Hello, and welcome! We’re gathered in this beautiful garden to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Tucson’s designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, which our city was awarded three decades ago, on December 11, 2015.
In 2015, when Tucson received this award, there was already considerable energy and passion around local food. School gardens had sprouted across the city. The University of Arizona had launched the Center for Regional Food Studies. Tucson Unified School District and Tucson Medical Center were at the forefront of the many institutions that would eventually begin purchasing fresh food from local producers. The City of Tucson had updated its land use code to encourage urban agriculture. And many, many Tucsonans were visiting farmers’ markets, eating at local restaurants, and growing their own food.
Still, our local food system—and our community as a whole—was far from secure. In 2015, 97 percent of the food we ate in Tucson came from someplace else. Every year, Arizona imported $3.2 billion in food while exporting $2.8 billion, even as many of the small farmers who were growing food to feed Arizonans were struggling to earn a living. One out of every five adults was considered food insecure, as were one of three children; hundreds of thousands of people turned to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona for emergency food relief. Meanwhile, Arizona provided less state funding per student than any other state in the nation.
But we wouldn’t have received recognition as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy had there not already been a passionate group of citizens committed to building a stronger, more resilient food system. And in 2015, many of these people wondered: What does this designation mean for Tucson? We realized, of course, that the designation would be what we made of it. And that food touches everything—that by addressing food, we might also be able to address other, more complicated issues.
That which we pay attention to grows. And what the UNESCO designation did for Tucson was offer an opportunity for us to pay attention—unflinching, prolonged attention—to the food that sustained us. And when we looked, we realized that to eat well is to live well—and that no one thrives unless we all do.
Recognizing that the success of our local food system—and any claim that we had to represent Tucson on the world stage as a City of Gastronomy—depended on the success of our local producers, one of the very first things we did was mobilize our resources to support our agrarians. In 2020, the City of Tucson, Tucson Unified School District, and the University of Arizona adopted the Good Food Purchasing Policy, a metric-based food procurement policy that considered local economies, environmental sustainability, fair labor, animal welfare, and nutrition when deciding what food to buy. Thanks to the leadership and support from many of Tucson’s institutions—and, of course, demand from its citizens—local food can now be found in markets, restaurants, hospitals, and schools across the city. With a stable market for their products, Baja Arizona’s farms flourished and multiplied—as you’ll soon be able to taste at tonight’s public dinner.
But before our dinner begins, I invite you all to wander down to the banks of the Santa Cruz River, just a few hundred yards away. As you watch its slow meander below Tucson’s shimmering skyline, you might remember how this view once seemed impossible. This seasonally flowing river is perhaps only the most photogenic reminder of how Tucson reclaimed its water at just the right moment. After the severe drought of the early 2030s led to food scarcity, we awoke to how much of our water—in the form of cotton, alfalfa, and other non-food crops—was being exported to create wealth elsewhere. As water became increasingly scarce, in Arizona and worldwide, our state leaders worked collaboratively with community and regional stakeholders to realize a successful water policy that finally provided incentives to use water for food crops that would feed Arizonans, prioritizing local economic development and ecological health across our watersheds.
Thirty years ago, we were still trying to capture rainwater and move it as quickly as possible away from where it landed. Today, as you surely saw on your way here, our streets, sidewalks, and public spaces are designed to capture water and keep it here—to grow desert plants, sidewalk gardens, and public fruit orchards, all of which have sequestered carbon and helped prevent heat from building on our city streets.
Tucson’s climate has changed to an extent that might have seemed unimaginable in 2015. It is hotter and drier today in Arizona than it has ever been before. The many students here tonight won’t remember what Tucson was like three decades ago and so I won’t linger in the past. I won’t ask, as many of you surely have, why we continued business as usual for so very long. Because, finally, we did act.
In 2015, we’d just begun to rebuild our energy generation and distribution systems based on renewable energy. Tucson Electric Power has long since hit the target it set in 2015 to be 30 percent solar-powered by 2030. Today, nearly two-thirds of the energy used by Tucson residents and businesses comes in the form of solar energy.
And Baja Arizona’s farmers have pioneered methods of growing food in this new climate. Many of these methods are in fact thousands of years old, reintroduced and reimagined by today’s Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui leaders. Peer-to-peer networks of growers across the region—indeed, across the globe—have shared knowledge about soil health, carbon sequestration, landscape restoration for pollinators, heat-tolerant crop varieties, and water-saving technologies, to everyone’s benefit.
Food has brought people together in ways that we never expected. The search to define and retain our culinary identity led to a quest for food justice and food sovereignty, which in turn led to large-scale organizing and political transformation. In the years following the UNESCO designation, as our community leaders struggled against an antagonistic state legislature, voters turned out en masse to elect new representation. We voted against representatives who didn’t prioritize diversity, education, and the environment—values that, we realized, were essential for Tucson to successfully pursue its gastronomic goals.
Tucson now boasts the highest voter turnout in state and local elections of any city in the country. In the 2014 general election, less than 40 percent of Arizonans voted. Last year, 9 out of every 10 people living in Pima County cast ballots. This kind of engagement has transformed our community in fundamental ways.
We are a much wealthier community than we were 30 years ago. But we know that wealth is not something someone gives us. Wealth is not purchasing power. Wealth is access—wealth is capacity. And so we focused on building access and creating capacity, right here in Tucson. Our business and community leaders have worked to empower people and neighborhoods to build their own wealth—by growing food, investing in local processing infrastructure, and sharing services, goods, and knowledge. We’ve supported businesses that support our community.
And after national immigration reform offered a path to citizenship to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in Arizona, farm and restaurant laborers were finally able to organize and lobby for better wages and working conditions. By raising the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation, we decided to support the many wage workers—particularly on farms and in restaurants—who have contributed to Tucson’s gastronomy from its very beginning. Many of these workers, including immigrants and indigenous peoples, seized the opportunity offered by increased economic stability to open food businesses of their own, expanding and deepening Tucson’s rich gastronomy.
And it continues. The students of 2015—the first wave of second, third, and fourth graders who learned how to grow vegetables, turn compost, and tend chickens at their schools—are now in their 40s and have taken leadership positions across Tucson, teaching a new generation of students about environmental stewardship and what it means to live in harmony with this place.
Tucson won this award 30 years ago because we knew—then as now—that food is connected to nourishment in fundamental ways. It was never about the next great meal. It’s always been about connection—about how food powers connection, how connection creates community, and how people in strong communities feed each other. Tucson is a city with a strong sense of identity. In 2015, we understood that every single person eating and living in this city had claim to the UNESCO designation. What we’ve done since is simply to fulfill that promise—to bring you all, quite literally, to the table.