Urban farming extends to food deserts... and real deserts
In South Phoenix, there isn’t a regular farmer’s market, and getting to a grocery store can mean a serious trek. That means the 4,711 residents in this part of town don’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods. The area is officially designated a food desert by the USDA, but one project, called Spaces of Opportunity, is planning to change that.
With the help of several area nonprofits known as Cultivate South Phoenix, the Desert Botanical Garden, and a local elementary school, 18 vacant acres in the region are set to become working farmland and a community center for arts and healthy living programming.
“The whole point of the project is to keep as much healthy produce in the community as we possibly can,” says Nicolas de la Fuente, the project’s manager.
Eighteen acres is roughly the size of two New York City blocks, and 9.5 acres will be divided into “incubator farms.” Those spaces will be used as production farming space for people who want to make a serious living off the food they grow. Then, there’s 1.5 acres of community garden space, with plots that are about 4ft x 50ft.
“It’s funny when I say ‘community gardening,’” de la Fuente says. “At 1.5 acres it’s almost rural farming, it’s not like the boxes you see in other cities.”
There are currently four incubator farmers growing and selling winter vegetables, like spinach, collard greens, and kale, in the space. In the next few months, they will switch over to summer season crops: squash, peppers, tomatoes, and watermelons.
To water the crops, de la Fuente says they are planning to install a drip irrigation system. That will help the farmers conserve water, as well as substantially increase their output. Despite the desert conditions, the area was also once rich farmland, known for growing citrus and flowers. The Hohokam Canal system, which was one of the world’s largest canal systems, ran through the area, too.
“It’s actually a super rich agricultural center, that’s just been little by little developed with infill,” de la Fuente says. “So we aren’t necessarily doing anything new. We’re just essentially trying to bring back what was there and embrace the roots of the community.”
Spaces of Opportunity just received enough funding to fully connect to water and power, and their next endeavor is to build out the farmer’s market -- which will be the first in South Phoenix.