Special Screening of “A Place At The Table”

The Pima County Food Alliance is excited to host a special screening of the thought-provoking documentary about hunger, “A Place At The Table,” by the creators of Food, Inc.  The event, which will take place at the University Marriott on September 18 at 7:00 pm, is free and open and to the public.  We’d love for you to come!

Tucson is one of only a handful of communities selected to air this film as part of a larger strategy by the filmmakers to build the food movement.  It’s not just another film to watch and shrug off, it’s an opportunity to get involved in the fight to end hunger.  Our event in Tucson is particularly exciting in that it will be the main public feature of a larger conference about hunger being hosted by the Community Food Bank.

The film takes an eye-opening look at hunger and obesity in America, and tells the story of how we had these problems mostly solved before things took a turn for the worse in the ’70s and ’80s.  Today, Arizona suffers from the highest rate of food insecurity in the country (29%) and national childhood obesity rates have tripled over the last 30 years, such that in 2010 more than 33% of children and adolescents were considered overweight or obese.

The film will be immediately followed by a panel discussion to discuss some of the key issues.  For instance, what do we make of the claim that hunger and obesity are two sides of the coin?  If they’re connected, what does this mean for the traditional anti-hunger lobby?  How can we, as ordinary citizens, contribute to the creation of a food system that promotes individual and societal health?  Can we make changes on a grassroots level, or do we need large-scale policy changes?

The film and panel discussion are the only events free and open to the public during the “Closing the Hunger Gap” conference, so we highly encourage you attend.  However, you’ll be able to find the keynote speakers live streaming on Sept 19-20.  We’re excited for the return of Ken Meter, who addressed the PCFA last year, and we’ll also hear from Mark Winne and Janet Poppendieck, experts on food policy councils and school food, respectively.  (Be sure to check out the full list of speakers and tune in at the right time by going to www.thehungergap.org.)

 

Water Practices and Issues in Arizona: An Introduction

[This is the first in a series of blogs about water policy and issues in southern Arizona written by our Water Policy Intern, Marisa Tackett.)

 

The PCFA is a developing, grassroots food policy group with the intention of influencing local agencies to support policies and activities that positively affect the local food movement. Part of that entails educating ourselves and our members on pertinent issues surrounding the growing of food.

A key part of growing food is water, and Arizona has an extensive political history on the issue, which dates back even before statehood.  In the ensuing years, the state of Arizona has developed complex water laws and frameworks that encompass federal, state, municipal, and tribal water works that today shape our ways of life, our population, environment, and our food systems.

It is this intersection between water and our food system that interests us most.  What is the future of our food system given the limited nature of our water?  Where will, or should, both our water and food come from?

Arizona has a long history of agriculture, much of it dependent on groundwater.  However, over the last two decades, Arizona has depended on another water source: the Colorado River.  Last May, Tucson Mayor and Council approved a water rate increased proposed by Tucson Water, which goes into effect 2014. This water rate increase is due to multiple factors, including infrastructure upgrades, technology applications, and increases in Colorado River water rates.  Understanding the Colorado River is critical to understanding water in our region, so this is where we’ll take our first stop on today’s educational tour.

Colorado River Water

The Colorado River Compact of 1922—also called “The Law of the River”—appropriated water to seven Western states and today serves over 30 million people within the upper and lower basins; this compact began the comprehensive development and management of the Colorado River formally. It was originally projected to provide 18 million acre feet annually (one acre foot is the equivalent of 326,000 gallons of water) but history has shown that the river actually provides an average of 15 million acre feet annually.  This fluctuates significantly with lows of 5 million and highs of 20 million acre feet during past years.

The Central Arizona Project (CAP) aimed to provide central and southern Arizona access to its allocation of Colorado River water.  Approved in 1968, construction on the project began in 1973 and, through the creation of various dams, aqueducts, and even boreholes through mountains, CAP today conveys water stored at Lake Havasu to the Tucson area and many users along the way.  The project took over two decades to complete and cost $3.6 billion.  No small thing!

As part of an effort to manage and repay the cost of constructing it, the state legislature created the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) in 1971.  CAWCD provides water for Pima, Maricopa and Pinal counties and is responsible for establishing policies, levying taxes, setting water rates, approving budgets, and addressing other critical issues pertaining to the Colorado River  (www.cap-az.com). Of the $3.6 billion it took to construct CAP, an estimated $1.65 billion will be repaid to the federal government over 50 years; repayment began in 1993.

