Sharing the Bounty

There’s no reason why a juicy orange, a tangy lemon, or a tasty tangerine should be left on a tree when it could help feed people in need.

That’s the reasoning behind a citrus gleaning project spearheaded by the Phoenix Asian American Lions Club in District 21N in Phoenix, Arizona.

“There is quite a bit of fruit that we glean,” says Maribel Dillard, charter president for Phoenix Lions Without Borders 2020-2021 and Phoenix Asian American Lions, Leos and Cubs, 2015-2016.

Two women pick fruit from a tree.
Members of the Phoenix Asian American Lions Club get into their neighbor’s trees (With permission) to salvage fruit for those in need.

The gleaning got going in 2018 when one of the club’s members moved into Verdes Groves, a senior community in Mesa and noticed that elderly residents needed help picking the fruit from trees on each of their properties and in the common areas.

The club saw an opportunity and took up the challenge. Over the past few years, from about January through March, the club has picked a total of about 4,000 pounds of fruit each season that is donated to local food pantries.

“We are able to save citrus fruits from about 544 trees that otherwise would go to waste or just be thrown into a landfill,” Dillard says.

The club has a system for tackling the 544 trees that need picking. It starts with Dillard making a map of where to pick based on residents’ input.

“Residents put up a sign on their lawn that lets us know whether to pick or not,” Dillard says. “They ask us to leave some fruit on their doorstep for them, and we also leave some for people in the community.”

Anything more—and there is a lot of it– goes to food pantries such as the one operated by ICNA Relief, a non-profit that provides food for 10,000 individuals a month.

“It’s a good supplement for their diets and it comes fresh from the tree,” says Salina Imam, director of programs for Arizona for ICNA Relief.

Lions Club members pick fruit for the hungry.
Lions have picked about 4,000 pounds of fruit each season over the past few years.

Volunteers gather to glean every weekend and every other Friday. It takes a team of about a dozen volunteers six hours to remove all the fruit from five trees.

For any other Lions club considering a citrus gleaning project, Dillard recommends having a checklist of what is needed.

Oranges in an orange tree.
In areas of Phoenix, residents have fruit trees they can’t adequately keep up with. So Lions help out.

“It is important to have the right tools — citrus pickers, ladders, buckets, gloves, mask, sunscreens, and safety glasses (PPE), for all the volunteers on location,” she says. “Also, provide snacks and water for the volunteers, and have a bathroom available for them to use.”

She also starts each picking session with a discussion about safety and names a lead person who is responsible for any emergencies on-site.

The gleaning project appeals to volunteers of all ages, from about 7 or 8 years old to people in their 80s. Other Lions clubs and members of the community also have volunteered to glean.

The project has been a success on many different levels, especially this year because many snowbirds aren’t coming to Arizona due to the pandemic and their trees, without the help of the Lions, would go unpicked.

“It’s a great feeling to know that this act of kindness is helping the elderly, and is saving the environment,” Dillard says.

Most importantly, she adds, “it means we can give fresh fruit to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.”