up and ask someone for something of theirs. I mean, that's at the base of it. And some people just look at you, like you're completely loony,’” she describes. But that’s part of the process. “We have to expect goodness from other people, expecting the idea that they would want to help, but also, recognizing not everyone's there yet,” she says. But when people are ready, it can help build a connection and Heather says, it helps normalize food sharing. All of which Heather says, builds a more stable food system that makes better use of existing food resources.

Heather says that the past year and half made it clear that we still have a long way to go in building a resilient food system.

“Our food systems were so impacted by COVID,” she says. Within weeks of the order to shelter in place, there were shortages at grocery stores. “If our system broke down that quickly then we’re going to have to think sideways. We're going to have to think in different ways to make sure that the resources that exist, that are there, we've always had enough food to feed people, but getting it to where it's needed and getting it into the hands of the people that can use it is, uh, is part of the issue.”

Gleaning, she says, is just a tiny piece of a solution but so far, “it's something that's been pretty effective.”

From Tree to Table

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Gerry and June at the Food Bank

Solano County gleaners get fruit from trees to people in a few different ways. Some of it goes to neighborhood free food stands. There are close to fifty in the county. Other gleaned food goes to the local food bank or to local community events.

Ultimately, the goal for all gleaned food is to end up in the hands of Solano residents. People like Jose, who I met at a rally at Waterfront Park in Vallejo. He, like other people there, had come to get food from a stand that was giving out food boxes and bags of gleaned fruits. I asked if he knew that the oranges he picked up were from local trees. He said he didn’t and thought quietly for a moment.

“That’s good,” he said. “It’s good to always have resources close by.”

Back at Carol’s house the work is quick and in about twenty minutes we’ve filled a painter’s bucket with lemons and the tree is empty. This tree was easier than some.

“We got beat up pretty good last week. Yeah. We had to get in under the tree and it's next to the pool,” she says. “Sometimes the fruit fell in,” Kimber adds.

The gleaners and I pack up. As we walk back out the gate and start loading the truck, June tells me why she spends her Saturday mornings gleaning.

“This is very near and dear to my heart,” she explains. “I remember my mom being in food lines. We have a family of 13, so my mom very often would go to our church basically, and she would always dress so people wouldn't recognize her because she was embarrassed because she had a need. And so I love now there's no requirement. There's no questions asked.”

In the future, the Rotary Club and the Solano Gleaning Initiative hope to join forces to create an app –– connecting Solano County residents with volunteer gleaners. But Kimber, Gerry and June say the basic model of gleaning is simple and can be duplicated just about anywhere. To get started, you just need a picker, bucket and a tree.

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End of the day

Resources

Where to pick up gleaned and free food in Solano County

  • Sign-up for Text alerts from Food is Free Solano to be notified about community events where food will be distributed.
  • Visit a Food is Free Solano Free Food Stand. Find them on this map.
  • Food Bank of Contra-Costa & Solano distribution sites and hours can be found here. You can call 1-855-309-3663 (FOOD) for more information on where to locally pick up free fresh food.
  • Solano Unity Network gives out free food every first and third Wednesday at 3pm at Trower Park in Vacaville. Updates to their distribution schedule can be found on their Facebook page.

Where to connect with other Bay Area gleaners - Call them to pick your tree or volunteer to help pick.

Annelise was born and raised in the East Bay and has a background in oral history and urban studies. For the last four and half years, she's worked as a criminal defense investigator at a public defenders office in the Bronx, New York and at an appellate defenders office in the Bay Area. As an investigator, she frequently interviews people involved in different parts of the criminal punishment system. Through her work, she has become passionate about the power of personal narratives and compelling stories to increase cross-cultural understanding and initate change.
Sonia Narang is the editor and project manager for KALW's Health & Equity series. Before that, she managed elections coverage for the station. Over the past decade, Sonia reported social justice stories from her home state of California and around the globe for PRI's The World radio program, NPR News, The Washington Post's The Lily, and more.