Lunch on a Tuesday in March at Tucson Fire Department Station 4 is carne asada burritos. “It’s not all local stuff, but a lot of it is,” says firefighter Ryan Gaudioso as he preps the buffet line. The carne asada comes from the Super Carniceria El Herradero on St. Mary’s. The tortillas are from La Estrella Bakery; the tortilla chips are from Phoenix-based My Nana’s. The Fry’s supermarket down the street has started listing Arizona produce, so Gaudioso grabbed a cantaloupe from Maricopa’s Santa Rosa Farms.
As Brett Welander, Daniel Woods, and Chad DeCastro build their burritos, I ask if they’ve noticed a difference in their meals since Gaudioso started trying to source the station’s food locally. DeCastro shrugs. “Ryan’s a good cook, so it’s always been pretty good.” He considers the question as we sit down to lunch and dig into our burritos. “I guess it’s nice knowing you’re eating local, fresh ingredients.”
Before he can finish his thought—before I can finish my bite—a loud voice flashes over the station intercom. “Engine 4 1600 W. Miracle Mile, unconscious person, respond on EMS 1.”
The four men stand up—it’s not abrupt, really, just efficient. They stride to the door, still chewing. Within the minute, DeCastro is behind the wheel, driving the bright red engine down Grant, toward Miracle Mile, where someone has called 911 to report an unconscious woman on the side of the road. It turns out she is intoxicated, passed out but conscious. After the men revive her—after she proffers a slur of profanities—and they ensure that she’s not a danger to herself or others, they send her on her way, wobbly and walking down the freeway off-ramp. Within 15 minutes, we’re back at the station, back at the table, back to our burritos.
“But, yeah,” says Welander, resuming our conversation without missing a beat, “One thing I’ve really liked is the food boxes we get from Bountiful Baskets. They get you to make stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise.”
“Yeah, you’re suddenly sitting there with a rutabaga and you’ve got to figure out what to do with it,” says Gaudioso. “So, you know, you get some hits and some misses.”
Gaudioso looks like a firefighter—trim, composed, clear-eyed. So do DeCastro, Woods, and Welander. They are professionally fit—they are exactly who you’d want to carry your overweight grandmother down a flight of stairs. They are not who you might imagine wrestling over a new recipe for rutabaga.
The road to rutabaga began five years ago, when Gaudioso was a newly elected union coordinator and decided his first project would be to create a reusable shopping bag for the stations to use on their daily trips to the grocery store. He got local school kids to design logos for their local station; when he presented the bags to each ward’s City Council member, he happened to hear a presentation by a representative from Local First Arizona, a statewide local business coalition. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’” he says.
At a time when the fire department was facing budget cuts and layoffs, the idea that spending money at a local business would help keep more money in the community was a revelation for Gaudioso. The Local First Arizona pitch he heard goes something like this: Spend money at a local business and that money will reverberate through your community, through consumer spending from increased employment, income and property taxes, and sales tax on business-to-business transactions.
And a more prosperous community has more money to allocate to core services—services like the fire department.
Although the firefighters avoided layoffs by taking furlough days, through attrition and retirement, the force has shrunk by more than a hundred, from 720 in 2009 to 615 today—even as the annual number of calls has increased from 79,000 to 82,000 annually.
“We’re getting to the point where the work is so intense that we’re burning people out,” says Gaudioso. So he approached Erika Mitnik-White, Local First Arizona’s Southern Arizona director, with a simple question. How could the firefighters spend more of their money locally? Because firefighters buy all their own food, Gaudioso realized that a small shift in their food dollars could help support their community’s tax base—and, thus, their own jobs.
“Each station is basically its own little family,” he says. They work 24-hour shifts, so they’re together for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “We go to the store once a day. We cook most of our meals in house. We have members complain when we spend too much.” (The firefighters say they’ve all been stopped at the grocery store by citizens demanding to know what food extravagance their tax dollars are buying. So, again: The firefighters pay for their own food. From their own salaries. Just like you and me.)
