Higher Ed Hits Higher Purpose

Southern Arizona’s institutions of higher education must collaborate with people living in so-called ‘food deserts’ to form long-term solutions to food access.

March 1, 2014

Food JusticeIssue 5: March/April 2014

Drive across Tucson any which way—north to south, east to west—and it’s likely that you’ll enter at least two and perhaps several “food deserts,” during your journey. These are barrios, low-income neighborhoods, or housing developments that have fallen on hard times, where access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods is limited for low-income families without working vehicles or thick wallets.

Appearances aside, in these “food deserts” residents are not passive victims of a crippled economy and its broken food system; they are often seeking collaboration with a variety of Arizona’s educational institutions, nonprofits, agencies, and socially conscious businesses to alleviate poverty, traumatic eating disorders, and health issues facing their families and neighbors.

Recently, a work group has emerged among faculty and students at Pima Community College, Prescott College’s Tucson campus, and the University of Arizona to collaborate with these low-income communities for more lasting food solutions.


Anita Fernandez, the director of Prescott College Tucson, is optimistic that the emerging tri-institutional collaboration can be in greater service to pressing community needs. “Between all of us, I think we have a really strong set of resources not just for looking at food justice, but for taking some tangible actions together with communities and individuals at risk,” she said.

“Our goal is to transmit new knowledge, improve practices and policies that conserve water, and strengthen our local food system to decrease food insecurity throughout the southern Arizona food shed.”

—Rafael de Grenade, post-doctoral research associate.

Across town at the Pima Community College campus, Jodylee Estrada Duek talks to her predominantly Mexican- and Native-American-students about sustainable foodways in both nutrition and environmental studies courses. “In both my classes and in informal settings, I spend time with students in the garden we manage so that they know that they have the capacity to grow nutritious food in this climate,” she said. “Everyone goes home with some fresh food, as well as new skills and ideas.”

At the University of Arizona, Tucson’s oldest institution of higher education, a new, interdisciplinary food systems network of faculty, staff, and students has emerged under the leadership of Doug Taren, the associate dean for Academic Affairs at the Zuckerman College of Public Health. As a board member of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Taren is imagining a program that not only would have strong links to community nonprofits and grassroots alliances in the Tucson area but also would engage students through in-service learning in fostering food solutions.

Rafael de Grenade, a post-doctoral research associate who is helping to facilitate the program, said that she hopes the network will function “as a way to facilitate collaboration and stimulate research related to food justice, applied nutrition, and integrated food systems. Our goal is to transmit new knowledge, improve practices and policies that conserve water, and strengthen our local food system to decrease food insecurity throughout the southern Arizona food shed.”

These initiatives have emerged none too soon, since both poverty and food insecurity are plaguing at least a third of all urban and rural residents in southern Arizona at this time. Select individuals at our institutions of higher education have lent their skills to community-based efforts to deal with hunger, obesity, diabetes, and food insecurity. Now, however, they are beginning to use these issues as a galvanizing effort to bring together a wide range of talent, skills, and resources now being requested by Tucson’s many community organizations and ethnicities.

Ironically, one might argue that such a galvanizing vision for Arizona’s health and economic well-being was what originally prompted the establishment of such institutions in our state. In 1862, the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Act to establish a land grant university in each state to deal with the issues of food and water for health and prosperity. That act mandated that the “leading objective” of land grant institutions would be the instruction and dissemination of agriculture and life sciences necessary to feed the populace of each state. Arizona first developed its land grant college in Tucson in 1885. But today, it would be difficult to argue that the collective efforts of our fine educators and researchers have been sufficiently focused on the issue of food security to keep the nutritional and economic health of our state and local residents from deteriorating.

But as Lisa Pino, former USDA Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, told participants at the Arizona Food and Farm Finance Forum, held in January at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, “Arizona holds much potential in developing local food production and strengthening its community economies through agriculture. Both universities and the many USDA programs can help in this effort. This need is further compelled as Arizona holds one of the highest childhood food insecurity rates in the nation.”

Among the recommendations that emerged from the forum were the following action items relevant to improving the health and well-being of those who reside in the so-called food deserts of our community:

  • That our educational institutions work with state and federal agencies, businesses, and nonprofits to increase the volume, diversity, and nutritional density of healthy affordable foods available to residents of food deserts by jump-starting new locally owned food and farm micro-enterprises in both urban and rural areas.
  • That students as well as faculty become more fully engaged with community members of all races, ethnicities, and income levels to participate as co-designers of a more just, resilient, and healthful food system that generates more green jobs with livable wages.
  • That further assistance be provided to young farmers and social entrepreneurs in a wide range of innovative options for financing food solutions through hybrid for-profit/nonprofit corporations and collectives.
  • That our institutions provide technical support to design, finance, and rebuild the food processing infrastructure once found in Arizona, specifically meat processing, milling, malting, fermenting, composting, and food distribution hub facilities, which will create jobs across the entire food supply chain.

While such big, bold, and far-reaching goals may seem unachievable, or at least daunting to skeptics, those involved in the first Arizona Food and Farm Finance Forum left the Biosphere 2 with the sense that we must retake control to solve our communities’ own food problems. In a provisional poll of financial resources in the forum that could be potentially dedicated to such solutions, the 70 participants in the room revealed that there was more than $370,000 of personal transferable assets and $2 million more of institutional assets that could be rededicated to such food system transformations in our state.

Imagine the impact we might leverage if every reader of this magazine reinvested some small share of his or her personal resources into the local food system. In so doing, we could incentivize our institutions of higher education to do the same, to address the urgent issue of food access and food security in our region’s food deserts, and perhaps most importantly, teach our state’s students how to invest in a sustainable food future. ✜

Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally celebrated nature writer, food and farming activist, and proponent of conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity.



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