Earth Day weekend celebrated with citrus picking in Rancho Santa Fe

ProduceGood volunteers save fruit for food


A striking characteristic of Rancho Santa Fe’s fetching landscape owes to its bountiful citrus groves.

As pleasing as the fruit is to the eye as well as the tongue, there’s one big problem. There is too much of it.

That’s where ProduceGood comes in. The North County-based nonprofit offers to collect excess produce from properties at no charge and deliver it to groups that distribute food to the needy.

The organization has put a major dent in diverting fruit countywide from the landfill and into mouths since it was founded in 2014 by Nita Kurmins Gilson, Alexandra White and Gerilyn White.

Though relatively small compared to other communities, Rancho Santa Fe has been a focus of the organization’s efforts because of the village’s abundance of orange, lemon, lime and avocado trees. Fruit from these orchards often go unpicked and wind up in the trash.

“Rancho Santa Fe is a great case study in my opinion,” Gilson said. “You have a lot of people with a lot of fruit. And they’re not necessarily going to be selling it.

“The real problem is there’s just so much and there’s nowhere for it to go. It’s not worth it to most of the growers to try to sell it on a commercial level.”

With the aim of spreading awareness of the benefit to homeowners of having their edible produce collected and consumed by hungry mouths, ProduceGood staged two events at properties off Camino Del Norte on Earth Day weekend Saturday and Sunday, April 22 and 23.

The first one was dubbed the “Glean It Like You Mean It” Earth Day Glean-A-Thon on Saturday, which ProduceGood billed as the first one in the United States.

The event, staged at a 100-acre lemon orchard, consisted of about a half-dozen teams competing for 2 1/2 hours to see who could pick the most fruit and raise the most money for their sponsors. About 65 volunteers gleaned 9.300 pounds of fruit (this equals 27,000 servings of fresh fruit to San Diego Food Bank and Feeding San Diego. This also equals 4.5 tons of edible food diverted from landfill, according to Gilson).

Gilson said the gathering was the first of its kind in the United States.

“It’s the debut of the whole concept of Glean-A-Thon right here in Rancho Santa Fe,” she said.

The following day, approximately 40 volunteers organized by ProduceGood entered SunKing Orchards to collect organic oranges and other miscellaneous fruits.

“It’s nice to tie it in with the awareness that people have on Earth Day,” Gilson said. “These are things that people can do now. Rancho Santa Fe is doing things and can do more, and we’re going to show them what they can do.”

SunKings owner David Bender said he became an enthusiastic supporter of the nonprofit after he read a snippet about it in the Rancho Santa Fe Review.

After buying his property, Bender had been unaware that much of the fruit from his citrus and avocado trees was being loaded by his orchard manager into disposal bins and dumped into the region’s landfills.

“Most of us don’t know what’s leaving the property,” he said. “Usually it’s all done by the orchard manager. So it’s no one’s fault necessarily here in Rancho Santa Fe that we’re not aware of the waste because sometimes we don’t see it.”

Bender, however, experienced a realization when one day he observed trash buckets full of fruit being hauled from his property.

“I’ll never forget that profound moment when I looked at the waste in one of those buckets that was going out that I wasn’t even aware of,” he said. “You’re moral compass does come into play.”

Having seen mention of ProduceGood in the paper, Bender said, he checked out the company’s credentials and sought its help with his property’s overabundance of fruit.

He learned the company, which is supported by grants and donations, charges nothing for its fruit collection and is self-insured. Property owners are protected against liability for sharing their produce.

“There’s absolutely zero reason why every resident who owns an orchard wouldn’t want to do this and there’s immediate benefit,” Bender said. “It’s immediately going to those in need right here in San Diego County.

“It turned something that was kind of almost repulsive seeing the amount of waste this property was generating into something meaningful instantly because of Nita and ProduceGood.”

Since ProduceGood’s founding in 2014, Gilson said, it has recovered nearly 2 million pounds of edibles. Those fruits and vegetables have been channeled to some 80 partners who make that food available to needy folks around the county.

“The food waste is insane,” Gilson said. “Forty percent of all food is wasted and one in four San Diegans struggle with food insecurity. It used to be one in six before the pandemic, then it went to one in three during the pandemic.

“Now, it’s a little bit better but still not back to what it was before. With inflation, things have not bounced back. So we’ve got one in four people who struggle with where their next meal comes from. It’s a terrible set of statistics.”

In addition to picking fruit from orchards, ProduceGood also collects fresh produce that would otherwise be disposed from farmers markets and grocery stores.

Besides feeding the hungry, ProduceGood’s work also curtails waste from filling up landfills.

“We’ve diverted over 700 tons of edible produce from the landfill,” Gilson said. “That’s really important during Earth Month because food waste is the third largest producer of methane gas. So anything you can reduce, you’re actually helping the planet and feeding people.”

Gilson’s commitment to the cause stems from her then-teenaged daughter’s concern about what was happening to the environment.

“She was very, very, very upset about the environment,” Gilson said. “She said, ‘Mom, there’s just no hope. We’re ruining the plant. We need to give up.’”

Yet, when Gilson saw all of the fruit going to waste around her, it struck a chord.

“I thought, no, I’m not going to give up. We can’t just completely say forget it. I said (to her), “We can’t do everything, but you can do one thing. So this became my one thing. And it turned into a big thing. ... There’s no excuse in my opinion.”

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