Jeff and Fran Lebow in their backyard founded The Harvest Club, now led by the OC Food Access Coalition (Chris Epting / March 8, 2014)

It all started about six years ago when Jeff Lebow was on a ladder in his backyard picking persimmons.

After harvesting 400 to 500, the abundance struck him as almost comical.

So he gathered his excess fruit and delivered it to St. Bonaventure Church in Huntington Beach, where Thanksgiving Day baskets were being prepared for the needy.

That simple gesture led to a bounty of its own: the Harvest Club of Orange County.

The club was born of the desire of Jeff and his wife, Fran, to think of a way to help find, pick and distribute excess fruits and vegetables throughout Orange County. They delivered 2,000 pounds of produce in 2009, the year they founded the organization. Then, after joining forces with the OC Food Access Coalition, they broadened their reach.

By 2011 they were delivering 24,000 pounds per year. That doubled in 2012, and by 2013 they delivered more than 50,000 pounds.

The message on their website is simple:

"Do you have fruit trees or a garden? Do you have produce to spare? Want to share with the hungry in our community?"

This goes beyond a labor of love. It's a labor of generosity, practicality and ingenious tenacity that keeps the good-natured 65-year-old Lebow in good shape — if not a bit weary on the weekends, when he does most of the picking.

Recently I visited the Lebow home to hear more about the Harvest Club. From the moment I pulled up to the 1961 abode tucked away off Beach Boulevard, I knew I was in for a treat. Nearing the front door, I was met with lush and fragrant aromas emanating from the many fruit trees, plants and flowers. The backyard is an Eden-like sanctuary, a cozy and rustic tenth of an acre that feels like it has emerged from a fairy tale.

The dazzling flowers include roses, pink Jasmine, Dutch Iris, cosmos, sunflowers and African basil — to attract the bees.

Then there are pepper, Mandarin orange, avocado, Meyer lemon and Anna apple trees, along with fat blueberries, boysenberries and strawberries. Plump hummingbirds buzz in and out of the naturally perfumed paradise, which was designed and created by Fran, a master gardener.

Over freshly baked biscuits and just-made boysenberry jam, Jeff Lebow spoke about the community collective. The recently retired economic development specialist began with a simple mission.

"We want to help those in need, and we saw harvesting as the opportunity to weave together a safety net for those that are hungry," he said. "We live in a place we can grow things for 12 months year. So much nutritious food goes to waste, and so we just wanted to figure out a way to move it around properly to help those that really need it."

After creating a Harvest Club website, the Lebows made it easier for helpers to sign up and volunteer. More than 600 volunteers and 300 growers are registered on the Harvest Club website.

If you have a tree that you would like picked, you can register it. If you want to bring your family out and help pick on the weekends, you can sign up for that.

Or you can be what Lebow calls a "harvest captain," overseeing and helping to organize harvest pickings wherever you live in Orange County.

Up until now, Lebow has done most of the heavy lifting. His van was filled with crates of oranges that he had helped harvest the day before. He will soon be making the rounds at local churches, senior centers and shelters that need the fresh lemons, oranges and whatever else is picked. But he stresses more than once how grateful he is for the hundreds of volunteers that have stepped up so far and the tireless work and coordination provided by the OC Food Access Coalition.

 

"We like to say that we give people a chance to act out their angel nature," Lebow said. "And I would love for this model of sharing food to some day be applied to other problems that we have in society today. But you have to start someplace."

I think this is one of the most worthwhile community projects I have ever learned about. It is so simple, effective and productive that it's hard not to get excited about it. And the good news is, they've only begun scratching the surface. The county has tons of produce that can be harvested to help those in need.

The Harvest Club is holding its first fundraiser on March 26. An old friend of Jeff's, award-winning filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg, will be screening his Disneynature film, "Wings of Life," at The Frida Cinema in downtown Santa Ana. He will also be on hand for a special question-and-answer session after the film, and other special guests will talk about bees, pollination and more.

Tickets are $25 for the general public and $15 for students. Proceeds benefit the Harvest Club of Orange County. For more information, visit www.ocfoodaccess.org/wol. 

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.