For years, Barbara Stackhouse would go out every spring with her husband, Richard, to pick oranges from three big trees in her backyard in San Jose's Willow Glen neighborhood. The couple would give the juicy navels and Valencias to friends, family members and neighbors.
But as they got older, climbing ladders and hauling down all those oranges wasn't possible any more.
"They fall. The squirrels eat them. I had to put three bagfuls in the garbage on Sunday," said Stackhouse, 85, now a widow. "If somebody can use them, that's a lot better than having them fall on the ground."
Working to take backyard fruit that otherwise would go to waste, a growing "urban harvesting" movement is sending dozens of volunteers out every week into Northern California neighborhoods to pick fruit from thousands of residential fruit trees from willing homeowners and donate it to charity.
The largest of the nonprofit groups, called Village Harvest, recently visited Stackhouse's yard. A dozen volunteers removed 1,012 pounds of oranges from her leafy trees. The next day, the fruit was distributed to homeless shelters, senior programs and other charities through Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.
"It's fun. Somebody has to do it. Otherwise, it goes to waste. And there's no reason to waste food," said Bud Pyle, the team leader on the picking job at Stackhouse's home.
Village Harvest started in Palo Alto in 2001, when 22 volunteers picked 1,200 pounds of oranges, lemons and other fruit from nine backyards and donated it to an East Palo Alto food bank. Since then, the group has picked more than 1.5 million pounds of fruit, benefiting more than 100,000 people.
"It's based on the simple idea that there is an incredible natural abundance here -- all the fruit growing on trees in people's yards -- and a need," said Craig Diserens, executive director of Village Harvest.
An unknown trend a decade ago, today there are more than 100 urban harvest groups nationwide.
San Francisco has an "urban gleaning program" run through its city public works department. In the East Bay, the Urban Farmers, based in Lafayette, and Alameda Backyard Growers in Alameda harvest backyard fruit donations for food banks. Similar groups have sprung up in Fresno, Long Beach, Santa Barbara, San Diego and Orange County.
Diserens, who founded Village Harvest with his wife, Joni, is a former project manager at Hewlett-Packard and other high-tech companies. Through the use of databases, Web maps and other computer tools, he has organized 1,200 volunteers into an efficient fruit-picking army that completes 15 to 20 harvests a month from Gilroy to Daly City, turning the San Jose-based group into a national leader in the fledgling movement.
Village Harvest's volunteers come from churches, community groups, private companies, schools and other organizations. All year round, they pick oranges, apples, lemons, grapefruits, plums, apricots, persimmons and other fruit, and donate it to about 15 nonprofits that provide meals to low-income Bay Area residents.
"When school is out, children don't have access to free and reduced-priced lunches and breakfasts," said Jonathan Doherty, a spokesman for Second Harvest Food Bank. "Kids go hungry when school is out. Village Harvest gives us a lot of oranges, and oranges are a great source of vitamin C."
Second Harvest distributes the fruit and other food to 300 groups, including the Palo Alto Family YMCA, Half Moon Bay Meals on Wheels, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in San Jose, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Santa Clara County in Milpitas.
"There's something about the bounty of sharing with others," Doherty said. "The leftover harvest is still perfectly nutritious and healthy."
Village Harvest needs volunteers. There are more five times as many homeowners trying to donate produce as it has people to pick it, Diserens said. He emphasized that homeowners can pick their own fruit and drop it off at dozens of charities around the Bay Area, listed at www.villageharvest.org, and are eligible for income-tax deductions.
Earlier this month, Village Harvest organized the first conference of urban harvest groups on the West Coast. Twenty-four groups came to donated space at Adobe Systems in San Jose and shared tips about how to recruit volunteers, how to use technology and other tactics.
"It's a tangible thing," said Randy Stannard of Harvest Sacramento, a similar nonprofit. "You know what you've done, and at the end of the day, you've filled stacks of boxes. A typical orange tree can feed 50 to 100 families for a week."
To volunteer, donate money or ask to have fruit from your trees picked, go to Village Harvest's website at www.villageharvest.org or call the group at 888-378-4841.