When the citrus trees in Sharon Hudak's backyard in Palo Alto's Palo Verde neighborhood begin to bow under the weight of ripening fruit, she doesn't fret about what to do with the abundance of lemons, grapefruits and tangerines that is far too much for her to consume by herself.
At 76, she doesn't feel comfortable climbing ladders, so Hudak said she calls Village Harvest, a nonprofit volunteer organization that connects people who have fruit trees with volunteers who can harvest the fruit and deliver it to local food banks. The program is a welcome relief for fruit tree owners tired of tossing out apples, plums, lemons, apricots and an over-abundance of other fruits from their yards.
"It's just an amazing thing," Hudak said. "What a good way to use up the excess fruit it's a much better use to give it to someone who can actually use it."
Volunteers have come several times to Hudak's yard to harvest fruit. Now that she's signed up for the program, the organization reaches out to her each season, and they choose a harvest date together.
Hudak is one of many local residents who rely on the program. Through the organization, volunteers are dispatched to harvest fruit from non-commercial orchards as well as smaller backyards up and down the Peninsula. Priority is given to residents ages 70 over, those who are physically unable to harvest, and properties with large quantities of fruit.
Craig Diserens, co-founder and executive director of Village Harvest, who launched the program in 2001 with a community picking event in Palo Alto, said volunteers conduct as many as 200 harvests every year.
The region's year-round mild weather makes it an especially fruitful place for fresh produce, he said.
Diserens said prior to launching the nonprofit, he never thought about just how much food was going uneaten in neighborhoods up and down the Peninsula.
"It turns out in neighborhoods all over Silicon Valley and the Bay Area - it was there all along, but I just didn't notice it an amazing abundance of fruit trees, just sort of hidden all over," he said. "It became very, very obvious, very quickly, that there was a nearly infinite amount of fruit."
When volunteers conducted their first community harvest in April 2001, collecting citrus from nine Palo Alto homes, Diserens was impressed by the yield: 1,200 pounds of fresh fruit in one morning. That number pales in comparison with what Village Harvest gathers now. In 2022, the organization donated more than a quarter million pounds of fruit to local food banks.
Palo Alto resident Christel Casjens has been volunteering with Village Harvest since the organization's start.
"Food causes are just very near and dear to my heart," she said. "So it's a perfect blend for me of getting outside, getting active, and getting people involved."
She's traveled up and down the Peninsula helping to harvest fruit from orchards with other volunteers, and she's also helped out with small neighborhood events.
"You meet just amazing people with big hearts," Casjens said. "People are so happy to give, to share."
For Casjens, there's nothing quite like spending a morning out volunteering at a harvest.
"The smell of an orchard when the fruit is ripe is just surreal, sublime," she said.
She's seen firsthand the impact that Village Harvest has on the community, too. Casjens said she had always understood that food security is an important issue, but when she started bringing produce donations to local food banks, she gained a whole new perspective on the impact that produce sharing can have in local communities.
"You get really inspired," she said. "I walk away and it's like, I don't feel quite so hopeless."
During the pandemic, interest in volunteering with Village Harvest soared. The outdoor work meant that Village Harvest could continue its mission with lower health risks.
"In that peak time, people often had to wait three to four months between harvests depending on the location," Diserens said.
But even as more people wanted to volunteer, partner organizations were closing their doors in response to the pandemic, especially small, local food assistance programs. That meant Village Harvest had fewer places to send fruit donations. Diserens said the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns is still apparent today.
"Some of the food agencies have never restored their operations in the same way, and we can't deliver to them," he said.
Volunteer interest is still significantly higher than it was prior to the pandemic. Because harvest sign-ups still fill quickly, Diserens said he encourages people to harvest and donate fruit directly from their backyards to local food agencies.
Village Harvest maintains a map on its website of partner organizations where residents can donate fruit from their backyard trees. Diserens said many people don't realize that they can share their excess produce, but Village Harvest's website has instructions for how and where to get involved, so more people can reduce food waste and share their abundance of backyard produce with their neighbors.
"It's great for your tree, and it's good for your own spirits," he said.
Hudak said she would recommend the home harvest program to other homeowners with fruit trees. The volunteers are cheerful, kind and efficient, she said.
"The beauty of it is that it helps everyone involved," she said.
How to share your backyard bounty
Fruit Sharing DIY: Tree owners interested in harvesting and donating fruit themselves, can bring their pickings to community fruit drop-off locations.
Harvest assistance: Tree owners who are physically unable to harvest their own trees because of age or disability and need assistance, can call 888-378-4841.
Our Neighborhood Harvest: Neighborhood groups interested in organizing fruit tree harvests of entire blocks and neighborhoods, can call 888-378-4841 or fill out a volunteer form.
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