In Orange County, about 60 percent of homes have a fruit tree in the yard producing fruit every year — too much for the average family to consume on their own. Jeff Lebow — a Southern California Edison (SCE) retiree — noticed this and saw an opportunity.
In his hometown of Huntington Beach, Lebow saw fruit on the ground — wasting away. He also knew that Orange County has more than 400,000 residents going hungry.
“In 2008, I was up in my own tree picking persimmons to donate to my church for Thanksgiving,” Lebow said. “It was taking hours and I remember thinking, ‘boy, I could really use some help with this.’”
A year later, Lebow and a group of friends founded the Harvest Club of Orange County. At the time, he was working as a project manager in SCE’s Economic Development Services where he helped potential customers create new startup businesses. Creating a club to tackle the fruit problem was a natural fit.
The club’s volunteers gather nearly every weekend for a couple of hours to harvest trees, usually in residential backyards, and collect hundreds of pounds of fruit, including oranges, grapefruits and lemons. It’s then donated to local food banks, churches and food pantries.
Several volunteers spend time searching for new locations. They attend community events, pass out fliers and canvas local neighborhoods with visible fruit trees. And they love what they do.
“I moved here from Michigan and saw all of the citrus trees, but wondered what happens with the fruit,” said Tracy Dreslinski, a Harvest Club volunteer. “People don’t often harvest their fruit and give it away, but it’s a win-win because they don’t have to worry about their trees dropping fruit and others get to enjoy the fresh produce.”
The club started small with a handful of volunteers that picked about 2,000 pounds of fresh fruit in the first year. Last year, more than 600 volunteers helped harvest more than 52,000 pounds.
To help expand, the club was brought under the Orange County Food Access Coalition, a registered nonprofit dedicated to ending hunger.
“The Harvest Club shows how a community can come together to support its own residents,” Lebow said. “All sorts of people need help putting food on their table. Not all are homeless — many times it’s a neighbor who lost a job or a senior citizen living on a fixed income.”
For Lebow, it gives him a chance to enjoy the outdoors, help others and do his part to make the world a better place.
“After 25 years of working with SCE, now I’m out here doing this,” he said. “And I’m greatly enjoying it.”
Do you have a fruit tree in your yard or want to help with a harvest? Visit theharvestclub.org to get involved.