A daily part of life for many Californians is passing by trees heaving with fruit — oranges, apricots, cherries, plums — seeing pounds and pounds of that fruit rotting around the base of the tree, and thinking, “Wow, what a waste when there are so many hungry people.”
The co-founders of Village Harvest had that same reaction, but they actually did something about it. They started a volunteer-driven nonprofit that collects fruit from residential homes and distributes it to local shelters and food pantries. The original Village Harvest began in 2001 and is headquartered in San Jose. There are now volunteer teams in Yolo, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz counties.
Village Harvest-Davis began in the spring of 2009, after a group of friends who had worked on the 2008 Obama campaign took to heart that campaign’s encouragement to look around their community to see how they could help create positive change. Since then, the Davis group has collected more than 120,000 pounds of fruit. In 2012, the Davis team held 53 harvests at Yolo County homes and orchards and collected 43,000 pounds of fruit.
Spending an afternoon volunteering with Village Harvest seemed like a great way for my family to close out 2012 and start a new year. When we heard through the Village Harvest list serve that they were holding their last harvest of the year — persimmons — on Dec. 30 at Mike and Diane Madison’s farm near Winters, we jumped at it.
The directions to the persimmon harvest site were refreshingly rustic: ” Go down the gravel road, turn left at the row of olive trees, and go straight until you reach a row of persimmons.” Ohh.. kay.
But sure enough, there they were, about 10 volunteers with their hands and heads deep into the persimmon branches — which were bare except for the globes of bright orange fruit. The visual effect was rather Seussical.
If we were going to pick pounds and pounds of fruit only to give it away, my husband was glad it was persimmons– a fruit he admires on the branch but doesn’t enjoy eating.
Daughter Lily and I, however, do like persimmons. So we were happy to hear we could eat our fill while we were there and take some of the too-ripe ones home.
While Lily was face-deep into a persimmon, a middle-aged volunteer watched her with a smile and she said, “I never even ate a persimmon until today. They’re delicious!”
I also just figured that out this year after I cut one open to go with our Thanksgiving salad. Its flavor is a little like candied yams. To me, if a pumpkin were a plum it would taste like a persimmon. Got that?
There are two main popular varieties: the slightly crunchy, apple-like Fuyu, which we were harvesting that day, and the Hachiya, which is best used for baking or even eating with a spoon when it’s nearly overripe and squishy soft. Some regular Village Harvest volunteers have a dehydrator at home, and they say dried Hachiyas taste like candy.
I met farmer Mike Madison (cookbook author Deborah Madison’s brother, for the foodies among you) in the driveway. He mentioned that this was the last of the persimmon harvest, as racoons were starting to ransack them, and he welcomed our help.
“We just like to see all the fruit used,” she said. “People should be able to eat good food. We sell as much as we can but are happy to donate, too.” Until recently, her mother-in-law, now 95, cooked every Tuesday for the community meals at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Davis, where Village Harvest fruits are often donated. So giving food to the less fortunate is a long-held value for the Madisons.
While volunteers of all ages poked long poles of fruit-picking baskets into the trees or climbed orchard ladders to snip the persimmons with clippers, Village Harvest co-founder Linda Schwartz and volunteer Pauline Wooliever were busy sorting through boxes of the harvest, throwing fruit that was cracked or too ripe into a “cull box,” for volunteers to divide among themselves.
The fruit deemed worthy was packed into boxes and will be distributed first to STEAC (Short Term Emergency Aid Committee), to a women and children’s shelter, and a men’s shelter in Davis. Village Harvest also takes fruit to the Davis Korean Church, community meals at St. Martin’s, and to the Food Bank of Yolo County in Woodland. Sometimes, big harvests are also distributed to the Sacramento Food Bank.
“We’re very careful that we give our agencies good fruit,” said Schwartz, carefully examining a persimmon for cuts or blemishes. “We don’t want people to feel like they’re getting something second-hand.”
Biting into a persimmon herself — “Oh, this is good…” — she explained how the Village Harvest process works.
Homeowners can fill out the Home Sign-up Form on the Village Harvest website to arrange a harvest. (Note to homeowners: Please contact Village Harvest before the fruit is too ripe to pack and transport.) The owner can claim a tax deduction for the number of pounds of collected fruit, priced for market rates.
Village Harvest also keeps a database of trees and checks it each season to schedule harvests. There are currently about 250 homes and more than 500 Yolo County trees (not counting those in orchards) in the registry.
Harvests range in size and scope–from 1 tree to 100. A big one coming up is a navel orange harvest in Winters on Jan. 13. At that harvest last year, nearly 100 volunteers picked oranges to the sounds of live music in the orchard and sweeping valley views over a sack lunch. A similarly large tangelo harvest is in the works for February.
But those are the exceptions. Most Village Harvest collections are held in people’s backyards, with just a few trees and a handful of volunteers.
“Some of the most satisfying harvests for me are the ones where the homeowners planted the trees when their kids were young, and they feel like stewards of those trees,” said Schwartz. “It saddens them that they can’t pick that fruit anymore. They’re just beaming when we’re telling them how great their fruit is and how it will be appreciated at the shelters.”
For people interested in volunteering for a harvest, the calendar on the Village Harvest-Davis website is not up to date. Several harvests are underway that are not on that list. The best way to learn about them is to get on the group’s email list serve by filling out the Volunteer Registration Form on the website.
There is very little commitment to this sort of volunteering: If a harvest comes up that fits a volunteer’s schedule, great. If not, try to make the next one.
“I was afraid to commit,” said Wooliever. “But I can come when I can, and I really enjoy it — and they don’t get mad at me!”
Nope, no one gets mad, and a lot of good food finds its proper place: in people’s bellies, not the ground.
THE NUT SHELL
The next Village Harvest-Davis harvest will be Sunday, Jan. 13, to pick navel oranges in Winters. Sign up here.