On Thursday afternoon last week, the trees outside the Post Office held more than just oranges. A handful of members of Stanford Glean perched among the leaves, stretching to pick the fruit that bowed the laden branches. On the ground, more students used long-handled, claw-like pickers to reach the tops of the trees.
After barely an hour of work, the students had filled several backpacking knapsacks to the brim with fresh fruit. The bright harvest was later hauled up to San Francisco and delivered into the hands of the hungry.
Caitlin Brown ‘12 and Susannah Poland ‘11 formed Stanford Glean nearly a year ago, and they say the fruit-picking project is all about taking advantage of wasted potential.
“We live in such a fertile area — no one should go hungry,” Poland said.
Plus, Brown added, “If the fruit rots on the trees un-harvested, the reproductive system starts to shut down, and rotting fruit on the ground attracts pests.”
The idea of Stanford Glean was conceived in a class called “The Carbon Cycle: Reducing Your Impact.” Environmental earth system science (EESS) Prof. Page Chamberlain teaches the course but said that since the beginning, Brown and Poland have been the driving force behind the project.
“Those two are so enthusiastic — you don’t want to get in their way,” he said. “They’ll just bowl you over.”
Chamberlain added that Stanford Glean’s efforts have connected Stanford with a larger community of Bay Area groups trying to bring organic, healthy food to the homeless.
Lauren Anderson is a member of this community and the director of Produce to the People, a non-profit that focuses on food security and agricultural education. Every Sunday from one to three, she works at the Free Farm Stand distributing organic produce to anyone who needs it. The food comes from local gardens and farms, and recently from the heavy backpacks of Stanford Glean.
“It should be a right of all people to be able to eat healthy food,” Anderson said. “The effort is to create community through this act of sharing.”
Chamberlain said the Free Farm Stand and the Julian Pantry, another program that receives donations from Stanford Glean, gives the urban underclass access to the same healthy, sustainable resources that Whole Food shoppers can afford.
For those in need, Stanford Glean’s produce is not just free and nutritious, but convenient.
“If you don’t have a kitchen, dry rice doesn’t do you much good,” Poland explained. “But an orange or persimmon — you can put that in your pocket.”
Stanford Glean started small, harvesting fruit from a single tree in front of the President’s mansion. Now they are officially recognized by the Haas Center and have a Facebook group with 60 members. Like generals assessing a battlefield, they have begun to map the fruit trees on campus, pushing colored pins into a huge aerial photograph and uploading coordinates to Google.
“Look, we’ve got persimmons, avocados, pomegranates, guavas,” Brown said, leaning over a list of the surveyed trees.
“This is amazing — an incredible variety,” Poland added. “It means we can keep on harvesting all year round.”
Last year, Brown and Poland distributed fliers in nearby faculty neighborhoods to assess the amount of surplus produce. In the coming weeks, they plan to expand their canvassing territory.
“If you have fruit or veggies to share,” say the pamphlets, “we would love to help you harvest!”
If residents respond, another pin is added to the map.
“More than anything else we do, this map is something that will last,” Brown said. She believes it will help future gleaners know where to harvest, and increase community awareness.
“People don’t know what’s around them,” Poland said. “They don’t see fruit on trees as food.”
On Thursday, passing students often reacted in surprise to see the gleaners at work.
“Wow, are these ripe?” asked one passerby.
“Yep,” responded Brown, proffering a farm implement. “Want to pick some?”
Over the course of the afternoon, several students stopped to try their hand with the picker. Brown and Poland hope these recruits will become dedicated gleaners who will help take advantage of the informal orchard spreading across their map.
“With the produce they collect, they can give all the fruit a single food pantry needs,” Chamberlain said. With more students helping, even more pantries could be supplied.
Stanford Glean is determined not only to take advantage of existing forgotten produce.
“Instead of taking the waste of our landscape, we could change the landscape,” Poland said.
She and Brown currently grow produce on a small plot in the community garden, but they hope Stanford will expand its agricultural efforts to include a real farm. This summer, Poland will be working in the city to complete a farm on an abandoned city block in San Francisco. The farm’s yield will support the Free Farm Stand.
For now, there is plenty of fruit to collect on Stanford’s campus.
“Fruit happens every year, and it just keeps happening whether people pick it or not,” Brown said.