On a bicycle tour through uptown neighborhoods last year, Philip Dunn kept noticing wasted citrus — oranges and lemons that had fallen off trees in people’s yards only to rot on the ground.

After a little research, he learned no organized groups picked the fruit so it wouldn’t go to waste. So he decided to do it himself.

Since last summer, Dunn has coordinated a small but growing corps of food activist volunteers. They call themselves urban gleaners, and they scour San Diego neighborhoods, peering over fences and knocking on doors in search of residents willing to let them haul their fruit away to local food pantries, where it’s usually easier to stock up on day-old bread and dented canned food than fresh produce.

Similar groups, modeled after Dunn’s, are popping up around San Diego. Their quest: to ensure that no fresh produce goes to waste in a county where it grows abundantly yet is still inaccessible to many poor families.

“It can be frustrating when you know there’s food going to waste that people could use,” Dunn said. “Sometimes it just horrifies me if I think about it.”

Earlier this year, a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that roughly one-third of food produced in the world is wasted or lost, much of it fresh produce that never even makes it into people’s homes.

In its own small way, Dunn’s group, Harvesting San Diego, is trying to make a dent in that startling statistic. Armed with borrowed hand tools, recycled cardboard boxes and an idealistic sense of purpose, the volunteers descend on backyards and orchards alike, sometimes carrying away just a few bags of grapefruits and figs, sometimes driving off with a pickup truck bed filled to the brim with oranges.

They deliver the food to a pantry run by the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that serves the large refugee and immigrant populations of City Heights and gives food to about 250 people each month. Sometimes, depending on the size of their haul, they offer their fruit to other pantries as well.

In recent years, local efforts to make fresh produce more accessible to poor families have benefitted from loosened government regulations for starting community gardens and a growing conviction among many urban dwellers that to address local hunger, they need not look farther than the nearby vacant lot or their own backyard. Dunn and the urban gleaners are yet another manifestation of that paradigm shift.

“The thing that food banks need is the thing that’s just falling off the trees,” said Nita Gilson, a self-employed graphic designer who lives in Carlsbad. Last October, after wanting to do it for about 10 years, she started Crop Swap Carlsbad, a group of volunteers similar to Dunn’s that donates its produce to North County’s Food Bank.

She organizes harvests once a month. Most have been on the properties of North County residents who bought citrus orchards, aren’t farmers and just want to get rid of the thousands of pounds of fruit their trees still produce, lest they fall to the ground and attract pests.

The recession led Dan Heilbrun, a 32-year-old real estate broker living in San Diego’s University Heights neighborhood, to become a gleaner.

Many of the foreclosed homes he and his colleagues handle for the banks that now own them had fruit trees whose yield was rotting in the grass.

At 255 pounds, Heilbrun decided early this year to lose weight, and so reformed his diet to include mostly fresh foods.

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“The more simple my diet got, the more complicated I thought about food,” Heilbrun said. Then one day this spring, his eureka moment struck.

“You know when you wake up and open your eyes, and you’re ready to fly out of bed? I rolled out of bed one day, I called my buddy and said, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ ” Heilbrun recalled. “We could feed hungry families with this, clean up people’s properties, get rid of flies, and make our listings better.”

The banks resisted, though, because of liability concerns about having volunteers pick fruit on their properties. So Heilbrun shifted strategies, named his program — Fresh Food For Families — created a website and started coordinating volunteers and seeking out willing property owners. There has been no shortage of offers.

His group delivers produce to Father Joe’s food pantry downtown, the Jewish Family Service pantry in Kearny Mesa and others. It’s even donated lemons to a troop of Girl Scouts, who made lemonade.

Organizers are trying to coordinate their efforts regionally, so volunteers can focus their efforts on their neighborhoods and donate food to the nearest pantries.

But that structure is not yet in place, so for now volunteers are traveling across the county to pick up fruit.

On a recent Saturday, Lara Hamburger, who manages the International Rescue Committee’s food pantry in City Heights, opened the swinging gate of a sprawling property on Mount Helix in La Mesa, drove her Honda Civic through and unloaded used bags and boxes.

“We pretty much have free reign,” she said.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
The property was overrun with grapefruit, manadrins, oranges and — to the surprise and delight of the IRC’s food pantry manager, Lara Hamburger — grapes.

Over the next several hours, she and three other volunteers, including Dunn, picked several hundred pounds of oranges, grapefruits, mandarins and grapes that the owners had no plans to eat, taking occasional breaks to sample the fruit themselves. They packed the boxes and bags into every empty nook in their cars, including the car seat in Dunn’s Toyota Prius, and drove them back to City Heights.

A few days later, refugees and immigrants formed a line along the wall of a long hallway in the IRC’s building, waiting to get into the pantry to dig into the harvest.

“Our grapes are beautiful, and they survived the weekend,” Hamburger said as she let clients in two at a time.

Evelyn Resurrección, a smiling older woman from the Philippines, filled her plastic bag with oranges and took a bunch of the grapes.

“They look very nice,” she said.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Later in the week at the IRC’s food pantry, Evelyn Resurrección took a bunch of the grapes home.

Dunn, a 40-year-old stay-at-home dad and self-described recovering athlete who just retired from a 15-year career as a competitive race walker, said the gleaning project had allowed him to take his interest in food a step beyond “going to meetings and learning how to jar pickles.”

“People need as much help as they can get right now, especially getting their fresh produce,” he said. “I’ve been surprised sometimes, by how much we’ve been able to pick. But then I think, oh, there’s still so much more out there.”

Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528.

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Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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