In Alleviating Poverty & Food Insecurity through Jumpstarting Farms & Food Microenterprises in Low Income Urban & Rural Communities: Field Notes from Arizona and New Mexico
It’s been roughly fifteen years since the food localization movement gained ground nationally, but some communities and states have lagged far behind others in recovering or newly building vibrant local food economies. And yet, many are still grappling with how true democratizing food systems and innovative financing can tangibly make a difference in relieving poverty, food insecurity, and their dark twins of hunger and obesity. The question, then, is this:
How do we best invest of our sweat equity, values, intelligence, money and other assets to make sure that the most marginalized communities and the most impoverished states benefit from all the innovations emerging out of the “slow food” and “slow money” movements?
Because I think in stories better than I think in abstract principles, I would like to offer you this “tale of two foodsheds” as a parable to guide us in answering this question. At this point in time, there are certainly enough data and case studies to help us learn what has worked and what has not. But it is up to us to weave a narrative that offers our communities some signposts of “where to go from here.” For me a comparative approach—juxtaposing the pathways taken by two neighboring states’ food systems—can help guide us into the unknown.
Why I say that we are heading into the unknown is that there are no quick fixes or formulas that are bound to work in every foodshed, for each place needs to do the next often varies though time, as a food system matures into greater complexity. The next phases of in the ecological succession of our food ecosystems will need something far more nuanced than a “Think Globally, Eat Locally” bumper sticker campaign to propel us.
Despite laudable philanthropic efforts like that of the Kellogg Foundation and courageous government programs like the USDA Strikeforce for Rural Growth and Opportunity, I contend argue that what has moved the needle the most is alternative community-based financing of food and farm microenterprises in balance with other funds of support for innovation.
Since the Great Recession of 2009-2013, the surest means that poorer communities have found to recover economically are through proliferating low-entry small locally-owned businesses. Such microenterprises can both scale up rapidly as income allows and generate multiplier effects that ripple through the community. While technical and even modest financial assistance from government program and community foundations has been welcomed by low income communities, the real differences have been made by neighbors helping neighbors.
Fewer and fewer of them are using conventional financing to leverage food rand operate businesses that produce, process, distribute and market value-added foods and beverages within and beyond their own communities. Crowdfunding may get most of the buzz among young agrarians, but there are literally dozens of other emerging strategies to help beginning mushroom farmers, brewers, bakers and kimchi makers “ferment a food revolution.”
As numerous studies have shown, the multiple effects of businesses based on local production, capital, management skills and place-based traditions are often many times greater than franchising off-the-shelf formulas from afar that return most of the profits to distant corporate headquarters and savings and loan institutions. But to garner those multiple effects, you must deeply know you community, its impact investors, politicos and matchmakers.
Let’s now compare progress in food systems change over the last decade in New Mexico and its neighboring state, Arizona, to see how these trends have played out in states which lack much state governmental and philanthropic capacity to generate food systems change. The innovations which have occurred in these Southwestern states are largely due to a homegrown “let’s get it done” spirit combined with incipient local financing options that have developed in the absence of the other kinds of support already abundantly evident in states like California, Vermont, Washington or North Carolina.
As I begin to offer our parable, recognize that Arizona and New Mexico sit with Mississippi in the lowest rungs of the ladder in their institutional capacity for dealing with chronic poverty, high unemployment and underemployment, household and childhood food insecurity, as well as obesity and diabetes. They also share drought-prone climates, water-scarce environments and high levels of cultural and wild biodiversity, but none of these factors fully explain their deplorable levels of food insecurity. Rather, we can attribute their plight and blight to their history of tolerating extractive economies and chronically underinvesting in the public good. Both state and tribal governments and their philanthropic foundations have largely ignored investment in food and other community-based enterprises or collectives. They know have whopping health care costs in their communities to prove it!
Relatively speaking, however, New Mexico has had much more governmental investment in small-and medium scale farming and value-added food microenterprises through its Taste the Traditions! campaign; a state-level food policy council and a state organic certification program. Its many small but effective community foundations have vigorously funded community food solutions, not just hospitals, schools and cultural arts centers. New Mexican non-profits have also done well in attracting outside support from the Kellogg Foundation and Christensen Fund for efforts like the Bioneers/Collective Heritage Institute’s “Dreaming New Mexico project, as well as the development of community kitchens.
