I confess: I’m not much of a foodie. I enjoy our local restaurants, but I have no idea how to cook the food they serve, much less grow it.
So the decision to create a Commission on Food Security, Heritage, and Economy was a bit of a stretch for me. But as mayor, I’m always looking for two things: to build on our community’s strengths and to help those most in need. Tucson’s food economy has the potential to do both.
For a city in the desert, we have a remarkable diversity of locally grown food. We have heritage varieties that have grown here for hundreds of years. We have varieties that are well-adapted to low rainfall and high temperatures. And we have our own unique foods that are native to our Sonoran desert—cholla buds, mesquite flour, and nopales, among others.
Many Tucsonans are directly involved in food production. We have organic farmers, artisanal food producers, and groups dedicated to backyard, community, and school gardens. We have native peoples who’ve preserved the farming techniques of their ancestors, and we have fifth graders who can explain composting and aquaponics because they have it at their school.
We have Tucson Meet Yourself, a festival so well-known for its ethnic food that some affectionately call it Tucson Eat Yourself. Tens of thousands visit this festival every year to enjoy food from different cultures around the globe—and it’s all made in Tucson.
Food, it turns out, is more than just fundamental to life. It’s also part of our identity.
I didn’t know very much about this until after I became mayor. I knew we had great restaurants, but that was pretty much all I knew about our local food economy. When you’re mayor, however, people bring you problems. If you’re lucky, they also bring you ways to work on those problems—even opportunities.
Here, I’ve been lucky. The folks on my food commission include experts from the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Local First Arizona, the University of Arizona, and several other organizations. They bring a wealth of knowledge to the table … if you’ll pardon the expression.
Two of the main problems the commission will work on are reducing food insecurity and increasing access to low-cost healthy food—eliminating “food deserts.” The opportunities are a little harder to define, but basically they have to do with using our vibrant food culture to boost our economy—increasing tourism and our residents’ quality of life. While promoting our region as a travel destination falls to Visit Tucson, I’m hopeful this new food commission can bring added insight where our local food scene is concerned.
In December, Tucson became the first and only city in the United States to be designated a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy. This designation not only helps us promote Tucson using one of our great strengths; it also ties us into a network of other creative cities around the world. I say it often, but I think finally we’re starting to believe that Tucson is indeed a world city, an international city.
The bottom line is, whenever we work on making our city a great place to visit—and great food can be a pretty powerful incentive to visit—we end up with a city that’s also a great place to live. And that’s my goal as mayor: a city where people want to stay and can stay. I may not know much about cooking but I think that’s a recipe for success. ✜
Jonathan Rothschild is the mayor of the City of Tucson.