Food & Health Archive

Financing Food and Creating Jobs from the Bottom Up

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

In the days between the 2012 Republican and Democratic Conventions, a group of eighty farmers, ranchers, grocers, produce distributors and food activists met in Carbondale, Colorado. They hunkered down in a big tent on a farm nestled below the drought-stricken peaks of the Rocky Mountains as dry winds gusted around them. Like many who spoke at the conventions, their goal was to discuss how to create jobs and help rural economies ravaged by the economic downturn get some rebound.

But unlike the Democrats and Republicans who offered top-down plans for righting a capsized economy, these rural Westerners spoke of “collecting small donations from individuals, aggregating them, and then using them as catalytically as possible” to support food and farming microenterprises all across the country. Their approach is radically different than that which the federal government took over the last two years in dealing with so-called “food deserts,” providing Wal-Mart and other big box chains with a half billion dollars of incentives to open more of their food super-center in low income areas. So far, few poor people have had their hunger vanquished or their nutrition improved merely by access to supermarkets overloaded with cheap calories….

Those attending this “Slow Money” event included liberal venture capitalists, Tea Party farmers, back-to-the-land libertarians, college-age anarchists, and fiscally-conservative Republicans, but all seemed to be in agreement on one thing: they cannot wait for the government to fix either the food system or the economy; “we” must do it ourselves.

“If four million Americans contribute $35 per annum to the NRA,” asks the Slow Money website, “will one million Americans contribute $25 per annum to the Soil Trust to begin to fixing our economy from the ground-up?”

The Soil Trust, a crowdfunding strategy to be launched this October by Slow Money, is seeking slower, smaller and more local means of investing in strategies that will provide both rural and urban communities with greater food security. It will do so while creating jobs with live-able wages at the same time. Spearheaded by Slow Food founder Woody Tasch and Marco Vangelisti of the NorCal SOIL network, the Soil Trust is particularly interested in linking local food producers who build soil with micro-investors who build social capital.

If this seems to you to be some pipe dream, think again: Slow Money’s strategies have already led to eighty-six completely local investment deals during the last three years. Over the same time period, more than $19 million has been raised for one hundred and thirty nine food micro-enterprises. These initiatives have involved Slow Money-style investors from thirty-six states and nine countries.

Kerry Nelson of Ploughboy, Inc. in Salida, Colorado runs just the kind of independently-owned business that Slow Money’s Soil Trust is hoping to help. A hybrid of a grocery, community kitchen and local food distribution hub, Ploughboy features some two hundred and fifty food products from seventy-five producers, 80 percent of whom farm or ranch within one hundred miles of Salida.

But to get such a business launched in a small Western town was no small feat. Kerry reminded those in attendance at the Sustainable Settings farm in Carbondale that Salida is no Boulder or Aspen when it comes to mobilizing capital for green businesses. Salida sits in Chaffee County, Colorado, where per capita income for non-migrant residents has ranged between $19,430 and $24,032 over last 5 years. Even in the best of times, recent household incomes have averaged only $34,368, with multiple family members working out of the same house, garage or workshop. Kerry Nelson put it bluntly:

“The town I work in is drastically different than most other places. One thing that really surprised me was how different it is to start a business in a small place.”

But Ploughboy has not merely done well for itself; its community kitchen has begun to spawn other micro-enterprises, like an already successful artisanal bakery. The question that consumes Kerry Nelson is whether such efforts can gain momentum through Slow Money-style food financing strategies.

Earlier in the year, Woody Tasch keynoted a similar gathering in an unlikely spot–the Community Center of Elgin, Arizona–population 161–far from the Bostons, Santa Fes, Seattles, Durhams and Berkeleys where such “locavesting” discussions are all the rage. But within two hours of the meeting being launched, residents of three border counties spontaneously pledged $150,000 if they could be matched with farming, ranching and food processing innovators within the same region.

That’s good news for Santa Cruz County, where the official unemployment rate in its county seat of Nogales is twice the national average, and the unofficial rate (including undocumented residents born in Mexico) may be three times as high as that countrywide indicator. It’s not surprising that Nils Urman of the Nogales Community Economic Development Corporation took a keen interest in what four other southern Arizonans were proposing at the Community Center as projects that might create jobs and produce food in or near Nogales.

Urman and I recently facilitated the “Pitching to Peers” economic showcase featuring a half dozen farmers, food processors, nurserymen and ranchers at the first-ever Border Food Summit, September 16th to 18th on the outskirts of Nogales. Food producers, marketers and working lands restiorationists from the border counties of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico told their stories to some 250 attendees, hoping to attract marketing assistance, loans and equity to keep their dreams afloat. Their micro-enterprises varied in scale, structure and products–from Arevalos Family Farms, Borderland Restoration L3C, Double Check Ranch and Good Food Allies, to La Semilla Food Center, Rezonation Farm Institute for Natural Beekeeping and Sleeping Frog Farms. But all of these operations had one thing in common: they were intent on rediversifying food production through novel means of financing their work.

