Tucson, an international food hub

By Trevor Williamson/El Inde

On December 15, 2016, the city of Tucson became the first city — and is still one of only two cities — in the United States to receive the designation as a City of Gastronomy from UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization). This meant that UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network (UCCN), which supports designated cities in becoming hubs of creativity and cultural production, had reviewed the city’s application prepared by now-Tucson City of Gastronomy Executive Director, Jonathan Mabry, and Gary Paul Nabhan, an agricultural ecologist, ethnobotanist and author. But, was the designation mainly meant to encourage tourism or was it meant to encourage local businesses to produce more local food and more sustainable food?

The process of applying for this designation began two years before it came to fruition, according to Mabry. The applicants’ goals were to increase recognition of Tucson and southern Arizona’s rich agricultural heritage, food traditions and culinary distinctiveness, as well as helping build a more sustainable, resilient, and secure local food system based upon traditions, innovation and food justice. 

“The process of preparing the nomination was eye-opening for everyone because it involved inventorying our regional food assets, and the abundance and diversity were unexpected,” said Mabry. “The nomination concisely described these assets and what makes our food heritage and cuisine unique and also significant at an international level.” 

After receiving the designation in December 2016, the Tucson City of Gastronomy was formed as a non-profit 501(c)3 organization with the mission of growing a sustainable desert community. Among the many advantages of becoming recognized as a City of Gastronomy, the most obvious is the connection to the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, which is currently comprised of 246 cities in more than 80 countries. This is a significant advantage because it connects Tucson to cities around the world that are recognized for how they utilize their cultural heritage and creativity as strategic factors for sustainable development. 

“An advantage of that is that the network supports designated cities in becoming hubs of creativity and cultural production, and in exchanging knowledge and best practices with other Creative Cities,” says Mabry.

One of the main impediments to this ongoing effort is the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on local businesses, especially restaurants. Mabry says their focus for the future has somewhat shifted toward pushing elected officials to provide local, independent restaurants and companies that encourage and facilitate culinary tourism with temporary assistance. 

“Locally-owned, independent restaurants and culinary tourism helped lead our economic recovery out of the last recession, and will do so again if we keep them alive during this pandemic challenge by continuing to vote for them with our wallets and pushing elected officials to provide them with temporary assistance from all levels of government,” says Mabry. 

When Mabry spoke about the things he was most proud of accomplishing during his time at the Tucson City of Gastronomy, he mentioned how valuable the non-profit has been and will continue to be in terms of encouraging creativity and innovation within the food system and the importance of addressing food justice and sustainability. But, interestingly, he also mentioned the economic value of the food heritage of Tucson and southern Arizona. 

“We are proud that the designation has visibly galvanized creativity and entrepreneurship in our culinary scene and local food economy, increased awareness of the issues of food justice and sustainability that need to be addressed in our food system, and generated media coverage worth millions that has benefited our tourism sector, created new jobs, and increased business revenues,” says Mabry. “Another source of pride is that the designation has spurred residents of our region to view our food heritage as both a touchstone of shared identity and a valuable economic asset.”

Jonathan Mabry serves as the Executive Director of the Tucson City of Gastronomy and as the non-profit’s liaison to UNESCO.
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mabry.