Giving Back And Feeding The Hungry With Gleaning
From the window of the truck, a petite 49-year-old woman with a brown bob popped her head out and shouted, “Want a piece of fruit?”
The homeless man smiled. Cindy Goss reached her hand to the passenger seat of her truck where a box of about two dozen organic oranges sat. She grabbed one and tossed it to the homeless man just as the light turned green.
As she drove off, she looked in her rearview mirror. She could see the man smiling and waving in thanks.
Three years ago, Goss set out to feed the hungry and stop waste with the fruit grown in people’s backyards. The task is a daunting one.
At the same time, nearly 17.2 million households – or 14.5 percent of all households – could not afford to comfortably feed their families in the United States in 2010, according to WorldHunger.org.
“I just want to feed people,” said Goss as she organized a pile of oranges.
As a young girl growing up in Monrovia, California, Goss said she noticed the abundance of fruit trees in the backyards of neighbors. It inspired her to use the excess fruit to feed the hungry. Decades later, she made her goal a reality.
Goss spent most of her adult life working different administrative positions until she met Cathy Clarkin at a political gathering.
Clarkin had just started a nonprofit to serve the Long Beach community called SoCal Harvest, which collected excess fruits and vegetables and donated them to homeless shelters and food banks.
Her organization is part of the nation’s growing “gleaning” movement. The term originates from the Bible, stating that farmers should leave a portion of their crops unpicked for wanderers and the hungry.
For modern day gleaners, this means using the excess fruit from home gardens or commercial farms and donating the fruit to the less fortunate. Farmers and homeowners who participate can get a tax-deductible receipt.
Goss was immediately interested in this backyard harvesting. She volunteered on Clarkin’s first harvest.
“We went to three different locations and harvested thousands of pounds of fruit in one day,” Goss said.
SoCal Harvest was short lived for Clarkin. Her son fell ill and she could no longer manage the non-profit.
After organizing only one fruit harvest, she offered to give the non-profit to Goss because of her 15 years of volunteer experience working on political campaigns.
“It was my childhood dream to run a non-profit,” Goss said. “I wasn’t sure at first because I didn’t have much experience but, I couldn’t pass the opportunity up.”
Clarkin gave Goss all the supplies she had invested into starting the non-profit, including fruit pickers, gloves and shears.
In August 2009 Goss organized her first harvest.
“The first time I picked the fruit and delivered it to the hungry, it was such an overwhelming and humbling experience,” she said.
For the first two years, Goss worked full-time on weekdays and organized harvests on weekends. But it changed in December 2011.
Goss lost her fulltime job managing a jewelry store. Financially, at first, it was difficult but not devastating because she was single with no children. So she started to dedicate hours to promote SoCal Harvest, from advertising it at local coffee shops and college campuses, to getting an article published on AAA’s website.
As a result, SoCal Harvest grew.
“We’ve gotten busier and busier and…I’m loving it,” she said.
Her work has borne fruit. Goss went from harvesting once a weekend with the same group of five to 10 volunteers to three times a week with a volunteer base of more than 50 people.
But as SoCal Harvest thrived, Goss has suffered financially.
“We are not making a profit,” she said. “There is nothing supporting us. We are really lucky to have a few homeowners who have been generous enough to make donations, but I won’t and can’t take that as salary.”
Goss is currently living off unemployment checks. She wants to find a way to make an income through the non-profit so she does not have to sacrifice her volunteer time to work. But financial set-backs do not stop her from planning harvests across Long Beach.
During a SoCal Harvest weekday home gleaning in mid-March, Goss had children volunteer for the first time. Taking part were three parents, three children and two regular volunteers.
“I wanted to show my kids that fruits and vegetables don’t come from Ralphs,” said volunteer Stacey Kindt, a mother and homeschool teacher whose children are 9 and 13 years old.
After a short speech from Goss about safety precautions and proper picking procedures, the volunteers began picking fruit from two lemon trees in the backyard.
In about an hour, the trees were picked bare. More than 1,000 lemons were harvested that day.
As they picked the fruit, Goss explained that in Southern California, citrus trees flourish. Ninety percent of SoCal Harvest’s donations are citrus. A lemon tree can be harvested two to three times a year, potentially providing up to 3,000 lemons.
Fruit like lemons and limes are not typically donated to the homeless. Instead they are sent to food banks that distribute them to families who are struggling to afford groceries to cook with.
Prior to Goss harvesting the lemons at this house, the homeowner threw away all her excess lemons.
“I use maybe 50 lemons a year,” homeowner Claudia Bryan said. “Once I picked a huge basket and left it out on the front lawn with a sign that said ‘free’ and I think people took, like, two. I don’t know what else to do with them.”
After the lemons were picked, Goss and her volunteers carefully restored the yard to its former state, raking any fallen leaves and branches.
They then loaded Goss’ truck, and she counted more than 20 boxes of lemons. This particular harvest yielded thousands of lemons but, regardless of the amount of fruit available, Goss will still come and pick it.
“A few days ago, I did a house visit to the scrawniest tree I’ve ever seen,” she said. “There were maybe 60 tangerines on it. The homeowner asked if it was worth it. That’s a question I don’t even address. I’ll come out by myself with no volunteers as long as the fruit is not wasted.”
Once Goss’ truck is fully loaded, the families said goodbye. Bryan told Goss she is relieved to have the lemons picked, and wrote a check to SoCal Harvest in gratitude. Regardless of donations, Goss will come to anyone’s house for free.
Goss drove to Food Finders, a food bank that she delivers all her fruit to. She can no longer go personally to each homeless shelter because of how much fruit she harvests. It would require her driving across all of Southern California to distribute all of it.
Food Finders donates her fruit to 400 different charities, agencies and shelters.
As she unloaded her fruit, she began to talk about some of the problems she has had with Food Finders. Two times she has found fruit she has picked rotting at Food Finders’ warehouse.
“It takes us hours to harvest those fruit,” she said. “We spent our own money on gas, we spent our time and some of us got sun burnt. Then we come here and see all our hard work has gone to waste.”
“When we go to grocery stores to pick up their old food, we never know what we’re going to get,” Lara said. “A lot of times it’s junk food, but with Cindy it’s always fruit.”
However, Goss is still unsure of whether to continue with Food Finders and plans to look into other food banks.
Her short-term goal is to get grant money so she can create her own distribution center for the fruit.
But her long-term goal is much bigger.
“I’m really hoping that somehow SoCal Harvest can be the catalyst for helping other communities in creating their own harvesting organizations,” she said. “I want to empower people to create their own pockets of harvesting.”
Why, she asks, wouldn’t someone volunteer his or her fruit trees or time?
“It’s easy as pie,” she said. “It’s usually sunny and gorgeous, you get to be outside picking fruit and feeding people. It’s probably one of the easiest volunteer projects you can do.”
Reach Staff Reporter Tiara Chiaramonte here.