OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Protecting the Cultural and Biological Diversity of a Borderlands Foodshed

A Southern Arizona coalition upholds cultural identity and protects biodiversity through plant-forward crops, education, and policy.

Photo of Melissa Fratello
1 3

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Center for Biological Diversity

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

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

Public/Government: Tucson Unified School District Food Services Department Tucson Unified School District Food Literacy Lab City of Tucson, Office of Mayor Regina Romero Manzo Elementary School Pueblo Gardens K-8 School Higher Education/Large NGO: University of Arizona Geography Dept - Community and School Garden Program SMALL NGO's: GARDEN, INC LEAF - Linking Edible Arizona Forests Southwest Agroforest Action Network Borderlands Restoration Network Deep Dirt Institute Native Seeds/SEARCH Desert Harvesters Environmental Education Exchange Felicia's Farm Food Conspiracy Coop Heirloom Farmers Markets Iskashitaa Refugee Network Mission Garden

Website of Legally Registered Entity

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

  • Under 1 year

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


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?

Southern Arizona, to and including the border of Mexico.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The borderlands of the Sonoran Desert in Southern Arizona are a biodiverse, culturally diverse, and politically contentious landscape. Central in these intersections are struggles over food. Food scarcity, cultural traditions, and the environmental issues caused by large-scale food production brings these factors into a space with small grassroots activism fighting for the environment and for food justice. Living among this border landscape is some of the world's great biodiversity. Our project aims to address the interlinked relationships between food, the environment, the border, and community-led activism.

Few places experience the convergence of cultural heritage, economy, climate challenges, and biodiversity in the food system like Southern Arizona. This region grows nearly 90 percent of the vegetables consumed in the United States during the winter months, and Tucson is home to a burgeoning food scene that celebrates the region’s unique specialty crops and foraged foods, like the iconic prickly pear. Southern Arizona is home to over 2,000 farming operations, more than half of which are small to mid-size growers. Meanwhile, amidst rich culinary traditions lies inequity, as more than a quarter of this region's children are food insecure. Native tribal and Latino communities experience food scarcity disproportionately.

The Center for Biological Diversity is headquartered in the heart of this region, in Tucson, Arizona. We believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature – to a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small. With roots here in Tucson, we seek to shape a regional food system that supports human and ecological health by strategically engaging the robust network of grassroots stakeholders fighting for an equitable food landscape that preserves Arizona’s cultural heritage.

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.

The southern Arizona borderlands food landscape is defined primarily by the traditions of indigenous and Latino cultures. It is one of the few places where American food takes a backseat to a culture that existed long before the founding of the nation. Food acts as a gateway for dialogue about our borderlands and the prominence of Mexican and indigenous influence on our food, our language, and our landscape. The biodiversity of the landscape is reflected not only in the food that is raised by small specialty-crop growers, but in foraged foods as well - mesquite pod flour, prickly pear, cholla buds, chiltepin peppers - all staples of the southern Arizona food culture, and all foraged from wild landscapes.

The land itself is unforgiving and presents particularly challenging conditions, from an arid climate to mountainous terrain. Yet the desert, as some may perceive it, is hardly void of life. On the contrary, it is teeming with it, and many of these species are highly sensitive to agricultural practices. The endangered Yaqui catfish, southwestern willow flycatcher, long nosed bat, and Chiricahua leopard frog call the Sonoran desert home, many of which are impacted by animal agriculture and farming practices that could instead become more economically and ecologically sustainable with longer-lasting food systems solutions than current struggling practices.

Of more than 2,000 farms in southern Arizona, more than half are operating on 50 acres or less. Only ten percent of the region’s farms sell more than $100,000 of product annually, while approximately 70 percent sell less than $10,000 of product per year. Continuing struggle for small growers places the region at risk of losing much of the cultural value brought to our food system, as well as biodiversity from native or heirloom crops.

Close to 1.5 million residents that inhabit Arizona’s border counties, and more than 20 percent are coping with poverty and insecurity – a rate significantly higher than the state. In many borderlands counties, a rural landscape places an additional burden on food insecure households with fewer grocery stores and lack of public transportation. According to the 2018 “Hunger in America” report released by Feeding America, more than 14 percent of southern Arizona households can be defined as food insecure.

