Turning Lemons Into Lemonade
Anna Chan was a new mom with a colicky baby who only stopped crying and slept when the car was moving. As Chan drove through the streets of Concord, she noticed something: fruit trees drooping with overripe lemons, cherries, oranges and grapefruit.
What was happening to all this bounty? Was it going to waste?
For months, Chan wondered about it, until one day she got up her nerve, drew a flyer and left it on a neighbor’s front door. It said:
My name is Anna and I see that you have a fruit tree. By any chance, do you use all of the fruit for your own family, or would you be interested in sharing a bit with a local food pantry?
By the time she got home, there was an email offering her all the lemons she could pick. Thus began Chan’s new identity as The Lemon Lady.
Helped by her daughter, Ava, who is now 4, Chan estimates that she has harvested more than 300 tons of fruit, both from local trees and farmers’ markets, distributing it to food shelters throughout the East Bay. She does it all on her own dime, and has run out of gas money more than once doing so.
She has inspired hundreds of people around the country and has been featured on local TV news shows, named a Hometown Hero by People magazine and Greatest Person of the Day by The Huffington Post.
We caught up with Chan between harvesting and distributing loads.
Where do you find all these trees?
The fruit is everywhere once you start looking. It’s like when you buy a red Mustang – suddenly everywhere you turn, you see a red Mustang. It’s the same with lemons. When you see one lemon tree, you see 50.
Was it unnerving to knock on the doors of strangers?
I drove around for a year before I got up the nerve to knock on a door. I’m not a social butterfly by nature. I’m not a young mommy, either. I’m 38 years old. I didn’t know lots of people who were having babies. I was lonely, alone in a new world. But, it just broke my heart to see all this fruit going to waste.
It sounds like it’s grown way beyond those humble beginnings.
I’ve collected 2,000 pounds of fruit in one month alone. People think I’m cutting a few lemons, but it’s not just lemons. I’ve been hauling tomatoes and zucchinis for the last three summers. I’m doing mass flyers – thousands of flyers – all around Contra Costa county. I have fruit I don’t even cut anymore; the homeowners are doing it themselves. It’s all going to the local food pantries: the county food bank, Feeding America.org and the California Association of Food Banks.
Food pantries usually solicit canned goods, not fresh fruit.
Ninety-nine percent of food banks accept your produce; that’s how easy it is. But when I started, I didn’t even know where the food banks were. I knew they existed. When I was a child, we were poor. We used food pantries.
You have a personal stake in this, don’t you?
It’s incredible how much goes to waste. The food is out there. We don’t have a hunger problem in America. We have a distribution problem. The food is rotting on the grounds, in the farms, in the stores, even in your own kitchens. I had a big organic garden when Ava was little. I knew the waste in my own garden.
How does your daughter respond to your passionate commitment?
She spots lemon trees, picks fruit and helps sort and put it in bags. Her first complete words had to do with fruit. One of the things she tells me now is, “Mommy, we don’t have time to pick lemons anymore,” when we have to be somewhere.
Sara Solovitch is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.