Volunteers harvest oranges
Volunteers harvest oranges - 
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[This story originally aired on Marketplace, April 9, 2009.]


Tess Vigeland: Food pantries across the country are seeing record demand for their services. More and more families need help just getting by.Pair that with a drop in donations as those who do have try to hang on to what they've got, and many food pantries are worried about being able to meet the need.

Marketplace's Caitlan Carroll reports that instead of giving money, Some groups are donating the fruits of their labor.

RICK Nahmias: Woo hoo! Hi guys! Come on up, we're about to do a quick orientation.

CAITLAN CARROLL: A group of about 20 volunteers carrying ladders and baskets surrounds Rick Nahmias, the organizer of an afternoon event called "the Big Pick." They're gathering on a driveway next to a sprawling house. Behind them is a private grove of orange trees. It'll take just a few hours for these volunteers to harvest thousands of oranges.

Nahmias: This began as a neighborhood project. I'd actually get on my bike, and I'd see someone with a tree. And I'd stop and talk to them and said, "Hey, this is what we're doing. Would you be interested in letting us use your tree?"

And if they were, Nahmias would show up with volunteers and pick the tree clean. The group donates all the fruit to a food pantry with three locations in Los Angeles. The pantry's director of operations Fred Summers says this idea couldn't have come at a better time. The pantry's seen demand rise 40 percent over the last year.

FRED SUMMERS: So having the opportunity to, in the next couple of weeks, perhaps, distribute 8,000 or 10,000 pounds of oranges is just a wonderful, wonderful thing.

This helps the food pantry cut back its spending on fresh produce. Instead the money will go toward milk, peanut butter, tuna, other staples. And oranges are packed full of vitamins.

SUMMERS: Many of the people we see who are living on low incomes have very poor diets. Not just that they don't have enough food, but they're eating the wrong foods.

The owners of the trees benefit too. When the fruit doesn't get picked, it rots and attracts coyotes and other critters.

Homeowner Grant Gochin greets volunteers before they head out to his small orange grove. Gochin says this is a simple way to give back. And as a banker at UBS, he sees the need everyday.

GRANT GOCHIN: I see it. I live it. I'm seeing the devastation out there, and it's horrendous.

That sentiment is motivating more volunteers as well. Fruit-picking groups from California to New York use online forums like Craigslist, Twitter and Facebook to find each other. Big Pick volunteer Emily Dell says the idea appealed to her immediately. She can help others, and it's not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

EMILY DELL: You're up there surrounded by the blossoms, smells beautiful and the tree is kind of holding you, and you're grabbing the oranges. It's wonderful.

In Los Angeles, I'm Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.