Although there is no way to predict the long-term benefits of the Border Food Summit, one thing is for sure: many in attendance are “hungry for change” in our food system, and in our economic system at large. With the food production of over 1500 rural counties damaged by this summer’s drought, something will need to change to keep food prices rising beyond the reach of America’s most food insecure families, the ones who often live in the very communities where our food is being grown.

Read the rest on Gary’s website.

Gary Nabhan is co-author of the book
Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail

When Local is Binational: Borderland Food in Nogales

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

When the food relocalization movement revved up its engines a dozen years ago, I would often see maps that circumscribed “local foodsheds” by county, state,  or region of our sprawling nation, but they never crossed international boundaries. But when I recently moved to southern Arizona to plant an heirloom orchard just twelve miles north of the U.S./Mexico line, such maps suddenly made little sense to me.

As I searched for low chill fruit and nut varieties to plant in my orchard, I learned that the Mission olive, fig, grape, pomegranate and quince selections best suited to my microclimate were once widely cultivated on both sides of the line, but had so dramatically declined north of the border than few American nurseries offered them anymore. When I searched for commercial availability of native foods and beverages of our Sonoran Desert region—chiltepines, Emory oak acorns, mescal and mesquite—most of the harvests were being wild-foraged from landscapes like ours just south of the line.

Baffled by this food flowing in from just south of the international boundary—for I had always dismissed it as being unnecessarily “outsourced”—I began to ask tougher questions that demolished the old assumptions I had held.

Was it better for me to source fresh fruits and vegetables from small Sonoran farms just fifty miles from my home, or purchase the same kinds that had been shipped in from California more than eight hundred miles in the trucks of Veritable Vegetable?

Are my neighboring Mexican farmers using less fossil fuel and government subsidized water than farmers in California, especially those which irrigate crops from large irrigation projects which have cost us all billions of dollars and depleted the flows of many rivers?

Are Mexican-born farmworkers better off staying in their home villages and working for lower wages, or better off migrating to the U.S. where wages are higher but the cost of living is too? Where is occupation health care more responsive to their needs? Where will their children get a better education?

Now a new report—Hungry for Change: Borderlands Food and Water in the Balance—attempts to pose such questions about our inherently binational food system, and answers—at least provisionally—some of those more difficult questions.  Further, it reminds Americans just how much of our entire food supply is dependent upon labor, expertise, ingenuity, seeds, seafood and water originating in Mexico. The report, released this last week by the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, was prepared for discussion at the first-ever Border Food Summit to be held September 16th to 18th near Nogales, Arizona.

Read the rest on Gary’s website.

Gary Nabhan is co-author of the book
Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail

Healing the Lands of the Border

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Around the time that Joe Quiroga turned 60, he began a new endeavor that has ultimately had more land conservation impact than most of us will ever achieve over in our lives.

Joe looked out over the uneven cover and ailing forage quality of the Sonoita Plains in Santa Cruz County near Elgin, AZ, and decided that he wanted to try to heal the landscape. He built stone check dams called trincheras wherever he saw watercourses down-cutting into erosive arroyos. Every day, year after year, Joe Quiroga rearranged the erratic boulders exposed in gullies or on the sides of ridges, moving dozens of them into  to span drainages in order to control erosion and flooding in the arroyos of the Sonoita Plains.

Fifteen years later, Joe can look out over the land and see the healing power of over a thousand rock-solid check dams that he has built with his own hands. They are now holding hundreds of thousands of tons of soil and grass in place on the Diamond C Ranch—the place outside of Elgin, Arizona where he has worked for the Jelks family over three decades.

When asked why he initiated and persisted at such a long-term conservation effort, Joe Quiroga offers a simple answer:

“Because the land needed it.”

When far younger men ask the 75-year-old ranch manager if he had any help moving boulders as big as whiskey barrels into place, he mentions a digging bar and “come-along” pulley and ratchet that he hooks to the back of his pickup. Otherwise, this effort has been done by Joe’s two hands, his strong arms and legs, observant eyes, bright mind and big heart.

The Quiroga family has lived in Santa Cruz County for at least six generations, and has strong ties to the other side of the border as well. Many of Joe’s kin continue to live and work in nearby Patagonia, where they have made many contributions to the community. But Joe’s own work has gone beyond that, contributing both to the human community and to the land community. He has rebuilt the quantity and fertility of the soil while encouraging at least two dozen species of grass to grow in places that were formerly scoured clean. He can show you 300-yard stretches of streams, now running with water for the first time in decades, and a dozen native grass species providing perennial cover that may outlive all of us.

