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A Conversation with Gary Paul Nabhan about the State of Tucson’s Food System

Gary Paul Nabhan talks with Ashley Portman about the first report on the state of Tucson’s food system.

December 20, 2017

Ashley Portman with Gary Paul Nabhan

Gary Paul Nabhan. (Image credit: Aidan Heigl)

Gary, you and your colleagues in Tucson Arizona–America’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy–have recently found some very positive trends in the conservation and local  use of food biodiversity. But first, what does that term mean?  

It’s the diversity of life–of species, genes, textures, flavors and nutrients–embedded in the meals we eat, and in every garden, farm, food forest and ranch from which we gain our “daily bread.” It includes the cornucopia of crop seeds, fruit trees, bulbs, cuttings of herbs, mushrooms, wild edibles, livestock, poultry, fish and game in our food system. And it’s part of the larger realm of biocultural diversity–the know-how for wisely and sustainably harvesting, processing and eating diverse foods.

You have recently co-authored a report that suggests Tucson may have one of the highest levels of food diversity of any metropolitan landscape studied so far. (Read the “State of Tucson’s Food System, 2017-2018”) Over two thousand varieties of 340 species of edible plants. That’s a lot! So, how did your team come up with the idea of an urban food biodiversity audit?

That’s an interesting story, Ashley. It emerged out of a “perfect storm” of our exposure to three rather recent ways of looking at the health of urban landscapes. First off, I believe that biologists in both Phoenix and Baltimore have attempted to do audits of wild biodiversity in their metro areas as part of their investigations as Long Term Ecological Research sites.

Then I recently met Gabriela Valeria Villavicencio Valdez, an “urbiculturist” in Queretero, Mexico who was trying to document the range of soils and food species in inner-city gardens there, and that seemed to me to be worth doing in Tucson as well. When I began to take data of food diversity in Tucson with Carolina Ferales and Danielle Johnson this last year, I began to realize just how rich Tucsonan’s use of wild and cultivated edible plants had become over the last quarter century.

When we moved past garden surveys to started to sample nurseries, food forests, seed libraries, farmers’ markets, and other venues in Tucson as well, I realized we were onto something very big that flies in the face of global trends reported by my friend Colin Khoury: “While the diversity of crops on farms and the diversity of foods in human diets has dramatically diminished all around the world, the diversity of food species and varieties in gardens and on the dinner tables of Tucsonans has increased dramatically over the last quarter century.”

You not only found a very high diversity of food plants in gardens and farmers markets in Tucson, but that gardeners and farmers were drawing upon local seed banks, free seed libraries and non-profit nurseries to access that diversity of seeds and cuttings for free or for discounted prices. How does that work?  

Yes, Tucson has a very healthy set of food supply chains–or complex food web — that includes 5 seed banks and fruit tree nurseries that collect, conserve and distribute this diversity to potential user groups. For example, the non-profit I co-founded many years ago–Native Seeds/SEARCH–has passed on much of its collection suitable for growing in Tucson to the Pima County Public Libraries, which now host the largest set of free seed libraries anywhere in the nation. The seed libraries are used by refugee support organizations to offer recent immigrants their initial sources of seeds, and when these gardeners harvest their crops, they return a portion of the seeds back to the public libraries to replenish their supplies. Some of these gardeners sell their produce or vegetable starts at farmers markets, where low-income families can use their EBT cards to purchase seeds or live plants, not just produce. In that way, their resources go to producing multiple meals from what they purchase then grow, rather than just one meal.

The report provides significant evidence that diets lacking in nutritional diversity have a direct impact on human health and food security. With this new data showing us how Tucson organizations are enabling affordable access to biodiverse and native foods, do you know what the potential impact is on health of children and families, and especially, low-income populations?

What we do know studies compiled and reviewed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is that homogenous diets often lack key micronutrients and soluble fiber sources necessary to protect humans from diseases. A more diverse diet is likely to have more micronutrients, prebiotics, probiotics, soluble fiber and flavor, so its is far more appealing and protective against nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes. Our own studies in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition and elsewhere document how certain desert foods that have now come back into the Tucson food system–mesquite flour, tepary beans, acorns, chia, prickly pear and wild greens–are rich in chemo-protective nutrients and high in antioxidants and complex polysaccharides that prevent and reduce the risks of diabetes and heart disease.

As the City of Gastronomy and a city offering affordable access to so many diverse species of edible foods, how can other cities learn from Tucson and begin to adopt a similar model in order to achieve food security and public health?

Of course, other cities have established a few seed libraries on their own, but they could benefit by linking them to local, non-profit seed banks, nurseries and online interlibrary loan loan systems. They should also invest–as Tucson has begun to dop, thanks to Trees for Tucson and the LEAF network–in edible landscaping along bike paths, streets and walkways, and in parks. The fruit on the trees are there for the picking. Ishkashitaa Refugee Network annually gleans over 50,000 pounds of fruits from public spaces, backyards and nearby farms. Much of it goes to refugee families, but part of it is processed into value-added products for sale. Finally, Market on the Move, Produce on Wheels and the Community Food Bank distribute 20 kinds of fresh produce at over 30 church parking lots, schools, vet’s centers and food pantries in Tucson.

So we know about the incredible impact this accessibility to biodiverse foods has on human health, but I am wondering the impact you feel it has on the psychology and emotional well-being of the Tucson community? Can this access and abundance of heritage foods help to heal and rebuild the cohesiveness of one of the poorest cities in America?

Great question, Ashley. My colleague Jonathan Mabry has just co-authored another study on the role of heritage foods in cultural pride, community renewal and and economic revitalization. Its called “Moveable feasts: Food as revitalizing cultural heritage” in a book titled Heritage in Action. When a refugee or recent immigrant–and for that matter, a Native American resident of our community–makes a meal that they feel “tastes like home,” they are no longer “displaced” but “transplanted” into fertile ground. Psychologically and spiritually, they begin to feel rooted again when they can celebrate with these on their tables. Interestingly, access to culturally appropriate food is a fundamental concept of the very definition of food security that the UN FAO uses.

How has the entrepreneurial, small food business community in Tucson incorporated the rich abundance of native foods from the Sonoran Desert? How do you feel this impacts and educates local residents about the very diverse food that grow and dwell here? Can this contribute to building a stronger local economy that reinvests in its community?

Perhaps the most immediate outcome of the City of Gastronomy designation for Tucson is the emergence of start-up micro-enterprises in the Tucson area that prepare value-added food products from wild edibles and heirloom grains, legumes and fruits. Over 45 local producers–a quarter of them working through micro-enterprises that have only gotten off the ground within the last couple years–have begun to produce and direct-market more than 145 artisanally prepared food products using foods foraged or grown in the Tucson area. They have generated dozens of new “green livelihoods,” including some seasonal jobs for both long-time Native American inhabitants and recently-arrived refugee residents. In a community like Tucson that is still plagued by poverty, if you can’t make a living wild-harvesting, growing or processing these foods, they are likely to slip out of the food system for lack of a market large enough to support livable wages. But the demand for these foods is high enough in Tucson that it may ultimately become a factor in reducing poverty, not exacerbating it. We already know that new start-up food businesses in Tucson form the fastest growing portion of our local economy, the only one that has made a difference in job creation since the recession devastated Metro Tucson and southern Arizona in 2008.  I’m hopeful that food biodiversity can help heal the wounds in our bodies, and our economy.

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