This is citrus harvesting season in Florida, where oranges make up the largest part of an industry that contributes $8 billion a year to the state economy. Yet, few know that the citrus business owes much of its success to the U.S. military.
The frantic effort to feed the troops who fought overseas in World War II led to orange juice becoming an American breakfast staple.
A 1942 Army Quartermaster training film emphasizes that nutrition science is now used to plan Army meals. And that included plenty of vitamin C to prevent scurvy in both land and Naval forces.
“The lack of vitamin C is a real thing especially when you’re in warfare and you might not be getting vitamin C in your regular old ration. You’re basically going to be getting calories,” said Matthew Eng, a historian who wrote an article on the Florida Citrus Commission for the U.S. Naval Historical Foundation.
Florida Growers Drafted
But the military needed a way to get vitamin C to overseas troops. Fresh fruit wasn’t an option because of shipping and spoilage. So they launched a huge effort to increase the production of a Florida beverage that wasn’t very popular at the time - canned orange juice.
Ben Hill Griffin III’s family had several citrus groves in the town of Frostproof and throughout central Florida. When the war broke out, the government came calling.
“We had fresh citrus that we would deliver to the government to be dispersed to the troops, and we also had canned orange juice and canned grapefruit juice,” Griffin said. “I dare say that the quality at that time was not as good as what we put up today, but that was the matter of not having the refrigeration.”
The military needed so much juice that Griffin and other growers expanded - planting an additional 100,000 acres in the 1940s.
Then came the challenge of processing all that fruit.
The federal government stepped up again. It had some of the 10,000 POWs in Florida help build a huge plant with the citrus growers’ cooperative. That 65-acre plant, Citrus World, in Lake Wales still produces orange juice today.
“A lot of the infrastructure that’s here, what you don’t see the underground, the piping and all, was actually constructed by German prisoners of war,” said Chip Hendry, CFO at Citrus World Inc. - the parent company of the cooperative now known as Florida’s Natural. “And I imagine these fellas were glad just to have something to do.”
Florida Outshines California
During the war - Florida surpassed California in orange production.
But the state’s real windfall came just as the war ended. The Florida Citrus Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture quietly worked together during the war to develop a better way to preserve orange juice. Their discovery was frozen concentrate orange juice.
It didn’t come in time to be shipped to the troops, but Florida's Natural CEO Bob Behr said frozen OJ became a big hit when those veterans returned from the war and started families.
“We were largely a grapefruit industry prior to the 1940s,” Behr said. “It was the emergence of orange juice during the war effort and then following that with frozen concentrate that really put orange juice on the map here in this country. Before long, it was on everybody’s breakfast table,” Behr said.
And the popularity of frozen OJ from Florida lasted for decades. Behr said that is until the 1980s when consumers’ tastes started to shift to the “not from concentrate” OJ that can be poured directly from the carton.