Around 1998, photographer Jay Dusard took a picture of Joe Quiroga along with Ruken Jelks II and Ruken Jelks III in a doorway of the Diamond C Ranch. The photo was featured in the fine book written by Dan Dagget, Beyond the Rangeland Conflict: Toward a West that Works.  In the pages of that book, I learned how Tony Burgess, a famous desert borderlands ecologist, was once brought to the Diamond C Ranch during an era when environmental scientists and ranchers were largely at odds with one another. But when Tony looked out over a stretch of rangelands where Joe Quiroga had increased the grass cover by forty percent over the years, he said this:

“I don’t know what you are doing, but don’t stop. It’s working.”

A decade and a half have passed since that incident, but Joe Quiroga has not yet stopped healing the land and healing the divisions that occasionally crop up among people. On Earth Day of 2012, more than 70 of his neighbors and a half-dozen organizations—including farmers, ranchers, scientists, permaculturists and community activists—came together to honor him at the Santa Cruz County Earth Fest. It was clear to everyone in the community that Joe Quiroga has left us a legacy that will live on for decades, if not centuries.

One of the borderlands residents who came to honor Joe that hot April afternoon also deserves to be honored for healing the lands along the border. Her name is Valer Austin, and with her husband, Jho Austin, she has overseen the construction of more than 30,000 loose rock check dams and gabions running across watercourses located on six ranches in Arizona, Sonora, Texas and other border states.  Beginning around 1988, the Austins took over El Coronado Ranch in the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains, where the range had been depleted and the creek beds eroded over the course of many decades. Assembling a crew of master builders of stonewalls and trinchera-like checkdams, the Austins came up with the strategy of using rocks on site wrapped and held in place by wire gabion baskets.

In watersheds like the Bedrock drainage where rivulets once ran only a month a year, the healed watercourses now run for three years at a time, despite the increasing frequency of droughts since the late 1990s. In the Turkey Pen drainage, which seldom ran more than three months a year in the wettest of years, the stream often flows year round, and perennial pools have formed. Water bugs, mud turtles, fish and waterfowl have permanently returned to these watersheds. The Austin’s recovery of borderlands watersheds has been so successful that they have ironically raised the ire of Homeland Security, which claims that the Border Patrol can no longer cross certain streams in their four-wheel drive trucks; the water now flows so deeply!

If all of this rangeland healing emanated only from only one side of the border, environmental justice advocates might categorically dismiss it. But on Rancho Inmaculada, south of Caborca, Sonora, the stewardship initiatives of Ivan Aguirre Ibarra and Martha Darancou de Aguirre have attracted international attention and acclaim in at least three best-selling books. The 26,000acre ranch lies in the driest reaches of the Sonoran Desert, but the amount of grass and soil cover on the inside on Inmaculada’s fence line dwarfs anything found immediately outside the ranch’s boundary.

Inspired by Holistic Resource Management guru Alan Savory, Ivan Aguirre began to work with the desertified ranch his father bought in 1975 and transform it into an oasis where fresh water flows freely and cottonwoods grow. He pays particular attention to the management of native mesquite, chain-sawing its branch-loads of feathery leaves to make tens of thousands of curvilinear windrows that hold soil in place and increase fertility. The larger trunks of pruned mesquite trees are then used to make check dams, parquet tile floors, furniture, doors, charcoal and a soil amendment known as bio-char. Martha’s fine business sense has guided their efforts to develop several mesquite-based cottage industries on the ranch that employ dozens of their neighbors.  At the same time, Ivan manages 300 head of Beefmaster cattle and brief periods of game hunting on the ranch that provide other steady revenue streams. All of these economic benefits have accrued, according to Ivan and Martha, through looking at the ranch as a whole ecosystem, then using locally available resources to advance ecological succession and increase biodiversity.

Joe Quiroga, Valer and Jho Austin, and Ivan and Martha Aguire share something special in addition to living on some of the most beautiful and healthy ranches remaining in the borderlands: they each take the long view of land health and have linked it to their own health. They remind me of what the great conservationist Aldo Leopold first learned 60 years ago when he observed abundant soil, grass and deer resting behind the check dams built centuries earlier in the Rio Gavilán of Chihuahua:

“I first clearly realized that the land is an organism [and] that in all my life [before coming to the borderlands] I had only seen sick land, whereas here was a biota still in perfect aboriginal health.”

I hear the terms “environmental health” and “ecosystem health” often bandied about these days, but oftentimes without acknowledgement of the fact that when Leopold first coined the term, the beneficial actions of land stewards from the border’s many cultures was deeply embedded in his concept. Skeptics who believe that humans can only harm the land and deplete its biodiversity would do well to follow Joe Quiroga, the Austins or the Aguirres out onto their lands to see, first hand, the abundance they have nurtured.

