Senior Gleaners with fruit
Volunteers with fruit picked at an orchard in the San Diego area. Courtesy of Senior Gleaners of San Diego County

The citrus trees in San Diego County are full this time of year. It’s not unusual to see trees in backyards and orchards full of tangerines, oranges, and grapefruit now that we’re at the peak of the citrus season.

While many trees are picked clean, citrus fruits still hang heavy and unpicked on thousands of area trees. When they fall to the ground, the fruit is wasted, meaning the loss of potential nutritional food sources for many county residents.

Saving that citrus, as well as figs, grapes and apples, is the goal of Senior Gleaners of San Diego County, a volunteer group with teams of pickers across our region.

Their name dates back to biblical times when “gleaners” followed behind and collected leftover crops that the reapers left behind.

Each section of San Diego County has a team of volunteers who will go out and pick the trees.  Right now they’re in need of more volunteers to help.

“We are almost through with tangerines, now come the lemons and oranges, they are next,” said Margaret Burton, president of the San Diego group.

Like other volunteers, Burton drives her own truck to the picking locations, filling up banana crates and bags they get from grocery stores with ripe citrus and other fruit her teams pick.  

Whether it’s a couple of lemon trees in a San Diego backyard, a grapefruit grove in North County, or oranges in East County, people should contact the Gleaners about any surplus food they’ve know of.

 The volunteers will come out and clean the trees of their fruit, or if you pick your own surplus fruit you can request a Gleaner volunteer to come get it or you can ask for directions to a nearby food pantry collecting food for those in need. This doesn’t cost a dime, and it’s part of the effort to not waste food.

Right now the largest picks are in Jamul, Escondido, Rancho Santa Fe and Vista. While the Gleaners have picked 1,000 persimmon trees with 19,200 pounds of fruit from one Pauma Valley grove, Monte Turner, former president of the group, said huge picks are not the primary source of their work.

“As little as one tree from one homeowner is our bread and butter,” he said.

Candice Kvigne lives in the Mission Bay area and has been using the Gleaners to pick her oranges and clementine tangerines for 11 years. “My trees are very old and prolific, I really love that the fruit is used to feed people and not wasted”.  

A plus for her is that picking the fruit helps keep the trees healthy. She also notes, “I don’t like the fruit to fall on the ground because it attracts rats.” The Gleaners have picked as much as 800 pounds of fruit from Kvigne’s trees.

Fruit drop off
Volunteers with fruit delivered to Jewish Family Service of San Diego. Courtesy of Senior Gleaners of San Diego County

A network of charities and tree owners has been created to provide the fresh fruit to organizations across San Diego County. In addition, they do pickups of unsold products at grocery stores, with all going to different nonprofits that feed thousands of people. 

Turner notes that while food banks get “canned goods and commodities, they need fresh fruits and citrus, and that’s what we provide.”

Longtime volunteer Daryush Bastani said he planted 40 trees in his Clairemont backyard in 1987. Now his plantings provide lemons, oranges and mulberries for others to eat.  

“I grew up on a farm, and this lets me go back to my roots,­ and besides it’s fun and everyone enjoys the time we spend together,” he said. “We are a link to bring the food to people who need it.”

Called “Senior” Gleaners because the picking teams use volunteers over age 55, they began locally in 1994 when the group’s founders were driving around Escondido and saw trees full of citrus and the ground covered with fallen fruit. Since then, the organization has picked an estimated 7.7 million pounds of fruit.

Gleaners is asking for volunteers help for a half-day each week. Teams in each part of the county have a captain who will supply the gloves, the ladders, and everything else that’s required to do the job.

Needed are individuals who can haul several banana boxes full of fruit in their own vehicles.  Most deliveries are within 10 miles of the picking site. There are 64 locations that get the deliveries. Here are some of them:

  • Imperial Beach Senior Center
  • Feeding the Flock in Lakeside
  • City Heights Community Fridge
  • Brother Beanos Foundation in Oceanside

Besides looking for volunteers right now, Senior Gleaners is hoping for the donation of a van it could use for transporting the citrus and fruits from the field to the many locations they serve.

Group president Burton said that one thing different about this year’s picking season is Senate Bill 1383, which was aimed at cutting down emissions by reducing organic waste collections going into landfills. For the Gleaners, that means there has been an uptick in requests from grocery stores and private residences asking for pickups from the volunteer group.