The customers of CAWCD water fall into 3 categories: municipal and industrial, agricultural, and Indian. Today, 27% is delivered to municipal  and industrial users, 25% is delivered to agriculture users, and 21% is delivered to Indian communities. The other 27% goes to the Recharge Program; recharge is a process that will be addressed in another post, but plays an important role in “replenishing” ground water.

For 15 years, Arizona has been in a state of drought, which climatologists expect to continue, causing further water shortages for the lower basin states (Arizona, Nevada, California). The Colorado River’s variable flow and over allocation threaten current water demands.

To accommodate the population’s needs, Lake Mead, Lake Powell, and Lake Pleasant serve as water banks and have been able to buffer for the shortages thus far. It is estimated that the river is over allocated by 20%, and a 100-year study of the river’s natural flow shows a downtrend of flow for 80 years. Over allocation, drought, population growth and dwindling water levels exacerbate the problems; augmentation of the Colorado River will likely be required and is being planned. Because many state’s water rights don’t take into account this fluctuation, and are generally outdated, the over allocation of Colorado River water will continue to have negative impacts, economically and environmentally.

Another issue for Arizonans who rely on CAP water is energy. CAP water travels 336 miles across the state, originating in Lake Havasu and ending in southwest Tucson. Transporting CAP water thorough its conveyance system requires a tremendous amount of energy—energy that is currently being supplied by coal fired plants. The largest one—rated the 8th dirtiest coal plant in the U.S. by the EPA—is The Navajo Generating Station near Page, AZ. This coal-fired power station is responsible for providing 90% of the needed energy to transport CAP water across the state, and also produces electricity for customers in Arizona, Nevada, and California markets.

In 2012, the EPA finalized goals for Arizona to reduce emissions by 2023. The state of Arizona objects to these EPA regulations, and is in fact suing over the potential economic consequences of adhering to emissions regulations. The Arizona State Attorney’s Office cites uncertainty for coal plant owners, complexity of timing, unfair implementation rules, loss of jobs, utility cost increases, and denies that nitrogen oxides and other pollutants affect air quality, visibility or health in a significant way. Several government agencies and environmental groups have cited a “visibility impairment” at the Grand Canyon, and maintain that the haze is attributable to the regional coal plant. The bottom line, however, is that the state government has made clear environmental concerns should take a back seat to economic concerns and the issue is currently in the appeals process.

Notwithstanding the State of Arizona’s objections, Tucson Water has anticipated the increase of CAP rates, not only because of the emissions issue, but because of the happenings in the energy market.  CAWCD is actually part owner of the Navajo Generating Station power plant, and energy sales from the plant contribute a large portion of CAP’s revenue portfolio.  Unfortunately for CAWCD’s pocketbook, natural gas has become cheaper than coal-based energy, leading to a decreasing customer base.  CAP’s revenue projections for the 2012-2013 fiscal year were less than anticipated, leading to an estimated debt of $25 million yearly. CAP is in mitigation about what to do about 2014 rates as well as its current and ongoing deficit.

The CAP predicament affects Arizona and Tucson in major ways due its heavy reliance on CAP water. Tucson uses of nearly all of its CAP allotment and in 2011 CAP water accounted for approximately 60% of Tucson’s overall water production. That number increased to 75% in 2012-2013. CAP water, while having many environmental concerns of its own, has benefitted Tucson greatly by reducing dependence on the existing groundwater, which has dwindled to dangerously low levels.  CAP has also actively improved groundwater levels through the recharge process.

In the next chapter, we’ll talk about the more than half dozen recharge sites around Arizona that serve to store water and recharge our groundwater supply.

 

[Next post: Tucson’s Reliance on CAP Water]

We’re Putting the “Policy” in Food Policy Council

No really we meant “putting” as in “to put,” not “to putt.”  Anywho…

At the April leadership council meeting, your leadership council made some difficult decisions about how to prioritize our actions going forward.  The problem, more than anything, is that there is so much to do, and we’d like to do it all.  But in order to be effective, we felt we had to narrow our focus, at least for the immediate future.  With that in mind, we looked at a slew of policy issues that have come up, and analyzed them with the following criteria in mind:

  • How much excitement is there (both generally and within the LC) to accomplish this goal?
  • How important/tied to our mission is the goal?
  • Are there concrete achievements quickly and easily achievable within the goal?
  • How winnable is the goal overall?