Gary Nabhan is co-author of the book
Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail

Coalition Receives Grant to Promote Arid-Adapted Heritage Grains in Southern Arizona

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

A ground-breaking collaboration of farmers and organizations in southern Arizona has been awarded a two-year, $50,000 grant by the Western SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) program to revive the production, milling, distribution, and marketing of the oldest extant grain varieties adapted to the arid Southwest: White Sonora soft bread wheat and Chapalote flint corn.

Native Seeds/SEARCH, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Hayden Flour Mills, Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, Cultivate Santa Cruz, Tubac Historical Society, Amado Farms Joint Venture, and Avalon Organic Gardens and EcoVillage will work with small-scale beginning farmers as well as low-income tortilla makers and bakers in the proposed Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area to increase our region’s food diversity and food security in the face of climate change and an evolving agricultural landscape.

Cereal grains are fundamental to the diets of most people in the Southwest, yet local production and processing of regionally-adapted grains is a missing element in efforts to increase our region’s food security and to offer staples to low-income populations at risk of hunger. Through a diversity of complementary approaches, the funded project aims to address this gap by re-introducing Chapalote corn and White Sonora wheat into sustainable food production regimes in the arid Southwest; establishing fruitful exchanges of information among producers, millers, bakers, and other stakeholders; and ensuring that the use of these heritage grains reaches food-insecure families in our region and that they are enlisted in producing value-added products as new sources of income.

Chapalote flint corn and White Sonora wheat have reputations for drought tolerance, yield stability and excellent nutritional qualities, and have deep cultural ties to the desert borderlands. They are the oldest varieties of their species to reach the Arizona deserts as farmed crops, Chapalote arriving roughly 4,200 years ago and White Sonora arriving with Spanish missionaries in the late 17th century. Both crops suffered declines in cultivation as water- and fertilizer-responsive varieties took precedence in irrigated agriculture in the Southwest. They became commercially unavailable in Arizona and adjacent areas of Mexico by 1975, though Native Seeds/SEARCH has maintained both Chapalote and White Sonora in its seed bank and has continued to make them available to growers in the Southwest. Interestingly, two of the project sites (Avalon Organic Gardens and Tubac Presidio State Historic Park) may be on the very ground where Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino first introduced White Sonora wheat to Arizona, and the Community Food Bank’s two farms are within a few miles of where the oldest Chapalote-like maize was found in the U.S.

This project seeks to reduce regional food insecurity by providing these culturally-appropriate staple grains through best practices for sustainable agricultural production which reduce water and energy consumption. The coalition’s shared aspiration is that the recovery of these arid-adapted grains into our food system will reward farmers who are willing to be good stewards of our agricultural diversity, soil and water resources, and improve the quality of life and nutritional health of low-income residents in our region. The project will educate, train and benefit others through several events and training workshops, and collaborators will produce a number of educational publications.

The agricultural community at large in the arid Southwest will benefit from the project’s documentation of soil management techniques that are compatible with winter wheat or summer maize production. The project will also serve as a regional testbed for a formal system of community seed exchange that lowers the barrier to entry for small-scale farmers while simultaneously increasing seed stocks so that additional farmers may participate. By putting such a model into practice, the project will have the effect of increasing the available seed supply of White Sonora wheat and Chapalote corn in the Southwest.

Western SARE is a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that offers competitive grants conducted cooperatively by farmers, ranchers, researchers, and other agriculture professionals to advance farm and ranch systems that are profitable, environmentally sound, and good for communities.

For more information about this project, please contact Chris Schmidt, Director of Conservation at Native Seeds/SEARCH, at 520-622-0830 x111 or [email protected] Additional information about the project participants may be obtained by visiting their websites:

Amado Farms Joint Venture:
Avalon Organic Gardens and EcoVillage:
Community Food Bank of Tucson:
Cultivate Santa Cruz:
Hayden Flour Mills:
Native Seeds/SEARCH:
Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance:
Tubac Historical Society:

Gary Nabhan is co-author of the book
Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail

The Return of the Natives: Designing and Planting Hedgerows for Pollinator Habitat to Bring Wild Diversity Back to Farms and Gardens

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Native pollinators, it seems, were once forgotten as playing an essential role in providing ecological services for food security, but no longer.  We have witnessed a surge in grassroots interest in returning pollinators to their proper place in sustainable agriculture, as witnessed by the enthusiastic participation recently seen at a workshop regarding on-farm pollinator habitat restoration in the U.S./Mexico borderlands.

The workshop featured practical teachings from Sam Earnshaw of Community Alliance of Family Farmers, who has helped plant or restore over 300 miles of pollinator-attracting hedgerows in Western states. Other speakers included Jo Ann Baumgartner of Wild Farm Alliance, Amanda Webb, Gary Nabhan and Laura Lopez Hoffman of the University of Arizona, Susan Wethington of the Hummingbird Monitoring Network, as well as permaculturist Kate Tirion and ecologist Ron Pulliam of Patagonia, Arizona.  Co- sponsors included Wild Farm Alliance, Borderlands Habitat Restoration Initiative, Hummingbird Monitoring Network, the Sabores Sin Fronteras Foodways Alliance, and the Kellogg Program on Food and Water Security for the Southwest Borderlands, University of Arizona, all in support of the larger efforts of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign or “Pollinator Partnership”. Over thirty-four residents of three counties in Southern Arizona became engaged with hands-on efforts to bring a diversity of pollinators back to borderlands farms, gardens and ranches.

Following introductions, the workshop in rural Santa Cruz County was launched with lectures by special guest presenters.  Jo Ann Baumgartner began by talking about efforts by the Wild Farm Alliance to promote forms of agriculture that protect and restore wild biodiversity. She also responded to food safety concerns that wild animals on farms are a risk to production operations.  She highlighted habitat restoration strategies that minimize the potential for contaminating crops with diseases that are then transferrable to consumers in ways that might otherwise compromise human health.  She emphasized the importance of understanding how wildlife, livestock, and other biota can act as vectors or as filters for pathogens on farms.  She concluded that wild species can provide more benefits than risks to farms if ecologically managed.

Sam Earnshaw of CAFF then shared insights gained from his extensive experience implementing hedgerows, green buffers and other wild habitats on farms in California.  He presented many ways that a hedgerow can provide needed support services to a growing operation, and suggested plants that could be used for different applications.  The photos in his presentation helped illustrate how hedgerows function to address site-specific issues, the different forms hedgerows may take, and how they can support pollinators as well as other vertebrate and invertebrate species that can act as natural pest control for crops.

The hands-on portion of the workshop took the form of installing native plants as hedgerows at two different sites.  Gary Nabhan took this opportunity to talk about specific features unique to each of the sites, the crops grown there, and the desired functional outcomes for each hedgerow after it is established.  In addition to discussing how the hedgerows would support native pollinators, he led a demo on constructing and providing bee nesting structures and showed how they could be installed on-farm, at home, or in the garden.  Jo Ann, Sam, and Gary provided continual information to participants about the ecology of on-farm hedgerows through guiding presentations and interactions with individual participants.

The hedgerow designs at the two sites reflected site-specific goals of each of the hedgerows, and both were comprised of a different suite of plant species to reflect those desired outcomes.  Gary Nabhan led the design and implementation of plantings dominated by native vines, sub-shrubs and wild flowers (mostly crop relatives) alongside a mesquite retaque fence. This site was located on a clay-dominated ridge between the Native Seeds/SEARCH  and the Almunya de los Zoplilotes orchard, while  Amanda Webb, a graduate student from the University of Arizona, led the design and transplanting of woody perennials at the Rogers-Wethington orchard on a floodplain.  These examples provided participants with the opportunity to see two different applications of the forms and functions of hedgerows under local conditions.  Plant installation at both sites ultimately included transplanting woody vegetation (shrubs, vine and trees) as well as the sowing of native annual and perennial wildflower seeds.  The spent flowering stalks of desert sotol and century plants were integrated into fences to serve as nesting habitat for carpenter bees at both sites. Many on-site discussions were inspired by these hands-on experiences that give people skills in how to plant native plants, to construct  nest boxes, fences and rainwater harvesting structures, to plan irrigation regimes, and to extend the flowering season to attract and keep a variety of pollinators on the farm.

There were other scientists and farmers present who gave summaries of the related work they do with pollinators.  These included Susan Wethington who talked about the mission and work of the Hummingbird Monitoring Network, Laura Lopez-Hoffman who described her research on nectar-feeding bats, and Ron Pulliam who talked about the on-going pollinator habitat restoration and education efforts of the Borderlands Habitat Restoration Initiative.  These short talks provided an expanded view on pollinator conservation and research while emphasizing that effective pollinator conservation cannot be isolated to one farm or species, but should be implemented for diverse species at the landscape or regional level with a multitude of collaborators, supporters, and projects.    The point was made to participants that the renewed planting of hedgerows on farms is an important step in this larger kind of effort.

Feedback from workshop participants has been overwhelmingly positive.  Along with hearing the lectures and participating in hands-on experiences, they left with a packet of printed information covering a wide breadth of related topics, including information on selecting plants to fit different sites. Printed materials included recommendations for planning pollinator-supporting hedgerows that can thrive in different habitats throughout Southern Arizona.

Gary Nabhan is co-author of the book
Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail

Mom-and-pop vs. big-box stores in the food desert

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

By: Gary Nabhan and Kelly Watters

A few weeks ago, when the Obama administration released its Food Desert Locator, many of us realized that a once-good idea has spoiled like a bag of old bread. If you go online and find that your family lives in a food desert, don’t worry: You have plenty of company. One of every 10 census tracts in the lower 48 has been awarded that status.

Two years ago, when one of us (Gary) moved to the village of Patagonia, Ariz., he inadvertently chose to reside in what the USDA deems to be on the edge of a food desert. Its maps show that Gary now lives more than 15 miles away from a full-service supermarket or chain grocery store that has 50 or more employees and grosses $2 million or more in food sales each year. Apparently, that’s bad. Gary and his low-income neighbors are now being told that if they were bright enough to reside within walking distance or five minutes driving distance to a Safeway, Alberston’s, Winn-Dixie, or Walmart, they would undoubtedly be more “food secure.”

Why? A USDA report [PDF] to Congress in 2009 suggested that the average food in such big-box grocery stores is priced 10 percent lower than its counterparts in independently owned corner stores, roadside stands, or farmers markets. What’s more, the USDA claimed that “full service” big-box stores offer more affordable access to food diversity than do other venues.

Those assertions may be the biggest bunch of road apples that the USDA has ever tried to force down the throats of low-income Americans. The fatal flaw of the Obama strategy to reduce hunger, food insecurity, and obesity in America is that it risks bringing more big-box stores both to poor urban neighborhoods and to rural communities. It categorically ignores the fact that independently owned groceries, corner markets in ethnic neighborhoods, farmers markets, CSAs, and roadside stands are the real sources of affordable food diversity in America. But in its 2009 report to Congress, the USDA conceded that “a complete assessment of these diverse food environments would be such an enormous task” that it decided not to survey independently owned food purveyors. Therefore, it decided to ignore their beneficial roles and focus on the grocery-store chains that now capture three-quarters of all current foods sales in the U.S.

Unfortunately, we will get what we measure. The $400 million that the Obama administration has set aside to create greater food access in these so-called food deserts will likely go to attracting full-service grocery franchises that heap upon our children megatons of empty calories like those in high-fructose corn syrup and corn oil — yes, the very products that emerge from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s own great state of Iowa. But the profits made in those big-box stores will drain away from our neighborhoods and communities, bound for distant corporate headquarters, further impoverishing most food producers and consumers.

Instead, what we need is tangible support for rebuilding the rural and urban infrastructure that can enable more marketing of fresh, local foods by farmers, orchard keepers, and ranchers directly to neighboring consumers. The lack of a big-box store in our community may be an asset, not a disadvantage in keeping our children healthy and food secure. In Patagonia, we have a family-owned grocery, Red Mountain Foods, that uses its 900 square feet of indoor space and seasonal roadside displays to provide our 800 residents with a great diversity of nutritious whole foods, including both local and organic options.

Food stamp or “SNAP” purchases made by low-income residents currently account for over 5 percent of Red Mountain’s $300,000 average annual food sales, and have allowed a doubling of local access to healthy foods in the last couple years. Red Mountain also provides $3,000 of healthy snacks annually to the Patagonia Schools, which have a high percentage of children from low-income families in its classes. In addition to Red Mountain Foods, Patagonians have access to two summer farmers markets within a 10-mile radius, a year-round community garden, and direct sales of grass-fed meat and apples from local ranches and orchards.

Ironically the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas already offers a far more complete picture of food access on a county-by-county basis than does the new Food Desert Locator. Borderland communities like ours may still suffer from undeniable poverty, but if supported, not obstructed, their informal and local food economies may keep them from becoming true food “dead zones” where locally produced nutrients fail to reach those who need them the most. Nevertheless, we do indeed need help in rebuilding meat processing plants, grain mills, and community kitchens to make the best use of our locally produced beef, mesquite, fruits, and chiles. What we emphatically do not need is a Safeway or Walmart in our midst.

As a result of the chronic lack of USDA co-investment with rural communities in food security-enhancing local infrastructure, this country now has fewer farmers than it does Department of Agriculture employees. It is a sad sign of the times when a misguided bureaucracy has grown to a size larger than the constituency it was originally charged to help: the farmers and ranchers of America. If there are to be cuts to the USDA budget, let it be to the bureaucracy itself and not to the sustainable agriculture and economic development grants that go directly to farmers, ranchers, and small-scale growers in urban community gardens.

Finally, let’s junk the term “food deserts” forever, and change government policies that have inexorably fostered food dead zones in both rural and urban areas. It’s time we quit intensifying the inequities in the globalized food economy and start investing in a food future that creates true food justice through wedding relocalization with fair trade between regions.

Gary Paul Nabhan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo. He is the coauthor most recently of Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail (Chelsea Green, 2010).

Kelly Watters is the community organizer for Tucson Community Food Bank and the Somos La Semilla project in the Arizona borderlands. She founded the Santa Cruz River Farmers Market, ranked among the best 10 in the nation for its work in providing nutritious food to low-income residents

Read original post at Grist here.

