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Out of a Literal Food Desert, Grows a Resilient Local Food System

Equitable reliable access to healthy foods, engaging a diverse set of stakeholders in a robust climate-adaptive food economy.

Photo of Brandi Hall
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

City of Phoenix Office of Environmental Programs

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Government (City, State, National, etc.)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

City of Phoenix - Government (City) City of Tempe - Government (City) Maricopa County Department of Public health - Government (County) Health Improvement Partnership of Maricopa County - Other (Government-Private Partnership) Arizona State University - Research Institution Mesa Community College - Research Institution University of Arizona - Research Institution Rio Salado College - Research Institution Maricopa County Food System Coalition (MarCo) - Small NGO Local First Arizona Foundation - Small NGO Vitalyst Health Foundation - Investment-based organization Fry’s/Kroger – Large Company Valley of the Sun United Way – Large NGO Arizona Community Land Trust - Small NGO Arizona Cooperative Initiative - Small NGO Sun Produce Cooperative - Farmer Co-op/Farmer Business Organization Recycled City LLC - Small Company

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Phoenix, Arizona

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Maricopa County, located in the State of Arizona, covers approximately 9,224 mi² or 23,890km².

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The City of Phoenix is the most populous city in Maricopa County (the fifth largest city in the United States). Maricopa County is the fastest growing county in the nation, and the fourth most populous. Establishing a food system that addresses the challenges and opportunities around our food system will require the collaboration of many governmental and non-governmental organizations to address. The team behind this submission includes those organizations whom have been collaborating with the City of Phoenix for the past three years to build a stronger, more resilient food system in Maricopa County. As individuals, we are all stakeholders in the Maricopa County Food System.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Maricopa County sits in the Salt River Valley of the Sonoran Desert, where most of Arizona’s rivers converge, creating a nexus for agriculture where people have thrived for more than 5,000 years. The county (and state) is an eclectic mix of cultural traditions. Arizona’s history includes ancient indigenous cultures, hundreds of years as a Spanish holding, half a century as a portion of Mexico, another half a century in the far reaches of the “wild west,” and finally this past century as an official state within the United States. The major canals of the water distribution system are superimposed over those built centuries ago by the indigenous Hohokam whose descendants, the O’odham, remain here still. Nearly a third (29.6%) of the county’s population is of Hispanic or Latino origin. The largest ancestry group is Mexican with 25.6% of the population sharing that ancestry. It is a common experience to find Mexican-style street festivals in some areas, complete with colorful dances and lively traditional music. Some areas have become hot spots for food trucks and farmers markets, while others have vestiges of the old West and finding horse droppings in the bike lane of a road is common. Meanwhile, most of the county’s growth comes from domestic migration, further diversifying the local culture.

Maricopa County is the state’s primary political and economic center. The intersection of two major interstate highways, and portions of a third place the county in the midst of bustling routes for trucking and other trade to San Diego and Los Angeles in California, and international trade to the north and west from the Mexican state of Sonora.

The county enjoys nearly 300 days of sunshine each year. Brief yet mild winters with low temperatures rarely reaching the freezing point counter the warm weather season, stretching seven months with extreme heat exceeding 100 degrees from June through September. Average annual precipitation is only eight inches, compared to the national average of about 39 inches. Maricopa County is roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts, with a tight cluster of cities and suburbs in the middle of the desert. Of the undeveloped land, a large portion is protected state and federal land, or otherwise outside the authority of Maricopa County land use planning. There are also four Native American Tribes with reservation land within Maricopa County.

A little over 741 square miles of the County was farmland in 2017. That is roughly 8% of the total land. Of that, 54% was cropland (407 mi2), and 55% of the cropland produced forage crops, like hay, while another 15% produced cotton. That left approximately 122 mi2 for food production. In 2017, Maricopa County was in the top 1% of counties nationally for its production of vegetables, melons, and potatoes.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Climate resilience has become a goal for communities around the world, including Maricopa County. Being in a desert with a fast-growing population adds extra challenges. A resilient food system can supply food, equitably, to residents through times of political, economic, or environmental disruption. Unfortunately, Maricopa County is not equitably supplying food to its residents, now.