With that said, here are the areas of focus of 2013!

Input on Sustainable Zoning Code and Animal Husbandry – The City of Tucson is updating their zoning code to incorporate some sustainable measures, including many food-related provisions.  Our members and associates (such as Merrill Eisenberg and Jaime de Zubeldia, to name a few) have had inp,ut in this process, particularly on the issue of raising animals within city limits.  The updates would loosen up restrictions and allow more animal husbandry within City Limits.  We may, however, run into some opposition from residents concerend about noise, for example.  If and when the City calls a public hearing on the issue, we want supporters to fill the room.  Check out the Tucson CLUCKS Facebook page, or just stay tuned with us and we’ll let you know when the next public hearing is.

Work with City of Tucson as “Convener” on STAR Goal – We were asked by the City of Tucson’s Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development if we would be the lead on the Food Access and Nutrition portion of STAR Communities–a rating system by which communities can assess their sustainability.  On May 29, we presented to the national community utilizing this system (about 30 communities across the U.S. and Canada), and highlighted a small portion of the work we’ve done in this community over the past 3 years.  Our future challenges within this goal will be to think of ways to push ourselves and to push the City of Tucson to continue this type of work.

Finalize, upload to the web, and otherwise distribute fact sheets on food policies – A number of fact sheets were developed under the CPPW grant (which ended spring 2012) by the policy team at the UofA (which helped start the food alliance).  They are in varying states of “doneness.”  We’ll soon by verifying the details of them, making any necessary changes, and sending them out for all to see.

Report on Water and Its Role in Urban Ag – We have an intern from the College of Public Health who’s been learning everything she can about water in Tucson–where it comes from, how much it costs, how urban and rural water rates differ, etc.  Her goal is to understand the role water can (and should) play in creating a more resilient and sustainable local food system.  She’ll be reporting back to both the leadership council and the general membership in the form of various blog posts.

 

What the New School Garden Guidelines Mean For You

The Arizona Department of Health Services recently released their set of guidelines for school gardens.  They’re still in draft form, but even so have far-reaching consequences.   We’ll attempt to break them down for you, in a sort of FAQ style.

Who is affected by these guidelines?

At this point, only schools.  And if you’re a school selling the produce at a farmers’ market (your own or someone else’s), you should be exempt, as long as your produce is whole, uncut, and unprocessed.  The guidelines are meant to regulate schools who aim to serve the food in the cafeteria, or any other type of “food establishment.”  Serving in the classroom is a bit of a grey area, from what we can tell.

Are the guidelines mandatory?  How are they enforced?

While they are still in draft form and are being called guidelines, they are mandatory.  A school must first is encouraged to go through a School Garden Safety Training, which is coordinated by the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension Maricopa County Extension.  After going through the (optional) training, the school can request an inspection from the Arizona Department of Health Services School Garden Sanitarian and Health Educator, Kathryn Mathewson (602-364-3952).

Are the guidelines permanent?

We’ve been told they are still open to changes, and the guidelines are in draft form.  At the same time, attempts to provide input on certain guidelines have so far been unsuccessful.

(Since publishing this post originally, ADHS has taken down the “draft” watermark initially embedded in the guidelines document.)

Why were these guidelines created?

“Food establishments” are required to serve food from an “approved source” in the state of Arizona.  There is, however, no definition for “approved source.”  Absent that, ADHS has generally deferred to the State Department of Agriculture by encouraging farms to go through Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) training and certification.  These guidelines, however, require a huge amount of documentation, testing, and other activities, all of which require an essentially fixed cost or amount of time, regardless of the size of the operation.  In addition, inspectors are few and far between and charge by the hour, meaning an inspection for someone (esp. in northern Arizona, where there are no inspectors) can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  For all these reasons, small farmers, backyard gardeners, and school growers have considered GAP certification to be an overly onerous process.

In 2011, the Pima County Health Department changed their interpretation of the food code to consider school gardens an approved source.  Since then, ADHS took it upon themselves to further define “approved source” in the context of increased focus on school gardens.  These guidelines create a standard for school gardens around the state, but do not apply to any other operation growing food.

