In 1967, a man in Salvation Army duds drove a lemon of a milk truck loaded with oranges to an abandoned bakery on south Phoenix’s skid row. John van Hengel had lived what you might call an unconventional life. Once a Beverly Hills playboy and self-described “beach bum,” he had promoted magazines, designed plastic rainwear, driven a beer truck in Hollywood, married and divorced a model, sledgehammered rocks in a Wisconsin quarry, and become partially paralyzed in a bar brawl before seeking health in sunny Phoenix, where he lifeguarded at the YMCA and subsisted on soup kitchen SPAM.
It was also in Phoenix where van Hengel finally found his calling: feeding the hungry.
He used two things found in abundance here – Arizona citrus and grocery store leftovers – to start the world’s first food bank, St. Mary’s. One of Arizona’s fabled Five Cs, citrus was then in its heyday, and van Hengel and his helpers (a grandmother and two disabled volunteers) gleaned all the fruit they needed from the Valley’s many groves. Nearly 80,000 acres of oranges, lemons and grapefruit greened Arizona, and metro Phoenix was home to 17 citrus packing plants.
Those days are gone. Arizona now ranks fourth in the nation in citrus production. (Only four states produce citrus.) That doesn’t mean citrus has diminished in importance. It means its role has changed. It has become what van Hengel knew it was all along.
Citrus has evolved from an economy builder to a community builder. Its currency is social. Its infrastructure is urban gardens, informal exchanges and charity programs. Its profits are self-sufficient families, healthier people, beautified lots, tighter-knit neighborhoods and cross-cultural connections. And if we can vanquish a villainous pest and resurrect some of our citrus-rich past, the fruits might help lead us to a food-secure Phoenix.
Ken Schnitzer walks into the pomelo-green room in his Pomelo restaurant and pours me a glass of pomelo vodka. It’s smooth, citrusy and redolent of history. For native Phoenicians like Schnitzer and me, it evokes childhood memories playing among citrus trees.
“I like citrus. I always have,” Schnitzer says. “I had a great-aunt who had lemons and oranges, and we used to pick them and eat them like crazy. I just have good memories.”
Childhood reminiscences aside, there’s an even more distant history lurking in this glass of citrus-infused spirit. Along with mandarins, citrons and lime-like papedas, pomelos were the early forebears of modern, mass-produced citrus (see sidebar). Recently discovered fossilized leaves reveal that citrus has been cultivated for at least 7 million years, starting in China, India and Southeast Asia. Like cattle – another of the Arizona “Cs” coined by state officials in the 1930s to promote the state’s economic potential – it was brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus and to Arizona by missionary Padre Eusebio Kino in the late 1600s.
Speaking of the Cs: The fruit’s connection to a third C – copper – is closer than you might think.
Oranges, lemons and limes weren’t always part of the mainstream diet. In Elizabethan Europe, citrus was a luxury dessert for the elite, achieving mainstream popularity only when it was found to prevent scurvy, a gruesome disease marked by bleeding gums and intense fatigue that bedeviled Colonial sailors. Similarly deprived of vitamin C, American miners who moved to the West in the late 1800s were highly susceptible to scurvy. Thousands died from the disease. Consequently, copper and gold boomtowns clamored for vitamin C-rich citrus, but supply was low, given the difficulties of growing the frost-sensitive fruit.
Future Glendale founder William J. Murphy saw the supply-demand potential of citrus. He and his co-builders carved the Arizona Canal to divert water from the Salt River, which allowed him to plant 1,800 orange trees south of Camelback Mountain in 1887. By the following year, 22,000 orange trees blossomed around the Valley of the Sun. Grapefruit, lemon and tangerine groves followed, and the industry grew steadily, peaking in the 1970s.
Gradually, real estate for housing and shopping plazas proved more profitable than oranges. One citrus farmer told The Arizona Republic in 2009 that he was breaking his back to make $80,000 a year, while his land was worth $400 million. So urban development squeezed the groves out of the Valley, and few rural farmers chose to plant new groves. Yuma citrus farmer Stacey Loghry thinks the reason may be that citrus trees take several years to start producing a profitable harvest, whereas alfalfa and wheat turn a profit within months.
Today, Arizona’s $37 million commercial citrus industry is down to about 7,000 acres, mainly in and around Yuma. In 2010, the Mesa Sunkist plant – which churned out 1.4 million cartons of citrus annually in the 1990s – shuttered after nearly 80 years in business. It was the Valley’s last citrus packing plant.
But for those of us who grew up in Phoenix, citrus is an integral part of our memories. The whitewashed trees, looking like dapper dandies in white trousers, were familiar sights around the city. (The paint protects the trunks from sunburn.) Every spring, the blossoms’ perfume takes us back to childhood, when we ate liquid sunshine fruit with fingers sticky from zest mist. A young Steven Spielberg honed his fastball by throwing oranges found around his Arcadia neighborhood. Frank Lloyd Wright’s descendants simmered sugary orange peels from the orchard at the David and Gladys Wright House. Growing up on Orange Tree Golf Course (a former grove), I foraged the backyard for sweet tangelos and shudderingly tart kumquats, just as Schnitzer picked oranges in his aunt’s yard.