In contrast, Arizona has a silly but underfunded export-oriented Arizona Grown” promotional campaign through its agribusiness –dominated Commission of Agriculture and Horticulture. It has no state-supported Food Policy Council or organic certifiers, and few if any foundations within its borders that support farming, ranching or food systems innovations.
Curiously, however, Arizona has recently come to ranked first among all states in its “entrepreneurial spirit”—that is, the number of new business start-ups per ten thousand residents.
Even though the two states are roughly the same in size, climate, farmland acreage, rural population size, average per capita income and ethnic mix, New Mexico’s organic farming and livestock production has had a $53 million dollar impact on the state economy, while Arizona’s organic producers hardly generate a fourth as much benefits. New Mexico has fostered far more certified organic farmers (215 operations) and organic acres farmed (365,719 acres) compared to Arizona (56 operations with 40,188 certified organic acres).These differences are largely due to New Mexico’s public investment in organic certifiers and in the annual New Mexico Organic Farming Conference, which has received state Department of Agriculture Organic Program and Cooperative Extension Support as well as philanthropic support for over a decade.
Without such infrastructural support, innovations by Arizona’s farmers and ranchers have gone in other direction, determined more by local capital than by governmental and foundation spending. Arizona’s Tea Party libertarians and hippie commune refugees now form an “ideological horseshoe;” the two ends almost touch when it comes to lowering the hurdles for local self-sufficiency! Arizona has twice as many certified Natural Grown farms and ranches as New Mexico has, perhaps because the costs of peer-to-peer certification are far less than the costs of USDA organic certification.
Arizona also has over191 farms and ranches that list their direct-marketed products on www.localhavest.org, compared to 132 from New Mexico. Arizona harbors 85 farmers markets compared to New Mexico’s 66, and most are managed without municipal government support. Arizona also tops New Mexico in community-supported agriculture projects, urban farms, homesteads and community gardens, heritage foods featured on the Slow Food Ark of Taste, and in the size of readership, pages per year and private advertising support for their respective Edible Communities magazines. Although difficult to determine objective criteria for inclusion, it now appears that Arizona has eclipsed New Mexico in its number of locally-sourcing restaurants and its number of mobile food trucks. Tucson is ranked with Los Angeles as having the most food trucks per capita of any metro area, perhaps because of Mexican-American micro-lending traditions and the low-capital entry point for food truck businesses.
Even Arizona’s community kitchens are privately run rather than affiliated with counties or community centers. The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Borderlands Food Bank and Market on the Move are recognized as being among the most entrepreneurial in the country. At least two Arizona businesses have benefited from being part of the young entrepreneur’s showcases at Slow Money national conferences, Hayden Flour Mills and Double Check Ranch. While Arizona does not have bits own Organic Farming Conference, Local First Arizona, the University of Arizona Sustainable Food Systems Program and their many partners are hosting the second annual Arizona Food and Farm Finance Forum, and have featured the likes of Woody Tasch, Michael Dimmock, Elizabeth U, Alex Young, Michael Brownlee, and local heroes Kimber Lanning, Kira Dixon-Weinstein, Derrick Widmark and Dennis Moroney.
The point of this parable of two foodsheds is not that one state has a more successful strategy for fostering food systems change than the other. Both Arizona and New Mexico have a long way to go before their poverty, hunger, agricultural lands degradation and food insecurity are alleviated or reversed. But New Mexico has had the luxury of more governmental and philanthropic support, while food systems innovators in Arizona have had to use their capitalistic wits and emerging alternative financing strategies to leverage change. Arizonans now need to demand that their state government and foundations invest more to shore up components of the food system—especially food justice for farmworkers and food service workers in terms of live-able wages and health benefits. These are issues that private investors, however slow, cannot solve alone.
On the other hand, there are constituencies in New Mexico that need to go beyond “merely dreaming,” to roll up their sleeves and creatively invest local dollars in a more equitable and affordable food system. Both states—in fact, all states—need to work more diligently at combining Slow Money-oriented private, philanthropic and governmental support for “whole food chain restoration” and fiduciary innovation if we are to keep economic disparities and nutritional dysfunctions from undermining the very structure of what remains good in our society.
Gary Paul Nabhan, University of Arizona Sustainable Food Systems & Slow Money Board