Arizona communities fighting food desert

 

Photo credit: Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Photo credit: Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Imagine making a 100-mile trip every time you need fresh produce. More than 700,000 Arizona residents have no other option.

Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa, has 55 food deserts and the residents make up more than half of Arizona’s population, according to the Food Desert Locator released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Food desert are categorized as low-income, low-access neighborhoods that lack affordable fresh produce, according to the USDA. More than 23 million Americans live in food deserts.

In 2010, the Current Population Survey, released by the USDA showed one in five Arizonans lived in poverty, tying Arizona with New Mexico for the fifth highest percentage of residents living in poverty.  Food desert usually exist in rural areas and low-income communities.

These statistics can be seen in the food desert town of Ajo, located in Pima County. Ajo has a population of fewer than 4,000 with one local grocery story and is roughly 100 miles away from other neighboring grocery stores. The majority of all produce gets shipped to Ajo.

“But what happens when the prices of gas and trucking goes up?” said Gayle Weyers, a community gardener. “Ajo might just pass away, it might die.”

In order to address the issue of fresh produce shortage, Fran Driver, chief executive officer of Desert Senita Community Health Center in Ajo and Nina Sajovec Altshul, director of the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture, promoted a unity garden. Participants grow food locally with the Ajo Regional Food partnership that was formed five years ago to create a local food system and move Ajo from food desert category to becoming food oasis.

“This new partnership has really increased the supply of food,” Weyers said.

Weyers has been living in Ajo for 12 years with her husband. Three years ago both she and her husband started a fruit and vegetable garden. Recently, Weyers purchased fruit trees worth $300.

Ajo is located by the Tohono O’odham reservation, whose Type II diabetes rates have skyrocketed, according to the California Indian Education, Native American from Tohono O’odham makes up 30 percent of Ajo’s population.

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Photo credit: Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Since the partnership began in 2009, Ajo has expanded its garden surface by 40,000 square feet. The partnership started with growing 100 pounds of food and now in 2014 the gardens are growing more than 3,000 pounds per year. After the five-year partnership more than 50 families are now involved in local gardening, according to the Ajo Regional Food Bank.

Although Ajo has one local grocery food, Weyers and her husband buy whatever they can find at the market and try to plant everything else.

“I personally can see the increase of attendees at the food market and I can personally see the amount of people that stop at our gardens to talk about food and how they can start a garden on their own,” Weyers said.

The community is pushing for more growth in their gardens to sustain more jobs and more locally planted produce. The community received a $96,500 grant from the USDA for two years to improve the capacity of food growth for the farmers market.

In the local elementary school of Ajo, a garden sits right in the middle of the school yard for the second year part of the Edible Ajo Schoolyard program, which has become part of the school curriculum for all students to spend an hour period in the garden per week. The project aims to teach students about weeding, planting, harvesting and eating fresh produce. Part of the program, soda and candy vending machines were eliminated from the school.

“The kids are the future,” said Altshul. “That is our focus.”

Another town in Arizona that is facing the shortage in fresh produce is San Manuel, part of Pinal County, which is more than 50 miles away from Tucson and more than 100 miles away from Phoenix.

Just 20 square miles small, San Manuel has one small grocery market that carries some produce but is typically expensive or the quality is poor, said Joanna Diaz, food service director for Mammoth San Manuel Unified School District.

Most of San Manuel residents work in neighboring towns and rely on other cities to get their fresh fruits and vegetables.  Diaz who was born and raised in San Manuel relies on her husband, who works in Tucson to buy fresh produce.

“We’ve always gone to Tucson to buy groceries, and that has been since I was a little girl,” Diaz said. “I think the older people in their 70s have a harder time making those trips and they either have kids that make the trip for them or they eat fast food.”

San Manuel has a few farmers market in town, but Diaz said she hasn’t seen any growth in them in terms of better produce quality and quantity.

About four years ago, one of San Manuel’s local food markets closed down because residents were still driving to neighboring towns to buy their groceries. Neither the quantity nor the quality of the produce persuaded people to keep the revenue within their community.

“I shopped there because I wanted to help the business and keep the revenue within my community,” said Edith Harrison, retired food service director for Mammoth San Manuel School District. “But I watched my friends day after day drive to Tucson to get their groceries and I do understand that it was more economical but this is the end product of what happened by people not utilizing the businesses we had here.”

It was cost effective for people to continue buying their produce from Tucson when they had to make the drive for work. Eventually the market went out of business.

Almost every month, the local school spends $6,000 on just produce from Tucson that lasts about a month and a half, Diaz said.

“Kids are relying on fast food because they want to,” Diaz said. “You have parents that are working all day and they don’t want to cook, so they buy all the French fries and hamburgers.”

Providing a community with fresh produce has to first start with educating not only the children but the parents, said Harrison, who has been living in San Manuel for 59 years.

“It’s not about the ability to get fresh fruit and vegetables it’s about the inability of the people to seek it for their children and get it,” Harrison said. “They wouldn’t give it to their children if it was sold right here in the town because I don’t think they were raised on fruit and vegetables.”

Harrison said that students must be taught at a young age to eat fresh vegetables and fruits in order for that habit to carry over into adult life.

“I have watched the students come into the school and they would not touch the vegetables,” Harrison said. “They barely would eat them. I don’t care how we prepared them or how we presented them they have never been fed it as children.”

Harrison believes that the number one solution to saving San Manuel is by educating the parents to teach their children at a very young age what food they want them to grow to eat.

“For our town, I think you need to teach the parents that they have to present produce to their babies,” Harrison said. “They can’t say at the age five ‘My little girl doesn’t like that’ well of course she doesn’t if she hasn’t been taught to eat it.”

The need for fruit and vegetables is essential to children, but Harrison said unfortunately children in San Manuel are not raised on that concept.

“There vegetable was French fries,” Harrison said.  “I’m terrified for San Manuel.”

Harrison has been out of the food service for 10 years and in the last 10 years she has seen obesity rise in the children of San Manuel, she said. Harrison is surprised by the amount of people who cannot afford their rent yet they still bring junk food into their houses, she said.

“Every day you put a green pea in a baby’s mouth, they might not like it the first time but they’ll eventually learn it is good,” Harrison said.

The older generation living in San Manuel is lacking fruit and vegetables because of the lack of ability to drive to a further town to buy fresh produce.

“You have to start with education, you try it with the kids but where it really has to start is with the 20 year old mothers,” Harrison said. “They have to understand that those babies need to be feed something besides hot dogs and French fries. They need to eat fruit but you can’t wait until their 10th birthday to introduce them to these things.”

Contact reporter at yaskar@email.arizona.edu

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