I attended the Sustainable Tucson meeting on "Food Resilience — Learning to Adapt, Survive, & Thrive in the 21st Century." I was shocked to hear that about 96 percent* of Tucson’s food comes from other places. What?! What about all that agriculture that is using up 69 percent of our water? Colorado River water is transported over 326 miles UP HILL to irrigate fields of cotton just to be exported overseas!?
I decided to do some quick fact checking. I called the big grocery stores in my area (with the exception of Walmart since I don’t shop there because of human rights violations). I asked produce managers if they had any local produce (clarifying that I meant from Arizona.) Keep in mind that it depends on the season. When I called Whole Foods, they had tomatoes from Wilcox. Fry's had lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, and oranges from Yuma and Payson. Sprouts (my neighborhood store) had melons, heirloom and organic tomatoes and hydroponic sprouts. Food City didn’t have any produce grown in Arizona; it all came from California and Mexico. There wasn't much local produce to be found at my neighborhood supermarkets.
If only 4 percent* of our food comes from Arizona, where are we getting our food? Thirty-five percent of Tucson’s produce comes from Mexico. It is an understatement to say that our food system is inefficient. The people in Sonora can’t afford to eat any of the produce they grow, yet thousands of pounds of produce is dumped into landfills after arriving in Arizona. Part of that is damaged during transport, but another 120 thousand pounds may be dumped when prices go down in Florida. (Borderlands Foodbank of Nogales has taken on that challenge. The non-profit organization saves 30-40 million pounds of produce annually and distributes it to families in 20 U.S. states. At Market on the Move you can get 60 lbs. of produce - that would otherwise end up in a landfill - for $10!)
While much of our produce comes from Mexico and California, food is also shipped across our country or even the world. Imagine how much energy is expended just transporting food to Tucson (not to mention the energy used to manufacture the packaging.)
Besides the environmental impact of transporting our food, there is the question of food security. As resources continue to diminish, we won’t be able to keep this up. What would happen if we were cut off from the food superhighway? Big grocery chains only keep 2-4 days’ worth of food in their stores and warehouses. Most households have less than two weeks of food in their pantries. There are no protections if this system shuts down.
The good news is that Tucson has everything it needs to sustain itself. Our annual rainfall supplies abundant water for all of our citizens. Unfortunately, our current system doesn’t utilize that water. Our streets and washes are designed for flood control. All that water that could seep into our aquifer evaporates on its way out of town. Despite that, Tucsonans still use 30-40% of our water for landscaping.
Fortunately, the solution is in the problem. We can cut down on our water use by transitioning to desert landscaping and by watering our plants with rainwater redirected from our roofs! Brad Lancaster of Desert Harvesters and the Watershed Management Group teach Tucsonans how to replenish our aquifers and rivers by harvesting rainwater! Tucson Water even offers rebates to encourage water harvesting! Some city officials are starting to catch on too. Outside of the new municipal buildings green infrastructure uincluding curb cuts have been incorporated to use street water to irrigate roadside trees.
Of course, to be self-sufficient, we need water to grow food. At Watershed Management Group’s workshops, you can learn how to harvest rainwater for your gardens or greywater from your washing machine and sink to irrigate your fruit trees. WMG has worked with the Community Food Bank and several schools to capture rainwater for their gardens.
Led by visionary educators like Moses Thompson of Manzo Elementary and Oscar Medina and Luis Perales of ChangeMaker High school, students are taught practical science by growing crops to feed fellow students and their families. Students also learn valuable business skills by selling extra produce at farmers markets. One thing that TUSD is doing right, is that they are purchasing food from local farmers and allowing school cafeterias to serve the produce that is grown in their gardens.
Some ways for Tucson to become more self-sufficient in food production
We need to pull together as a community and take care of our neighbors by:
1) Supporting local farmers
- Shop at farmers markets
- Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)
- Buy local produce at the Food Conspiracy Co-op and ask markets to carry more local produce
- Eat at local restuarants and bakeries that use locally sourced food
2) Growing our own food
- kitchen gardens and raised gardens
- community gardens
- school gardens
- hydroponic and aquaponic systems
- green houses
|Tucson CSA's basket of the week by Sleeping Frog Farm of Benson|
3) Growing more durable desert adapted food plants
5) Making our yards into shady edible forests using rainwater harvesting catchment basins
6) Harvesting our desert bounty in a responsible way that preserves the plant for future use
- Use dry desert gardening techniques like covering the ground with organic mulch and cardboard.
- "Plant" ollas in your garden to save water on irrigation
- Use diverse heritage seeds found at Native Seeds/SEARCH or Seed Libraries (ex. amaramth)
- Ensure future diversity by seed collecting
4) Conserving Water
- Plant edible native and drought tolerant trees that don't need much watering once established
- Direct rainwater to gardens and greywater (from washing machines) to heritage fruit trees
- Water your garden or landscape in the early morning or evening so water doesn't evaporate
- Find out how much water your plants and trees require so you don't over water them
6) Harvesting our desert bounty in a responsible way that preserves the plant for future use
- Desert Harvesters leads workshops in harvesting native foods responsibly
- Don't poison edible weeds with pesticides
- Edible weeds information and recipes.
- Harvest unattended fruit trees in your own yard & around town. Learn what is edible
- Arrange for Iskashitaa Refugee Harvesting Network to pick unused fruit rather than throw it in the trash to end up in a landill
- Compost your kitchen scraps
- Restaurants and schools can arrange for UA Compost Cats to pick up their kitchen scraps
- Encourage our City Council Members to start a curbside compost pickup program
- Get 70 lbs. of produce that would otherwise end up in a landfill for a $12 donation at P.O.W.W.O.W. or 60 lbs. for $10 at Market on the Move
- Find out what your local grocery store does with it's "ugly" produce and expired food
- Start a neighborhood produce exchange program (Share your bountiful tomato harvest while your neighbor shares their chard)
- Share what you can't use with your neighbors in a little free pantry or produce stand
- Check up on elderly neighbors and share your food with them
- Chickens process food scraps into the best fertilizer
- Chickens eat bugs near garden
- Crush egg shells to add calcium to homemade fertilizer with dirt, banana peels, used tea and coffee grounds
- Compost egg shells
Combating Food Insecurity
The Community Food Bank collaborates with organizations like P.O.W.W.O.W. and hosts a community garden and desert gardening classes
We need to support organizations like the Community Food Bank and advocate for easier ways for those who are food insecure to access the help they need.
But mostly we need to advocate for a living wage so people can afford the food they need.
|Community bike tour held by WGA|
We’ve found a way to support local farmers and get a variety of healthy vegetables by joining a CSA with Sleeping Frog Farms.
Our future plans:
We got three cisterns for a great price at a silent auction. A kind neighbor offered to let us collect the run-off water from his huge roof into a cistern to irrigate our garden. We'd like to build a chicken coop near that garden. Dan dreams of installing a composting toilet. We're in the process of starting a neighborhood association with the idea of having a neighborhood garden and sharing our own produce at neighborhood potlucks or a produce exchange.
There is so much inspirational work being done around Tucson. The Tohono O’odham are teaching volunteers at the Mission Garden to use their ancient dry desert farming techniques and how to grow sturdy heritage crops. Tucson was the first city in the United States to be recognized as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy. “The Tucson Basin deserves this honor not only for having some of the oldest continually farmed landscapes in North America, but also for emerging as a global hotbed for ideas on relocalizing food economies and growing food in a hotter, drier climate,” says Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobotanist and professor at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center. “From food banks, seed libraries, and farmers’ markets, to community gardens, community kitchens, and literary luminaries writing on food and culture, we are serving as a nursery grounds for new innovations, not merely for preserving our food heritage.”
*See Tres' comment for clarification on this percentage.
Minimizing food waste - UN Environment
How to nurture your small piece of the Earth, without harming the rest of it
What KInd of Climate Champion Are You? (Desert Adapted Gardeners)