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The Magic of Neighborhood Fruit Picking

Post By: Lan Ngo, Community Outreach Coordinator, Garden to Table & CommUniverCity

I peered upwards at the 25 foot orange tree and jabbed my seven-foot-long picker through the prickly branches to pry out a juicy half-pounder I had just spotted.  This is a typical Saturday for me, and as an outreach coordinator with CommUniverCity and Garden to Table, I lead weekly fruit pickings where local volunteers harvest their neighbors fruit trees (with their consent, of course) and distribute them to other families through local food programs. My favorite part of this “job” is not how this program increases access to local, organic fruit or even how we can pick so much fruit so simply. It’s about the magic that happens during the fruit picking.

As I stood there, jabbing determinedly at the orange tree, I began to notice a beautiful interaction unfold. Two volunteers, José and Mông Hoài began teaching each other Spanish and Vietnamese! José is a Mexican-American 11th grader at San José Academy, and Mông Hoài is a 40-something-year-old mother who immigrated to the States from Vietnam ten years ago. They began to count one through five: “một, hai, ba, bốn, nă, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco…” José practiced saying her name correctly, hitting the deep and melodic tones of the Vietnamese language. In return, she learned the Spanish word for friend, amigo. We gleefully ended the picking session with over 200 pounds of oranges and our fingers, hands, and arms covered in sticky juice.

Jose and Mông Hoài joking around as they pick fruit

José and Mông Hoài may live in the same part of downtown San José, but I don’t think on a regular day either of them would have said hello if they walked past each other on the sidewalk. In fact, on the surface, there are so many things that should separate them: language, age, gender, and ethnicity. But this is the magic of fruit picking, the ability to bridge those differences. At the end of every glean, each volunteer takes home a small bag of what they picked. That day, I’m sure they took home a little more than that. A little more pride in their cultural heritage. A few more words in a new language. A little bit of demystification of another ethnic group’s history and experience.

These fruit gleans are just one part of CommUniverCity’s Growing Sustainably program. With funding for Growing Sustainably generously provided by United Way of Silicon Valley, we are also able to provide cooking and gardening education programs, so that young kids can learn the benefits of growing and cooking with fresh produce and even pass this knowledge to their families.

As complicated and overwhelming as improving the food system in San Jose may seem, there is something profoundly simple about fruit picking. It’s one of my favorite activities at this job. Please sign up at if you are interested in joining one of our weekly fruit gleanings and experiencing your own magic!

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