Monday, August 17, 2009

Contra Costa Times and The Oakland Tribune - July 18, 2009

'Lemon Lady' thinks outside the cardboard box
Clayton 'Lemon Lady's' food mission a fresh means of help
By Laura CaseyContra Costa Times
Posted: 07/17/2009 02:00:00 PM PDT
Updated: 07/18/2009 07:16:28 AM PDT

Anna Chan holds a tray of spinach and bowl of strawberry... (Jim Stevens/Contra Costa Times)

THE SPARK that ignited Anna "The Lemon Lady" Chan's one-woman mission to bring fresh, nutritious food to Contra Costa County's needy was struck by the need to lull a child to sleep.
Chan's 2-year-old daughter, angel-faced Ava, prefers to nap in the family's SUV. So Chan often drives Ava all over Clayton and Concord while the girl finishes her nap time.
In February, while Chan was driving yet again, the former administrative assistant-turned-stay-at-home mom was bothered by something she saw — lemon trees in people's yards, straining under a bounty that no one apparently was harvesting.
Pounds of fruit were falling to the ground to rot. What a waste, she thought, when so many people are going hungry.
Conquering her fear of knocking on strangers' doors, Chan asked homeowners if she could collect the fruit and take it to a food pantry.
The response, she says, has been an overwhelming "Yes."
"A lot of people don't know where their local food pantry is and they don't know that they accept fresh produce," Chan says. "For many folks, a food pantry is within walking distance."
Chan is a fast-talking, earnest woman whose heroes include fresh food activist Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse. Chan also is passionate about food and nutrition. She raises Ava on fresh, wholesome foods but realizes not everyone has the resources to do that.
"In poverty and food bank situations, people are living on canned food and what the government is able to give them," she says.
Fresh often takes a back seat to price and quantity.
Since February, Chan has built a network of more than 300 homes in the area where she collects fruit, and she's always recruiting more.
One early contact was Concord's Jack Farrell. Farrell has several fruit trees in his yard, all hanging heavy with peaches and nectarines. He uses much of the fruit himself but says he certainly doesn't mind Chan stopping by every month or so to pick some for Concord's hungry.
"They need the fruit, too," he says. "If she takes a bag or two, I don't miss it. And you hate to see anything go to waste."
Chan has collected more than 8,000 pounds of food in the five months she's been at it. She delivers by the bag to The Salvation Army pantry on Clayton Road in Concord and to the SHARE pantry at The First Christian Church on Willow Pass Road in Concord, among other places.
"It makes us feel better to, instead of giving canned food out all the time, give something fresh," says George Conlow, president of SHARE.
SHARE has been open for more than 20 years and serves about 600 families a month. Conlow says need is growing as more people are losing their jobs.
Chan's mission doesn't stop at the fruit on the trees of the homes she can access. She also visits local farmer's markets and networks with farmers who, in turn, give her their leftover produce at the end of the day. She takes that produce to food pantries too.
A consummate gardener as well, Chan has been working since May with adults and children in one of Concord's low-income neighborhoods to build a community garden much like Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard.
The plot, about 30-by-12 feet, is planted with an abundance of corn, eggplant, squash and tomatoes. Many plants came from seedlings Chan started in her backyard.
"It's a miracle," a young neighborhood boy says of the veggies growing in the plot. He doesn't like tomatoes but he does like watering the plants and watching the garden grow.
Through the garden, the families living in the neighborhood can use the food without balancing its cost with other necessities such as bread, milk or rice.
"The children water it and keep it alive," Chan says. "I will give them seedlings until the sun stops shining."
If Chan sounds like a do-gooder whose devotion to her community and energy is impossible to replicate, think again. Chan set up a Web site to give people in places outside of Concord ideas on how to help the hungry in their communities. The site,, encourages anyone with a heavily producing fruit tree or bountiful garden to head on over to their local food banks and donate.
"Think outside the box," she says. "Think fresh and give what you can."
Contact Laura Casey at or 925-952-2697.

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