Urban gleaner Rhonda Killough harvests the valley’s free-falling bounty to feed hungry bodies and souls
By the time Rhonda Killough, founder of Project AngelFaces, arrives at Danny and Kathy Blood’s home in the Whitney neighborhood, a couple ladders are already set up under the humongous fig tree in their backyard. It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday, but Killough clomps straight through the open gate, yelling, “Good morning! Fruit harvest!” It seems prudent to let homeowners know volunteers are taking over their backyard, but you sense Killough would make her presence known anyway.
She and three helpers, all clad in long sleeves and sturdy shoes, will soon be scouring the Bloods’ tree for fruit and gingerly twisting dark purple Mission figs from branches to release them, with a milky gasp, into canvas grocery bags. From the bags, the figs will go into large tubs for sorting and a garden-hose bath. They’ll then be divvied up in plastic containers and delivered to places such as Whitney Senior Center and HELP of Southern Nevada, where seniors and homeless adolescents will delight in the bounty of strangers. It’s a practice known as community fruit harvest or, more colloquially, gleaning.
But before any of that can happen, Killough has business to take care of: Make sure your ladder is placed on steady footing; try it several times before climbing up; carry a bag over one shoulder and reach for fruit with the other hand; if you must venture out onto a branch, test it first; staying safe is more important than reaching that elusive piece of fruit. It’s a bit of forced — albeit necessary — professionalism for an activity mankind has done since time immemorial. Picking fruit isn’t exactly rocket science; so why don’t people do it more often, on their own? Why, when, according to hunger-relief charity Feeding America, 18 percent of Clark County’s residents have limited access to food, can’t we gather nectarines and plums that would otherwise drop on the ground and rot and, instead, feed people in need?
That’s the idea behind groups like Project AngelFaces, which have been cropping up around the nation in the past decade. It’s difficult to quantify the amount of fruit from residential trees that goes unclaimed, but it’s likely significant enough to make a small dent in the hunger problem. Killough says a 2006 estimate using numbers from the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors put it at around 25 million pounds in Southern Nevada, but that data is no longer available. Next door, the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commission estimates there are 1 million fruit trees in front and back yards in residential L.A., says Rick Nahmias, founder and executive director of Food Forward, a role model among community fruit harvest organizations. Based on his five years gleaning fruit in Southern California, Nahmias figures 20 percent of the area’s fruit is being used, and Food Forward collects 250 to 500 pounds of fruit per tree, per year. Extrapolate — 800,000 trees multiplied by 250 pounds — and, even on the low end, you get 200 million pounds of free food going to waste. In one city.
“It’s a huge problem, not just literally, but also metaphorically,” Nahmias says. “We have all this abundance in our back yards, the ability to solve a lot of our hunger issues, but we’re too lazy or unmotivated to make the change. … There’s an important mental shift that needs to happen around hunger. You can’t food-bank your way out of it. One way to do that in the Southwest is through produce recovery in backyards.”
The time is ripe
Danny Blood is in touch with nature. As Project AngelFaces volunteers pick his fruit, he rattles off a list of the migratory birds that he’s spied from his yard, about a mile from the Las Vegas Wetlands. A wind chime hanging from one branch of a dead mesquite tree softly clangs. A hummingbird stops at one of two nectar-filled feeders.
“They’re great,” he says of the gleaners. “This tree produces two to three harvests a year. We can’t keep up with it.”
Both aware of his tree’s bounty and unable to make full use of it, Blood sits in the bull’s-eye of Rhonda Killough’s target market (most people, she says, aren’t even aware they have fruit trees). After the initial surprise of a stranger asking for their fruit, she says, donors are often relieved to have someone take it off their hands. It’s tough to imagine saying no to Killough. At 5’8” with long auburn hair and ghostly blue eyes, the former dancer is a compelling figure. Her sweet, Melanie Griffith voice barely masks the intensity common to nonprofit business owners who must balance their drive to do good with the prevalent apathy of capitalist society.
