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Sunday, October 25, 2009
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Lemon Lady Anna Chan branches out
Joe Eaton,Ron Sullivan
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Anna Chan, the Lemon Lady of Contra Costa County, says it all started last winter when her daughter, Ava, now 2, was being cranky. "She had colic," Chan recalls, "and I had to drive her around to calm her." (Child calming is an art. Joe once put a colicky infant niece to sleep by lecturing to her about the origin of the universe.)
"I started seeing all these lemons and oranges on the ground. I realized the homeowners weren't harvesting them - they didn't know what to do with them."
So Chan began knocking on doors, and leaving flyers when residents weren't home.
People responded, says Chan, a former dental office administrative assistant. "It was so easy to get the first bag of lemons. I just started picking. But I had no idea where I would take this produce. I started looking in the phone book under food banks and calling around."
Lots of food banks
She was surprised to discover an extensive food-assistance network in her Concord-Clayton area. "I tell homeowners, 'I could pick an orange from your tree and throw it to the nearest food pantry.' " While some pantries deal only in canned goods, others handle fresh produce.
The exchange networks for homegrown produce that have popped up in parts of the East Bay haven't developed in Chan's area. "People in Oakland and Berkeley are more into the foraging part of it," she says. "Here they're happy to give and just be done with it."
Chan expanded from citrus fruit to other kinds of produce. In spring, she began visiting a circuit of local farmers' markets: Walnut Creek and Martinez on Sundays, Concord on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Pleasant Hill on Saturdays. She networks with farmers: "Mien farmers with family in Fresno - they remember me and tell me where to go to find other family members (with unsold vegetables)."
The market visits have yielded as much as $2,000 worth of produce a week, some of it a little shopworn but still edible, as well as some salable items that won't hold until the next market.
The next logical step was helping people to grow their own food. Chan connected with Kathy Gleason, corporate donations coordinator for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano. On her own time, Gleason had converted a weedy vacant lot in a low-income neighborhood into the Children's Community Garden of Concord. "She contacted me and asked if I knew anything about gardening," Chan says.
That launched another project: growing several thousand tomato, pepper, eggplant, squash, bean and watermelon seedlings for donation to the garden, with some assistance from daughter Ava. Gleason says a core group of about a dozen children, from toddlers to 12-year-olds, help water and weed the garden, and a couple of neighborhood adults have pitched in. Gleason worried about vandalism, but that hasn't happened: "Everyone in the neighborhood respects the garden. I'm proud of the neighborhood, and I'm proud of what they've done."
Along with seedlings, Chan says, she tries to bring education into the garden. That dovetails with Gleason's goal of showing the kids where food comes from. She passes along seed catalogs for inspiration: "They'll teach you everything you need to know about growing plants." And they're usually free.
Chan provides seedlings to other community garden projects, including the JFK Garden in Pleasant Hill and a new Salvation Army garden in Concord. She's also been working with Concord's Monument Community Partnership, creating rolling gardens in pots for apartment dwellers: "I want to let people know you don't need land to grow a garden." She sees seedling donation as an important way for gardeners to help meet food security needs.
Last month, the Lemon Lady was recognized by Maryanne Lucas, president of California Garden Clubs Inc., with a special award for her "tireless efforts to bring fresh, delicious food to Contra Costa County's needy." What started as a citrus salvage drive has evolved into an expanding network connecting gardeners, food-distribution nonprofits and community groups. "I'm more of a resource coordinator than anything else," Chan says. Her Web site (see Resources) has links for all the local food banks. In hard times, it's a rewarding way to help those who have fallen through the increasingly frayed social safety net.
Read Anna Chan's blog at thelemonlady.blogspot.com.
Joe Eaton and Ron Sullivan are naturalists and freelance garden writers in Berkeley. Check out their Web site at www.selbornesurveys.com or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page L - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle