Food Forward volunteers pick backyard fruit for the needy

A box of Valencia oranges destined for MENDpoverty.org.
A box of Valencia oranges destined for MENDpoverty.org.
Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC
A box of Valencia oranges destined for MENDpoverty.org.
Food Forward volunteers pick fruit at Fran Penn's Granada Hills home.
Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC
A box of Valencia oranges destined for MENDpoverty.org.
Rebecca and Scott Jarus pick fruit at Fran Penn's home in Granada Hills.
Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC
A box of Valencia oranges destined for MENDpoverty.org.
Volunteers of Food Forward pose after helping to pick nearly 4 tons of Valencia oranges in under three hours.
Rick Nahmias/Food Forward

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There’s a quiet rescue operation happening several times a week in private yards throughout Los Angeles. Scores volunteers with the nonprofit group Food Forward are salvaging backyard fruit for food pantries across the Southland.

On a recent Sunday morning, more than 60 men, women and children armed with metal ladders and garden tools spent hours picking Valencia oranges from the backyard trees of eight homes in Granada Hills. The volunteers with the nonprofit group Food Forward climb under, up and into the unkempt trees – dodging sharp branches and thorns - to save thousands of pounds of fruit from wither and decay. Their goal? To box it for local food pantries that serve the needy.

Dariel Doyle of Manhattan Beach is on her third Food Forward pick.

"The hard part is actually navigating through all these branches to try to get to the fruit," she says. "Then we have the extension that you can put on the grabber picker so you can get the fruit up in the higher branches and we have ladders as well to really get way up there."

The picks involve a healthy amount of physical labor.

"But it’s so gratifying," says Doyle. "And it’s the kind of thing where you think 'Wow! This is a great idea. Why didn’t somebody think of this sooner?' You know all of this food going to waste and now you know it’s going to people who can really use it."

Among the recipients: food banks, homeless shelters and homebound AIDS patients.

"We’re donating to close to 30 agency across Southern California and we started with one," says Food Forward founder Rick Nahmias. Three years ago he noticed an abundance of ripe fruit hanging in trees in his neighborhood.

"I had a dog that was getting older and as we took longer and slower walks I became more aware of my surroundings," he says. "And more aware that every other tree in my neighborhood of Valley Glen had either an orange tree, a grapefruit tree, a walnut tree, pecans, pomegranates - and almost 100 percent of that was going unused."

Nahmias posted a Craigslist ad asking for volunteers. Within three weeks, he and those volunteers picked and donated 800 pounds of tangerines and oranges from just two trees in a friend’s backyard. These days, an online counter keeps tally of Food Forward’s crop yields.

"We’ve now harvested or rescued over two-thirds of a million pounds. It’s pretty crazy," he says. "In a food pantry world that’s almost 2 and a half million servings of fruit that otherwise didn’t exist before."

"We’re really fortunate to be able to offer fresh and healthy food like this," says Richard Weinroth, food bank director and chef at MENDpoverty.org in the San Fernando Valley. "For a long time food banks were seen as only providing canned food, dry goods. But we go through about 50,000 pounds a week of fresh fruits and vegetables at the food bank MEND and food forward is a big part of what we get to offer."

What's more, the people who own the trees get a tax write-off for the harvested fruit. Fran Penn is among them. She says for 40 years, the trees at her Granada Hills home always produced far more than she could pick and bag for friends.

"I would gladly pick it because it’s such good fruit. It’s a waste and it would be raked up and thrown in the garbage," Penn says.

Food Forward volunteer Rebecca Jarus says she and the other workers do more than just pick fresh fruit. They also throw out fallen or rotten fruit that attract rodents. Others prune the trees.

"There's a lot of dead branches," Jarus says. "The branches need to be trimmed on some of these very mature trees and they don’t get to them because older folks live here and they just don’t have the energy to keep their trees up. So we do what we can while we’re here."

"You feel a sense of accomplishment when you get done with a tree," says Scott Jarus, Rebecca's husband. He's a Food Forward board member and a weekend picker. "As you’re driving away you notice that you got one tree out of like a hundred of them. And you feel like you want to just come back and keep picking and picking and picking. There’s just so much produce in the valley here that it’s just impossible to get to it. But you know, we’re making a good dent in it, if you will."

Indeed they are. On this morning, Food Forward volunteers picked and boxed nearly four tons of oranges for MEND Poverty’s San food bank.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Food First founder Nick Nahmias' name