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When Local is Binational: Borderland Food in Nogales

Folks queue up to receive boxes of produce at new Borderlands Food Bank location.

When the food relocalization movement revved up its engines a dozen years ago, I would often see maps that circumscribed “local foodsheds” by county, state,  or region of our sprawling nation, but they never crossed international boundaries. But when I recently moved to southern Arizona to plant an heirloom orchard just twelve miles north of the U.S./Mexico line, such maps suddenly made little sense to me.

As I searched for low chill fruit and nut varieties to plant in my orchard, I learned that the Mission olive, fig, grape, pomegranate and quince selections best suited to my microclimate were once widely cultivated on both sides of the line, but had so dramatically declined north of the border than few American nurseries offered them anymore. When I searched for commercial availability of native foods and beverages of our Sonoran Desert region—chiltepines, Emory oak acorns, mescal and mesquite—most of the harvests were being wild-foraged from landscapes like ours just south of the line.

Baffled by this food flowing in from just south of the international boundary—for I had always dismissed it as being unnecessarily “outsourced”—I began to ask tougher questions that demolished the old assumptions I had held.

Was it better for me to source fresh fruits and vegetables from small Sonoran farms just fifty miles from my home, or purchase the same kinds that had been shipped in from California more than eight hundred miles in the trucks of Veritable Vegetable?

Are my neighboring Mexican farmers using less fossil fuel and government subsidized water than farmers in California, especially those which irrigate crops from large irrigation projects which have cost us all billions of dollars and depleted the flows of many rivers?

Are Mexican-born farmworkers better off staying in their home villages and working for lower wages, or better off migrating to the U.S. where wages are higher but the cost of living is too? Where is occupation health care more responsive to their needs? Where will their children get a better education?

Now a new report—Hungry for Change: Borderlands Food and Water in the Balanceattempts to pose such questions about our inherently binational food system, and answers—at least provisionally—some of those more difficult questions.  Further, it reminds Americans just how much of our entire food supply is dependent upon labor, expertise, ingenuity, seeds, seafood and water originating in Mexico. The report, released this last week by the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, was prepared for discussion at the first-ever Border Food Summit to be held September 16th to 18th near Nogales, Arizona. Nogales, by the way, is the most important inland food port-of-entry in the world. Among its many findings are the following points:

  1. Roughly sixty to seventy percent of all fresh produce eaten in the U.S. is grown in Mexico, but production and transportation of these fruits and vegetables can be easily disrupted by climatic disasters, by social conflicts, or by national policy shifts.
  2. Roughly 150,000 to 170,000 tons of seafood are exported from Mexico to the U.S. each year, and three of every four pounds of fish and shellfish caught or cultured off the coast of just one Mexican state—Sonora— is served on American tables.
  3. Three-quarters of all farmworkers in the U.S. who harvest the produce we’ve grown up easting were born in Mexico. But since 2009, many have returned to their homeland as the rancor over immigration has escalated in the U.S., leaving 30 to 40% of the California acres sown to hand-picked fruits and vegetables unpicked this year alone.
  4. While immigration was once driven by the fact that per capita income in the U.S. is 5.6 times greater than that in Mexico, these national trends no longer reflect realities closer to the border. Today, U.S. border counties suffer poverty levels twice as high as the country as a whole, residents in Mexico’s northern states have incomes 75% higher than those in the rest of the Republic.
  5. Despite the enormous volume of produce flowing down food superhighways crossing the border at Nogales, San Diego, El Paso or McAllen, there are few “exit ramps” for that food to reach the poor living along the border. Despite some produce brokers donating lasrge quantities of foods to community food banks and “markets on the move,”  the border states of Arizona and New Mexico being ranked in the five worst states in terms of childhood food insecurity.
  6. Since the economic downturn and regional drought, the poorest of illegal immigrants in urban and rural areas have sought food and employment from source below the radar of government agencies. Their emerging informal food economy has apparently become more of a safety net for their families than have governments or non-profit relief efforts.
  7. Food marketing innovations which started south of the border are literally changing the “mouth” if not the entire face of America.  Taco trucks are everywhere in America today, and Tucson is now tied with Los Angeles for having the highest density of mobile food wagons per capita in the U.S. Why eat at Taco Bell when you can have fresh vegetables in handmade tortillas to eat on the street?

One thing becomes clear as we try to fathom all the implications of these trends and statistics: to achieve true food justice in the U.S., we must also strive for immigration justice and justice regarding who and what we subsidize in our food system. So ask yourself, what will true border food justice look like, taste like and feel like to you?


Gary Nabhan is one of the four editors of Hungry for Change (available on line at and co-host of the Border Food Summit  (see the agenda and register at ).

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