Schnitzer’s love of citrus helped inspire the creation of his restaurant. A few years ago, he and his wife, Lucia, walked onto a ramshackle property in North-Central Phoenix called The Orchard, which started life in the 1920s as a citrus grove encircling an adobe home built by Howard Wasser, director of the Arizona Citrus Growers Association. In the 1940s, it became Ralph’s Citrus Nursery – a legacy Schnitzer hoped to preserve as he converted the property into a popular urban food hub, which includes Pomelo, Luci’s café and Splurge ice cream.
“We converted it back to what it was – a place with a lot of trees and citrus,” Schnitzer says. “That’s adaptive reuse. You’re taking what it was, and you’re molding it into a new concept, but you’re remembering the history.”
“What is it about citrus?” I ask Schnitzer, taking another sip of pomelo vodka, which was custom-distilled by Prescott’s Thumb Butte Distillery. “If this place had been a lettuce patch, it wouldn’t have the same romance.”
For him, it’s the memories and the idea of Phoenix as an oasis in the desert. But it may also be something else – a particular quality of citrus that makes it special.
Every year, the paper bags full of lemons, oranges and grapefruit appear. They’re next to the water cooler in the office, under the doughnuts and coffee table at church, brought to the bridge game at the senior center, even donated to our favorite eateries.
Soon after Helen Yung opened Sweet Republic ice cream shop in Scottsdale, some customers came in with a bounty of backyard grapefruit. So Yung made grapefruit-tarragon sorbet and gave them a couple of pints. Since then, regulars come in every so often with citrus and later go home with custom concoctions.
“It definitely brings us a lot closer to these customers, because they tell their friends about it, so all their friends will come in and try that flavor, too,” Yung says. “Everyone is really excited to try something their friend grew.”
The exchanges exist among neighbors as well. Maybe someone on the block has a grapefruit tree but can’t eat the fruit because of his heart meds. So he trades it with the lady who has lemons and the couple with a tangerine tree. The bags change hands, stories are swapped, and suddenly neighbors who haven’t spoken in months are that much closer.
“It goes back to the old country ways,” says Jerry Brown, director of media relations at St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance. “When somebody was a good baker and somebody knew how to cook a good steak, maybe you’d trade across farms in the Midwest. In Arizona, it’s citrus.”
Yung says people don’t do these giveaways with other foods. “It seems to be mainly citrus, because citrus is the main fruit people have way too much of here.”
And that’s the heart of the matter: Citrus trees’ generosity allows people to be generous. It’s the premise behind St. Mary’s citrus gleaning program. For 11 weeks each year, hundreds of volunteers follow in the footsteps of founder John van Hengel, picking citrus mainly across Sun City, Surprise and Arcadia. Residents pay a small fee to have their trees gleaned and may keep a modest amount, but most of the fruit goes to the food bank, where it’s distributed to people in need.
“As a food bank, we would much rather be giving out oranges and grapefruit than cookies or potato chips,” Brown says. “It’s important to us to not just feed people, but feed them as healthy as we possibly can.”
In addition to feeding the hungry, the program helps the owners of the trees. “The homeowners are very grateful for us doing it and see it as a way of giving back to the community,” says John Riddle, who leads a group of about 38 gleaners that started at Shepherd of the Hills church in Sun City West. “A lot of them are widows, and they don’t know what they’re going to do with the fruit or how to get it off the tree.”
The program also feeds the souls of the volunteers. Gleaners (mostly seniors, some in their 90s) carpool to the homes, then spend several hours picking citrus with poles and by hand, gathering oranges off the ground, braving thorns and dodging falling grapefruit, and hauling the fruit to delivery trucks.
“It’s been a great way to get to know other people,” says Mark Hanna, who’s part of Riddle’s church group. “There’s no better way to connect with others than to work side by side with them doing something like this. To me, it’s such a basic church mission: to feed your neighbor.”
Brown recalls one Arcadia man who expanded his grapefruit grove in the 1960s as a way to help the new food bank. Every year for more than 40 years, he brought around 25,000 pounds of grapefruit to St. Mary’s. He had a big smile on his face every year.
All of this is why people were so devastated when the quarantine hit.
The Asian citrus psyllid is the size of a gnat but as destructive as a dragon. The insect can harbor in its saliva a bacteria that causes huang-longbing, Chinese for “yellow dragon disease.” In English, it’s called citrus greening. It gums up trees’ circulation systems, making the fruit misshapen and bitter, and eventually kills the plant. The bacteria spreads between plants when the psyllid inserts its syringe-like proboscis into tree after tree, the way HIV spreads through sharing needles. Like HIV, it’s also contracted through sex (among insects). And like HIV, there is no cure.
