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19 acres of farmland in south Phoenix part of the effort to eliminate food deserts in the Valley

Although a large portion of the state is a desert, Arizona has a deep agricultural history. In fact, more than a thirdof the state is still considered farmland. But the pandemic revealed vulnerabilities when it comes to supplying ourselves with food.

In an agricultural oasis, why do so many residents live in so-called food deserts, with little access to affordable, healthy, locally sourced food?

Jose-Benito Rosales Chavez is a professor at Arizona State University. His class on urban food systems teaches students about issues surrounding food access in Arizona.

He says food shortages that surfaced in the pandemic were simply supply-chain issues.

“You go to the grocery stores and you couldn’t find the basic things that you needed for your household. And it’s not an issue that we didn’t have the food, it’s just that we couldn’t get it to the customer’s table," Rosales Chavez says.

A food desert, he says, is an area with low access to affordable, healthy food.

“So if you live more than one mile, in a city, more than one mile away from the supermarket, your area or the neighborhood is considered to be a food desert," he says.

A mile may not sound like much, but it makes a difference for the 6% of Arizonans without vehicles. In more densely populated areas, many Arizona residents live in “food swamps,” where the only options close by are fast food chains and convenience stores with unhealthy eating options.

The city of Phoenix says that there are 43 food deserts in Phoenix alone, accounting for 75% of all food deserts in Maricopa County.

Food access is something the city’s put emphasis on as part of its 2025 food action program, working alongside community organizations with the same goal of eliminating food deserts.

Rosales Chavez says there’s a community of growers, organizers and city officials working together to resolve some of the supply chain issues that came up during the lockdown.

“Now, with the pandemic, one of the movements that we have is creating a closer relationship with our local producers, so we don’t have to rely on this other middle person to get food from our farmers to our table,” he says.

I’m driving through south Phoenix on Seventh Avenue on a particularly windy Earth Day. I’ve just made it out of downtown and am passing by mechanic shops and a combination Long John Silver's/Taco Bell when I turn into a neighborhood. After V.H. Lassen school on the left, there’s 19 acres of farmland on my right, and skyscrapers are still visible behind it.

This is Spaces of Opportunity, a farm plot available to community growers in south Phoenix. Bridget Pettis, who goes by Ms. BE, her cousin Jessica Diamond and Phoenix native Dionne Washington are part of “Project Roots,” a nonprofit community gardening project located on a half acre of land at Spaces.

Project Roots is one of many initiatives working to close the gap between production and consumption here in the Valley.

Washington says the project focuses on teaching community members how to grow their own food at home, and provides fresh produce at the Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market, offering more healthy options to shoppers in the city.

“It’s one thing to put together a food box or offer food at a farmer’s market, that’s important, but educating your community on how to grow your own food in your backyard, which you can, is priceless, and that’s really what we stand for,” Washington says.

Volunteers from a real estate tech company and a third grade class from V.H. Lassen elementary across the street are here on the farm to plant trees and sunflowers for Earth Day.

Ms. BE says she enjoys working with kids the most, teaching them the basics of farming and seeing them get excited about working in the soil.

Erica is a student from the third grade class who loves being a part of this garden on weekly visits. I asked her why she thinks it’s important to grow your own food.

“If you grow a plant like strawberries, you can get strawberries and you can grow your own food instead of having to waste like 20 bucks on store bought food,” she says.

Kashara Starks, who goes by Kash, also volunteers here some weekends, having met Ms. BE at yoga a couple of years ago. She says being in the garden brings her peace.

“Oh, yeah, nature’s always forgiving, a lot more forgiving than humans,” says Starks.

Washington says a lack of farming knowledge and education about where to find healthier food options are the driving factors hurting local growing efforts in Phoenix. She says a lot of optionsare now becoming available to people living in food deserts, they just don’t know about them yet.

“I’m a native, born and raised here, and I didn’t even know about the farmers markets here. ... Absolutely, I think awareness plays a big part, and people just not knowing that they have access to this fresh, local food,” Washington says.

Rosales Chavez says that many small-scale growers don’t get the kind of financial support or land protection that bigger farms can receive through federal grants.

“If you go to a farmer’s market, oftentimes food is expensive because these farmers are not getting the subsidies that they need to make our food more affordable," Rosales Chavez says.

Many local growers have lost out on their existing land due to larger commercial developers. It’s how Project Roots lost its other community garden space with Agave Farms in Phoenix to an apartment developer.

Colin Dueker, manager of the Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market, says it can be difficult to compete with chain retailers or even commercial developers that swoop in from out of state.

“Most of the time, you’ll see outside, external resources. People coming in with lots of money from out of state to purchase land for development purposes,” Dueker says.

Washington says the future of urban farming depends on Arizonans’ willingness to work together within the community to support local growers and to urge policymakers to protect farmland.

“Do your research, definitely talk to a farmer’s market grower. We’re all … we’re all a big family,” she says.

And when it comes to growing your own food at home, Ms. BE says it’s alright if the first seeds don’t grow.

“Plant another one,” she says, laughing.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to correct the name of the garden that was displaced by development.

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Athena Ankrah is an assistant producer for KJZZ's The Show.Ankrah graduated from Arizona State University in 2023 with a bachelor’s in journalism and a second degree in Chicano media and expressive culture.Before accepting a national student Edward R. Murrow award for Radio Feature Reporting in 2023, Ankrah began their broadcasting career in high school, where they hosted a monthly Teen Talk radio show.Originally from Peoria, Arizona, she enjoys singing in her car and tending to their beloved houseplants.