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Gleaning the fruit

There must be thousands of tons of citrus fruit rotting in the yards of Florida homeowners whose trees have borne more than they were able to pick or use. Meanwhile, a single grapefruit costs 50 cents at the supermarket. This may be good for grove owners, grocers and fruit rats, but it is sad that so much good, nourishing food is going to waste. It's not that there aren't people who would love to have it. By one recent estimate, some 250,000 Florida children suffer some degree of hunger. There are currently 700,000 workers unemployed.

The paradox of hunger among plenty is an old story. Floridians like myself, who normally have more back yard citrus than we think we can consume or give to friends and neighbors, fall into the mindset of assuming that everybody has fresh juice at their doorsteps. But if that were so, the grocer wouldn't be asking $2.49 for a skimpy little bagful of oranges that makes maybe six decent-sized glasses. I'm ashamed to say I dumped hundreds of pounds that had fallen from my prolific grapefruit tree last year without a second thought of taking it to a food bank that could have used it. For that, the tree punished me by taking this year off.

But this is about people in our community who are acting to see that the fruit doesn't go to waste. Their solution: gleaning.

Gleaning is as old as the Bible. It is one of the 613 mitzvot, or obligations, that were set out in the Torah. Leviticus 19:9: ". . . When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger . . ." Gleaning is described in the Book of Ruth.

The world has turned many times over since then and not always for the best. A stranger who wandered into someone's cornfield could get arrested. Going unannounced into someone's back yard could even get you shot.

But suppose some recognized community organization made the arrangements and sent volunteers to pick the fruit? That sounds safe enough.

The thought seems to have occurred simultaneously and independently to at least three south St. Petersburg residents. They are Bruce Boore, who is my neighbor; Jim Barrens, director of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic Food Bank; and Mark Goodfriend, youth director at Congregation B'nai Israel.

Boore, who also coaches a team in the Southside Youth Soccer League, distributed handbills at Saturday's games and throughout the neighborhood. He has lined up the scout troops from Lakewood United Methodist Church and Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church, as well as Lakewood's youth group, to pick and collect fruit on the weekends of Feb. 15-16 and 22-23. He's asking homeowners in the vicinity to call him at his home, 866-8993, if they'd like to have their fruit picked. Each home that contributes will receive a fourth of the fruit. The rest will go to the Free Clinic Food Bank.

The B'nai Israel youth did this Feb. 2 and got 1,000 pounds of fruit.

Boore thinks the offer would appeal primarily to older people who might find it physically difficult to pick fruit that's not in easy reach. He's hoping the more able-bodied will pick their own fruit and call him to have it collected. But if they want his youth volunteers to do the picking, that's all right too. The important thing is to save the fruit and get it to needy people.

When I called him Sunday for this information, there had been only one other telephone call.

"I'm not disappointed or surprised," he said. He knew it would take more effort to get the word out. Some people may also be wondering if he and the "Glean St. Pete" project are for real. They are.

"It's one of those serendipitous situations," says Barrens. "It's such a natural for this area that a lot of people had gotten the idea." But none had acted on it. "When I go out and talk to people and speak, invariably a hand will go up in the back of the room and someone will say, "I have all these citrus trees. Is there anyone who can come out and pick 'em?' "

Barrens doesn't worry about being stuck with too much fruit. There are between 100 and 150 churches, synagogues and other distribution agencies picking up food from him every week. "We can get it in the food chain," he says.

Barrens sees this year as a test run, and as a chance for youth groups to get to know each other through a "real good community service project" while feeding the hungry. If it succeeds, there are grand plans for next year. Boore, for one, would like to make a deal with a packing house to exchange fruit for juice. Barrens says some kind of citrus is on the trees from fall through spring.

These are the kind of people Gov. Lawton Chiles had in mind when he spoke of wanting to make Florida "a community, not a crowd." But for the gleaning project to work, it needs you too.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times.