SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — They are little balls of sunshine that put the "or" in Florida.
They emerge every winter in our yards or our neighbors' yards. The extras are pawned off on co-workers and shipped to family members in frigid states who could use a little sun-kissed citrus to enliven spirits and keep scurvy at bay.
But inevitably much of nature's bounty goes unpicked and spilled to the ground for the rats.
Robin Milcowitz hated this. She is the coordinator of the Seminole Heights Community Garden, where nothing goes to waste. Why not donate the unwanted citrus to homeless shelters and food banks?
The recession might have stolen the extra money people used to donate to charity, but a surplus of sweet oranges and softball-sized grapefruit hang on trees ready to feed somebody's hunger.
So Milcowitz organized volunteers in Seminole Heights. Their job was to pick fruit that would otherwise be wasted or spoiled.
Similar efforts inspired them. In England, programs like Abundance distribute unwanted fruit to nonprofit groups or make juice and jams to sell for worthy causes. In Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., Neighborhood Harvest picks neglected fruit for the lesser privileged, and in Carson City, Nev., the Fruit Barons gather apples, plums and pears.
In Tampa, Eileen Shirley, who grows fruits and vegetables in her yard to share with others, has also picked unwanted fruit from her neighbors' trees for food banks and people living in public housing.
Milcowitz sent an e-mail to her gardening groups asking if they knew homeowners who wanted their trees picked, and she sent out a call for pickers. In a lot at Giddens and N Florida avenues, she parked her Volkswagen van and set up a dispatch station with neighborhood maps and Starbucks coffee for the do-gooders who arrived on the foggy, 43-degree morning.
Kathy Morris, 38, came with her dog. She grew up in Town 'N Country and remembers the citrus farms that have been paved over.
"They just cut them down because people don't like them," she said. "It's free food!"
Julie McEwen, 50, came to help, too. She used to live in a South Tampa home that grew enough kumquats, oranges and grapefruit to feed her entire block.
"We'd have to share with neighbors so we wouldn't throw any away," McEwen said.
Elizabeth Graham, 39, pulled into the parking lot in a pickup truck. She came not to help pick but to drop off fruit that she had gathered from her yard at 6 a.m.
"I eat them or give as much as I can away before they go bad," said Graham, who owns Beautiful Salon and Day Spa in Seminole Heights. "Share it, don't waste it."
Samantha Samson, 23, and Melissa Jacobowitz, 24, came, too.
"There's so much fruit growing in people's yards," Samson said.
"So much fruit rotting on the ground," Jacobowitz said.
About 16 volunteers gathered, and Milcowitz dispatched them to 19 homes armed with ladders, rakes, lacrosse-stick-looking fruit pickers and cardboard liquor boxes.
The pickers were like a cavalry coming to the assistance of relieved homeowners who threw away hundreds of oranges they couldn't use or pick every year.
"I thought this was a great use of something that typically gets tossed," said Ginny Powell, 48, who lives in the 5900 block of N Tampa Street. "And it's very nutritious."
The volunteers picked for seven hours, collecting a total of 1,624 pounds of lemons, limes, tangerines, kumquats, oranges and grapefruit, which were split between Metropolitan Ministries and Tampa Bay Harvest.
The 3,000 oranges Metropolitan Ministries received will be incorporated into meals the organization prepares for churches and civic group partners who deliver food to homeless people in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.
Others will be handed out at the agency's downtown cafeteria. Some could find their way into Metropolitan Ministries' "Boxes of Hope" grocery baskets.
Nothing will be wasted, just as Milcowitz had hoped.
"This is a great donation," Metropolitan Ministries spokeswoman Ana Maria Mendez said. "Any time we can get fresh produce for our clients and those we serve, it's always a benefit to everyone."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.