Food insecurity in Maricopa County is alarmingly at 13.7%. There are 55 food deserts in the county. The poverty rate is 17.1%, and 43.4% of residents only sometimes have enough money for basic needs, including food. The people most vulnerable in Maricopa County often have limited time to cook, far distances from grocers, and a tight budget.

In today’s urban fast food culture, food insecurity often means a lack of nutritious food. Only 17% of residents claim to eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day, and that percentage has fallen steadily over the past few years. Poor diets filled with fat, sugar, and sodium lead to health issues like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the county, with stroke and diabetes in the top ten. Hunger and diet-related diseases are higher in Maricopa County than the U.S. average.

Our recent community engagements have also revealed that many people simply do not know how to cook, so rely on convenience foods, and their children are not learning about food, either. The next generation has no interest in knowing where their food comes from or being a part of the process because they have no exposure to food choices, in their diets, their lifestyles, and even their potential careers. Meanwhile, most farmers are nearing retirement age (average age in AZ is 61), and there is a lack of agriculture workforce development resources. Unemployment in Maricopa County is highest among young adults, while farms and other food production enterprises struggle to find employees.

There is not yet a comprehensive food system plan in place. People interested in starting an urban farm or trying to add a greenhouse to an existing farm, often find the permitting process cumbersome. Ninety-five percent of sales from local farms come from less than ten percent of the local farms.

As an arid desert climate, water use is a constant concern. The 1980 Groundwater Management Act prohibits new farmland in “active management” areas and limits agricultural use to 2 acres or less. This law was meant to help reduce water use and it has made development more profitable than agriculture.

The arid climate also means that extreme heat is a major issue for food production and human health. We rely heavily on foods imported from other states and Mexico, while exporting forage and cotton. This adds to air pollution issues, which are prevalent in a valley where people drive an average of 20 miles to work.

Future increases in population and rising temperatures will exacerbate these challenges.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The primary challenge of food insecurity is addressed in our vision through economic programs, technology advances, and policy improvements. Economic programs can eliminate food deserts by increasing healthy food accessibility through mobile farmers’ markets and partnerships with rideshare or grocery delivery providers.

Policies that increase access to markets and garden opportunities can also boost the ability of low-income residents to grow their own produce or even grow produce to sell. Our vision includes identifying public land that is not being used to add community gardens and market locations for these reasons. Additionally, we envision pursuing shared use opportunities with schools and retail sites that are no longer open but may be used for storage, catering sites, or value-added food preparation kitchens.

Sometimes food insecurity is not only a matter of physically accessing healthy food but also knowing how to prepare it. The culture of convenience foods and lack of exposure to the food system will be overcome through policies to encourage education. Policies include healthy food education in schools, from school gardens to culinary training for high schools. For adults, we envision increasing nutritious food demonstrations through neighborhood groups, schools, and community centers.

Technology will assist in food access and use through a healthy food app, free to the public. It will include recipes, video cooking demos, grocery items are auto-filled to a list when the recipe is selected and can either be used as a shopping list at the store or sent to a service like Instacart for delivery.

Finally, we will need to address the agricultural land loss and boost the local food economy through policies, economic mechanisms, and the newfound culture of food interest established above. We envision a “buy local” campaign to increase visibility and interest in local foods. A public campaign to support local producers will promote local purchasing.

Investments in food processing hubs in the county will keep supply ready for the increased demand. Access to distribution for small farmers is key. We envision an expansion of food distribution cooperatives that help aggregate small farm production.

Streamlining food safety standards and food sales permitting processes will also help to increase small farms and agriprenuers which can increase local jobs. Meanwhile, the additional training available through previously mentioned programs will mean there are more skilled job applicants for food production and distribution, as well as best practices courses to help farmers work sustainably.

