The Difficulty in Defining Local, as It Pertains to MyPlate

During our MyPlate project—our attempt to experiment with USDA’s MyPlate project in our local food context—some tough questions came up.  The first question was, obviously, “What does local mean?”  We also grappled with the oft-criticized decision by USDA to include milk as its own, separate component.  What follows is a brief description of those debates we had, and the guidelines we came up with for this project.

Question 1: How do we define local?

We chose to define local loosely, to mean, anything you can grow in the immediate area surrounding Tucson.  Considering the vast elevation differences between the desert floor (~2000 ft above sea level) and some of our mountain ranges nearby (~9000 ft above sea level), coupled with varying weather patterns, we actual have a pretty broad scope of ingredients to choose from during any given season.  That said, we tried to, for the most part, to ask the question, “Could I grow this in my backyard during x season?” as a way to answer this question.

Question 2: What about native or heritage foods?

We chose to differentiate between local foods—anything that can be grown locally—and two other categories of food.  Native foods are foods that are indigenous to this area and have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years.  We decided to also pay respects to the slew of foods brought over during the 1600 and 1700s (starting with European explorers and missionaries) that later became part of the local and cultural food ways.  We called these foods heritage foods.

Question 3: Is there a breakdown of ingredients by season?

Yes!  Keep in mind this is a work in progress, and may contain mistakes here and there.  But if you’re interested, check out our google doc of local, native and heritage foods by season.

Question 4: How strictly should we adhere to our definitions in acquiring our ingredients?

We we were not strict on basic spices and oils.  For ingredients that we felt, somewhat arbitrarily, should be considered “main,” we stuck to the “can it be grown/produced here” rule of thumb.

Question 5: Why is there no milk in your MyPlate meals?

USDA has been criticized often for its decision to bend to the will of the dairy industry and include milk as its own component, on top of the protein section.  We had similar reservations, and decided to go with a slightly different version of MyPlate, one produced by the distinguished (and arguably less-biased) Harvard medical school.  Here is there Healthy Eating Plate (and a description can be found here):

Harvard Healthy Eating Plate

Let us know if you have any questions!

Leadership Council Applications: In Process!

[Update: Our deadline has passed and we are currently reviewing a batch of great applications.  We’ll get back to you soon, so stay tuned!]

The Pima County Food Alliance is excited to announce  that it has new openings on its Leadership Council.  This is a great opportunity for community members to continue leading in the development of a vibrant and just food system in Pima County!

Please take a look at our Leadership Council Announcement and Application if you’re interested in applying and get back to us by the end of the day on Sunday, January 13th.  We’d love to hear from you!

In case you’re curious, here’s a look at  the 2012 PCFA Leadership Council, many of whom will be staying on.

TUSD Closes 11 Schools, Spares Manzo


At last night’s TUSD Governing Board, the last of the year before a newly elected board takes office, board members voted to close 11 schools as part of the $17 million budget shortfall. The issue is undoubtedly a complicated one, but the PCFA decided to take a stand on behalf of one school, because of the ground-breaking Farm-to-School work it’s been doing.

That school is Manzo Elementary, located on the west side, in Barrio Hollywood. It is one of a small handful of schools that will, in the coming year, be in a position to grow a substantial amount of its own food and serve it through the cafeteria. Our leadership council wrote a letter to the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, vocalizing our support for the school — one of an original 14 schools slated for closure.

Nick Henry, a PCFA Leadership Council member, attended an open meeting on Dec. 8 and read our letter from PCFA aloud to the Governing Board. In addition, Manzo parents spoke out, making an eloquent case for the ecology program there. Letters of support poured in, and leaders at both the Community Food Bank and the University of Arizona made known their concern about the potential closing.

At last night’s meeting, TUSD recognized this outpouring of support, and acknowledged the community’s investment, even putting a dollar amount on it ($200,000 in equipment and infrastructure, made primarily by partners and fundraising done by the school itself.)  They unanimously voted to keep Manzo Elementary open, with the recommendation that the school become a district-run charter, a status that would enable it to garner more funds from the state, but may not substantially change the programming there.

While the Manzo decision was a relief to all of those involved, overall, it was a sad day for education in Arizona. Wakefield Middle School, another school that’s been doing AMAZING work in this area, was among the 11 the board voted to shut down.  Three more schools on the west side (Brichta, Menlo, and Maxwell) will also cease to exist, at least in their current forms.

This round of the battle is over, but there will probably be more to come.  Next month, two new board members (both of whom campaigned on a platform of NOT closing schools and are replacing pro-closure members) will take office.  They may well have something to say about this, and a decision to close any school still has to pass desegregation criteria based on a judge’s approval.

We will keep you posted.  In the meantime, thanks to all those who came out in support of Manzo and its innovative Farm-to-School Program.

Food Bank Receives $98,000 Farm-to-School Grant

Discovery Day and Aquaponics at Davis

Did you know that as recently as last year, students in Pima County weren’t allowed to eat the food they’d grown in their school gardens?  I know!  Ridiculous, right?  Fortunately, over the past year and half, a number of positive changes have taken place and here’s the latest: the USDA has awarded the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona $98,000 to ensure that local food starts making it into school cafeterias.

This Farm-to-School grant will provide the Food Bank with funds to partner with Tucson Unified School District to work on getting fresh, local food into schools in two basic ways:

The Community Food Bank will continue supporting school gardens (just as they have been doing), but with the added condition that schools will be trained on best practices in handling foods to maximize food safety.  Small scale agriculture has a good safety record, but we don’t want to chance the type of contamination issues we’ve seen in the industrial food system of late (think peanut butter, spinach, etc.).

TUSD will seek out and begin purchasing food from local producers to serve on a district level.  Menus, which are planned a year in advance, will be adjusted to follow our local growing season.  This has the added benefit of ensuring that federal dollars from the school meals program are invested into our local economy.

Historically, both the school meals program and food banks have worked to end hunger and malnutrition in America, so it’s a partnership that makes a lot of sense.  We also know that kids who know how to garden, cook and are able to eat fresh food in the cafeteria, are more likely to live healthy, hunger-free lives.

– Nick Henry, PCFA Leadership Council Member and Farm-to-Child Program Coordinator at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona