Arizona has a special place in my heart because it’s the only state from which I was ever banned, albeit temporarily. I had been invited to address a statewide food summit in the Spring of 2017 on the topic of food security. Having gratefully accepted the offer and purchased my airline ticket, I was told two weeks before the summit that the invite had been rescinded. Apparently, the state’s cattlemen’s and farm bureau associations had bad cases of acid reflux over something I wrote many years prior that called into question certain industrial farming practices that continue to be questioned today. My plea to use the summit as an opportunity “to reason together” was rejected Winne Banned in Arizona! | Mark Winne.

It appears as if things have changed, since I was invited to Yuma, Arizona. Perhaps the statute of limitations had run out, or maybe Yuma’s omnipresent sun had blinded the town’s citizenry to my past transgressions. Either way, I was given the opportunity to spend a couple of days with the Yuma Food Policy Council this January to help them advance their agenda of making healthy and affordable food accessible to all. But as my plane descended out of the blazingly blue sky to YUM (yes, that’s the airport’s code), the view below foreshadowed the paradox that would consume my visit. A vast expanse of rectangular vegetable and orchard fields, shimmering many shades of green, were framed by a treeless desert-brown landscape. The fields, cris-crossed by miles of irrigation aqueducts and at the peak of their winter harvest, presented an image of agricultural abundance the likes of which I had rarely witnessed. As the plane’s landing gear bounced us down the runway, I asked myself, “What’s the food access problem?”

Once on the ground, the view from Tricia Kinnell’s pickup truck didn’t provide any immediate answers. Tricia, who works for the Yuma County Public Health Services District and is part of the AZ Health Zone and SNAP-Ed programs, also coordinates the Yuma HEAL Coalition Food Policy Council (HEAL: Healthy Eating, Active Living). As we maneuvered our way through city traffic, we found ourselves sharing the road with large flatbed trucks packed high and tight with just-packed cardboard boxes of lettuce. At one intersection, an old school bus towing a small trailer with two porta-potties lashed to its bed crosses in front of us. The bus is full of seated day laborers from Mexico, who with the porta-potties, are destined for a nearby farm. In fact, as I come to learn over the next two days, the County, whose population is 200,000, has 20,000 farmworkers when the harvest is at its peak as it is now. Over 6,000 Arizona farmworkers, most of whom now working in Yuma, have H-2A agricultural work visas.

Tricia, who grew up in a military family says, “military bases [there are two] and agriculture are by far the largest segments of our local economy.” The winter time portion of that economy is considerably augmented by an infusion of cash from “snowbirds” whose ubiquitous RVs perch in trailer parks like sandhill cranes in the bosques.

Perhaps the most striking physical feature of Yuma, aside from the menacing presence of the not-so-distant desert, is the extraordinary intermix of farmland, residential, and commercial land use. Step outside of the main branch of the public library or one of the high schools and you’re likely looking at a 50-acre, just-harvested, farm field with a second crop of lettuce seedlings lined up perfectly amidst a web of irrigation lines. Drive by the largest shopping mall and across the road there will be another large agricultural tract with several harvesting tractors accompanied by 20 to 30 pickers mowing down and sorting lettuce heads. And just past a Wal Mart, right at the front plot lines of a long row of affluent homes sits 100 acres of onions and another 25 acres of date palm trees.

“So, where are the farmers’ markets, fruit and vegetable stands, or even ‘pick you own’ signs?” I asked Tricia. Here’s the rub, indeed the answer to why the food policy council wants to take on the so-called access problem: there aren’t any! Why? The vast majority of the 456 farms working some 180,000 acres of farmland in Yuma County are contract growers for Dole, Sunkist, and other corporate food packers and distributors. Sure, I could buy a head of “locally grown” broccoli or a bunch of onions at one of the county’s two Albertson’s, but first it would be picked from a nearby field, sent to one of the county’s many packing sheds and coolers, transported by truck to warehouses in Phoenix (three hours away), re-packed, reshuffled, and reshipped back to a Yuma supermarket. A few days, a few hundred miles, and a few dozen hands later, I’d be serving up a “local salad” to my family. And the rest of North America would be squeezing and caressing all that fresh produce picked only a few feet, a few blocks, or a few miles from my house.