In Tucson and throughout the region, there are dozens of grassroots organizations, businesses and cooperatives, educators and researchers working to improve the state of the food system and address inequities in food access.  In a state that lacks forward-thinking food policy, within a system that still favors large-scale monocultures, these scrappy organizations are finding ways to bring solutions to the table. The missing links? Policy that supports scaling up these efforts, a plant-forward approach to diet that celebrates cultural heritage, and an umbrella under which to give voice to and support the work of the collective.

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.

The acute challenges of climate change, food access, health, and border dynamics within the southern Arizona foodshed provide an opportunity like nowhere else to demonstrate a new food future that can be replicated in other regions.

2020 Challenges

Southern Arizona’s food culture is deeply rooted in Latino and Native tribal heritage, yet, often being co-opted and capitalized on, these are the very communities that remain food insecure and vulnerable to the threats of climate change. Further, growers from these communities have significantly lower incomes than their white counterparts, reflecting an unjust system.

Water scarcity, combined with rising temperatures, highlights the unsustainable future for Arizona’s current big “C” commodity crops – cattle, cotton, and citrus. Cattle grazing in Arizona has resulted in the decimation of native grassland flora and fauna, permanently altering the Sonoran desert landscape. Further, rising temperatures pose health risks to workers and livestock. These issues are compounded through regular pesticide use and water diversion for intensive crops like citrus and cotton.

Meat-heavy diets create health disparities and environmental impacts. Worldwide, scientists have determined that as many as 1 million wild species will face extinction in the coming decades if immediate action isn’t taken to reduce threats to biodiversity, including habitat loss, climate change, water extraction, air and water pollution and pesticide use in agriculture. This devastating loss of biodiversity is also a threat to food security, public health and efforts to reduce poverty.

Subsidies for commodity crops put area Latino and indigenous growers at a disadvantage due to their emphasis on smaller scale specialty fruit and vegetable crops, and while parts of the food economy – in the Tucson area, for example – are thriving, there is a growing disparity between white communities and communities of color, and urban and rural populations in relation to who benefits under the current system.

Opportunities for forward-thinking policy initiatives are being discussed by a multitude of stakeholders, however, there is little dialogue between grassroots food justice organizations, growers, policy makers, research institutions, and educational institutions.

Left unchecked, by 2050, our challenges will escalate to:

-          Severe food insecurity and health disparities among rural and marginalized populations

-          Long periods of drought and drastic weather changes affecting ALL crops, resulting in a loss of the heritage foods that define the region as well as wiping out small growers

-          Subsidized monocultures that pose food security risks by their very nature. One crop wiped out among 100 can be mitigated. Loss of one mega-crop, with lack of biodiversity in the agricultural system, results in catastrophe.

-          Cattle grazing irrevocably taxing water systems, contributing to more rapid climate change, and leaving behind a barren landscape.

-          Southern Arizona’s food heritage will be lost, with generations of cultural wisdom and identity eradicated due to climate change and short-sighted policy decisions.

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

A representative voice of a collective of grassroots southern Arizona stakeholders will shape the food system as a result of coalition-building combined with policy change. The Center plans not to speak for, but to elevate the voice of communities most at risk of food insecurity and most affected by climate change. Food policy councils throughout southern Arizona and policy makers at municipal, state and federal levels will become more informed by grassroots operations if they build critical mass as a coalition to demand a more just food system.

Our vision of a biologically diverse and culturally representative southern Arizona food system would address each of our unique challenges in the following ways:

Plant-forward diets adopted as a result of education, incentives for growers and distributors, and nutrition incentives will curb health and climate effects from unhealthy, meat-heavy diets and an unsustainable meat industry.

Localized food networks will include neighborhood-based food production and distribution hubs in public spaces (community and school gardens, small farms, greenhouses with aquaponics production capacity, etc.), reducing the burden on the small handful of existing local distributors.

Organizations currently addressing food waste and watershed restoration techniques on a small, startup scale will be supported through access to capital and policy incentives. Technologies that advance food waste mitigation and allow for a decrease or halt in water diversion will be supported and encouraged by public entities and partners in higher education.

Strong advocacy will result in a power shift from favoring commodity crops to supporting small to mid-sized growers of diverse specialty and heritage crops. Long-term impacts of large-scale commodity farming practices will be lessened due to a shift in policy and practice, in turn lessening the vulnerability of marginalized populations to the negative effects of climate change, including increased cost of living, increased food costs, limited access to fresh, local produce, and increased health risks due to extreme conditions.

Southern Arizona ecosystems will maintain their extremely rich biodiversity without further threat from irresponsible growing practices, pesticide use, and overgrazing, and the food system will be more robust and resilient due to the health of pollinator habitats, preservation of indigenous crops and seed varieties, and a healthy watershed.

