ORLANDO, Fla. — For years, Sue Rudolph had to work at finding willing recipients for the bounty from her backyard-citrus trees.
“We’d give it to anybody we could, and then we’d put some in a big basket and take it to the church, but so did everybody else,” said the longtime Winter Park, Fla., resident. “You’d be amazed at how much fruit a single tree can produce.”
Then she heard about the Society of St. Andrew, which each year holds a backyard-citrus drive in Central Florida, picking and collecting fruit from anyone in the Greater Orlando area who wants to donate it to local food pantries. These days, Rudolph, all her neighbors and hundreds of other backyard growers contribute more than 50,000 pounds of oranges, tangerines, lemons and grapefruit on that one day.
Yet the harvest, which happened earlier this month, remains “one of the best-kept secrets” in the region, said Barbara Sayles, president of the Society of St. Andrew’s Florida chapter. “We’re better-known now than five or six years ago, but we don’t have a marketing budget. It has been strictly word-of-mouth.”
Or at least it was until Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, the region’s largest food bank and the biggest recipient of the bounty, partnered with the society to organize the community citrus drive two years ago. Publicity from Second Harvest has helped increase the number of residents volunteering their trees or their labor this year to more than 500, but Sayles said there is still room for more.
The Greater Orlando harvest covers a wide swath from Mount Dora to south Orlando, Oviedo to Clermont. There were also drop-off sites in Altamonte Springs, College Park, Oviedo, west Orlando and Zellwood for fruit from homeowners who didn’t mind doing the labor themselves.
Though most people still think of food drives in terms of canned goods and boxes of pasta and cereal, the fresh produce is seen as a big boon for residents who depend on food pantries.
“It’s extremely popular,” said Dave Krepcho, president and CEO of Second Harvest. “And because the nutritional value of citrus is really high, the more we can give people, the better.”
Despite a dramatic decline in citrus from the spread of canker and other disease in recent years, Krepcho estimated they filled an entire tractor-trailer and then some with this year’s harvest.
As long as it’s picked off the branches, and not the ground, it’s fine, Krepcho said. Homeowners didn’t have to worry about how pretty the fruit is. The citrus in supermarkets, after all, is typically chosen for its aesthetic appeal.
In fact, anti-hunger workers are increasingly turning to the biblical practice of gleaning, or collecting produce left behind in the fields, to meet demand. At other times of the year, volunteers for the Society of St. Andrew harvest Florida’s strawberries, onions, white potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, squash and sweet corn.
Collectively, the project brings in 1 million to 2 million pounds a year.
But citrus is king, with four regional citrus drives throughout the state each year. And in Central Florida, many of those who contribute are homeowners whose property came with small groves.
Dr. Todd Husty, a former emergency-room doctor who bought some land next to his south Seminole County home several years ago, found himself with 3 acres of citrus trees he wasn’t quite sure what to do with.
It wasn’t enough to profit from. He made about $850 one year after paying fruit pickers but before growing expenses. Yet as a longtime gardener, he hated to waste it.
“I didn’t want it to just fall on the ground and rot,” said Husty. “So this is a great solution. I still spend maybe a few hundred dollars a year to keep the trees up, but we all have to find a way to give back, and I think this fills a great need.”