Gary Nabhan is co-author of the book
Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail

High, dry, and up against a wall: Why water and food justice are key to ending border conflicts

Friday, May 13th, 2011

For someone who lives within 12 miles of the infamous wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, it was an odd feeling to travel along the wall between Palestine and Israel last week just as Osama bin Laden’s death was announced to the world. Odd, because the parallels between the two desert regions are so remarkable. Palestinian farmers I spoke with were not interested in talking about the wall itself, nor the killing of bin Laden, nor the Hamas-Fatah unification. Instead, like farmers on the Mexican side of the border near where I live, they wanted to talk water rights. Specifically, they were intent on having this American writer understand how their lives are affected by the ways water flows beneath the wall.

The environmental-justice issues surrounding the extravagant use and abuse of shared aquifers were what most concerned farmers from Ramallah, Nablus, and Jericho with whom I spoke. For decades, Israel and Palestine have struggled over how to share the same aquifers for domestic water use and for irrigated agriculture. Israel currently pumps roughly 82 percent of all the water extracted from the shared western aquifer, but it used to do 95 percent of the pumping only a half century ago, a fact that allows its defenders to claim that Israel has indeed allowed Palestinians more access to water. But the western aquifer is largely recharged under the West Bank, where Israel no longer agrees to let Palestinian farmers drill more wells. In defiance of this unilateral ban, Palestinians have clandestinely drilled more than 3,500 wildcat wells in the West Bank, which, once found, end up being contested in the courts. Prohibiting more wells in the West Bank, one Palestinian farmer told me last week, would be the equivalent of committing “environmental genocide.”

There are many reasons why Palestinians in the West Bank consider access to uncontaminated groundwater to be the most critical environmental-justice issue facing them. For starters, the average Israeli consumes at least two and a half times the water used by the average Palestinian in the West Bank. But averages do not tell the entire story. In Hebron in the southern reaches of the West Bank, many Palestinian and Bedouin families must get by on as little as four gallons of water per day, far less than the 26 gallons recommended by the United Nations as the minimum daily water requirement to maintain health. By contrast, the average Israeli per capita consumption is somewhere between 79 and 106 gallons per day. While more affluent urban Palestinians have inched their average consumption up from 18 to 76 gallons per day over the last couple decades, they still pay more than three times as much for water as Israeli settlers occupying the West Bank.

View of of Israeli settlements in the West Bank from the Palestinian side of the wall: In an arid region, water politics are paramount.

But the most haunting water issue facing both Palestinians and Israelis may involve quality, not quantity — that is, access to water that has not been contaminated by endocrine-disrupting chemicals and antibiotic-resistant microbes. Despite recent claims by Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan that his nation is a world leader in saving water and recycling sewage, Israeli’s own environmentalists have dispatched repeated warnings of current and impending “gastrointestinal and reproductive health nightmares” because of the way Israel manages its nearly 66 million cubic yards of sewage. It places sewage — including all that it can obtain from Palestine — in reservoirs and uses 70 percent of it to irrigate its food crops. This sewage has irreparably contaminated the western aquifer, leading to high volumes of emergency room treatments in both countries for gastrointestinal tract disorders resulting from drug-resistant microbes. Worse yet, Israeli scientists Dan Zaslavsky and Alon Tal contend that the endocrine disrupters resulting from pesticide contamination of the aquifer may be a key factor contributing to the 40 percent reduction in human sperm counts in the region registered between 1994 and 2004. If these problems are not resolved by having the two countries work together to change the way they are managing sewage and farming, both Palestinian and Israeli families stand to suffer from a tragedy of biblical proportions, wall or no wall.

Currently, Palestine derives about a third of its gross national product from agriculture, while farm crops contribute less than 3 percent of Israel’s gross national product. The World Bank recently chastised Israel for not allowing Palestine to develop safer supplies of groundwater from deeper, larger, uncontaminated aquifers that Israel itself is already tapping. If Israel did so and let Palestinian farmers pass a portion of its harvests across the Red Line without the current harassment and bureaucratic interference that Palestinian farmers routinely face today, both countries might end up being more food secure.

At a Friends of the Earth training center near Jericho, Palestinians grow crops in biologically treated sewage — an important skill, given that many of their other water sources have dried up.

It was their preoccupation with having their human rights to food and water met that I heard most clearly from Palestinians on the “other side” of the wall. It reminded me of recent reports from Mexican border towns just south of Arizona and California that 44 percent of school students are living with the risk of hunger, and 82 percent of the households can be considered to be food insecure. Clearly, if Americans wish to be of service in helping Palestinians and Israelis resolve their conflicts, perhaps we should better model the behaviors we wish to see along any border by ensuring that Mexican and Native American children at our own back door have sufficient quantities of nourishing food and clean water. And if you believe that the water and food injustice along our border is any less severe than that being suffered along the wall that cuts the Holy Lands in two, come and see us down in southern Arizona, which barely ranks above Mississippi in its dismal levels of poverty and childhood food insecurity. If that’s not shocking enough for you, we’ll direct you on a tour to barrios just south of the wall where hunger and poverty are ramped up to a ferocity I’m certain you won’t be able to forget …

Read the original post on Grist.

chasingchiles Gary Paul Nabhan is the coauthor of Chasing Chiles, available now.

