Tasting Arizona is a consortium of tourism, non-government, indigenous, farming, education, community, festival and food organizations that aim to provide ‘local flavor’ to customers in Arizona (see Table 1). Tasting Arizona began as a series of workshops held in 2007 as part of a project of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. The philosophy behind Tasting Arizona is that visitors want local flavor and they have identified a range of food products that represent the taste and feel of Arizona. Wild foods such as flour made from the Mesquite bean and pure varieties of fruit and vegetables are just two examples of traditional local foods that have been revived.
The benefits of this revival extend well beyond providing visitors with local flavors, as these foods are linked with preserving traditional farming practices, conserving areas for wildlife, educating youth, keeping food pure and free from genetic modification, maintaining biodiversity and protecting cultural traditions.
Table 1: Tasting Arizona Partners
- Tourism providers
- Farmers markets
- Local growers (farmers and ranchers)
- National and State Parks (Slide Rock)
- Festival organizers
- Non-profit organizations (Native Movement, Native Seeds SEARCH, Slowfood USA, etc.)
- Foragers of wild foods
- Food enthusiasts
- University researchers
- Plant and seed sellers
- Heritage food growers
- Youth gardens
- Community gardens
Drivers of Innovation: Why Innovate?
Tasting Arizona believes that wild and traditional foods are good for everybody – producers, consumers and tourists. In addition to the community benefits there are indications that wild foods have previously unknown health benefits. Certain foods such as white corn are central to traditional cultural ceremonies yet these pure varieties are under threat from cross-pollination with genetically modified varieties of corn.
Hence the drivers of innovation in Tasting Arizona can be summarized as:
- Maintaining food purity and biodiversity;
- Protecting local cultures and traditions;
- Conserving natural areas;
- Reviving farm lands; and
- Educating the public (especially youth) about local foods.
Process of Innovation: When and How to Innovate?
The first step in reviving the traditional and wild foods was to create a food network with local people to:
- Bring back local farmer’s markets;
- Support local farms;
- Fostering of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs);
- Demonstrate demand for local foods;
- Grow food in community gardens; and
- Contribute to organizations that are helping maintain and strengthen food systems.
Bringing back local farmer’s markets provides a place for celebration of local foods and interaction between producers, restaurants and consumers. Supporting local farms involves identifying traditional food varieties, orchard restoration, sponsorship of festivals and food events, inviting chefs to prepare local produce and creating food and wine trails. These activities will enable visitors to discover local foods which will increase demand and encourage more producers to get involved. Engaging with youth in creating and farming community gardens that grow local varieties of produce is a tool that is used to educate the local community, increase demand and strengthen supply. Tasting Arizona is also introducing wild foods to visitors and residents in familiar ways, such as cookies made from Mesquite flour which is naturally sweet. This has been so successful that demand now outstrips supply. Another initiative is ‘Wild Food’ walks. These walks provide educational opportunities for linking wild foods to wildlife and preserving natural areas.
CSAa is a direct connection between local farmers and the people who eat their produce. The aim is to foster a mutual commitment: communities of eaters commit to supporting a local farmer for a season. In return, CSA participants receive fresh, seasonal produce—sharing in the risks and bounty of farming.
The declaration of themed National Heritage Areas has provided an opportunity for the consortium to access funding for the development of tours and the production of maps of farming and wild food areas in Arizona and neighbouring States. In this way, tourists can be engaged in discovering new foods and support local producers.
Barriers to Innovation
The challenges are many. First both natural and farming lands are under increasing pressure from larger producers and non-local produce, to satisfy demand from customers who have become used to buying out-of-season and non-local produce.
Second there are limitations of the scale of production that prevent traditional and wild food producers from achieving continuity and volume of supply. Third there is as yet no distribution system in place for local foods.
Fourth locally produced food has been declining as water is being diverted for other uses. Fifth there is a lack of place-based agriculture and agricultural diversity as the trend to source mass-produced foods from outside of the local area continues.
The consortium has found that collaboration is the key to food production and distribution, and it is not possible to develop food systems without linking with various community, non-profit, tourism, education and land management agencies. Community and youth groups that grow traditional foods in community gardens are bringing people into the local food network. Non-profit organizations such as the Native Movement, Native Seed Search and Slow Food USA are important partners in providing knowledge and advice on production of traditional foods. Tasting Arizona has linked with schools, hospitals and universities through partnerships that undertake research and educate the public about local food. National and State Park agencies have a vested interest in conserving the environment where wild food and animals exist. Finally, tour operators, festival organizers, restaurants and food enthusiasts engage and support local producers and wild food foragers.
Hence food networks are extensive and interact with a wide cross-section of people in government, the community and business. Indeed, growing these networks could be considered just as important as growing the food if the consortium is going to remain sustainable into the future.
The long-term vision is to have local foods linked to tourism and made available to visitors. This will only be achieved when the numerous benefits of local food production are clearly identified and articulated. The process of strengthening local food systems involves many innovative initiatives. Reviving local food production involves many barriers, not the least of which is reversing consumer trends towards mass produced food and protecting farming and natural areas from invasion. A strong network is critical to this process and overcoming the barriers.
This case demonstrates that a creative and innovative approach to food production can not only enhance tourism experiences, but it can protect local traditions, restore farmlands, maintain natural and agricultural biodiversity and move farming and native communities toward sustainability of their land, traditions, culture and community. Collaboration is the key to renewing food systems and creating local networks that produce, protect and promote traditional and wild foods.