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Urban Harvesters Scavenge Backyards to Feed the Hungry

The idea is so simple: Trees produce more food than people can eat. Most of the fruit goes to waste. Get the food and donate it to those in need.

Randy Stannard issues a warning to first-time harvesters: Participate in a community fruit-gleaning event, and suddenly, fruit trees will seem to surround you. You'll notice only the fruit trees in your neighborhood. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of them, just waiting for their bounty to be picked. And you won't feel content until every last edible piece of produce sits in your bucket.

Matt Jurach, a gung-ho harvester, knows this feeling well. Under a bright sun on a warm Saturday morning in February, he role-plays for the rest of the group, explaining how to best approach homeowners who, like his dad, might be protective of their fruit trees. Jurach has volunteered at five fruit-harvesting events in the past year and knows what he's talking about.

"I'm such a sucker for efficiency," Jurach explains later. "It kills me to see all the effort people put into a tree and it produces all this fruit, then it falls onto the ground and rots. It's understandable, because we're busy people. But when you have a group, we complete the last step."

That last step involves salvaging excess produce from abandoned orchards and residential backyards, and donating the fruit to local food-assistance programs, helping to alleviate food insecurity and provide a substitute for unhealthy processed, canned or packaged food typically supplied to those in need.

On this Saturday, 25 volunteers assemble as part of Harvest Sacramento's tree-canvassing event, where they will spend the next four hours walking among the bungalows and Tudor houses in an affluent neighborhood, collecting names and addresses of residents willing to share the fruit hanging from their trees. The non-profit group touts more than 100 homes in its database and more homeowners contact them daily.

"It's already more than we can handle," says Stannard, the group's co-organizer. Harvest Sacramento has no funding, but it has the willingness of volunteers eager to help fight hunger in California's "City of Trees."

The previous month, 65 volunteers gathered 3,500 pounds of citrus covering one square mile in one of the city's low-income neighborhoods.

Typically, a single fruit tree will produce 200 to 300 pounds a year, making community-gleaning groups the low-hanging fruit to addressing food access. And with the social benefit and personal satisfaction high, the idea has caught on like wildfire across the United States. Groups exist in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Florida, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and there are 14 in California. The Society of St. Andrew gleans all over the country.

So far this year, Sacramento's group has harvested 9,397 pounds. Last year, the group harvested 20,022 pounds, the majority of which went to the city's food bank, which serves 15,000 clients monthly. Additionally, clients receive nutrition information, such as healthy recipes, advice for planting gardens and the benefits of eating locally grown, seasonal produce. 

"The food bank is pushing for healthy food, rather than just calories," says Courtney Cagle from Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. "How we do that is through the community."

Increasingly, though, these gleaning groups learn that the positive work they do is a double-edged sword, as more trees and interested homeowners exist than some of these typically volunteer-run groups can handle.

"Our biggest limiting thing is our own capacity," says Katy Kolker, executive director of the Portland Fruit Tree Project in Oregon.

Back under the California sun, volunteers prepare to search for citrus trees.

"We're rocking and we're rolling," says Mary Lynne McGrath, one of the group's creators, who grew frustrated with all the rotting oranges piling up in her neighborhood's streets. With clipboards in hand, the groups head out.

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