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Phoenix is well known for its desert climate, but something that may be less well known is that the city has a serious food desert problem. 

And no, that’s not a typo — as much as we love a good slice of pie from Beckett’s Table or a scoop of ice cream from Churn, we’re talking about Phoenix’s 43 food deserts, defined as locations more than a mile away from some form of healthy food source, such as supermarkets. 

Food deserts are most often located in lower-income neighborhoods, forcing already struggling residents to travel several miles to get food, a journey which is made all the more difficult when that travel depends on Phoenix’s spotty public transit and includes venturing out into the city’s extreme heat.

Corner stores or small shops might be the only source of groceries in these communities, and they often lack fresh, affordable produce, which is critical for residents’ health. 

A 2016 study by the American Heart Association found better access to healthy food in a neighborhood could slow the development of coronary artery disease in middle-aged and older adults. The issue is also often an affordability one, as low-income residents struggle to pay for healthy foods; a 2019 study from the AHA found the link between food deserts and coronary artery disease was “largely driven by low area income, not poor access to food.” 

Food deserts exist around the country — more than 23 million Americans live in food deserts according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service — but the percentage of Arizonans living in food deserts is almost three times the national average, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

All told, one in 10 Arizonans have limited access to healthy food due to the lack of nearby grocery stores or lack of transportation, and roughly one million Arizonans are considered ‘food insecure,’ according to a 2017 report from Feed America.

Recognizing the problem, Phoenix promised in 2016 that it would eliminate food deserts by 2050. The city committed to transform local food systems and provide all residents with healthy, affordable, easily accessible food by investing in and increasing urban agriculture and launching new farmers’ markets. 

That will be no easy task though, due to the state of the city’s current food systems. Rosanne Albright, the city’s environmental programs coordinator, told ModernFarmer.com that there is no network between the city’s farmers, consumers, institutions and elected officials. 

Albright became involved in fighting the food desert problem after seeing just how serious the hunger issue was in the Valley. “That was just not acceptable,” Albright told the Arizona Republic of hunger in the community. “It just was not.”

She joined stakeholders who were already working on the issue and got the city involved, forming the Maricopa County Food System Coalition. Albright has since helped spearhead the city’s effort to combat food deserts and has spent the last 18 months talking to stakeholders in the food system and collecting their feedback. 

She is now finalizing the city’s Food Action Plan to reach its goals by 2025, which will then need to be approved by the Phoenix City Council.

Albright isn’t the only one with ideas about how to solve the city’s food desert crisis. 

A recent study from researchers at Arizona State University found that if the city transformed just 5.4% of the city’s space for urban agriculture, it could supply about 183,000 tons of fresh fruit and vegetables each year. Such a project would reach every one of the city’s existing food deserts and achieve the city’s sustainability goals while also providing 90% of the city’s annual produce consumption.

Researchers also found that roughly 71% of the proposed urban agriculture space could come from existing buildings (52.8% of rooftops and 18.1% of building facades) as opposed to vacant lots.

Albright said the study provides some useful data, but wishes researchers had accounted for indoor building space and believes there’s huge potential in the rising popularity of aquaponics, hydroponics, and vertical farming.  

She also raised concerns about who would be doing this work. “Where are we going to get all these farmers to do this work?” Albright asked on ModernFarmer.com, adding that local farmers are getting older and younger generations aren’t interested in the profession. The city’s lack of job training for farmers doesn’t help either, she said. 

She also points out that most of the space referenced in the study is privately owned, which would force the city to convince property owners to buy into their urban agriculture plan.

Albright is confident the city’s plan can achieve its mission. The Arizona Republic reported on some of the proposed actions from a draft of the city’s Food Action Plan, which include: 

  • Incorporating healthy food access to all future land use plans. 
  • Creating food education classes with partner organizations to teach community members how to grow food, where to get healthy food and how to cook it. 
  • Developing policies that plan for potential changes in climate, distribution patterns and political environments. 

The city plans to hire a full-time food system coordinator to implement the plan, search for grants for programs, and collaborate with outside organizations, Albright told the Republic.

Despite her optimism, Albright also expects obstacles along the way. “This is just one of those big, hairy problems that we’re not going to solve overnight,” she told ModernFarmer.com.

“This is also the first time that we’re getting involved in these issues … we need everybody to continue to collaborate with us so that we can continue to understand challenges and where those opportunities are.”