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Trust, connections needed for strong community-based food system

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The mission of the Maricopa County Food System Coalition (MarCo) is to support and grow a food system in Maricopa County that is equitable, healthy, sustainable, and thriving. When MarCo started meeting a few years ago, the members set a goal of gaining a better understanding of the food environment in Maricopa County.

While many other communities, counties and states have similarly tackled a “food assessment” to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the food environment, no comprehensive assessment of the country’s fourth most populous county had been undertaken. With generous funding from the Gila River Indian Community, MarCo was able to take several decisive steps to better understand what makes the county’s food system tick.

C.J. Eisenbarth-Hager

C.J. Eisenbarth-Hager

Interviews with dozens of Maricopa County farmers showed that change is needed, and community-based food systems must be established if local farms are to succeed. The recommendations stemming from this study included the need to convene informal meetings in which farmers build trust among each other and with civic leaders, to mount outreach and education campaigns that persuade Maricopa County residents to buy food from farms in the county, and to launch a long-term effort to grow new farmers in Maricopa County.

Additional feedback from respondents included an urgency to establish real dialogue about the need to have farmland if we are going to eat – and quickly. Others suggested the need to designate one clear coordinator with effective power, such as a food policy director embedded in city government, and the creation of initiatives that would bring more diverse voices into the process.

In short, community-based food systems are needed to heal social wounds and to build connections between farmers and local consumers, turning food silos to a cohesive food system. Building infrastructure projects, establishing food hubs, increasing school purchasing, and fostering community gardening are all critical to give root to the social connectivity of residents in the region and to help build trust among farmers and other stakeholders.

Connections between local farmers and consumers must also be established, if county farmers are to benefit from skyrocketing population growth and personal income growth. County population rose 350 percent from 1969 to 2016, and personal income rose more than seven-fold to       $185 billion over that time (even after adjusting for inflation). However, farm income has steadily eroded. The net cash income for all Maricopa County farmers combined fell from $225 million in 1969 (in 2016 dollars) to $6 million in 2016.

Maricopa County consumers spend at least $10 billion each year purchasing food sourced outside of the county, while neighboring farmers struggle to make a living. Moreover, city and county officials appear committed to a development strategy that will further erode financial resources by allowing new housing development that is likely to consume more in public services than it brings in property tax revenue.

Clearly, Maricopa County has not dedicated significant attention to framing policies that would ensure that its rapidly rising population would be able to eat food from nearby farms. Quite the contrary: those we interviewed often commented that developers own most of the farmland, and policymakers largely believe new construction is the priority.

The limits on the county’s capacity to grow are obvious — water may be less available in the future, and the metro region ultimately holds limited power over its own water supply, since northern rivers feed the watershed, and treaties and legal precedents protect tribal water rights. Moreover, there is no clear indication that the costs of new housing development actually are covered by the new tax base generated.

The county appears to have addressed the future of its food supply rather reactively — assuming that someone, somewhere will raise food that can be purchased, even at the cost of shipping $10 billion each year out of the county and overlooking the opportunity for farmers to contribute solid a foundation for the Maricopa County economy.

MarCo is working to build community connections between farmers themselves and Maricopa County consumers.  If you would like to learn more about how we are advocating for the regeneration and advancement of the local food system in Maricopa County and get involved, please visit marcofoodcoalition.org.

— C.J. Eisenbarth Hager is director of healthy community policies for Vitalyst Health Foundation.

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