Quarantine limiting citrus fruits for food banks

Posted at 9:11 PM, Jan 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-03 07:32:04-05

Donations to metropolitan Phoenix food banks will likely bear a lot less fruit this year because of a disease that has devastate citrus industries in other states.

The abundance of citrus trees in the Phoenix area typically leads to a surge in donations to food banks in the winter months as the fruit ripens and people donate boxes full of extra oranges, grapefruits and lemons that they can't use.

But St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance and Mesa-based United Food Bank -- the main citrus donation charities in the Phoenix area -- haven't been accepting drop-off donations of citrus because of a quarantine issued last month by the state Department of Agriculture. State officials are trying to stop the spread of the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny bug that can transmit citrus greening disease, which can kill citrus trees. Also known as Huanglongbing, the bacterial disease does not hurt humans or animals.

Arizona agriculture officials have asked the public not to take or send citrus fruit, leaves or plants across county or state lines

St. Mary's Food Bank typically receives about 3 million pounds of citrus fruit each year. It's not unusual for people to show up with oranges or grapefruit by the truckload, according to St. Mary's spokesman Jerry Brown. But this current pest will likely cause a 30 to 35 percent drop, he said.

To be sure fruit doesn't come from a quarantined area, food banks have only one way to squeeze out more donated fruit -- fetch it themselves.

At both St. Mary's and United Food Bank, interested donors can apply online to be added to a list of places where volunteer crews will come pick the citrus. It will cost the donor $10-$20 per tree for the service. Food banks, as a result, are in urgent need of more volunteers than usual.

"We have to establish a chain of custody," Brown said.

An army of volunteers will probably not be able to make up for all the missed drop-off opportunities. Between January and March, St. Mary's typically holds "Super Citrus Saturdays" where people drop off fruit at four different locations. One Saturday event can net up to 100,000 pounds.

"No matter how many volunteers we have, we're not going to be able to pick as much as fruit as the people who bring it to us," Brown said.

Sergio Paris, United Food Bank spokesman, said fruits are distributed to smaller food pantries or organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs. Some fruit is also squeezed for juice which is frozen and labeled for doling out later.

While following the quarantine is imperative, Paris said it isn't easy to think about all the fruit that will be left to rot on people's trees.

"The hard part is that in order to prevent this, we're essentially taking fruit away from people who need it," Paris said. "A 7-year-old boy won't be getting a piece of fruit and to supplement that, we will have to purchase fruit. But at the end of the day, if we don't stop this, it's something that could wipe out the entire citrus industry in the state."

Citrus greening disease makes fruit on an infected tree misshapen and bitter. The tree then dies within a few years. Arizona agriculture officials say the disease has already crippled the citrus industry in Florida and Texas, costing thousands of jobs and $1 billion.

The areas under quarantine include parts of Maricopa, Pima, Santa Cruz, Mohave, La Paz, Yavapai and Yuma counties. However, most food banks in the smaller counties are accepting citrus, according to April Bradham, of the Association of Arizona Food Banks. Unlike Maricopa, smaller counties do not distribute food to other parts of the state.