Don't Let That Apple Rot

— Despite the early hour, the group of seniors standing on the sidewalk in front of Ann Evans's home in Del Cerro joke, tease, and laugh with each other. It's 7:20 in the morning, and Natalie Ingmanson, Denny Rathmann, and Ann Evans, all in their 70s, await the arrival of Lonnie Ruskin. The four are members of Senior Gleaners, a group of volunteers, aged 55 and older, who collect food that grocery stores and supermarkets have just taken off the shelves and distribute it to service organizations. When Ruskin arrives, they'll climb into the beaten-up, blue-and-gray Dodge van that looks out of place parked in front of Evans's house in this upper-middle-class neighborhood.

A minute or two after 7:30, a late-model Honda swings around the corner onto Evans's street. "There she is," says Evans, whose light blue eyes, contrasted with her short silver hair, appear both playful and serious. Ruskin, the junior member of the group at 57, receives a portion of teasing for being a couple of minutes late as she walks up to the group. Then the three women squeeze into the lone bench seat in the would-be 15-passenger van. Their feet rest on black plastic garbage bags full of bagels. Rathmann pulls himself up into the driver's seat. The big van fires right up but creaks and squeaks as Rathmann steers it out of Del Cerro down College Avenue and onto westbound Interstate 8. "When we first started gleaning in 1992, my husband and I used our own Vanagon for a long time, but it was not that sturdy. It wasn't intended for hauling. We were carrying way too much weight in it and having lots of repairs done. So that is when Bill and I considered looking into some used-car lots."

(Bill is Evans's late husband. A retired San Diego Union editor, he was found dead of dehydration and exposure on August 10 in Adobe Falls Park a mile from his home. He had Alzheimer's disease and had been missing since July 20.)

"The Auto Trader wasn't being published then," Evans continues, "so we just kind of had to look around in the used-vehicle ads in the paper. We finally got this vehicle over on Miramar Road at one of those corner car lots. So we got someone who knew something about vehicles to go over and look at the vans, and that is when we purchased this van. We paid around $4000."

The Gleaners have since purchased a second van, which today is undergoing repairs.

Denny Rathmann, a mirthful man of about 70 dressed in denim shorts, a golf shirt, and a cap, trades witticisms with the women in back as he steers the big vehicle from I-8 onto Interstate 15 north. The first stop of the day will be a shopping center in Scripps Ranch with a supermarket, coffeehouse, and bagel shop; they all donate items to the Gleaners. Asked why he's here, Rathmann answers, "Well, when I retired a few years back, my wife and I sat around at home for a few days and then we said to each other, 'We've got to get up and do something.' We saw something in the paper about the Gleaners, so we gave them a call and started coming out. When she died a couple of years ago, I kept on coming."

"She was a great helper," Evans recalls, "and she was a very energetic person. But all of a sudden she got lung cancer, and it just progressed quickly. She worked as long as she could, just like my husband Bill worked as long as he could. We have lost other Gleaners over the years, and they were all active until they just got too sick. I think it says something when they want to try to keep going."

At about 8:00, the group reaches the Scripps Ranch shopping center. Rathmann drives around behind the stores and parks among the delivery trucks. With just a little grunting as they lower themselves out of the tall van, the Gleaners snap into action. While Rathmann and Evans head into the store to meet the manager on duty, Ruskin and Ingmanson pull the 20 or so banana boxes out of the back of the van, laying them out on the blacktop behind the van. Most of the chatter and joking ceases while they work. Before five minutes have passed, Rathmann and Evans return with three shopping carts in tow. Bakery goods make up the majority of the haul: heavily frosted cakes, fruit pies, danishes, and cookies. The rest is sliced bread, baguettes, and rolls. Immediately, the women start packing the items into the boxes they've laid out while Rathmann, grabbing a handle that someone has bolted to the rear doorjamb of the van, carefully hoists himself up. Once he's in, the women start to hand him the boxes they've packed very tightly. He in turn stacks them neatly behind the seat, four high. The precision of packing and stacking bespeaks experience. As Rathmann stacks, Ruskin takes a cart to the back doors of a bagel shop and coffeehouse, returning with half a cart of unwrapped bagels and pastries. These she places in grocery bags, which in turn go into boxes that Rathmann places on the stack.

Normally, the Gleaners would move on at this point, but today the supermarket manager has a few carts full of nonfood items for the Gleaners. Rathmann is sent to fetch them.

"Ann, he wants you to come in and sign off," Rathmann says, returning with a couple of carts full of meat thermometers, egg timers, cheap kitchen utensils, and the like. The document Evans signs releases the market from any responsibility for the items they've donated. With the van packed and headed south on I-15 again, she explains that the signing is redundant. "California has a Good Samaritan law that protects us and the people who donate to us from lawsuits should someone get sick from eating the food we distribute."

