As complicated and overwhelming as improving food systems may seem, there is something profoundly simple about fruit picking. It’s one of my favorite activities at this job. Here’s a simplified version of the process:
1) Find tree. Cruising through downtown, it’s pretty easy to spy all the bright, ripe fruit weighing down a tree.
2) Catch the homeowner on a weekday afternoon or weekend, and get permission.
3) Get 2-4 people together, a ladder, some buckets, some pickers, and get your pick on.
And boom. In a little over an hour, we can find ourselves lugging a couple hundred pounds of fat, fresh, and sweet fruit over to the curb to load it onto our truck. But my story is not even about how awesome it is that we can get so much fruit so simply. It’s about the magic that happens during the fruit picking. Our fruit picking program does more than just increase access to local, organic fruit. It’s about building community. It’s about those conversations that happen under the tree. It’s about connecting people that otherwise would never have met. I think of one day our group of six were harvesting under a big orange tree that was at least 25 feet tall. As I jabbed my fruit seven-foot-long picker through the prickly branches to pry out the juicy half-pounders, I began to notice a beautiful interaction unfold.
Two volunteers, José and Mông Hoài began teaching each other Spanish and Vietnamese! José is a Mexican-American 11th grader at San José Academy, and Mông Hoài is a 40-something-year-old mother who recently immigrated to the States from Vietnam ten years ago. They began to count 1-5 “một, hai, ba, bốn, năm…uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco…” José practiced saying her name correctly, hitting the deep and melodic tones of the Vietnamese language. In return, she learned the Spanish word for friend, amigo. We ended the picking session with over 200 pounds of oranges and hands covered in sticky juice. José and Mông Hoài may live in the same part of downtown San José, but I don’t think any regular day walking down the sidewalk they would have said hello to each other.
Between them, there are so many differences that often separate us: language, age, gender, and ethnicity. But this is the magic of fruit picking, it’s ability to bridge those differences. At the end of every glean, each volunteer takes home a small bag of what they picked. That day, I’m sure they took home a little more than that. A little more pride in their cultural heritage. A few more words in a new language. A little bit of demystification of another ethnic group’s history and experience.