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.

With current challenges met and future threats abated:

All households, including those in poverty will have increased access to healthy, locally grown produce due to food policy that supports regional growers and distributors.

The ecological value of sustainable agriculture and a plant-forward diet and sharing and preserving cultural heritage through food will become integrated into K-12 education. Training around growing and consuming plant-based protein alternatives will draw from indigenous foodways and be delivered using a train-the-trainer model for educators.

Latino and indigenous communities will be recognized and given equitable representation as decision-makers and not simply end-users in the regional food system.

Increased access to quality nutrition for all residents, specifically targeted to low-income and marginalized populations leads to healthier people, and reduced need for healthcare.

Education and training in cultivating local, native, high nutrient foods to supplement dietary needs will reduce food insecurity in times of severe drought.

Economic development through localized food networks will integrate producers with distributors and consumers, and cooperative food production, storage and distribution will ensure maximum efficiency and delivery using alternate modes of energy and transportation.

Food waste will be reduced through new technologies and practices in composting, re-distribution, and gleaning.

Watershed restoration and utilization of technology for water purification, rainwater harvesting, and water conservation will protect both human and ecological health.

Overall, a community-led system that engages consumers, growers and distributors, public institutions and policymakers  - with a direct understanding of the linkage between food, health, culture and the environment - will result in a healthier population, a more resilient landscape, and equitable access to food and food opportunities.

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

In the Southern AZ borderlands, biodiversity and cultural diversity are inherently linked. Native species and native peoples are suffering from interrelated conditions magnified and reflected in local food systems. Simultaneously, traditional forms of stewardship of the land are being revitalized and with that a community-driven interest in addressing and mitigating factors contributing to climate change, loss of habitat and biodiversity, water use and pollution. Community organizations in this region have done more to improve access to food biodiversity than any other major city in North America, according to the University of Arizona’s Center for Regional Studies report on the state of the food system in Tucson, AZ.

Working with Borderlands Restoration Network, we will help to ensure success for other working parts of the holistic vision. By restoring landscape processes, growing native plants, and protecting vital watersheds, for example, pollinators and local waterways can thrive, and in turn support healthy crops and sustainable community-level food systems. Ensuring these are community-driven efforts will build permanent bonds, economic infrastructures, educational initiatives, and renew traditional connections between humans and nature so that each can flourish systemically.

The health of a region can be measured by the health of the land and the well-being of those who live upon it. The heart of this region, Tucson, is the only place in the U.S. designated as a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO. And yet food scarcity and insecurity is a real issue for many under-served communities. To address this need, grassroots organizations have risen in sections to build native, school and community gardens, build on food banks, and exchange seeds.

Meanwhile, the same communities are affected by issues threatening biodiversity and wildlife: namely the impacts of climate change. From community gardens and cooperative farms to educational curriculum to stewards of seeds and forests, an organized pathway to success includes bringing environmental sustainability in synthesis with food systems and cultural diversities. This in turn impacts distribution, procurement, and consumer practices.

The region is a vibrant, bio-diverse ecosystem and the potential for developing synthesis with protecting biodiversity, food systems sustainability and cultural diversity, makes this project a potential model for other regions. Vulnerable and endangered populations of mammal, fish, amphibian and bird species would be better protected with more sustainable and equitable human food systems in this region that reflect their shared history on the landscape.

Residents in the most vulnerable communities will have local access to more than 2000 seed varieties of desert-adapted vegetables, grains, legumes and herbs, and more than 200 species of domesticated fruit, nut, berry, and succulent edibles. These food crop varieties originated in many indigenous, immigrant, and refugee communities, many of whom now directly-market their heritage produce and artisan-prepared food products for local consumption.

Community-driven programs in this area include school garden programs that can be amplified to great success in the Tucson Unified School District. Plant-forward educational initiatives and curriculum development, including teacher training via the University of Arizona, is an essential component along with increasing the reach of and access to school gardens throughout the region. Nutrition incentives that also favor fresh produce from local growers, decreasing procurement from unsustainable food sources and increasing procurement of local, organic, healthy and fresh, plant-forward food.

Indigenous cultures will be represented in every aspect of the food system. Working with Native Seeds/SEARCH, our project envisions supporting the provision of seeds to Native tribes, and to promote and conserve traditional arid-adapted crop seeds. Building on traditional practices and native biodiversity in seeds, wild flora and fauna and agriculture, our vision incorporates tribal participation and food sovereignty. The rights of stakeholders and small farmers in outreach, research, and knowledge-sharing also includes the vision of autonomy and engagement, enabling native communities to educate in traditional ways.