Evans, a retired Lutheran minister, is the engine that drives the Senior Gleaners. Where most of the members go out once a week, Evans goes six and sometimes seven days a week. "Usually, there's a Gleaner who will sub for me on Sunday," she says, "so I can go to church."

She and her husband decided to start gleaning shortly after they both retired in 1992. "We were at a conference at Ascension Lutheran Church in Allied Gardens, where I had been an associate minister. Laurel Gray, who is the chairman of Senior Gleaners now but was the pastor at Ascension then, was talking about a few people up in Escondido that were trying to start a distribution [of food]. He had met with them and announced that if anybody was interested, to contact him. Bill and I looked at each other...."

The couple knew they wanted to spend their retirement doing some volunteer work, and they decided that gleaning was a good fit. "We started out by going up once a week and helping the people in Escondido get started. We got up at 5:00 each Tuesday morning and drove to Escondido. We also started to do some picking up in Valley Center and the Escondido area each week."

The Gleaners still do pick produce, mostly from backyard orchards and vegetable gardens, every Tuesday. Today is a Tuesday, but, Evans explains, "The navel oranges are finished and the Valencia aren't ripe yet. So we have a few weeks off from picking."

After driving to Escondido for a couple of years, Evans explains, "The people in Escondido said, 'We have got way too much stuff. The agencies up here are kind of small, so would you consider starting in San Diego?' And I said, 'Well, I guess I can do that.' And so that is how we got started. We worked out of our house and our front lawn and our patio and every other spot we could find to put stuff."

After a few years of using her lawn, patio, and garage to sort the fruits of her gleaning, Evans decided they needed more space and set her sights on an abandoned service station at Navajo Road and Cowles Mountain Boulevard in San Carlos. "I kept driving by it and it was just a mess, and I thought, 'Gee, there must be a lot of space in there.' " After some research she found out that 7-Eleven was the leaseholder on the property, but having been denied a liquor license because of the proximity to schools and churches, they had no plans to open a store on the site. She contacted the corporation and, "They agreed to lease it to us for one dollar a year." After another $7000 in cleanup and improvements -- "and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears," Rathmann adds -- the old garage became the Gleaners' warehouse.

The money, Evans says, came "out of our pockets and also by then we'd received a private grant for quite a bit of money. I believe it was around $250,000. We invested that money and use it as an endowment. The interest we use for repairs to the vans and for gasoline and rent. We have no paid staff."

The rent the Gleaners pay is for their new warehouse. After being in the Navajo Road location for only two years, the Senior Gleaners lost their lease. They tried for a few months to find more donated -- or at least cheap -- space but were unsuccessful. Just before giving up on ever finding some affordable space, Evans says, "I took one more look at all the commercial listings in the paper. At the bottom there was this listing in Lakeside for 25 cents a square foot or maybe 35 cents a square foot. I called and found out that we weren't the only ones interested. There were also a couple of guys who restored cars looking at the property. I don't know what exactly happened, but the owners, Juan Flores and his wife, Lily, really made a commitment to us. They liked what they heard and wanted to be of help. They reduced our rent a little bit. We pay $750 per month. Commercial rates are much higher than that."

At 10:25 in the morning, after stops at a supermarket in Fletcher Hills and a grocery store in Santee, the van full of bread, sweets, and produce pulls up unpaved Holsofar Road off Los Coches Road in Lakeside to the Senior Gleaners' warehouse. As they did at all three pickups, the group of Gleaners springs into action. They carry produce to a sorting counter and sweets to a table near the back wall and place boxes of bread on pallets. Then the Gleaners attach a numbered card to each group of boxes. The number indicates the day of the month the food was picked up. Once the van is unloaded, Rathmann takes a dozen or so empty boxes from the giant stack in the corner of the warehouse and puts them in the back of the van. Meanwhile, the other Gleaners sort through the four of five boxes of produce, throwing out the overripe and damaged tomatoes, oranges, apples, brussels sprouts, lettuce, and even papayas, and boxing what's left. They place the produce boxes in the old glass-doored double refrigerator, the kind you might see holding milk in a donut shop.

The Gleaners work mostly in silence until they gather around the produce-sorting counter for the last job, bagging the loose bagels and pastries by the half dozen. Then the jokes and kidding resume.

The bagel bagging done, the four load about 20 boxes of food into the van and set out for North Park Christian Service Agency, just off University. "This is the service center for a few different churches in this area," Evans says as we arrive at the run-down center, dropping off ten boxes in the center's kitchen. At noon, the Gleaners pull up to their final stop, the battered women's shelter at the downtown YWCA. After dropping off the final boxes, the Gleaners pile into into the van and head back to Evans's house. Ingmanson, Ruskin, and Rathmann will be back next Tuesday. Evans will be back at it tomorrow. "It just is part of my life," she shrugs, "and not something that I have to think about doing."

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