With his neck cranked back, Joshua Chavarria, 7, struggled to balance a 10-foot fruit picker about twice his size. Moments later, he broke into a smile.
“I got one! I got one!” he shouted, showing off the orange in the picker’s net as his mother cheered.
Chavarria was one of about 130 volunteers who spent Saturday morning yanking Valencia oranges off trees at Cal State Northridge’s grove, which were then shipped to food charities throughout the county. Since 2010, the University’s Institute for Sustainability has partnered with Food Forward, a food recovery nonprofit, to make use of the unpicked fruit from the more than 7-acre grove.
On Saturday, volunteers collected 5,000 pounds of oranges, a smaller harvest than previous years due to a fruit fly quarantine that had been in place in the spring. According to Food Forward Executive Director Rick Nahmias, volunteers once collected over 22,000 pounds of oranges from the grove.
“Before we had this partnership with Food Forward, the fruit was being unutilized,” said Sarah Johnson, the Institute’s coordinator. “Now we found this great use of it where the campus benefits because we’re providing this service to the community and the community benefits.”
When the University was built in the late 1950s, it inherited the grove, which is considered a relic of the 15,000 acres of citrus that once covered the San Fernando Valley. From the early 1920s to the late 1950s, citrus farms thrived until urbanization took over.
“[It] pushed citrus out until there was no citrus at all,” said Richard Barker, founder of Citrus Roots, an organization that educates about California’s citrus industry.
Today, most of the state’s approximately 30,000 acres of Valencia orange groves are in the Central Valley, according to Bob Blakely, the vice president of California Citrus Mutual, an industry advocacy group.
“A lot of the growers who are farming in Kern, Tulare [counties], their parents came from L.A. County and started farming up here,” said Blakely.
At one point, the university had considered building over its grove. Robert Gohstand, a retired CSUN geography professor and self-described “daddy of the grove,” fought to save it in the early 1990s when the university proposed constructing a parking structure in its place. Resolutions were passed to preserve the grove, and over the years, the university has replaced its dying trees with new ones.
Today, the grove contains a pond and two solar observatories. A new campus hotel will be built nearby.
“My objective was, make compromises and save the bulk of the grove,” said Gohstand. “I think we preserved a bit of the agricultural past in the Valley.”
Parents at the picking event used the outing to teach their children about volunteering. CSUN accounting student Stephanie Gonzalez, 25, teamed up with her 5-year-old daughter, Emily. Gonzalez handed the oranges off to Emily, who picked off stems and leaves before placing them in a box.
“I thought it was a really good way to help out,” Gonzalez said.
Over 50 boxes of oranges will go to MEND food bank in Pacoima, which will place the fruit in care packages to give to homeless next week.
“We struggle to give our homeless clients something great and think that fresh oranges picked from the tree are as good as we can get,” said its food bank director Richard Weinroth.