Eating local isn’t just trendy – it can help stop poverty

Arizona is filled with farmers, businesses eager to help

It’s been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty. Might it be time for our state to figure how to best target its resources for the alleviation of poverty and hunger within our own borders?

That’s the question being asked by a hundred Arizonans — and hopefully answered through novel strategies. — at the first-ever Arizona Food and Farm Finance Forum this weekat Biosphere Two near Oracle.

By using local beef, Diablo Burger in Flagstaff supports the stewardship of nearly a half million acres of a local ecosystem.  Credit: Melissa Dunstan Photography.

By using local beef, Diablo Burger in Flagstaff supports the stewardship of nearly a half million acres of a local ecosystem. Credit: Melissa Dunstan Photography.

With the United States now harboring nearly 50 million poverty-stricken citizens, many people are wondering whether our current leaders can come up with better and more lasting means of reducing unemployment and hunger than those launched by LBJ a half-century ago. Both rural and intercity residents of our state have been particularly hard hit since the mortgage crisis and economic downturn began in 2007.

Since then, Arizona has suffered the second-highest poverty rate of any state in the nation, 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 the last few years, but the aid which once reached them through that government program was dramatically cut in November.

With SNAP benefits trimmed by as much as $65 per month per family, Arizona’s already-burdened food banks have been hit with another dramatic rise in demand in just the last two months.

A market-driven solution

While our state still lags behind many others in recovering from the economic downturn that began five years ago, there appear to be some solutions close at hand. These emerging solutions do not rely solely on quick governmental fixes, nor on outside philanthropic support, but combine resources from these two sectors with more entrepreneurial strategies.

In short, many Arizonans are now implementing market-driven solutions for alleviating food insecurity and unemployment by creating more green jobs in our state’s food system.

In 2012, Arizona was ranked No. 1 among all states by the Kaufman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity “as a sizzling spot for start-ups” and a “labor pool that is highly educated.” Over the last five years, new food microenterprises all across the country have become one of the quickest and most effective means of catalyzing the recovery of community economies.

Importantly, such investment in locally-owned food production, processing and distribution does not merely benefit farmers and ranchers, but dramatically enhances the well-being of their entire community, creating more jobs for their neighbors.

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

The Borderlands Brewing Company Growler. A growler is that which carries fresh beer from a brewery to your house.  At Borderlands Brewing Company in Tucson, it's $10 to buy the growler and $10 to fill it. Or $18 if you do both at the same time. Credit: Borderlands Brewing Company.

The Borderlands Brewing Company Growler. A growler is that which carries fresh beer from a brewery to your house. At Borderlands Brewing Company in Tucson, it’s $10 to buy the growler and $10 to fill it. Or $18 if you do both at the same time. Credit: Borderlands Brewing Company.

surrounding local businesses, whereas spending $100 at a nationally franchised chain restaurant generates only $31 of income for surrounding businesses.”

Within the last few years, Arizonans have taken pride in the start-up of several new food microenterprises, such as Hayden Flour Mills in metro Phoenix. Millers Jeff and Emma Zimmerman feature Arizona-grown wheat and barley supplied by a half-dozen Arizona farmers, which is now being used in over 40 locally-owned bakeries, cafes and microbreweries.

Diablo Burger, now in Flagstaff and Tucson, features Arizona-grown beef as the key ingredient in what USA Today ranked as one of the best hamburgers in our nation.

Borderlands Brewing Co. in Tucson uses local ingredients in its beers and chooses beer styles that work best with Southwestern water chemistry and mineral content.

Dozens of other microenterprises are emerging in our state, guided by sound business advice from Local First Arizona, Prestamos, and Coconino County’s Sustainable Economic Development Initiative (SEDI).

Community-owned enterprise

The social entrepreneurs engaged in the food and farm forum this week hope to convert a portion of the “Wall Street” investments held by Arizona citizens to “locavesting.” In other words, they are looking for loans or equity from their neighbors to support community-owned enterprises which generate more beneficial multiplier effects in our region.

Sam Zimmerman fills bags of flour at Pane Bianco for Hayden Flour Mills in Phoenix, AZ on Monday, July 2, 2012. Zimmerman's father Jeff Zimmerman is growing heritage grains and selling them under the old Hayden Flour Mills brand, and the mill they use is in the back of Pane Bianco. Photo by Michael McNamara/The Arizona Republic

Sam Zimmerman fills bags of flour at Pane Bianco for Hayden Flour Mills in Phoenix, AZ on Monday, July 2, 2012

Their hope is that these new microenterprises can generate green jobs with liveable wages, healthier diets, workplaces and food-producing landscapes, and economic well-being for Arizona citizens of all ethnicities, races and classes.

Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of this initiative is that it is forging collaborations — not further divisions — between many constituencies in Arizona, from “tea party” Libertarians and fiscal conservatives, to food justice and health-care activists.

Why? It is focused on innovative market-driven solutions that may ultimately help us deal with Arizona’s skyrocketing public health-care costs that are associated with the food insecurity, diabetes and obesity epidemics that are plaguing poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

Let us hope and pray that the 50-year war on hunger in Arizona will morph into a time of greater health and prosperity for those who have been most damaged by the economic vagaries of the last decade. We now need to set a place at the table for all Arizonans.

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Gary Paul Nabhan is the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona Southwest Center.

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