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On a Mission With the Lemon Lady

What happens when you try to write a story about Anna Chan? She puts you to work collecting food.


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Photography by Mitch Tobias

It's 7:30 p.m. on a beautiful August evening in Concord. The heat of the day has faded, and Todos Santos Plaza is bumping. A band is playing, the lawn is crowded with families in folding picnic chairs, and children swarm the playground like bees on honeycomb. Food stands serve barbecue, kettle corn, and funnel cake, along with a wide variety of international foods. The Lemon Lady, Anna Chan, 39, a woman with long, light brown hair and a dimpled smile, isn’t concerned with any of this. She lasers in on the farmers market stalls that line the north and east sides of the plaza. She’s here, as she is twice a week, every week, to ask farmers to donate their unsold produce to local food pantries. When she sees the notepad in my hand, she says, “No writing about me tonight.” As she begins to hand me empty fruit boxes, her message is clear: I’m being put to work.  
 

"Now, it’s about inspiring. I figure every person I tell will go home and do something. You can pick up an orange and throw it, and hit the nearest food pantry."


The Lemon Lady has been at this for nearly three years. It started in February 2009, when she discovered that the only way she could get her colicky infant daughter, Ava, to nap during the day was to strap her into the car seat and drive her around their Clayton neighborhood. During these drives, she began to notice how many of the houses she passed had fruit trees in their yards and how many of the lawns were littered with fallen fruit.  

“I would see these oranges and lemons falling to the ground everywhere,” she remembers. “Oranges and grapefruits, tangerines and limes, just everywhere. They’re on the ground, in a circle of color, beautiful fruit blanketing the ground, and it’s not going to be eaten. It started breaking my heart.”

The wasted fruit bothered her at least partly because she’s no stranger to hunger. She grew up poor in Hayward, raised by a single mother who sometimes struggled to put food on the table. Chan still vividly recalls being on food stamps, seeing gardeners hand her mother spare tomatoes, picking figs from a tree in a Hayward park, and feeling pangs of hunger at night.

“It’s a way of life,” she says. “You go to bed, and you just hope to fall asleep as soon as possible so you can wake up and go to school, and the school lunch will be there.”

As she grew up, her situation improved. She took classes at Los Medanos College and ended up working in secretarial management. She met her husband, Darryl, a dentist, while working at his office, got married, had a daughter, and settled into a comfortable life as a stay-at-home mom in Clayton. She’d never done much charity work, but the sight of that fruit on the ground left her unsettled. Part of it was the memories of her childhood. And part of it was the knowledge that people, no matter how rich or poor, don’t eat healthfully enough, a fact that was driven home to her by the heart attack her husband suffered at age 43, not long before they were married.

“The garbage food we’re eating really is bad for us, and with my husband being a heart attack survivor... He’s a dentist, but he was a bachelor, and he was eating poorly.”

Feeling the need to act, she began to knock on doors, asking people if they would be willing to donate their extra fruit, even offering to pick it herself. If no one answered, she left a flier.

The response was overwhelming: She’s collected more than a million dollars’ worth of produce and has an in-box overloaded with 30,000 e-mails from people interested in her project. Add in trips to farmers markets to ask farmers to donate unsold produce, along with the publicity and administrative work—answering e-mails, updating her blog, accommodating interview requests—and she’s got a job of her own creation that is too big for her.

“I get home at night, and I’m pooped out,” she says. “I’m exhausted. The computer work I’ve done for this project already is huge... but every night I’m finishing up something—printing labels or fliers, or responding to some e-mail.”

She’d love to find someone to help her set up a 501(c)(3) so she’d have nonprofit status, or someone to help with passing out fliers, but it’s hard enough to find people to help her move the fruit—witness me, arms loaded with boxes, chasing her around the farmers market.

And basically, I do have to chase her. Everyone here knows her by name—not just the farmers, but also the event organizers and the police working the plaza. She talks briefly with them all—she has a breathless way of speaking that accentuates the urgency with which she approaches her mission—but she never stops moving. At one point, I take my pad out of my pocket to note something, but by the time I’ve uncapped my pen, she’s gone to the next stand and left me in the dust. By closing time, 8 p.m., she has talked to someone at every single stand.

“For us as farmers, we really appreciate that our vegetables don’t go to waste,” says Vidal Navarro, who’s working the stand for Bautista Ranch, a Stockton farm. “And she’s extremely friendly, to the point where she brings us bottles of water at the end of the day. Nobody does that.”

Her work is important because a lot of produce gets thrown out, be it from farmers markets or neighborhood trees, and because many people who can’t afford fruits and vegetables go without them, says Lauri Vint, director of social services at the Concord Salvation Army.

“Produce is an expensive thing to buy at the store,” Vint says. “It’s a huge deal for people. We assist 600 families a month. I would say that the produce she brings in is more than half of what we receive. She’s tireless.”

