Food for thought.

When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.

Dom Helder Camara

This week I’m worried about fruit.

We’ve had a cold snap, with temperatures in the high twenties and low thirties (no snickering from those of you who live in genuinely cold places), and the tangerine tree in the backyard has taken a hit. We strung Christmas tree lights up to try and raise the temperature a few degrees, and probably saved most of the tree, but the fruit is done for. (I started to say the fruit was toast, but realized that would not be the best metaphor here.) I pulled some of the fruit — maybe 150 — off the tree on Wednesday before the weather hit, and have been giving them to friends since them. We will see what survives: the frozen ones should drop to the ground in a few days, and the rest we can pick.

This is the third year that we’ve lost some of the tangerine harvest. The past two years, fruit thieves stripped the tree — and I do mean stripped, not a fruit was left, not even a green one — before we could harvest the tangerines.

This annoys me no end. First of all, we use the tangerines: the tree supplies our fruit for lunches and snacks for a good couple of months. Tangerines picked right off the tree are wonderful. We juice them. We cook with them. We put them in salads — ambrosia and green (lettuce, tangerine pieces, pecans, dried cranberries, with a raspberry vinagraite, yum). And we help feed the hungry.

Some portion of our harvest — anywhere from 10 percent to as much as a third — is dropped off with the Second Harvest Food Bank.* They give it to people who need food. Simple as that.

California is the land of the ornamental fruit tree. You can’t drive down a street without seeing at least one orange or lemon tree (and usually more) laden with fruit. More fruit than can be eaten by an average family. And not just citrus: persimmon, fig, apple, pear, and pomegranate all can be found in the city I live in.

A lot of that fruit goes to waste. You see it on the ground, or you see it being cleaned up. Lately that’s been bothering me: how to get the fruit that would otherwise go to waste to people who can use it?

I try to do my part. Concerned about thieves, this year the first harvest went to the food bank — some 400 tangerines. Only then did we think about picking for ourselves or our friends. I was still unhappy that I had been unable to make my usual donations the past two years. But I keep feeling the need to reach others.

I was fretting on this, and then I found Village Harvest. Village Harvest, among other things, sends teams of volunteers to pick fruit off trees which is then donated to food banks and other charities. I can’t volunteer to pick — picking the fruit off my own tree was hard enough on Wednesday, and the earlier harvest of 400 was done my eldest, who was paid a nickel a tangerine — but I can get the word out. That’s what I am going to try to do.

Which begs the question, why do we have a society with such a driving need for food banks anyway? Part of it is the war, and the billions of dollars being siphoned off every month, money that could go a very long way towards eradicating hunger. But more than that is the discomfort we feel at the notion of poverty among us. Poor people are scary — because we hate to face the fact that, given the right set of circumstances, we might be where they are, too. So poverty becomes a moral failing, thus relieving us of our duty to help people.

How come so many politicians and others who trumpet their special relationship with Jesus Christ so studiously ignore his words about helping the poor?

* According to the Village Harvest website, the SH Santa Clara warehouse is not accepting home-grown produce due to a med-fly quarantine. On the other hand, when I showed up with the produce, they took it (and I talked to a warehouse person, not simply left it in a bin). So which is right, I don’t know. I’m concerned that the fruit may have simply been thrown out when I could have taken it elsewhere (other food banks, including the San Mateo County SH, are still accepting home grown produce). However, it looks like the Village Harvest website may just have been out of date: the quarantine was lifted on September 7, 2006. Our fruit would not have been from within the quarantined area to begin with — the medfly quarantine was limited to the San Jose area.

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