Mitnik-White gathered information to help the firefighters source their food as local as possible. “We created a map. Here’s where the farmers’ markets are in relation to the firehouses. If you can’t go directly to farmers, we said, buy from Arizona-owned stores,” she says. “That keeps the money in the tax base. If you can’t do that, buy Arizona-made products at the chain stores.
“Basically, it’s: find the local where you are,’” she says. “It’s a spectrum. And once people get on that spectrum, it gets them involved in thinking about where their money goes.”
Gaudioso says the menu hasn’t changed that drastically since they started the project. “It’s just more dynamic,” he says. “You have to do more than look at the Fry’s morning ads to see what’s on sale. You always get complainers, but enough of these guys see the bigger picture. They get why we’re doing this.”
“The one thing I want people to understand is that what we’re trying to do is build a healthier Arizona economy that’s more diverse and resilient, one that creates more equity across a broad spectrum of people,” says Kimber Lanning, the founder and executive director of Local First Arizona. She’s sitting on a sagging brown couch pushed against a wall in Local First Arizona’s Phoenix office, which doubles as Modified Arts, the art gallery and performance space Lanning opened in 1999. “We as individual residents of Arizona are quietly voting with our dollars.”
Lanning founded Local First Arizona in 2003—the year her record store, Stinkweeds, celebrated its sixteenth year in business. “I had all these young customers and they weren’t connecting here. They’d come back at the holidays and tell me about the amazing things they were doing somewhere else. I thought: How can I get them to want to stay here and build a better city the way I want to stay here and build a better city?”
She realized that growing up around small businesses—her parents and grandparents were self-employed—and going to local restaurants and stores had created a sense of community that her customers were lacking. “The chain stores have the dominating geography here. You drive from corner to corner, and they’re all owned by the Home Depots of the world,” she says.
And those big box stores were proliferating at the expense of taxpayers. “At the time, [cities] were giving massive subsidies to chain stores, based on the promise of sales tax returns,” she says. Sixty-eight million to Cabela’s; $32 million to Bass Pro; $25 million for the average Walmart. “But those deals have been shown time and time again to be losing deals. Bashas’ has been doing business for close to a hundred years, paying their sales tax, property tax, and everything else, and then the government turns around and gives those dollars to Walmart to come in here and try to move them out of business.” A business based in Arizona pays property taxes—Walmart is often offered tax abatements—as well as corporate state taxes; it might also pay a local accountant, a local sign maker, or a local uniform company—who in turn pay their own state and city taxes. A business based in Arkansas—like Walmart—buys signs or uniforms from one main contract and ships them to Arizona, contributing nothing to the state’s tax base.
“The roads aren’t separate from the schools, aren’t separate from the response time from the fire department. And through very little extra effort, you could have a great impact on all of those things.”
So she started knocking on doors, asking, “Hey, are you mad about this, too?’” Within the first two years, 800 businesses had signed on to try to level the playing field for local independents. Today, Local First Arizona has 2,800 members, making it the largest local business coalition in North America. Thirteen full-time employees work in offices across the state; their online local business directory gets searched 60,000 times a month.
“We need to remember how to do business together,” says Lanning. “That’s how our economy used to work.” How our economy used to work is that a local coffee shop hired a local graphic designer to build a logo; the local graphic designer hired an accountant to do their taxes; the accountant hired a janitorial service to keep their office clean. This is how you create sustainable employment—this is how you create a robust local economy. This is what economists call a “multiplier effect”—it is how dollars circulate, how money moves, how employment ripples. Spending money at a local business helps ensure that your money stays in Tucson—or Sierra Vista, or Nogales—rather than accumulating on corporate balance sheets, filing bank accounts that exist elsewhere. The wealth that accumulates elsewhere is wealth that doesn’t help pave our roads, support our firefighters, or hire our college graduates who want to stay.
According to a study by Civic Economics, if everyone in a city of 770,000—Tucson’s population is 520,000—shifted just 10 percent of their spending to a local business, collectively they would generate $137 million in new revenue for the city, more than 1,600 new jobs, and $50 million in new wages.