Always in search of a work-around, I ask, “what if I want to just walk into a field and pick enough to feed my family for the night?” “Besides being illegal,” Tricia says, “that section of the field where you were doing that would be cordoned off as contaminated, and nothing near it could be harvested.” “Gleaning?” “Nope. Too many insurance issues.”

There are always rebels, of course, and in Yuma’s case he goes by the name of Tyler, the owner and operator of Lemon Grove Farm who’s a member of the food policy council (he was unable to attend the two sessions I spoke at). He’s quoted as saying, “I left Sunkist because I didn’t feel any community connection,” a void he’s trying to fill by being one of only two farmers selling weekly at an open-air market. With the goal of opening a real farmers’ market someday, Tricia and the Council’s other members are pinning their hopes on Tyler spearheading that effort.

While gleaning may be forbidden, the Yuma Food Bank is at the heart of rounding up stray produce from packers and shippers before it leaves the region for points east. Michelle Merkley, the Food Bank’s Operations Director, tells me they received five million pounds of local produce in 2023, but because their location is at the heart of Arizona’s winter growing season, they are obligated to share the bounty with the Arizona Food Bank Network which sends its all over the state. With a recent USDA grant, the Food Bank plans to start a Farm to Food Bank program. “We just made a purchase of lots of great cauliflower,” she tells me. “We’re trying to do our part to reduce the 20 billion pounds of wasted fruit and vegetables in the U.S. every year.”

The Colorado River

You don’t need a wealth of agricultural knowledge to look at these verdant fields and ask where the water comes from. The sprawling oasis of green amidst the barren Sonoran landscape took more than divine intervention to create. The answer is found in a barely visible ribbon of water that marks the Arizona and California border on a meandering journey to the Gulf of California—the Colorado River. Finding a lovely river park under what’s mysteriously called the Ocean-to-Ocean bridge, I stroll the river’s Arizona bank peering through stands of willow and swaying palm trees across a hundred feet of water into California. It’s a beautiful reach of riverfront that invites one stride to follow another even though you have no destination. I did stop, however, when I looked at my phone to discover that it’s now an hour earlier than it was five minutes ago. Unbeknownst to me, I had crossed into the Pacific time zone.

But an hour either way is of no consequence to the Colorado. While cities, states, and tribes vie for its content and fund gigantic diversion ditches to feed their ever-expanding thirsts, the Rockies’ snow keeps on melting and the river just keeps on rolling, at least for now. It feeds the present production of over 175 crops within a short distance of its banks. And centuries of flooding have deposited generous coverings of fertile topsoil long before non-indigenous humans corralled its natural tendencies with damnable dams and dikes. Since Yuma receives a little over 3 inches of rain annually, it would rapidly return to the surrounding desert without the river’s gifts. (Climate change update: on January 23, 2024, a dramatic rainstorm dumped a little over one inch of rain on the city. The previous record for a one-day rain total was 0.6 inches in 1915).

As recent policy actions indicate, Arizona’s land and water cannot be taken for granted. The state’s governor, Katie Hobbs, suspended the lease of a Saudi Arabian-owned farm that had violated its land and water lease terms. The 3,000-acre facility west of Phoenix was growing alfalfa—a water-intensive crop—for shipment to Saudi Arabia to feed its own dairy cows. Much of Arizona, legendary for its heat, has experienced extreme drought over the course of several years. The snowbirds keep flocking to the oh-so beautiful winter climes but decide to stay, along with a steady influx of retirees, putting more and more pressure on the state’s already stretched resources. When you look out across the sea of vegetables and citrus groves, which are largely untouchable and unavailable to Yumans, you have to ask if you’re colonized by forces over which you have no control; if you have lost all food sovereignty; you cannot assure that your community’s land and water are there to feed you first. To rephrase Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Food, food everywhere, but not a bite to eat.”

