North County volunteers needed to pick San Diego’s abundant harvest

Senior Gleaners collects local fruit for distribution to groups in Encinitas, Oceanside, Escondido and elsewhere


Oranges ripen on a tree in a San Diego grove, pictured Jan. 30, 2020. (Photo by MoJoStudio, iStock Getty Images)

J.W. August

The citrus trees in San Diego County are full this time of year. It’s not unusual to see trees in back yards 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 Senior Gleaners of San Diego County, a volunteer group with teams of pickers across the county.

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

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 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. You can also ask for directions to a nearby food pantry collecting food for those in need. This doesn’t cost a dime — it’s part of the effort to not waste food.

Right now, the largest picks are in Vista, Rancho Santa Fe, Escondido and Jamul.

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.

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

Escondido’s Joseph Ghougassian has 50-year-old tangelo trees. Last year, the Gleaners harvested 15,000 pounds of fruit from about 200 trees. At one time, this area of Escondido had acres of tangelos; his trees are the largest remaining grove in the area.

Ghougassian used to sell the fruit, but during the pandemic, he decided to “give it away to help feed people.” He did so because of the tradition of “Americans’ spirit of volunteerism and of giving.”

It’s the only country in the world, he said, where so many citizens like to donate and help others. He added that he helps the volunteers who come to pick his fruit — “they are nice people and are always cheerful.”

And besides, it’s fun and everyone enjoys the time we spend together. We are a link to bring the food to people who need it.”

— Daryush Bastani, longtime Senior Gleaners volunteer

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,” he said.­ “And besides, it’s fun and everyone enjoys the time we spend together. 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 volunteer help for a half-day one day a week. Each team in each part of the county has a captain who will supply the gloves, the ladders, and everything else that’s needed 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 the North County locations:

Brother Benno’s Foundation, Oceanside
Community Resource Center, Encinitas
Interfaith Community Services, Carlsbad and Escondido
Mesa View Baptist Church, Poway
4 Community Care, Rancho Bernardo
Bread of Life, Oceanside
Brookview Village Senior Living, Poway

J.W. August is a longtime San Diego broadcast and digital journalist.