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Ten Things that Tucson can do to redesign our food system for health, environmental resilience, social justice and economic well-being

By: Gary Paul Nabhan

  1. Get more of the beef, fruits, nuts, and vegetables already grown in So. Arizona to be processed & delivered in or near Tucson.  Today, less than 2% of Tucson’s food budget comes from the 5 county area of Southern Arizona, and profits from foods grown nearby but processed elsewhere benefits corporations and economies other than our own. Mandate that beef grown on Pima County-owned ranches be used in our schools, prisons and nursing homes. Use credit unions and urban industrial development zones to process fresh fruits and produce into value-added products here, to capture $2 more of multiplier effects for every dollar of locally-grown food.
  2. Encourage farmers & ranchers nearby us to use as inputs materials & energy that now go into the waste streams of Tucson, Phoenix & Nogales. To produce  $300 million of food commodities produce in Southern Arizona each year, $200 million is spent on buying inputs such as seeds, compost, fertilizer, machinery and non-local labor. Co-locate blood meal, bone meal and hide processing near slaughter houses. Publically fund large-scale composting facilities in each county, capturing the waste streams from cross-border produce coming through Nogales as well.  Foster use of local labor, skilled professionals and firms rather than outsourcing them.
  3. Reduce the waste streams & energy losses associated with processing, packaging, distribution & preparation once food & beverages reach (or are made in) Tucson. We currently throw away half our food, and fill our landfills up with edibles and their packaging. Over 20% of our trash is beverage bottles, cans and vats.  Put a 5 cent tax on all cans and bottles of a gallon or less sold in markets. Ensure more edible “expired food” from cafeterias reaches Feed America food banks and Markets on the Move. Draw methane off large-scale compost heaps.
  4. Encourage more food to be grown AND harvested within (or near) our city limits. Create maps of all glean-able fruit in public spaces and all community gardens, and route bike trails and bus lines to them. Make them available as apps, on websites and as wall maps in schools.  Map public-owned spaces with potable water where garden or farm space can be rented or donated. Further reduce barriers to home poultry-raising, front yard gardens, and water harvesting off streets.
  5. Keep junk food, beverages & packaging from reaching and trashing our schools & get healthy regionally-produced foods to students at risk of obesity and “adult-onset” diabetes.  Ban all soft drinks from schools, and all Big Gulp (18 ounce or more) beverages from within the city limits, as New York City has done. Tax all nationally-owned franchises of fast food restaurants and use those funds for K-12 diabetes prevention programs and school gardens.  Give tax incentives to foster local micro-enterprises which serve healthy agua frescas and other beverages in containers that customers bring to the beverage outlet.
  6. Foster the production of food in Metro Tucson in ways that reduce the Urban Heat Island Effect, sequester carbon & harvest rain & stormwater.  Direct all future public landscaping in Metro Tucson toward perennial edible landscaping which makes maximum use of rainwater-harvesting techniques, and retool neighborhood streets (as Desert Harvesters has begun to catch rainwater for perennial plantings.)
  7. Leverage both public & private support to redesign our local food system through local investors in “slow money” strategies.  Host a Food Financing Summit for Southern Arizona where venture capitalists, angel investors, philanthropic foundations, and government agencies are brought together to commit to funding a redesigned food system to keep Tucson from falling off the “nutritional cliff” from the diabetes and obesity endemic, which already causes $3.8 billion in statewide medical costs each year. Redirect diabetes treatment monies to prevention and food system investments.
  8. Capture more tourist revenue that can help us build infrastructure & maintain our unique food traditions? Recast Tucson as the historic hub of Mexican-, Native American and Western “fusion” cuisines, and nominate Tucson as a Global City of Culinary Heritage in UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network. Document all of Tucson’s unique foods, and map sources of their availability.
  9. Grow more farmers, ranchers & gardeners to usher in a 25% food re-localization effort? Collaborate with the University of Arizona to reactivate its training programs for beginning farmers, aiming at 50 new enrollees who wish to be farmers or ranchers in the region per year, and making public lands and tool libraries available for them to rent for 1-3 years after graduation.
  10.  Assure enough arable land and potable water will be left available to ensure Tucson’s food security in the face of post-peak oil, climate change & economic uncertainty? Promote a county-wide referendum to reserve a sizeable % of the Tucson Active Water Management Area’s water supplies for food security indefinitely, and reserve a sizeable percentage of floodplain land for the same goal. Base the percentage on estimates of peak (allowable) population, and the water required to produce 25% of all food and beverages to support that population in Southern Arizona.

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