The Lemon Lady may seem tireless, but the lack of help can catch up with her. She has about a dozen volunteers, but the help is sporadic, and she has to turn down $300,000 worth of fruit a year because she doesn’t have the muscle to move it.

“When I first started, I believed I could get it all,” she says. “Now, it’s about inspiring. I figure every person I tell will go home and do something. You can pick up an orange and throw it, and hit the nearest food pantry.”

On this night, the help consists of me; Amber, an 18-year-old family friend from Antioch; Nacho, a good friend from the neighborhood who doesn’t speak much English; and two drivers with vans who are going to pick up the roughly 25 boxes of fruit and vegetables we’ll be taking to Share Food Pantry and the Salvation Army, both in Concord. The Lemon Lady also has a truckload of tomatoes in her garage, donated by a farmer earlier in the week, that has to get to the Salvation Army.

“My house is a disaster,” she says, with a wry laugh. “I’m sure I would qualify for Hoarders.”

Her Honda Pilot begins to look like a commercial for that same reality show, as we pack it with as many boxes as it can handle. We still have 20 boxes left—corn, red peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries—and we’re waiting for the two vans to show up.

The Lemon Lady flits about the thinning crowd, trying to keep track of all the boxes and dialing her phone to locate her drivers. It’s almost 9:30 p.m. by the time the drivers show and we’ve loaded the vans. I follow one van, driven by a silver-haired doctor who wishes to remain anonymous, through the maze of Concord’s back streets. Due to a miscommunication, one driver takes the boxes home, and we have to get them (a couple end up in the trunk of my Honda Civic) before we head to Share.

It’s just after 10 p.m. when we finally get to the food pantry, which is run out of the First Christian Church on Willow Pass Road. We unload half of our produce, and while the Lemon Lady stays behind to organize, Nacho, the doctor, and I ferry the rest over to Salvation Army on Clayton Road.

When we get back to Share, the Lemon Lady insists that we all take some food for our efforts. I decline, but she insists, so I take a carton of strawberries, a couple ears of corn, a few heads of lettuce. Amber, the young friend who’s helped out all night, sums up why the Lemon Lady’s so inspiring: “She just has this instinct to take care of people. She honestly does it out of the goodness of her heart.”

The word heart resonates with me. I’m trying to figure out what keeps the Lemon Lady so focused, so committed, in spite of her need for more help. She’s won a Jefferson Award and been profiled in People magazine, but she says she doesn’t care about the publicity, except as a way to inspire people to donate. But there are the thoughts of her husband’s heart attack and of the nights of her childhood when she went to bed with an empty stomach.

“I guess I continue because I know what it’s like to be poor,” she says. “I guess [it’s] because I’m selfishly being rewarded with some hope. I guess [it’s] because it’s meditation and it’s heartwarming.”

The clock has ticked past 11 p.m. Both food pantries are full now. Nacho and the doctor have called it a night, and I’m about ready to turn into a pumpkin. The Lemon Lady is beginning to wear out as well: I’ve heard her pine for her bed several times in the last hour. But as I’m trying to say good-bye, she stops me and talks for another 10 minutes about all the food that goes to waste, about all the people who could use that
food, about all the people who could be helping this cause, from rotary clubs and scout troops who could hand out fliers to homeowners who could pick from their trees. And about the truckload of tomatoes sitting in her garage that she’ll be up early in the morning to deliver to the Salvation Army.

“Get off FarmVille, and get real,” she tells me. “You’ve got to get out there and do it: Nobody’s going to do it for you.”

“OK, Anna,” I say, inching my way in the direction of my car. I’ve given up on the idea of taking down quotes at this point. “Thanks. Have a great night.”

I get home around 11:30 p.m. I pour a drink and sink into the couch, too tired even to pet the dog when she walks up and puts her head on my lap. My hands are still raw from carrying boxes. I can’t fathom how someone could do this day after day. But first thing tomorrow morning, the Lemon Lady will be back at it, making sure that truckload of tomatoes gets to where it needs to be.



 

How to Help

The Lemon Lady, Anna Chan, offers three easy ways you can help her donate fruit and vegetables to the hungry.

Distribute fliers:
Chan says her biggest need is additional help distributing fliers. The most effective way to get the word out, she says, would be for service groups—the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Rotary Club, and even school groups—to post them around their neighborhoods. But she’s happy to accept individual volunteers.
“I’m a regular person; I’m just a mommy, and I can do this,” she says. “Any regular person, all of us, can go out and find a fruit tree.”

Volunteer your vehicle:
Chan picks up fruit at four times as many farmers markets during the summer as during the winter, and she’s always looking for on-call drivers—particularly people who have vans, SUVs, and pickup trucks—to help her transport the produce she receives.

Donate your own fruit:
“There are a million fruit trees within
our reach,” Chan says. If you’ve got
one of those trees in your yard, pick the fruit and either call Chan to have her collect it, or even better, take it to a food pantry yourself. For links to local hunger relief organizations, go to Chan’s blog,
thelemonlady.blogspot.com.

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