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How Unpicked Fruit In Your Yard Can Help Refugees In San Diego

Photo by Nicholas McVicker / KPBS

Above: A volunteer with Harvest C.R.O.P.S. picks lemons from a fruit tree, April 7, 2017.

One of the unique things about Southern California is that many of the homes have fruit trees. But those trees can sometimes bear so much fruit that homeowners don't know what to do with it all.

That's certainly true for me. I rent a house with two lemon trees and try to keep up with picking them, but I do not really need that many lemons.

Video by Katie Schoolov

The nonprofit Harvest C.R.O.P.S. (short for Community Residents Offering Produce Seasonally) is here to help. It's based in Lemon Grove — appropriate name in this case — and aims to help residents like me do something with all of their extra fruit.

"With your permission, we'll pick the fruit," said the founder, Sergio Padilla. "All the fruit we pick is going to the Chaldean refugee food bank."

He showed up at my house with a crew of four Chaldeans, an Iraqi ethnic minority that has a large community of immigrants and refugees in El Cajon. Harvest C.R.O.P.S. also sometimes takes school groups or church groups as volunteers.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

A lemon tree heavy with fruit, April 7, 2017.

I had wondered what a food bank would do with all my lemons — they're not like oranges or grapefruit that you can just eat. But Padilla assured me that from cleaning to cooking, the sour citrus is definitely wanted.

"The fruit that is being picked, the lemons, is always requested by the Chaldean community," he said. "Trust me, there's always a need for the residential fruit because the fruit goes to those who highly appreciate it."

The fruit from my trees would go to Chaldean and Middle-Eastern Social Services, he said. But the picking process also benefits volunteers, such as Zaki Nashi, an immigrant from Iraq who was part of the volunteer crew that came to my house.

"We like to see our people get involved and do some community services that make them a part of the community and help doing things for others," Nashi said.

Nashi is now a U.S. citizen, and said the experience is helpful to him and even more so to newcomer refugees.

"This is their new home town," he said. "This is their new country. This is where they are living in peace. They need to go out and explore, talk to people, they improve their English. And they need to know there are very nice people around them and they need to interact with them so they can be in good shape in the future, good citizens."

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

The Harvest C.R.O.P.S. volunteers prepare to pick fruit, April 7, 2017.

The nonprofit has collected more than 200,000 pounds of fruit since it started in 2009. Padilla said it's getting more popular.

"Last year for example we did 63,000 pounds, the previous year we did 31,000 pounds," he said. "This year we expect a growth of 30 percent. What happens is that the residents are calling us on top of our loyal residents who are asking us to return."

That's a good thing, but also taxes his abilities to help. He has some sponsors from local businesses, but said he needs a new truck and more tools.

"We are always in need of material," he said. "If you look at my pickup, it's a 92 Ford, my personal pickup."

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

The Harvest C.R.O.P.S. volunteers take a photo with their fruit bounty, April 7, 2017.

When Padilla and his team were finished at my house, they were ready to load about 300 pounds of lemons into that pickup. He said they do this three or four times a week, and often collect 600 pounds of fruit at one home.

After Padilla gave me a tax deduction receipt to show how much fruit they collected, he and the volunteers snapped what they called a "trophy shot" photo with all the fruit bounty. They then filled the truck, cleaned up my yard and went on their way.

And the best part - I was left not feeling guilty about rotting lemons I couldn't pick fast enough.

One of the unique things about Southern California is that many of the homes have fruit trees. But those trees can sometimes bear so much fruit that homeowners don't know what to do with it all.


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