Ahh, Baja Arizona in the wintertime—the time of year when we can open the windows, play outside in the daytime, and take those silly sun shades off our windshields. It is also a time when our gardens flourish, and many people take advantage of our region’s year-round growing season to produce food in their backyards.
Food production is no longer strictly a rural endeavor. Cities like New York, Seattle, Chicago, and many others are becoming havens for local food production. Whether you are concerned with access to nutritious food, knowing exactly where your food comes from, preventing obesity and diabetes, creating green spaces in the city to combat heat island effects, reducing the carbon footprint of the food you eat, or just getting back to nature, the urban agriculture movement offers a solution.
In the Tucson region, neighborhood-based food-producing activity has been expanding rapidly in recent years. According to the Pima County Health Department, from 2010 to 2012, 49 school and community gardens were installed, more than 500 new home and container gardens were created, 3,500 residents enrolled in gardening classes, and 600 people joined the Pima County Food Bank’s gardening cooperative. Judging from participation in the Food Bank’s chicken raising classes and attendance at the Food Conspiracy Co-op’s annual Coop Tour, interest in keeping small animals like chickens or miniature goats for food production is also on the rise.
While interest in local food production has been increasing, our local laws and regulations have not kept pace. Public policies that restrict urban agriculture activities include land use and zoning rules, ordinances about the treatment of animals, public nuisance codes, and public health regulations. When these policies were originally developed, agriculture was assumed to be a rural issue and the vision of an urban area being used for food production wasn’t considered. Today, probably every neighborhood in the Tucson region contains some form of urban agriculture—a flock of chickens, a community garden, a backyard vegetable patch—whether it is technically legal or not. Judging by the low number of code enforcement complaints, these activities are causing few problems. For example, the Pima County Animal Control Center reports that from 2008 through August 2011, it responded to just eight situations throughout the entire county that involved chickens; of these, only three were related to chickens being kept for food purposes. Local government is in the process of catching up to community norms by crafting new policies.
Some policies have already changed. For example the Pima County Health Department’s Community Health Improvement Plan recommends urban agriculture as a strategy that supports physical health and wellness. And the newly voter-approved Tucson General Plan includes an entire chapter dedicated to urban agriculture, which recommends a reduction in barriers to local food production and distribution. The General Plan also recommends the development of new markets for small-scale farmers and gardens, zoning and land use regulations that support the safe, equable growth and distribution of locally produced foods, and collaboration with key partners to develop new opportunities for urban-scale gardens, farms, gleaning, and distribution systems.
Documents like the Tucson General Plan and Pima County Community Health Improvement Plan are visionary—they present a long-term view of what we want our community to become. These plans must be implemented through specific policies and programs that support their vision. With regard to the General Plan, the vision is implemented through the Land Use Code and other city ordinances. Opportunities for citizens to participate in developing local codes and rules include participating in committees that draft recommendations, commenting on proposed rules in writing or at public hearings, and communicating directly with elected officials who will have the final say.
The City has been working on updating its land use policies for more than a year. Under the auspices of the Sustainable Zoning Code Integration Project, the City’s Department of Planning and Development Services convened an informal citizen’s committee to help develop a series of draft recommendations for Zoning Code revisions that the Planning Commission, and then the Mayor and Council will consider. These draft recommendations include rules that: Identify where community gardens, farmers’ markets, and urban farms may be located; Create workable rules for keeping small farm animals, such as chickens and miniature goats; Provide parameters for the sale of locally produced food.
As of this writing, the draft revisions are under discussion with a group of neighborhood advocates who have raised concerns about the impact of urban agriculture on neighborhoods. A spirited community process is under way to resolve these concerns. Interested citizens are encouraged to visit the Sustainable Zoning Code Integration Project website, where documentation of the Urban Agriculture Task Force is provided. Task Force meetings are open to the public; the final recommendations will go to the City’s Planning Commission and then to Mayor and Council sometime in the spring.
Although the specifics of the proposed new regulations are not yet complete, it is certainly a step forward for our local governments to recognize the value of local food production and distribution. The process of developing specific policies that reflect the vision for our community as one that fosters household and community sustainability and food security is well under way. These efforts will bring our local food producers out of the shadows and legitimize food-producing activities that are already part of the fabric of our community. ✜
For more information, visit: ediblebajaarizona.com/backyard-food-policy-fact-sheets/
Merrill Eisenberg is an applied anthropologist who is retired from the University of Arizona Zuckerman College of Public Health. Her interest in food policy comes from her commitment to community empowerment and participation in policy development. She will be contributing a regular food policy column to Edible Baja Arizona.