“That’s a great argument for people coming at this with a conservative perspective,” says Lanning. “Companies like Walmart create bigger government. One in seven Americans are now on food stamps. And who’s the biggest beneficiary of food stamps? Walmart. They underpay their employees; their employees collect food stamps to make ends meet, which they use at Walmart.” Spending money locally creates local resilience, says Lanning. “We call it self-help economics.”
Like Mitnik-White, Lanning emphasizes that localness is not absolute. “I have people say to me, ‘I’m not going to a local coffee shop because coffee isn’t grown here, so what difference does it make?’” says Lanning. “You have to help them understand that it’s not just the product the business is selling; it’s all the extra jobs they’re supporting, the wages they’re paying.”
Which is good news for Tucson’s firefighters. “We spend maybe half of our budget for food staples on coffee,” says Gaudioso. Firefighters work 10 24-hour shifts a month—and getting up three, four, or five times a night to answer calls takes its toll. “We drink coffee morning, noon, and night.”
So Gaudioso set out to find a local source for coffee. “I went around and gathered information on the average cost at stations that were already buying full-bean coffee,” says Gaudioso. “I found the range for the coffee we could afford was about $5 to $6 a pound. Erika suggested we try Exo Coffee. I remember typing the email to them and just cringing at the number—I really didn’t want to offend them.”
“When Ryan first emailed us with his price point,” says Exo’s owner Doug Smith, “I said, I can do that, no problem.” Smith ended up coming down slightly from his typical wholesale contract, while Gaudioso convinced the firefighters union to spend slightly more. “When you average it across 21 stations, with a few dozen guys working at each station, it ended up costing $1.50 more a month,” says Gaudioso. “And the benefits are huge. It’s a little bump in price and we get so much more in return. And it’s a better cup of coffee.”
“The thing about being a small business is that we grow in a measured way,” says Smith. “We’re not worried about the next quarter’s profit margins, as long as we’re comfortable with our relationships.”
And building relationships is one of the reasons Gaudioso started sourcing locally. “All of the places that we try to partner with are places that, if something goes wrong, we’re going to be the ones walking in their doors,” he says.
By the time I arrive at Station 4 two weeks later, the Exo coffee is on its last legs—the first order of 40 pounds went way faster than Gaudioso expected it to. When I ask him how the union membership has responded to his efforts to localize their spending habits, he shrugs. Basically, they get it, he says. “We’ve seen engines and ladders shut down. We’re aware of how old our trucks are, how they need maintenance. All of this hits home for people,” he says.
“Yes, it might be a couple of bucks more a month, but this is going to help my community. This is going to help where I live, where my kids go to school, the roads I drive on. It’s something people don’t think about when they walk into a Walmart, thinking, ‘Oh, I can get the cheapest thing here.’ And then when they drive away, they’re going to complain about the potholes. Or complain about class sizes at their kid’s school,” he says. “These things are not separate. The roads aren’t separate from the schools aren’t separate from the response time from the fire department. And through very little extra effort, you could have a great impact on all of those things.”
The easiest local shift for the firefighters was to seek locally owned restaurants on the days they don’t have time to make it to the grocery store, much less cook. “When you’re cooking at the station, if you get a call, you’ve got to shut everything off and leave,” says Gaudioso. If you’re waiting for your food at Wendy’s and you get a call, you’ve got to leave—burger or not. “When businesses are willing to make stuff again for us, or keep it warm for us, that’s so appreciated. There’s nothing like eating lukewarm burritos.”
Once the engine was out of the station—so to speak—Gaudioso kept finding opportunities to localize the firefighters’ budget. Mitnik-White introduced him to Mike Sadowsky, the sales manager at Merit Foods, a Tucson-based, family-owned food distributor. The food mostly doesn’t come from local producers—they’re working on it—but the business runs on local dollars. “We built this warehouse almost seven years ago using all local contractors,” says Sadowsky. “Everything we utilize—our printing, our marketing—we try to do locally. We have 72 employees here. All of our taxes all get paid here. We feel strongly that we should support local business.”
Indeed, their niche is “family-owned, independent restaurants”—500 of them, spread across southern Arizona and into New Mexico. “Success, to us, is building partnerships with customers,” says Sadowsky. “We want to help them succeed. We’re here for the long term.”
