Whether you have a single tree in your backyard or a major agricultural operation, donating excess citrus to the state's major food banks just got a lot more complicated.
This week, the St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance and United Food Bank announced neither organization would accept citrus donation drop-offs this year. The decision is part of an effort to stop the spread of Asian citrus psyllid, a bug about the size of a pin head that can spread citrus-greening disease through bacteria — a disease that can be fatal to citrus trees.
Though the greening disease, which is not harmful to people, has been found in California, it hasn't spread to Arizona so far. The bug that carries it, however, has been found in the state, prompting officials from the Arizona Department of Agriculture to put quarantines in place in several counties.
"If we do this right, we’ll have oranges in Arizona for years to come," Mark Killian, director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, said at a press conference Tuesday.
But the decision to turn away citrus drop-offs at food banks could make a huge impact on total donations to St. Mary's and United food banks. St. Mary's collected 3.5 million pounds of citrus last year and could stand to lose as much as 50 percent of its donations because of the decision, according to Jerry Brown, a spokesman for St. Mary's.
The announcement, Brown said, comes just in time for peak citrus season.
"We have people that bring citrus by the trailer load and by the pickup truck load to us and we don’t want to be able to look at them and say, ‘We cannot accept that this year,'" he said.
This doesn't mean extra homegrown citrus has to go to waste. Both United and St. Mary's offer citrus gleaning programs — a way for the banks to verify fruit isn't being donated from inside the quarantine zones.
Instead of picking fruit directly off your trees, both banks encourage tree owners to call or go online and make a reservation for gleaning. Gleaning teams will come to your trees, as long as it's outside of quarantine area, to pick fruit for a fee ($20 for trees up to 20 feet and $25 for trees up to 25 feet). Fruit picked by gleaning teams would then be eligible for donation.
The banks will also accept citrus from approved commercial growers.
While the potential impact on donations is a blow to the banks and the people served, Killian said these precautions are necessary for the state's economy, where the citrus industry is estimated to be worth $37 million.
"For those whose livelihood depend of citrus, this could destroy their livelihood, and that’s why we’re so concerned," he said.
Citrus-greening disease packed a $2.9 billion punch to Florida's massive citrus industry.
In the meantime, Ginny Hildebrand, the president and CEO of United Food Bank, said the banks have strong relationships with other produce farmers in the state to harvest other fruits and vegetables for donations.
St. Mary's gleaning form can be found here.
Information about United Food Bank's gleaning program can be found here.
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