Abundance in Our Midst

How Village Harvest is helping feed communities with surplus fruit
By Amy Vergin

240,000 pounds—that’s the amount of fresh fruit Craig Diserens, executive director at Village Harvest, said their organization harvested in 2013.

Village Harvest is a volunteer organization in the San Francisco Bay Area that gathers excess fruit from homes and small orchards and passes it along to local food agencies, helping provide tens of thousands of people a year with healthy, nutritious food.

It all started when Craig’s wife, Joni, “began picking a little fruit and teaching preserve-making for a local 4H club in conjunction with the master gardeners. We both learned how much fruit was growing right in our own neighborhood of San Jose, California—a huge abundance in our midst. With this new awareness, Joni and a group of friends organized a community harvest in Palo Alto in early 2001 with a mention in the local paper inviting homeowners to offer their extra fruit for people in need.” That event brought together 22 volunteers who picked fruit from nine homes, yielding over 1,200 pounds of citrus!

“Village Harvest is a simple idea multiplied by the community spirit of thousands of volunteers and homeowners,” Craig said. Since the creation of Village Harvest in 2001, volunteers have harvested 1.7 million pounds of fruit, which is equivalent to five million servings. These volunteers are everyday people from the area. “We have a wonderfully diverse group of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. A harvest might have a mix of ages from young schoolchildren to retired seniors in their 80s.”

The fruit that gets picked ends up in food banks, food pantries, and meal services, helping to serve the needy in four counties in the San Francisco Bay Area. Craig has been fortunate to learn about the people they are helping with their harvests.

“A few years ago, a mother at a food pantry told us how the oranges we provided helped her children stay healthier during the winter. That way she could work more and support her family because she didn’t need to stay home with sick kids. That’s when we truly appreciated that those oranges weren’t just food; they were a path to health, wellness, and a better life.”

But the thank yous don’t stop there—even the people donating the fruit are grateful for Village Harvest. One elderly homeowner had planted a tree years ago with her now-deceased husband back when they first moved to their property. Craig and his crew picked 900 pounds of fresh oranges from her land. “To her,” Craig said, “the donation is not only keeping good fruit from going to waste, but also the continuing gift to the community of what she and her now-departed husband planted together.” Its stories like these that keep the organization alive and meaningful after 12 years.

Finding families to donate has been fairly easy, Craig said. After a few mentions in local newspapers, news spread of Village Harvest’s plans and they started receiving many referrals. “Now we have many thousands of homeowners and orchard owners who have offered their fruit, more than we can serve in many of our locations.” To ensure that fruit doesn’t go to waste, Craig and his team are teaching tree owners how to pick their own fruit and donate it themselves to a nearby food bank or pantry.

Village Harvest is slowly expanding with additional communities in the area. “We already assist individuals and groups all over the US and Canada who want to start a similar activity or organization. We’re glad to share our experience, and there’s always much to learn from each other. In that same spirit we organized the first conference gathering of harvesting/gleaning groups this past June,” Craig said.

If you think this is the type of organization you’d like to start in your own community, check out villageharvest.org or call their toll-free line at 888.FRUIT.411 to get informed on fruit tree care and how to harvest and use fruit.

“We not only fulfill needs for healthy food but also the desire for people to make a difference for others,” Craig said.