 


 

With those facts out of the way, let’s delve into some of the more controversial aspects of the guidelines, which will involve some opinion on our part:

Compost

The use of school-made compost on edibles is currently banned by the guidelines.  If it is used at all, it must be purchased commercially.  The ostensible reason for this ban is that compost piles that are not managed properly–especially those containing animal products such as manure–can contain pathogens.  The reasoning is that some of those pathogens may make their way into the food.

Problems with this line of reasoning are numerous.  If the underlying assumption is that compost is highly dangerous, that threat is being far overblown.  Composting has been around for thousands of years and has been understood to be a safe process for decades within the scientific community.  To suggest otherwise, as these regulations do, is anti-science and flies in the face of many institutions that encourage composting, such as City of Tucson, Pima County, ADEQ, the EPA and USDA.

There is also the question of cost.  Because of the low organic matter content of our soils (less than 1%), a 50/50 mix of compost is needed to start a successful vegetable garden.  Purchasing organic compost for a modest garden of four 4′ x 10′ beds can cost upwards of $500 (with bagged compost from Home Depot).  Soil amendment is a recurring need, so schools will continue to incur costs each season if they are required to purchase compost, making gardening an unnecessarily–and possibly prohibitively–expensive activity.

At the end of the day, schools are not necessarily any better off acquiring compost from a commercial source, as there is no regulatory body that oversees composting in this country.  (Apparently it has never been enough of a problem to warrant it.)  In addition, the food that already enters the cafeteria is being grown with compost.  Or if not compost, chemical fertilizers.  Ironically, ADHS DOES allow chemical fertilizer use in school gardens.  Hardly a safer alternative, but when an agency focused on food safety and biological disease outbreaks begins regulating farm practices, this is where we end up.

Rainwater

The regulations allow “surface water” to be used if it’s tested at least 3 times over the course of the growing season.  Surface water is essentially any rainwater that has run off and collected somewhere, usually in the form of a lake, stream, river, ocean, etc.

In a somewhat contradictory statement, ADHS makes a special exception for “collected rainwater,” stating that it is not allowed at all.  On another section of their website, they explain, “While the guidelines do not discuss rainwater, but [sic] it is highly recommended that rain water is not used on edible plants due to bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and chemicals that can be found on roof tops and grow in the collection container.”

There is no citation given for this claim.  The American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association disagrees, however, stating that a properly designed system provides a source of clean water that is actually superior to most municipal water for growing plants, as it contains no ammonia, chorine, or flouride.  In addition, in our desert area where soils are very alkaline, the relatively low PH of rainwater helps create a neutrally balanced soil and encourages uptake of essential minerals, making plants healthier overall.

With simple best practices in place, schools can and should be harvesting water for use in gardens (vegetable, or otherwise), orchards, landscaping, etc.

Non-Latex Gloves

The guidelines require that non-latex gloves be worn by gardeners.  Disposable gloves have become a standard in the food prep industry, and indeed, when dealing with ready to eat foods, they are the best way to prevent contamination.  However, non-latex (we assume they mean “disposable”) gloves are inappropriate for use in the garden.  Requiring their use prevents gardeners from using actual safety gloves where necessary and thus present a hazard to the child.

Other versions of these guidelines referred to a non-latex disposable glove requirement when harvesting.  This too seems, unnecessary at best, and harmful at worst.  The state of Arizona already makes a special exception for whole, uncut produce to be sold directly to the consumer, precisely because produce in this form has little risks associated with it.  Produce must, at minimum be washed, and in many cases processed in some other type of way, before it is consumed.  It is, therefore, not a “ready-to-eat” food that requires the use of gloves.  Additionally, in the hot climate of Arizona, disposable gloves encourage excessive sweating and may actually increase the chances of bodily fluid transfer.

On being able to find child-sized non-latex disposable gloves, PCFA’s resident Chef Elizabeth Mikesell simply said, “good luck.”  Hence, from both a safety and a practical standpoint, this requirement makes little sense.

 


 

While we applaud ADHS for its attempt to make food production safer, we suggest they seek input from those actually working with students and those engaged in food production–teachers, school and backyard gardeners, and farmers.  What’s your opinion on the matter?  Leave us a comment a below.