Let’s nurture Tucson’s burgeoning food-production initiatives

There is something exciting going on with Tucson’s food economy. Not only are new locally owned restaurants, food trucks and community kitchens proliferating, but these are creating new jobs in the eight areas of metro Tucson that the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared “food deserts” in 2010.

One goal of the social entrepreneurs involved in food and farm start-ups in our community is to work toward reducing poverty and food insecurity in these food deserts.

It is time that the three colleges in metro Tucson — the University of Arizona, Pima Community College and Prescott College — join forces with the business and public health professionals in our community for poverty alleviation. That’s what they are doing this week with the first-ever Arizona Food and Farm Finance Forum, which continues today and Wednesday at Biosphere 2 near Oracle.

Both rural and intercity residents of our state have been particularly hard hit since the economic downturn began in 2008. Since then, Arizona has suffered the second-highest poverty rate of any state and has been ranked third in childhood food insecurity. More than 1.1 million Arizonans have required food relief through the USDA Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps). And yet SNAP benefits have recently been trimmed by as much as $65 per month per family. Food banks have been hit with another rise in demand over the last few months.

While our metro area lags behind many others in its recovery from the economic downturn, some solutions are close at hand. This last year, Arizona was ranked No. 1 among all states by the Kaufman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity “as a sizzling spot for startups.”

Food microenterprises have particularly shown themselves to be among the quickest and most effective means of catalyzing the community economic recovery. Why? As Juliet Schor, author of “Plentitude,” has found, “Local investment in small-scale agriculture and renewable energy generates 3.2 times the employment per dollar compared with the capital-intensive fossil fuel or mining sectors.”

Importantly, such investment in locally owned food production, processing and distribution dramatically enhances the well-being of entire communities, not just a few farmers or chefs. As Viki Sonntag of Sustainable Seattle has found: “Shifting 20 percent of food dollars into local direct spending creates enormous multiplier effects. Spending $100 at a locally owned restaurant generates $79 for surrounding local businesses, whereas spending $100 at a nationally franchised chain restaurant generates only $31 of income for surrounding businesses.”

Recently, Tucsonans have taken pride in the startup of several new food businesses. The Mercado de San Agustín has spawned a fleet of food microenterprises associated with its community kitchen. Diablo Burger, now in Tucson, features Arizona-grown beef in hamburgers ranked among the best in our nation. And the new Food for the Ascension restaurant, off Fourth Avenue, features produce grown at Avalon Gardens near Tubac.

The many constituencies coming together at Biosphere 2 are hoping to convert a portion of the “Wall Street” investments held by Arizona citizens to “locavesting.” They wish to support community-owned enterprises that generate green jobs with livable wages, as well as healthier diets, workplaces and food-producing landscapes.

A new initiative to declare metro Tucson a “Global City of Gastronomy” is now being advanced to the Mayor’s Office to celebrate and promote the unique multiethnic food traditions of our area.

It’s time to join forces to use our distinctive food traditions and innovative businesses as means to solve the issues of poverty and malnutrition in the very desert landscape where American agriculture first began 4,000 years ago.

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Gary Paul Nabhan is W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair for Food and Water Security at the University of Arizona Southwest Center. His latest book is “Growing Food in a Hotter Drier Land” from Chelsea Green Press. Contact him at gpnabhan[at]email[dot]arizona[dot]edu

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