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I cannot bear the thought of letting food go to waste. Especially preservative-free home-grown produce. We’re fortunate to have an abundance of this on our property, and I enjoy the culinary challenge of using it in every way possible. But sometimes I still can’t get through it all.

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After I’ve eaten, frozen, preserved, candied, fermented, salted, pickled, dehydrated, chutneyed, marmaladed, sauced, juiced, reduced and given away all I can to people I know, there’s usually some left.

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Homeowners who have neither the time nor the inclination to harvest their produce sometimes find such abundance to be a burden. I often see urban trees full of overripe produce dropping and rotting, attracting vermin and making a general mess—produce that could provide sorely-needed nourishment for those in food deserts that may be a few short miles away in the same city.

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Sharing such abundance with others in need is not a new concept. We find it first mentioned as a statute in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, where those working the land were instructed to leave the edges and the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor to glean.

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According to Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, “This was the earliest law for the benefit of the poor that we read of in the code of any people; and it combined in admirable union the obligation of a public duty with the exercise of private and voluntary benevolence . . .”

Much urban produce goes to waste simply because it’s not always easy to get it to those in need and “exercise . . . private and voluntary benevolence.” We may have the will to share the bounty, but it takes a bridge to get it to those who may need it.

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Fortunately, someone in Los Angeles started building that bridge a few years ago.

Rick Nahmias saw the potential of unused urban produce to help nourish those in need. He took that first step in 2009 when he gathered a few friends to pick a neighbor’s tangerines (with permission!), donated the crop to a local food pantry—and in doing so, built the foundation of Food Forward.

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Their mission? To rescue “fresh local produce that would otherwise go to waste, connecting this abundance with people in need, and inspiring others to do the same.”

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So I contacted them, hoping they would want the organic Duncan grapefruit that was dripping from our huge trees. I found out that for scheduling purposes, it is best to call or email a few months before the fruit will be ripe, but a scout was able to stop by to assess how much fruit was on the trees, how many volunteers and what equipment would be needed.

The fruit was ready, so the pick was scheduled for the next week.

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The pickers showed up on time with ample equipment to tackle the project. Thanks to grants, donations and fundraising, they have a “Fruit Mobile” and a “Glean Machine”—snazzy, hardworking vehicles that announce their arrival and cheerfully advertise their services.

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A yard sign gave another chance for neighbors and passers-by to notice the activity. I did get some questions from neighbors with fruit trees, and Rick left some informational flyers for them.

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I appreciated that and other details, like Food Forward’s sturdy produce boxes, printed with a design reminiscent of vintage fruit crate labels, that carry the fruit to their destination in safety and with style.

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Backyard Harvesting is their core program: Food Forward volunteers pick at public and private properties throughout Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, with an occasional foray into Santa Barbara County. The harvested food is immediately donated to Receiving Agencies who then distribute it to those who are food-insecure. Healthful, perishable produce is, understandably, far more difficult for these agencies to come by than unhealthful processed food, so the donations of fresh fruit and other produce are especially welcome.

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For homeowners with fewer or smaller trees, they have a DIY Pick program. Food Forward supplies all information needed and a kit with tools and resources to harvest backyard fruit, including volunteer release forms, fruit pickers, produce boxes, a first aid kit, goggles, a Food Forward yard sign, clippers, gloves—even sunscreen and hand wipes.

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In addition to backyard harvesting, Food Forward has other related programs. Their Farmers Market Recovery Program gleans about 15,000 pounds of unsold produce per month from Farmers Markets around Southern California and distributes it to nearby non-profit agencies, including shelters and pantries.

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When they learned of the dozens of produce wholesalers, vendors and brokers who routinely dump untold pounds of grade-A fruits and vegetables in the trash, Food Forward started their Wholesale Recovery service—a win-win solution, offering pickup service for unwanted produce and a tax deduction in exchange.

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Food Forward also offers Private Fruit Picks, which are customized events for groups up to 300 people. Some people book them as team-building alternatives to birthday parties and company picnics. What a great opportunity to get to know each other better and serve the community as well!

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As the mother of an Eagle Scout, opportunities for youth to serve the community are always on my radar. Food Forward is equipped to mentor teens who want to conduct a Youth Service Project, culminating in planning and executing a Fruit Pick on their own.

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I was delighted to learn about Food Forward’s Can It! Academy, which offers classes in different aspects of food preservation far beyond strawberry jam and canned tomatoes. They address topics that are near and dear to me: pickling, fermenting, liqueurs, brewing, curing, and even sourdough! Seeing this organization encouraging the revival of such important yet nearly lost arts relating to real food is very encouraging to me. They even offer a food preservation and cottage arts certificate program.

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And the practice what they preach.

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Inevitably, some of the fruit fell, and the juicy grapefruit would crack ever so slightly. This meant that the fruit could spoil more quickly, so it was not put in the boxes for donation as whole fruit. Instead, the bruised or cracked fruit was set aside to be juiced or otherwise processed immediately—perhaps into a rosemary-grapefruit syrup or thyme marmalade, or maybe made into a grapefruit-mint body scrub to be sold at one of their outlets or on line.

When the pick was over, they cleaned up and left the area looking better than ever. I received a follow-up email thanking me for the several hundred pounds of fruit, and a receipt arrived a few weeks later detailing the tax-deductible donation.

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I’m happy to see that this organization has expanded in just a few short years to become the nation’s largest urban gleaning organization. Food Forward includes 5000 volunteers and sees the distribution of its produce to over 40,000 clients per month. Their continued growth and expansion is heartening, and I hope others will follow this model in urban areas across the world.

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Los Angeles may be unique in its twelve-month growing season, but if cities as far north as Edmonton, Alberta, can (and do!) have urban gleaning programs, it seems every city should encourage such organizations. Some estimates indicate that there is enough food in the world to feed 70% more than the world’s population, but so much of it goes unused.

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Urban gleaning in just one city is already helping thousands of food-insecure families by being the bridge—giving them access to fresh, nutritious, free produce that would otherwise go to waste. With efficient distribution, imagine how many millions of people around the world could be helped through similar adaptations of the ancient philanthropic principle of gleaning.

~Until next time!

(Credits: Most photographs in this post courtesy of Jessica Leigh)