The bounty is impressive: 1.8 million servings of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, bell peppers, chile peppers, carrots, onions, beets and strawberries per year.
Incredible Edible Park in Irvine produces 600,000 pounds of food for those who can't afford to put food on their table. The farm's five acres are among the estimated 1,800 acres used partly or wholly for the same purpose throughout Orange County, once the fruit and vegetable basket of Southern California.
Last year, the project attracted about 13,000 volunteers. One of those volunteers, a regular at the gardens since 1989, is Florence Yen. She emigrated from China in the late 1940s and remembers lessons learned in her homeland.
"When I was a child, we used to pick up the grains of rice left over after the harvest," Yen said. "We always felt that you shouldn't waste a thing, not even a grain of rice, and that's why I like it here."
The land is owned by Southern California Edison but leased to the city of Irvine. The Second Harvest Food Bank oversees the farm.
"There are many hungry people in Orange County," said Sam Caruthers, the food bank's program coordinator, "and with these projects we are able to feed lots of them."
A.G. Kawamura, a third-generation grower and shipper whose company, Orange County Produce LLC, farms 800 acres in Orange County and Chino, is the brains behind the effort.
"I feel extremely blessed to be in this kind of industry," said Kawamura, 46, whose grandparents emigrated from Japan around the turn of the 20th century to start the family's farming business in Southern California. "You just recognize it as a pretty rewarding and meaningful occupation pursued all over the world every day. It's a job that needs to be done."
Kawamura and several other growers were approached about two decades ago by Irvine representatives seeking permission to glean leftover crops from their fields.
"Nearly all of us said no," the farmer said. "We were afraid of liability and accidents."
He changed his mind two years later after a worm infestation and a bad cabbage market hit his crops.
"We were throwing more than half of it on the ground," he said. "I called the city and told them to come out and bring boxes."
Three tons of cabbages with only cosmetic blemishes were harvested in one day.
"From then on," Kawamura said, "we had an ongoing relationship."
Though he was raised Episcopalian, Kawamura said, his generosity is grounded more in philosophy than religion.
"My parents raised me on the campground philosophy: You always leave things better than when you found them," he said. "The thing that drives me more than anything is the idea that, in our lifetimes, we will see a day when everyone has enough to eat."
Kawamura contributes by allowing his fields to be gleaned regularly. And he has persuaded other growers to allow another 1,000 or so acres to be gleaned countywide. Aside from the Incredible Edible Park in Irvine, he also has set up a two-acre site owned by the Orange County Water District in Fountain Valley.
"It's just taking resources already available and plugging them into a positive effort," Kawamura said. "We used to be the breadbasket of the state, but we've forgotten our roots. People come to [our fields] to have a rural experience in an urban setting."
That seemed to apply to many of the dozen or so volunteers harvesting vegetables on a recent day in Irvine. Bob Coover, 76, said that working in the fields keeps him healthy. "It gets you outside, and it's good exercise," he said, pausing. "It keeps you going when you're old."
Raija Kubota, 52, said she couldn't think of anything she'd rather be doing. "I like being outside," she said. "The people are nice; it's better than just watching television."
Michele Kasparoff, 58, a local resident who stops by for an hour of farming as part of her daily walk, said that the discipline brings her closer to God.
"God puts us on this Earth to help one another," Kasparoff said. "And maybe, as a result of my efforts, someone is going to bed tonight feeling a little better. It makes me feel closer to God, like I'm not wasting my life but doing something he wants me to do."