A Border’s Bounty: Connecting Food Systems, Advocacy and Tradition

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Our food choices affect our world. In Southern Arizona, where local foodsheds cross international boundaries, the pleasures and traditions of food, as well as the challenges that impede food security, are linked binationally.

A new report — released in August by the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center — reveals that food advocacy is not just a matter of culture and history, but of survival. Called Hungry for Change: Borderlands Food and Water in the Balance, the report brings to light the inextricable ties of Mexico and United States to a binational food system. The report intends to stimulate discussion about the issues at the Border Food Summit to be held Sept. 16-18 at the Esplendor Resort in Rio Rico, AZ.

Hungry for Change
Hungry for Change


“When we ignore the ways that our tomatoes, bell peppers and melons entangle us with our neighbors, we are also ignoring the ways in which our stories, affections, memories and identities also overlap,” says Maribel Alvarez, associate research social scientist and associate research professor at the Southwest Center and the UA department of English who helped prepare the report. Sixteen food voices recruited from non-profit agencies or research centers in Sonora, Mexico, Nicaragua, New Mexico, Texas, California, Colorado, Oregon and Minnesota contributed to the report, with the input from six departments at the UA and other Tucson-based organizations. From agricultural fields, border crossings, canning kitchens, community-food projects, produce-brokerage houses, ranchlands, road-side stands, school garden soup kitchens, taco wagons, truck stops and Walmarts, the report captures the cultural, political, environmental and economic perspectives of the many faces and voices in the food chain.

According to Gary Nabhan, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Endowed Chair in Southwest Borderlands Food and Water Security at the UA’s Southwest Center who coordinated the report, the food and water security policies of the United States and Mexico fail to factor in how natural or manmade disruptions in the production, processing and transport of food from one side of the border affects the health and vulnerability to hunger of millions of people on the other side of the boundary.

“There is no simple correlation between how much food a border state produces and how many of its children escape poverty and hunger – that’s why we wanted to look at the problems as well as the grassroots solutions developing at every point in the food chain,” says Nabhan. An endowment from the Kellogg Foundation and a UA Confluence Center for Creative Inquiry grant supported the study.

Dried chiltepins
Dried chiltepins

Among the findings found in “Hungry for Change” are:
• Enormous quantities of food flow both ways across the border, and considerable quantities of fresh water and fossil fuel are embedded in every bite eaten by desert dwellers in both countries.

• Roughly 60 percent of all fresh produce eaten in the U.S. during the winter and spring months is grown in northern Mexico, but its production and transportation can be easily disrupted by climatic disasters, by social conflicts or by policy shifts.

• While per capita income in the U.S. is 5.6 times greater than that in Mexico, these national trends do not reflect realities closer to the border. U.S. border counties suffer poverty levels twice as high as the country as a whole and income in Mexico’s border states is 75 percent higher in the Republic as a whole.

• Mexico’s food economy has become increasingly dominated by big-box grocery chains owned or franchised by American corporations, and the nutritional, cultural and economic consequences of this shift are being hotly debated.

This year’s Border Food Summit hopes to use the findings to activate social justice and challenge economic, social and health inequities in civil public discourse. Summit participants will discuss building the capacity of producers individually and collectively, providing tools for farmer allies and advocates to effectively collaborate, and engaging funders and policy makers in food systems change.

At Patagonia Orchards
At Patagonia Orchards

“There is a grassroots movement afoot to bring to light these dynamics and to hopefully create change in the future of our shared food system,” says Alvarez. For additional information about the report and the Summit, visit the website.

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