Organization shares bounty

As cars whizzed by on a crisp, early Sunday morning on Buena Vista Street, Marie Boswell shuffled a ladder and boxes to the backyard of Burbank resident Allison Bluestein before sticking a sign on the front lawn that read “Fruit being picked by Food Forward.

This all-volunteer grass-roots organization gleans fruit off trees on properties and donates 100% of the bounty to food pantries in an effort to fight urban hunger, said Boswell, one of the fruit picking coordinators.

Sunday’s fruit pick involved a tall grapefruit tree that yielded about a half-dozen produce boxes of fruit.

Boswell showed three volunteers how to attach and work a fruit picker, a garden tool with a basket-like rake attached on a wooden pole, to pull down the fruit easily.

“It’s great that they’re willing to take a couple hours out of their Sunday and do something this helpful,” Boswell said about the volunteers.

This isn’t Food Forward’s first time in Burbank. In August, a mini pick yielded close to 1,000 pounds of citrus, tomatoes, herbs and apples, said Food Forward founder Rick Nahmias, who started the organization nine months ago in his Valley Glen neighborhood with a neighbor’s yard and the aid of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

They have teamed up with SOVA (Sustenance, Opportunity, Volunteerism and Advocacy) Community Food and Resource Program, a program of Jewish Family Services in Van Nuys, and MEND or Meet Each Need with Dignity in Pacoima and supplied 60,000 pounds of produce to 30,000 people in Los Angeles since their inception.

Although this grapefruit pick has been smaller than others, the enthusiasm of the volunteers radiated throughout the time spent in Burbank.

“I am determined to get this one,” volunteer Leilani Gushiken said as she was doing her best to grab a stubborn grapefruit near the top of the tree.

Gushiken, a Silver Lake resident who works in post-production at DreamWorks, has been volunteering with a few organizations to see which one sticks.

Food Forward is definitely one she will participate in again, she said.

“This is a really cool organization, because you get to go out and be active; it’s not like you’re going door-to-door asking for donations,” she said.

Cynthia Vrbancic, a coordinator who works at Warner Bros. Studios, volunteered because she wanted to give back to the community.

“It’s nice to actually do something nice for somebody else, and not ask for anything in return,” she said. “You get so sucked into Los Angeles and Hollywood that it’s just nice to do something for your neighbor.”

Vrbancic, who tagged along with Gushiken, said Food Forward sounds like a good charity that believes in its mission statement.

The 700 people on Food Forward’s volunteer e-mail list are an indication that many echo Vrbancic’s sentiments.

Nahmias is a photographer and writer whose first foray into understanding issues involving food came as a result of the Migrant Project, a traveling exhibition he created that documented the lives of migrant workers, he said.

Food Forward’s picks happen two to four times a week, and the volunteer list fills within 48 hours of a location begin announced, he said.

“It’s become so popular with people that they often have to get in touch with us right away before we’re booked for the whole month,” he said.

Kenichi Okamoto, a volunteer who helped glean fruit in Burbank, has been lucky enough to get on the list for a second time.

Okamoto, a doctorate student at UCLA studying biology, found out about the organization through www. Serve.gov, a resource for finding volunteer opportunities.

“It’s good to be outside and be helping people at the same time,” he said.

For Bluestein, who was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley and recently moved to Burbank, it was a way to share the wealth her grapefruit tree provided and discourage a pest problem in the process.

“There was so much fruit there that there was no way in the world I could use it all,” said Bluestein, who works as the youth coordinator at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Pest control company Orkin told Bluestein that the excess fruit on the tree, combined with the fact that her house had been abandoned for five years before she moved in, was an attraction for rats.

But it was the humanitarian aspect that drew Bluestein to get in touch with Food Forward, which she had heard of through her work as well as through a co-worker who recently had her tree harvested.

“There’s a need beyond just homeless people,” Bluestein said, adding that many who visit the pantries have homes and families but have lost their jobs and need help.

With the Los Angeles County unemployment rate at 12.6%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics and the Burbank unemployment rate at 10.2% as of August, according to the California Employment Development Department, Food Forward’s need in the community might be stronger than ever.

Although their volunteer list is robust, Nahmias encourages Burbank residents to volunteer trees to glean.

“We are always looking for trees,” he said, adding that to try to keep things as paperless as possible, volunteers can sign up at www.foodforward. org, call (818) 530-4125.


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