To accomplish her mission of ferreting out every food-producing tree in the Las Vegas Valley, Killough has become a regular on the circuit of community events and speaking engagements that have anything to do with food or hunger. She’s branched out into small-scale agriculture too, operating a few community gardens and using their crops to both educate and feed at-risk populations. Despite these successes, Project AngelFaces has struggled to take root. Nearly nine years into its existence, it has neither a steady board of directors nor its 501(c)3 designation. The halting rhythm of the organization’s growth reflects a sad irony in Killough’s relationship with it; the project both gives her a reason to live and, at times, demands more than she’s able to give.
In 2002, Killough and her husband Tuan Pham were riding their BMW touring motorcycle on a trip to Great Basin National Park when they hit an anomalous bank in the road. As they skidded onto the shoulder, Killough’s foot caught a road marker, catapulting the couple into the canyon below. Although Pham suffered mainly scrapes and bruises, his wife was severely injured. Multiple broken bones, dislocated joints and torn ligaments resulted in 19 surgeries over the last dozen years. But all the rods, pins, and physical therapy haven’t succeeded in putting Killough back together again. Every so often, she discovers some new residual fallout from the accident — most recently, in her pelvis. She lives in constant pain.
[Hear more: Learn how our food system affects climate change on KNPR's State of Nevada.]
It was in 2005, during a bout of depression amid her recovery, that Killough began knocking on doors and asking for fruit. Wondering what she would do with her life now that she couldn’t dance, she’d been struck by twin public radio reports, one on the type 2 diabetes epidemic (due partly to a lack of fresh produce poor families’ diets) and another about global patterns of consumption. As she practiced using her walker outdoors, she noticed the vacant house next to hers had several productive fruit trees. It all came together: She tracked down the homeowner, arranged to collect the fruit and took it to a local food pantry for children.
“I didn’t have any grand ambition,” she says. “I just wanted to do something to help me feel better. Doing something for other people brightens your spirit.”
‘You’d never imagine it’
“Miss Rhonda is awesome,” says Chanel Howze, a former Whitney Recreation and Senior Center manager who worked with Killough on various food programs at the center from 2008 to 2012. “She’s such a happy person and gets so excited.”
Children and elderly patrons alike adore Killough, Howze says. The kids, many of whom are homeless, would light up when they saw her, thrilled that she not only remembered their names, but also asked for updates on their lives. She started a garden club for them, bringing in fresh produce and leading educational activities — teaching them how to shuck a sunflower, for instance, or juice a pomegranate.
“We’d have a lot of seniors who come to play cards and things like that,” Howze says. “They’d be in memory lane when she would come in: ‘I haven’t had a fresh lemon in forever!’ To think all that came from the neighborhood. You’d never imagine it.”
During peak production times, Project AngelFaces would drop off fruit once or twice a week, Howze says. Due to Killough’s tenuous health, it was sometimes hard for her to be there, but she remained determined and upbeat in the face of her own challenges, as well as those of the center. Howze recalls how, each of the three or four times vandals smashed and overturned some grow pots the garden club had planted, Killough would get new pots and help the kids start over again — without anger. The center recently completed a community garden that stemmed from her determination.
Although she continues the community fruit harvest program with Whitney and several other recipients, Killough says it has slowed down the last year or two. She’s not sure why. Perhaps the protracted recession encouraged people to take food wherever they could find it. Perhaps the popular farm-to-table movement made them more aware of the bounty growing under their noses.
Still, she’s convinced there’s much more unclaimed fruit to be had — a conviction shared by other gleaners, including Rick Nahmias.
“People should take a look at what’s around them and understand that these are important resources,” he says. “We’re putting water in the ground to feed these trees, and then turning our back on the fruit they produce. We live in cultivated deserts, so it takes an additional amount of water to grow that fruit. Someone should eat it.”
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Project AngelFaces, and the subjects of the two public radio reports that inspired Killough to launch her organization.