These food system educational programs will further spawn interest and innovation in agriculture, continuously producing improvements in technology that will allow us to produce more food with less water and land.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

A Shared Prosperity

Thirty years ago, the County was a major hub in the national food distribution network. Today in the mid-21st century the dedication to food continues. Finding new ways to prosper within anthropomorphic climate change has been challenging. Nevertheless, the early sustainable circular economy models that began to be established in the 2010s and 2020s are now bearing fruit.

Ethnically diverse, one such location was called “South Phoenix” but is now within the city’s administrative areas of South Mountain and Laveen Villages. Located south of the Salt River, these were some of the last agricultural lands within Phoenix and for a time it looked like with city development, they might be lost to agriculture forever. But thanks to the dedicated effort of residents, business, education and government, the area has been transformed into one of many regional food Meccas where circular economies have taken hold. It has become a place where food is being sustainably produced using appropriate and innovative methods to help support the health and nutrition of the region.

A food economy is more than farming. It includes a wide-ranging collection of businesses some who provide the seed, others harvest the product, some who aggregate and process, others who transport and even support services such as accountants, schools and banks. As with all the regional food Meccas scattered across the County, the area has become known for its diverse restaurants providing dishes from around the world but using locally sourced ingredients whenever possible.

Back in 2020 the idea of a shared prosperity for all the counties diverse residents was a wonderful dream. Thanks in part to the restoration of agriculture; that dream has now become a reality.

Please see the attachments for a few individual visions of this future.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Maricopa County will have a resilient community food system: equitable reliable access to healthy foods engaging a diverse set of local, sustainable food producers, distributors, and related stakeholders in a robust climate-adaptive food economy.

In 2050, there will be culturally appropriate, healthy, accessible food for all. There will be equity throughout the food chain. Food deserts will be eliminated by better community planning policies, increased gardening, embedded cooperative urban farms in each community, and mobile markets. People of all ages will be able to cook for themselves through increased community cooking programs including neighborhood cooking demonstrations and community food kitchens. Innovations in technology will automate distribution for maximum efficiency and will be community driven for community benefits. Anyone can pull up healthy recipes on an app that not only shows a video to demonstrate difficult cooking techniques but also sends the ingredients to a grocery list that can be directly ordered with nearby grocers and/or the mobile market that comes to the neighborhood.

In 2050, attitudes have shifted around food. Children learn about the food system early on through school gardens, community gardens, and senior knowledge sharing programs. People know where the food on their plate came from and value the system that has made that possible. People are conscience of food waste and strive to minimize it. The educational opportunities for communities are not only educational, they help form bonds between neighbors. Many of the people here have not lived in the same neighborhood long enough to form community with their neighbors. Having community gardens, community kitchens, neighborhood food demos, etc. will help to build relationships. The expanded education in schools will interest the next generation in their food system. They will be knowledgeable and mindful of their food, where it comes from, and how to prepare it.

Small farmers have access to larger markets due to distribution cooperatives and aggregation of products. Farmers can specialize because they work together to fill the various needs of one another, from seeds to feeds. The community education programs that form the new educultural pipeline also promote agribusiness and provide basic business planning education to agriprenuers. And those children who are more interested in where their food comes from have grown up thinking about agricultural and culinary careers. They take advantage of the booming local food economy. This has reduced unemployment and increased healthy food access.

In 2050, equity does not stop at consumption of food but is also prevalent throughout the food system. Opportunities within the food economy are readily available to anyone interested in agriprenuership. Community kitchens are available for processing value-added foods and storing for distribution. Mobile food processing units are available for school and community farms to prepare their goods for market or local distribution and use. Short term low interest loans are available to people who have taken part in a community education program on food business. Small farmers can access larger markets through distribution cooperatives. There is an "educultural" pipeline for ag related training so there is no shortage of skilled workers in food production and distribution. These educultural programs are teaching models appropriate for the size and water limitations within Maricopa County. They are scalable and/or modular to fit within the arid urban landscape. Making them more economically competitive.

