Why Are Florida Grocery Stores Filled with California Oranges?

published Jan 18, 2024
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graphic collage of two oranges with California stickers on them over the shape of Florida
Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: The Kitchn

I’ll never forget the first time I spotted cartoonishly perfect navel oranges stacked in a pyramid at my local Publix. I was 11, and the gleam of the fluorescent lighting bounced off the waxed orange peel — like the Floridian equivalent of Snow White’s apple. I turned the orange over in my hands only to see “California” on the adhered produce sticker. Huh

It boggled my developing mind that the oranges growing right outside my door were not in stores down the street.

Credit: SchnepfDesign/Shutterstock

You see, I come from the epicenter of Orange County — the Florida one. My hometown and elementary and high schools are all named after a citrus farmer-turned philanthropist, Dr. Philip Phillips (seriously). The neighborhood in Orlando that I grew up in — called, wait for it, Orange Tree — was once surrounded by neatly lined rows of orange groves. As a kid, I could step outside, twist an orange right off a branch, and walk back inside to make fresh-squeezed juice with the manual juicer — extra pulpy, just how I like it. (It should come as no surprise that I have an orange tattoo, complete with a flowering orange blossom.)

To this day, “most pulp” is still the only kind of orange juice I buy, when I can find it; it has a layer of pulp at the top that you often have to dislodge with a knife to get it flowing, much like a ketchup bottle. It’s about as close to biting into a fresh Florida orange I get, outside of venturing through my childhood backyard. 

Florida itself could be considered predominantly orange, too. In 2000 (a few years after the peak of 1998), there were 750,000 acres of orange groves, roughly the size of Yosemite National Park. Using Florida math, that’s about 27 Disney Worlds combined. Over two decades later, Florida still produced 42% of the oranges grown in the United States, with 72% of the country’s Valencia oranges coming from the state. To this day, the Florida citrus industry provides over 32,000 jobs, most of which are in areas that don’t benefit from the state’s new #1 industry: tourism. 

Despite the orange mania I grew up in and around, the one place I could never find Florida oranges was in the grocery store. 

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Where are all the Florida oranges?

Take a carton of orange juice out of the grocery store cooler, and what will you see on the label: Florida, Florida, Florida. Confined to cartons, a staggering 90% of Florida’s entire citrus production (or 184 million boxes) is used for processing (juicing, canning, freezing). The remaining 20 million boxes are sold to the fresh market (like for gift boxes or roadside stands).

Florida oranges are prodigiously juicy, in fact. Just ask the Californians in John Mcphee’s book, aptly named Oranges, who joke about getting into a bathtub before eating an orange from Florida. (Floridians were less kind in return, proclaiming you can’t make a damp spot on pavement with a California orange, even if you run it over with a truck. I agree.) When I was a kid, commercials for Tropicana — the leading orange juice brand in the U.S. — were intoxicating, albeit unrealistic: a pair of hands would effortlessly stick a straw into a whole orange (rind included), promising the freshness of the just-picked fruit in liquid form.

While juicing might seem like a flattering enough job for an orange, for me it feels like second best, not to mention wasteful. Florida oranges are seemingly destined to an anonymous existence, swirling around with the juices of elsewhere (which it absolutely is as of late, with some “Florida”-branded orange juices now being mixed with oranges grown in Mexico and Brazil). What I know to be true is that Florida oranges can more than star on their own, and are worthy of being known in their original form.

Credit: Victoria Bee/Shutterstock

Why do California oranges dominate the produce section?

It’s hard to deny that California oranges, which are easy to peel (unlike their Floridian cousins), seedless, and look like the Textbook Definition of an Orange, aren’t satisfying in their own way. In fact, a recent study found that “buying unattractive produce negatively impacts consumers’ view of themselves, causing a drop in self-perceptions.” (So not only are we judging this book by its cover, but doing so also makes us feel better about ourselves.)

The California oranges we buy at the grocery store are often dyed a very FDA-approved shade of red, appropriately named Citrus Red #2, to become more orange (this is also why oranges are often sold in red mesh bags). The bright orange and red shades are thought to usher in perceptions of higher nutrient density and juice concentration. It’s a real bait-and-switch, as these technicolor California oranges are not known for having juice that’s worth the squeeze. 

Despite their lack, California’s orange crop is now double the size of Florida’s, with hurricanes and citrus “greening” disease tanking Florida’s orange supply, which BTW has rippled out to juice, with pricing reaching “luxury item” levels in 2023. 

The Department of Agriculture is also responsible: It was only in 2018 that it finally relaxed the minimum size requirements — from 2 1/2 inches to 2 1/4 inches in diameter — for growers to sell Florida oranges for processing and retail. By comparison, a regulation size “medium” California navel is a whopper at nearly 3 inches in diameter, which likely makes you feel like you’re getting more orange for your buck. 

Florida oranges do look slightly cursed, like they angered some fruit queen in a past life, forced to exist with an admittedly tricky peel, and color and size that’s less orange than its name suggests. And yet, some unconventional-looking fruits are incredibly commonplace to us: mottled mangoes, dinosaur-egg-esque avocados, and oblong heirloom tomatoes.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling; Anne Eastman

Florida oranges deserve their moment in the sun.

In Greek mythology, the nymph daughters of Hesperus (who gives the citrus genus its order name, Hesperidium) would guard the fruit of the garden, often stated as being golden apples, but were more likely to have been oranges. The same is true of Florida oranges, which are also in need of protection, as growers are increasingly selling off their land to cash in on the housing boom, shrinking the acreage of groves down to just half of what they were in 2000.

I have a theory about life that I ascribe to food as well: Things don’t need to be immediately appetizing or palatable to have merit. Thankfully, there’s a boom of enjoying trickier fruits, allowing them to be more widely available, like the lumpy, bumpy Sumo Citrus. Sumos are not too dissimilar to my prized Florida Valencia oranges: sweet, juicy, and a spectacle when you actually can find them in a grocery store. The Sumo gives me a hyper-seasonal burst of hope that Florida’s oranges can stage their own comeback, a glow-up hero’s journey-PR campaign of sorts. So long as their merit does not come from rarity alone.

Perhaps its comeback is not so far away, after all. The other day I got the ultimate treat: I smiled, spotting a crate of shiny, freckled, tie-dye green-orange Florida-esque oranges at my local Asian grocery store. If you can believe it, and I nearly can’t, this is the only place I can consistently get them these days. And wouldn’t you guess that this same grocery store is, ironically, in my new home state of California. 

Have you spotted Florida oranges in your grocery store lately? Tell us about it in the comments below.