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Commit to bringing food security to Tucson

Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobiologist, literary naturalist and local foods advocate was a lecturer in the downtown "Food" series.
Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobiologist, literary naturalist and local foods advocate was a lecturer in the downtown “Food” series.


Gary Paul Nabhan wants to put Tucson on the map as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, joining places like Popayán, Colombia, Chengdu, China, and Östersund, Sweden, as outposts of gastronomic excellence.

“We’re … prematurely celebrating what I think will be a major international designation for Tucson,” he said.

Nabhan hopes this title will bring recognition to Tucson’s vibrant, multiethnic gastronomy community and to the fact that the city has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation. In spite of Tucson’s standing as a city with considerable food diversity, many Tucsonans lack access to sufficient quantities of safe, nutritional food.

Nabhan is an internationally celebrated nature writer, food and farming activist and W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona Southwest Center. He’s also a local food movement pioneer, an advocate for the preservation of heirloom seeds and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius’ award.

On Wednesday evening, in front of a packed Fox Tucson Theatre, Nabhan described his strategy to ensure that everyone in Tucson has access to quality food and proper nutrition. He spoke about his work as part of the free Downtown Lecture Series on Food sponsored by UA’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Underpinning Nabhan’s work is a keen sense of community and an acute awareness of the unmet needs of the poor, particularly in relation to food.

In 2013 almost 16 percent of Arizonans suffered food insecurity, and 27 percent of Arizona’s children lived in poverty, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. In 2010, the USDA declared eight areas of metro Tucson “food deserts” — census tracts “with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery story or healthy, affordable food retail outlet.”

Audience members Donna and Frank Patania, longtime Tucson residents, are concerned about food insecurity in their community. “We take our own food for granted,” Frank Patania said.

Arizona has the tools to reduce poverty and food insecurity within its borders, Nabhan said. Arizona was one of the top 10 entrepreneurial hotspots in the U.S., according to the 2011 Kaufman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. Tucson’s newest startups include restaurants, community kitchens, food trucks and other food micro-enterprises that can all be used to increase the city’s food security.

Nabhan hopes Tucson will use its entrepreneurial spirit to generate a healthy food system.

Key to this transformation are Tucson’s multicultural food heritage, indigenous ingredients, traditional culinary practices and local know-how — features that make Tucson a perfect candidate for the title City of Gastronomy. For example, Tucson’s mix of Tohono O’odham and European foods and culinary practices adds variety to the menu.

Tucson’s food culture has many strengths, including its spirit of innovation, deep antiquity and continuity with ancient traditions. The oldest agricultural remains in North America are found in the Southwest, where more than 4,000 years of unbroken farming traditions bind the past with the present.

“Our regional economy and cuisine serve to maintain mission-era cattle breeds, fruits and seeds,” Nabhan said. “Our foodshed (the geographic region that produces our food) juxtaposes the sacred and the profane, the ancient and the postmodern.”

Nabhan’s conviction that Tucson can root out poverty and food insecurity inspired the audience. At the end of his presentation, Nabhan asked all in attendance for their commitment not only to enjoy Tucson’s rich food culture but also to see that everyone can share in the region’s bounty.

The delighted audience recited Nabhan’s affirmation with gusto.

Within about two weeks, UNESCO will announce a new City of Gastronomy. If all goes as planned, Tucson will gain the well-deserved title.


Contact UA journalism graduate Susan E. Swanberg at





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