In 2050, the regulatory framework supports and encourages the local food system. Policy is streamlined from zoning for embedded cooperative farming communities to land conservation for agriculture to consistent educational goals for school and community gardens. Anyone who wants to grow food has an easy and affordable method of doing so. Basic life skills that include gardening, cooking, budgeting, and even basic mechanics are included in the educational curriculum throughout the county. This has been responsible for a good deal of the shift in attitude about the food system. It has also paved the way for the other changes, such as an easy to understand and follow regulatory framework that’s essential for agriprenuership to thrive.

Agricultural land conservation is built into land use policies by the requirement of a food system impact consideration in zoning changes, the building permit process, and other appropriate regulatory decisions. This required a review and update to prior water conservation laws that had unintended consequences of reduced land for food production, even with low water use technology. Food is accounted for in all planning projects. Where a tree is planted on public property, it grows edible fruit anyone can eat. When a company requests to tear down an empty grocery store to build a trampoline gym, an alternative grocery location and vendor may need to be sought to offset the loss of grocery space.

The air in Maricopa County is cleaner than it has been since the industrial era began because carbon emissions from food import and export has been lessened while the increase in trees, farms, and gardens has created a carbon sink. More people are able to get their food close to home, often from markets close to the farms where the food grew. In other areas, the mobile market travelling to neighborhoods farther from the farms reduces our carbon footprint by one vehicle bringing the food to the neighborhood, rather than hundreds individually driving or ubering to the market. Plus, the addition of edible shade trees over public walkways has made walking places more comfortable, even in the hot summer.

In 2050, despite increased heat and population, water shortages are not an issue. This is because at each step of the process, resilience has been built into the food system. In a desert, that has meant water stewardship is a priority in every decision or plan. This also allows producers to feel more confident about their income, as they have a consistent water supply. Land is no longer being sold off for development, if it has agricultural viability. Young people are more interested in working in the food system, and business models taught in school have shown them how to make food system businesses lucrative, whether they are growing lettuce or raising fish, or processing food waste into compost for farmers. There are active and successful farmland conservation programs in place to ensure local farm viability as well.

In 2050, Ag Tech is a respected field of study. The need for technological advances in the food system has created a healthy academic community involved in research and training. Generalized computer programming is not in as high of demand as specialized agricultural technology education. The competition and collaboration within the field has increased food yields while reducing land and water use. Even application development is being used to further the resilient community food system. An open-source free app is available for Maricopa County residents to find healthy recipes, as noted above. Recipes can be added by residents and are flagged for nutrition review until they are verified healthy. The local stores and markets can add their sales each week so that residents can locate recipes on a budget. And as mentioned above, they can order the ingredients right to their local market or through mobile market delivery.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Attachments (7)

Visions of the food future.pdf

When our team was brainstorming our vision of the future of the local food economy, several of us wrote what we planned to incorporate into the submission. Unfortunately, the character limit would only allow for one of the stories. Here are our other favorites.

MV Community Input.pdf

Photos of the community input we collected at one of our community engagement sessions.

Future casting exercise.pdf

A few futures wheels I created while working on this submission.

Food Vision (2).pdf

Early food system vision idea mapping.


The Food Assessment report by our partner organization Maricopa County Food System Coalition. Many facts and figures were pulled from here, as well as the opinions and recommendations of stakeholders like local farmers.

Vision 2030 Maricopa County Comprehensive Plan (PDF).pdf

The comprehensive plan adopted by the county supporting a healthy food system goal.


The Health Assessment that provided most of the facts and figures on county residents' health and diets.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Zsofia Pasztor

I would love to connect with you. Our vision is similar.

Photo of Brandi Hall

Absolutely! I would like to learn more about the spaces FarmerFrog manages and the legal implications. Please email me! My email is on my profile.

Photo of Zsofia Pasztor

Could you please email me? Your email isn't showing on your profile, likely to protect privacy.

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