I have told the story so many times while standing in front orange trees and lemon trees and kumquat trees and persimmon trees in backyards and groves throughout Los Angeles County that it has started to sound apocryphal even to me.
Now, on a mid-summer Saturday, I am telling it to a group ranging in age from maybe 6 to 65 at the meticulously maintained orange grove owned by the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in prosperous, picturesque San Marino. It is not yet 9 a.m. But the heat is already so brazen that steam is rising off a wide compost pile. Every person listening to me, volunteers all, appears eager to get to work anyway.
The truncated version goes like this: In 2009, a man named Rick Nahmias was walking in his San Fernando Valley neighborhood and noticed the enormous amount of fruit hanging unpicked on trees. He asked a neighbor if he could harvest hers and, over several weekends, gathered more than 800 pounds of oranges and tangerines that went straight to a local food pantry.
That first ad hoc effort was the inception of the non-profit organization Food Forward. The concept behind it was both obvious and ingenious: Ask homeowners to donate their unwanted fruit, ask volunteers to harvest it, and help alleviate hunger across the region. Done, done and done.
In the almost nine years since, Food Forward has sent upward of 40 million pounds worth of produce to hundreds of hunger relief agencies. Its pace is now 1 million pounds a month. In addition to the picks that are its public face, Food Forward collects fruit and vegetables from farmers markets and hauls pallets from the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market — imperfect or unsold food that would otherwise end up in dumpsters. This year alone, it will help feed some 1.5 million people across Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
As one of 7,000 registered volunteers, and a pick leader since 2015, I traverse L.A. County, unlatching gates to backyards where a homeowner has donated access to a tree, even if only to keep ahead of the rodents that feast on the fruit. My sweet spot is a tony Brentwood property, where potted lemon trees stand between the swimming pool and tennis court, the homeowners allow use of their bathroom, and reaching, twisting, pulling and hauling is a pleasure.
No hyperbole: Sweat and scrapes aside, regardless of the location, everyone ends a pick uplifted, as well as with a thoroughly worked-out upper body. There’s no wondering what good has been done; it’s right there in 40-pound box after 40-pound box (55 at the last pick of the season at the Huntington), and in the muscles in my back.