Poor Reaping Benefits of a Fruitful Farm Year

They sat on the vegetable crates, admiring the grapes. Thompson seedless, almost chartreuse and just at that point of sweetness when they squish in the mouth like liquid sugar.

At first, Gerald (Bubber) Moore, at 2 the youngest of the seven children gathered at the Hollywood food distribution center of World Opportunities International, didn't know what to do with the grapes.

He'd started with just one, biting it in half and then grinning. Soon his cheeks bulged with at least five grapes. His eyes were large and solemn and his jaw moved intently, as if to ask: Do you swallow them whole?

Youngsters like Bubber, one of a family of seven living with their grandmother in South-Central Los Angeles, don't see much fruit. In fact, though California claims to be the richest agricultural region in the world, "there are children in California who've never eaten an apple, who don't know what an orange is," says Mae Raines, who coordinates West Adams Foursquare Church's food program and distributes World Opportunities food from her car in Central Los Angeles.

But this year, what every farmer fears will happen--happened. And Los Angeles' poor, homeless and the agencies who feed them, are reaping the benefits.

Thanks to near-perfect growing conditions this spring, California farmers have more fruit than can be sold. The crop estimate for plums alone is 14.8 million 28-pound packages, compared to 9.6 million last year, according to California Farm Bureau Assn. spokesman Mike Henry.

So California farmers have been giving it away.

One San Joaquin Valley shipper, who preferred to remain anonymous, said he lost $75,000 by the time he delivered 15,000 boxes of plums to three Southern California food banks: the Salvation Army, the Japanese Community Center and World Opportunities International.

The people who run these agencies are sympathetic to the farmer's plight. But there's no disguising their gratitude. A cheerful David Phillips, director of procurement for World Opportunities International, said: "A year ago when our clients came to get fruit, it just wasn't available. Now it's not only that they're pleased, they're overwhelmed--both with the bulk and the variety."

Because of the abundance, Phillips said, 75% of the food World Opportunities gives away is fruit.

"Last year at this time, we gave away 50 tons of fruit in a week. This week, we gave away 110 tons.

"I can't emphasize enough what a difference this makes. A year ago, we were giving away five pallets of fruit a day to 50 or 60 agencies. That might be five cases of plums per agency, enough for, I don't know, 50 people. Now, we've got 20 pallets of fruit and we're saying, 'Take whatever you can use.' "

Produce Market

Traditionally, World Opportunities has received fruit from the Downtown produce market. Phillips has about 85 businesses he calls on once a week, arranging to take their surpluses or produce that, while edible, doesn't meet federal inspection requirements.

"In the last three months, though, we've been getting calls from various farmers and packers offering us as much as we can handle. That's never happened before."

The same holds true at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank.

Last year, between January and July, development manager Charlene Wing reported that 988,471 pounds of fruit were dispersed to 350 agencies. In the same period this year, 1,345,385 pounds went to 400 agencies.

Maurice Weiss sees a continuance in the abundance of produce and figures they'll be able to keep up the pace until December. A 40-year veteran of the produce business, Weiss and his wife, Edna, established in May a distribution center for surplus and USDA-rejected fruits and vegetables (edible, but packed incorrectly or too ripe for shipping) in the New Produce Market in downtown Los Angeles. It's an idea that seems obvious, but apparently is revolutionary in the produce industry. So far, 60 charities plus Tent City are making pickups at the 2,000-square-foot loading dock.

At World Opportunities' loading dock, just behind their headquarters in Hollywood, boxes of parsley are being stacked next to crates of squash and Guatemalan carob.

It's a hectic scene. Produce arrives continually. But so do representatives from the various charities, some in pickups, others in cars. Some groups will dispense the food directly to their clients, individuals and families. Others prepare it for drop-in meal programs.

Jackie Queen had come up from the New Change Ministry in Long Beach, which serves 1,200 families--"not counting the street people." This year has been incredible, she said, "people come expecting the USDA stuff, you know, butter, cheese, rice and milk. And they're so surprised when we give them fruit."

Come Asking for Fruit

Mae Raines agreed: "They come asking me for fruit now. I think they like it best of all the stuff we give them, because it's such a rarity."

Occasionally, Queen acknowledged, they don't know what to do with some of "the produce they receive. Like chard. Or that carob over there against the wall."

Raines, who's been distributing food for so long that she's known as the Muffin Lady in her neighborhood, nodded. "We have to drive around acquainting people with what they've got."

But in the inner city, she explained, there are so many ethnic groups--each with favorite foods--that generally someone in the neighborhood knows how to cook whatever is being given away.

"As for the carob," she continued, eyeing the exotic looking wooden crates, "you can grind it and use it in cooking. Although yesterday, the kids just chewed the bean and spit the seeds out. They loved it--said it tasted just like chocolate."

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