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The food rescue organization Table To Table has branched out into fruit picking, in a new effort to stop wastage and feed hungry Israelis.

Some 2,000 volunteers for the nonprofit organization, which was founded in 2003 by former New Yorker Joseph Gitler, have picked over 60 tons of fruit from orchards in the Gush Dan area since December. Using the distribution system they have developed over the past two years for handing out food left over at event halls and corporate caterers, the volunteers have passed on the fruit to other nonprofit organizations working with needy Israelis throughout the country.

"Many farmers end up not picking or not selling all their produce," says Gitler, who had already been considering the idea of gleaning fruit when he was contacted in December by South African-born farmer, Isaac Nurok. The farmer from Moshav Kfar Haim told Gitler he had several tons of freshly picked persimmons he had no use for, so Gitler organized volunteers to glean 17 tons of fruit from Nurok's orchards. Since then, Table to Table staff have been working to locate other land where fruit or vegetables are either unpicked or unsold. Under the auspices of the organization, families, high-tech workers, school students and Diaspora youth groups have picked fruit to pass on to hungry Israelis. "This is fruit that is going to rot if we don't pick it," says Gitler, adding that Table to Table is seeking more volunteers to pick oranges, tangerines, grapefruits and persimmons before the season ends in April. "Fresh fruit is important from a nutritional perspective, but it's expensive and most charities can't afford to buy it."

Gitler says that the gleaning initiative has been well-received by farmers who are pleased for their leftover produce to be put to good use. This includes Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who owns a significant amount of farm land, and agreed for Table to Table volunteers to pick oranges from his 15-dunam orchard in Ramat Hashavim near Kfar Sava. He was approached by the organization after one of its scouts spotted the unharvested fruit. This week, Gitler and Table to Table's gleaning director Mark Elim visited the prime minister's farm in the Negev, in order to survey further gleaning opportunities. "We were a little late for fruit there this year, but we are going to arrange something for next year," says Gitler.

The idea for the gleaning initiative, known as Project Leket, is based on the biblical passage of Deuteronomy 24:19: "When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord God may bless you in all your undertakings."

According to Gitler, over 25 percent of prepared food is thrown away in Israel - millions of tons of fresh food each year from army bases, food-producers and agriculture. "If we can `rescue' just a part of that food, we can feed thousands of needy people, and by doing so dramatically reduce the level of hunger in Israel," he says.

Table to Table's weekly volunteers - which currently number 500 - collect excess food from event halls, army bases, corporate cafeterias and major food producers, usually using their own private cars in the evenings, and thereby `rescue' between 5,000 and 10,000 meals a week. Using paid drivers and three refrigerated trucks, the food is distributed to over 45 nonprofit organizations from Haifa to Sderot, including food kitchens, food banks, homeless shelters and seniors' residences. "There's no excuse for letting food go to waste when people are in need," says Gitler.

For more information, go to www.tabletotable.org.il