Gleaning Interview

Insights From a Glean Dream Machine: JOT Interviews Philip Singh 

By Linda Koffman

You’ve got fruit growing in your yard. Lots of it. More than you and your busy schedule can handle. You want to produce your own food to reduce your carbon footprint but you’re tired of watching your ripening edibles fall to the ground and morph into waste. Who you gonna call?

Meet Philip Singh, the one who does double duty for San Francisco’s Department of Public Works. Part office Clark Kent as a public relations assistant, part outdoor Superman as your friendly fruit gleaner overseeing the Urban Harvesting program, Singh wears many (sun)hats to promote sustainability. When local residents need help handpicking the bounty of fruit in their own gardens, Singh will organize a free gleaning of excess edibles to be donated to the SF-Marin Food Bank (contact or 415-695-2142). Don’t worry, you get to claim what you want to keep for your personal kitchen experiments. Last year, his Urban Harvesting team collected 960 pounds of produce.

Clearly its a win-win for all involved, and one we hope more SFers will take advantage of—because nature intended for lemons (and other fruits) to be consumed before hitting the compost bin.

Just One Tree asked the man behind the gleaning of many urban fruit trees his thoughts on this handy (literally and figuratively!) yet lesser-known public service.

What is the most common crop you glean? Lemons seem to be fairly common. Citrus in general grow well in the SF climate and can tolerate Bay Area weather conditions year round. Also, lemons are such a versatile fruit that are useful throughout the year, especially for those of us who can’t wait until summer for a refreshing glass of lemonade!

What is your favorite edible you enjoy gleaning? I really enjoy picking apples. I wasn’t aware of how versatile apples were until I started gleaning. Each apple comes in a different shape or size than the last, but they all share a common beautiful, vibrant, red hue. A robust apple tree full of radiant red apples against rustic green leaves is definitely a treat for the eyes.

How can people prepare for a gleaning appointment? Interested citizens should complete an application to be part of the program. The application is very straightforward and should take about five minutes to complete. Once I receive their interest, I will personally reach out with follow-up questions and set up a time to stop by and harvest their fruit. My team will bring the tools we need to use for the day and we do our best to work quickly and quietly. In general, appointments take between 1-2 hours depending on the type of produce and volume being collected.

How big is the gleaning crew and when do you recommend people harvest? Urban Harvesting falls under the Community Programs umbrella here at SF Public Works. My immediate team at Community Programs consists of about seven people. There are three of us in the office who assist with the Urban Harvesting program. I recommend that citizens do harvesting when their fruit looks its best and when it is most convenient for them. Some citizens prefer to be at home while we are harvesting, while others are comfortable letting us harvest when they are away. We are willing to work with residents to build a relationship and accommodate their needs.

Any particular types of produce the SF-Marin Food Bank needs more? Not necessarily. The SF-Marin Food Bank accepts a vast array of produce and food items. As long as it is fresh and appropriate for human consumption we will collect it and donate it!  

Other tips to share? The city of San Francisco is currently under quarantine because of the Asian citrus psyllid (pronounced sill-id) insect pest that targets and kills backyard citrus trees. Having originated in Vietnam and entered the USA through Florida, the pest was found in the Bay Area in the middle of 2016 after making its way up the West Coast. Although the pest is not dangerous to humans, if it spreads, the cost of lemons will significantly increase due to a lemon “drought” of sorts (like we need another one of those!). Residents with citrus trees of any kind should do monthly inspections of the leaves on their citrus trees and keep an eye out for a pest with brown, mottled wings. If they feel their trees have been infested, they can report it by calling (800) 491-1899.