Latino communities will have a voice in recognition of demonstrated interest in conservation and food systems. Data shows that there is significant interest and involvement from Latino communities and/or communities of color around environmental issues. Similarly, communities of color are the largest and fastest growing body of those turning toward plant-forward diets.

Cultural food traditions will be a component of public school curriculum and expand on existing school programs that integrate gardening, science, nutrition, culture and environmental stewardship. An important part of this is underway with grassroots initiatives to bring food systems, cultural traditions and arts in education to show the deep interconnections and foster a passion for nature and natural foods across cultures in this region.

School systems are challenged in addressing the needs of native, Latino and refugee populations and recognizing national and international components of cafeteria procurement policies. Much of this is flying under the radar of official policy; in our vision unique and innovative responses to cultural diversity and diet will be integrated on a standard level.

Finally, a main goal in the vision is to elevate traditional plant-based dishes through community education programs (e.g. cooking classes, community resources, media, etc.) that demonstrate the importance of crop and cultural diversity to healthy, sustainable ecosystems and diets.

Innovative public policies will be developed across government departments to help implement and support the long-term sustainability of community-driven changes and create a policy model. This would include aligning procurement policies with the Good Food Purchasing Program with specific targets for reducing meat and dairy consumption and increasing access to plant-based foods. The aim would be to increase the availability and acceptance of local, plant-based foods as modeled in other locales, but specifically focusing on the unique qualities and cultural intersections of this area.

Climate action plans would shape the direction of these policies to ensure low-carbon food choices in public and business outreach, efforts to encourage plant-based diets, collaborative partnerships to promote low-carbon diets and affordability and access, integration of sustainable food system issues into land-use planning and purchasing policies. Similarly, land use and water use analyses would be best implemented regarding environmental impacts in systematic planning.

Working with the Department of Education, we would ensure that community-informed food policies are consistent in the region and cater to the needs of local populations along with bringing local growers, producers and food providers, to ensure that healthy, sustainable food is provided. At the city level, a taskforce of community stakeholders and local officials across departments would ensure that policies are designed to support the diverse needs of promoting healthy eating, sustainable diets, environmentally conscious food production, and local economies.

With deep economic challenges, the unique character of this region is its innovative community-led response to local challenges. Quietly, small technologies are being adapted in a piecemeal effort to address a larger systemic problem. This region needs a system that incorporates vibrant technological solutions to its food system’s infrastructure.

This means a public investment in technology that can be scaled up for regional use and adjusted to individual communities and cultures in the region to protect cultural diversity.Technological infrastructure will be invested in and supported by expertise from regional assets and partners like the University of Arizona. Technology solutions development will be invested in and scaled up to address water scarcity and food waste as well as seed-saving and the preservation of biodiversity.

The economic impacts of our vision will include participatory budgeting processes with equitable community representation; increased income for local small to mid-sized growers as a result of policy shifts and plant-based diet incentives; decreased health care expenses for non-communicable, chronic disease (related to poor diet); decreased environmental costs associated with drought, soil degradation, pesticide use, climate change and grazing; a more stable regional economy due to decreased climate impact and lessened impact on watersheds from large-scale farms.

Enabling the 40,000 children in the Tucson Unified School District to have consistent and assured access to nutritious local produce as a main staple of their diets will have a tremendous impact on the health of community, and will create an integrated and holistic support that is ongoing for farmers and markets. By supporting native communities, as well as refugees and Latinx communities, our project can revitalize and build on the grassroots movements to protect sacred diversity in this way by providing healthy food, empowering economies that build from the bottom up.

In conclusion, the Borderlands Food Coalition will coalesce around two main themes: a just, environmentally sound food system and food economy that is representative of the populations and cultures of southern Arizona, and building a climate-resilient foodshed – not one that can just recover after climate disaster, but one that uses the necessity of climate change adaptation to build on existing strengths to address a wide range of food systems challenges.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Leonardo Duque

As part of the team "Empowering rural youth by learning the methods of science in the context of the immense potential of biodiversity to generate employment," I will like to invite you to examine the viability to benefit also the local farmers. Farmers have greater risks, work harder and manage a greater complexity than the other actors in the food value chain. Please read about it in our vision proposal. Please contact me for any support Leonardo