Psyllids are so fertile a single orange tree can be infested with 40,000 insects. So pesticides fail to wipe them out. Discovered in Florida in 2005, citrus greening crushed that state’s citrus production, destroying $4.6 billion in earnings and 3,400 jobs. Florida’s psyllids quickly spread to other states through plant shipments and hurricanes. They showed up near Yuma in 2009 and invaded several counties, including Maricopa.
In 2015, the Arizona Department of Agriculture quarantined approximately 23,000 square miles within the state. St. Mary’s had to halt citrus donations and limit its gleaning program. “That was difficult not only because we weren’t able to hand out citrus to folks,” Brown says, “but people were upset that they weren’t able to make that donation because they like knowing that something that came from their backyard is on the table of someone who needs it.”
Since 2016, the quarantine has been extended throughout Arizona. That’s good news, because food banks can accept citrus from anywhere in the state; they just can’t send it to other states. Still, it severely curtails their services. Before the quarantine, St. Mary’s volunteers gleaned 4-5 million pounds of citrus annually. The food bank then traded some of that for, say, apples and potatoes from food banks in Washington and Idaho. Since that option is no longer available, they pick only about 1 million pounds.
So far, citrus greening has not appeared in Arizona, because not all psyllids carry the bacteria. But it’s the only citrus state that hasn’t been affected. Scientific experiments have shown that the bacteria dies in 110-degree heat. So it’s possible our hellish summers could keep our trees safe and even reactivate the state’s citrus industry to make up for Florida, California and Texas’ dwindling supply. Meanwhile, commercial growers are trying to control psyllids through pesticides, parasitic wasps and protective screens.
“The clock is ticking unless the bug moves on or dies out,” Brown says. But a looming plague isn’t stopping people from revitalizing citrus’ role in the Valley.
At St. Vincent de Paul in South Phoenix, they’ve unpaved a parking lot and put up paradise. On a January day, two dozen-odd trees heavy with grapefruit and lemons brighten rows of rainbow chard, broccoli, kale and other leafy greens. This newly expanded urban garden and another at the nonprofit’s Downtown campus provide layers of benefits for the community.
The produce supplements the food served at St. Vincent’s soup kitchens. Fresh, nutrient-rich food is especially important for the homeless and poor because they must weather the elements and extreme stress, plus can’t afford quality health care, explains garden manager Nika Forte.
The homeless also volunteer in the garden, which is a refuge in their precarious lives. “It’s a place of peace for them,” Forte says. “It’s a bit of therapy for them.” The organization is starting an apprentice gardening program so homeless people can gain skills applicable to jobs with landscaping companies, farms or nurseries.
Cultivating the garden is also enriching for the children who take gardening classes here, handicapped people who tend the wheelchair-accessible plant beds, and non-homeless members of the community. “A lot of times people have preconceived notions about people who are homeless or needy, or maybe they’re not comfortable, they don’t know how they can help them,” Forte says. “So by bringing community members into the garden… they interact with the homeless they work with. They have a better understanding about the homeless population. And our homeless population feels like they’re included in the community, that people still care about them… When we’re in the garden, we’re working together. We’re all a family, and we motivate each other and love on each other and build relationships with each other.”
Citrus is an elemental part of this space, and of community gardens across the Valley. In the last few years, citrus trees have been planted at Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s Goodyear garden, where they’ll provide patients with nature therapy and nutritious food, and at Tempe Community Action Agency’s garden, where they’ll help alleviate a food desert, i.e. a disadvantaged part of the Valley that lacks a grocery store or a place to buy fresh produce.
It’s a movement Greg Peterson, founder of The Urban Farm in Phoenix, would like to see sprouting across the city. It’s why he sells fruit trees, leads classes, hosts a podcast, and invited the public to tour the citrus-framed Urban Farm in December. “Rather than planting trees that don’t make fruit, what if we designed our landscapes so they were edible?” he asks.
One of Peterson’s missions is to transform Phoenix into a food-secure city – a multi-branched model that includes more farmers, more self-sufficient families, more local seeds and food, and more food exchanges. Building a food-secure space, he says, “is really about building the community. Because when you have a party, where do people meet? Around the food. So for me, that’s what fruit trees [and] citrus trees are: building a stronger community through planting our local food systems… planting fruit trees to share the amazing abundance of fruit with your family, friends and neighbors.”
If more people had fruit trees and vegetable patches, if orchards replaced empty lots, the Valley would have more nutritious food, cleaner air and healthier communities, Peterson says. Digging their hands into the soil, residents could reduce stress and get connected to where their food comes from.
It’s certainly a tempting vision: to replant some of Arizona’s citrusy history, and this time with more variety – Trovita oranges, Cara Cara navels, Gold Nugget mandarins and more. Imagine the abundance in our homes, our food banks, our schools, our ice cream shops.
Maybe that sounds overly idealistic. Then again, the world now has thousands of food banks serving millions of people each year, and it all started in Phoenix, with John van Hengel and his truck full of citrus.