The Food Policy Council

One path that’s open to the people of Yuma who want to assert their food sovereignty is the food policy council. To kick off their day-long workshop, Anna Vakil, an urban planner and council member, shared local findings that made it clear what the consequences are of neglecting the community’s food system. Using one community survey, she said that 43 percent of residents were food insecure [while this survey used a more liberal definition of food insecurity than the annual USDA survey, it did identify a very large percentage of the population who periodically feel stress over not having enough to eat. Notably, using the same methods and measures, that percentage compares to 33 percent who were food insecure in 2019]. She added that the Yuma Community Food Bank distributed the equivalent of 9.2 million meals between July 2022 and June 2023. The Food Bank noted that during COVID, their demand was four times higher than it was pre-COVID but is now—post-COVID—twice as high as pre-COVID.

When it came to health and diet, the numbers were grim. According to statistics that Anna gathered, nearly 44 percent of Yuma County was obese compared to 29.5 percent of all Arizonans and 33 percent of all Americans. Partly as a result of this high level, 16.5 percent were diabetic, and an additional 10 percent were diagnosed pre-diabetic. All of this was also influenced by a higher-than-average poverty rate (14.6 percent) and the number of people without health insurance (20 percent). While firm data was not available, the county was also losing valuable farmland to development, and exposure to agricultural chemicals in the area may be linked to high cancer rates. When asked about barriers to getting healthy food, 53 percent of the respondents cited one or more problems including no car, poor public transportation (I didn’t see a single shaded bus shelter, a serious issue when you’re waiting for a bus and it’s 110 degrees), and high food prices. What did the respondents want? Between 16 and 19 percent said they wanted farmers’ markets, community gardens, and cooking classes.

Thes food access problem is the failure of a system of food production and distribution not tuned to the community’s nutrition and health needs. This violates the most basic principle of agriculture which is to provide a healthy and affordable diet to the immediate community, in other words, its own people. After that, domestic and global markets will determine the destiny of its remaining output. The reverse is true in Yuma.

As the food policy council’s members pondered Anna’s presentation, there was a bias toward practical responses that might yield modest benefits to some of the most vulnerable Yumans. Establishing a “real” farmers’ market and expanding the number of community gardens were at the top of the list as were some innovations like developing a mobile market to bring fresh food into the county’s food deserts. But perhaps it was a growing recognition that those actions, as helpful as they can be, and that even the Food Bank distributing donated local produce, were not enough. More people, more partners, and more energy were required to wring a sustainable form of community food security out of Yuma’s dominant food system. To that end, the Council’s first order of business was growing its numbers and increasing the commitment of its participants to a more democratic and healthier local food system.

The Council has a core of diverse and able people. In addition to those mentioned so far, there is Michael Clark, a professor for Nutrition and Wellness at the University of Arizona-Yuma who secured $2 million for a teaching kitchen. As a former school food service director, he brings a passionate commitment to ensuring all are fed and fed well. Entrepreneur and owner of the Prison Hill Brewery, Chris Wheeler, has a wealth of business acumen—in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors (he also makes a mean IPA). He’s well networked in both the business and political communities which should help the Council make important connections. A number of health educators with the county, a social worker with the nearby Cocopah Tribe, and a retired physician, among others, make up a deep bench of multi-skilled, community-savvy individuals. Their task, however, is a big one: feed Yuma first!

A former Governor of Iowa is quoted as once saying, “Let’s make Iowa the food capital of the world!” One of the state’s local food advocates who couldn’t find Iowa-grown food anywhere he went, responded to the Governor, “How about first making Iowa the food capital of Iowa!” Yuma’s story is similar. How can it be the nation’s “winter salad bowl” and the fertile crescent of the Southwest but have such high rates of food insecurity and diabetes? Such a dreadful disconnect should not be tolerated for long. Only the people, exercising their democratic right to an equitable and healthy food system, can fix that connection.

(With special thanks to Anna Vakil, Ph.D. for the data)