Place-based Foods of the Borderlands Weather the Economic Downturn

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

This last week, I went out into the desert to find an old friend in her trailer-turned-artisanal kitchen. My friend is an Hispanic woman who lost her job after 9/11 in a borderlands community that lost thousands of more jobs during the mortgage fiasco two years ago and the more recent economic downturn. And yet, despite all the discouraging turns that have occurred in the Tucson, Arizona economy over the last decade, I did not hear discouraging words in Esperanza Arevalo’s kitchen. I heard words like flavor, prayer and miracle; and I smelled the savory, smoky fragrance of mesquite tortillas just off the griddle. Despite warnings that these are the worst of times to be starting a small business, her homemade mesquite tortillas are selling like hotcakes. Tortilleria Arevalo is having the best of times.

Esperanza—whose name means hope—is but one of several entrepreneurs in the border states who have recently convinced me that local, place-based heritage foods are not just for the elite, but that other, less fortunate folks have chosen to purchase them during some of the toughest times that the U.S. and Mexican economies have ever faced.

Eleven years ago, Esperanza, coached by her Sonoran-born father Javier, began to offer on Tucson street corners a unique sort of tortilla whose heritage goes back centuries, if not millennia. It is made of the flour of mesquite pods, the flour of ground, popped amaranth seeds, wheat flour and olive oil. It may sound simple, but balancing the flavor and texture of these tortillas took months of experimentation by Esperanza and Javier. I know, because I was their first customer! But within a year or so, Esperanza was making twenty dozen mesquite tortillas a week in her spare time, and Javier was helping her hustle them to prospective buyers , not only on street corners, but at a couple health food stores as well.

Then 9/11 hit, and she suddenly lost her job at an emergency lighting company in Tucson. Her father encouraged her to go out on her own big time; journalist Nathan Olivarez-Giles gave her first major news story in The Arizona Daily Star; and then several farmers’ market managers invited her to set up a booth to hawk her wares. Suddenly, her demand grew to three hundred dozen a week.

“Now I have to watch how many I do, or I’ll suffer from carpel tunnel,” she laughs. “But it’s going, it’s really going now.”

Esperanza cites the health value of her tortillas—they help lower blood sugars for diabetic sufferers—as well as the heritage or historic value of mesquite—it’s perhaps the oldest staple food in the desert borderlands. But I would argue that the love she puts into her tortilla-making is expressed in the flavor and texture. Rich people, poor people, Indians, Anglos and Hispanics all flock to buy her tortillas.

It would be easy to dismiss Esperanza’s success as a rare exception, with no relevance to the rest of us. But talk to John York and Joy Vargo, co-owners of Canela Café, a little bistro that opened in the ranch town of Sonoita, Arizona in September of 2005. Sonoita’s official population count hovers just around 846 folks, and yet they served over ninety folks for Mother’s Day brunch alone. Joy looked a bit weary when I spoke to her mid-afternoon on that day, but had served more exquisite tamales, chiles rellenos and locally-grown lamb than she ever imagined that Chef John could pump through their kitchen in one morning.

“We’ve never had a day this good,” she smiled, almost giddy. “I guess all of our work in this community over the last few years is paying off. Folks really seem to like what we’re doing.”

No wonder—they can taste the local harvests of their neighbors from both sides of the border—creatively prepared by two stellar graduates of the New England Culinary Institute.

If that were not enough, two other “local foods” restaurants opened in Arizona this spring, and both are flourishing. One of them, Diablo Burger on Flagstaff’s Heritage Square—revolves around local grass fed beef from Diablo Trust lands, one of the first rancher-environmentalist cooperatives in the Southwest. But it also features locally-produced vegetables, prickly pears pads and wines on its ever changing menu. Finally, I mused, a burger with a sense of place and a sense of taste.

From Dennis and Deb Moroney’s all-natural grassfed Sky Islands Brand beef from the 47 Ranch near Bisbee, Arizona, to Amy Schwemm’s Mano and Metate moles—gourmet sauces prepared with locally-harvested chiles and nuts from the Santa Cruz River Valley— local food producers are making it through the toughest of times. If such foods were just another fad for the elite, these businesses would be suffering. Instead, people are willing to invest a little more for flavor, health and history; they value has been more than worth the price.

Gary Nabhan is co-founder of Sabores Sin Fronteras and Renewing America’s Food Traditions.