Since Mitnik-White connected Sadowsky with the firefighters, Merit has been supplying weekly groceries for some stations and also food for their special events, including the firefighters’ annual October Chili Cookoff fundraiser at Reid Park. In 2014, the firefighters raised $15,000 to benefit their Adopt-a-Family charity, thanks to sponsors and food, drink, and T-shirt sales—T-shirts that were, for the first time, made by Tucson-based Fed by Threads. “That was a big reach for us, selling a $20 T-shirt,” says Gaudioso. “But when you come to the booth and see the quality of the shirt, and hear the story behind it—there’s just no downside. And the shirts sold out!”
Fed By Thread T-shirts were only the most visible of the newly localized wares. The firefighters at Station 4 bought all the ingredients for their chili from Merit Foods; Sam Alboy of Mama’s Hawaiian Barbeque donated 35 pounds of sausage-based chili to Station 9.
Alboy is the president of Tucson Originals, a coalition of 48 locally owned restaurants. “We’re trying to help coordinate the local food community and promote local food businesses,” he says. Originally formed in the early ’90s as a buying club to help small restaurants compete for wholesale contracts, Tucson Originals has since shifted its focus to leveraging advertising—to the tune of $100,000 a year—to promote local restaurants, “to let people know that there’s a better choice than Chili’s,” says Alboy.
For every dollar that comes into a local restaurant, he says, 83 cents goes back into the local economy, compared with just 25 cents at a chain restaurant. “Basically, the only thing that stays local [at a chain] is payroll,” he says. “There’s no chance for a graphic designer to come in and help make something; for a local farmer to sell something. Chains push out any kind of local involvement in order to have consistency from coast to coast.”
Monthly meetings, quarterly socials, and pop-up dining events help connect the Tucson Originals membership, building the kind of support network that chains enjoy nationally. “It’s a cooperative effort,” says Alboy. “The firefighters—maybe they’ll eat at my place one day, but why not also send them to Lotus Garden or Mama’s Pizza? What you see is that local restaurants that join with Tucson Originals tend to flourish and thrive and don’t experience the same closure rate. We’re trying to support each other.”
What’s true for Tucson’s firefighters is true for Tucson’s restaurant owners—for Tucson’s farmers and graphic designers and accountants. Community is created through daily transactions—transactions that accumulate into relationships, into familiarity and mutual support.
And while the local-first movement isn’t just about the money, it’s also absolutely about the money. A study by the Knight Foundation showed that connection to place was the single leading indicator for a community’s prosperity—that is, researchers found “a significant correlation between community attachment and economic growth.”
Spending locally is a daily decision, an incremental shift.
Spending locally is a daily decision, an incremental shift. If collectively you and I make up our community, then we are also our community’s economy. Today’s latte; tomorrow’s sandwich; next week’s dinner party—money’s power lies in its movement. We can outsource our graphic designers and accountants. On the whole, we’ve already outsourced our farmers—our brewers and millers, too. But by its very nature, a firefighter’s service is place-based—it has to be local. The structure of core services—police, fire, transportation—is community-oriented. The example of firefighters buying local food to support their own jobs extrapolates to everything else—we can support our farmers and millers, bakers and brewers simply through the dollars we spend. And as the world’s energy resources become increasingly scarce, we might start to consider food as another core community service that we’ve neglected.
“We import $3.2 billion dollars worth of food into Arizona and export $2.8 billion worth of food grown here,” says Lanning. “Anyone who can’t see that’s an enormous amount of wasted energy and resources is simply not paying attention to the system.”
It’s a self-interested endeavor, of course—Gaudioso wants to keep his job; I want to keep my kale. But spending locally also impacts our communities in ways we can’t measure. “Everybody benefits,” says Gaudioso. “Everybody gets an opportunity to hopefully be in a better place than they were if you just ordered everything off Amazon and did all your shopping at Walmart. This community could look drastically different.”
In the meantime, Gaudioso pours himself another cup of Exo coffee. We sit around the fire station’s dining table, and wait for another call. ✜
Tucson Fire Department. Tucsonaz.gov/fire.
Local First Arizona. LocalFirstAz.com.