On the Road in the Borderlands: I Walk the Line

A look into the Ajo Community Food Bank and the Nogales Community Development Corporation in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.

by Jessica Powers, WhyHunger

Just over a year ago, WhyHunger helped bring stakeholders in southeastern Arizona together as part of a regional organizing project called Building Community Power to End Food Deserts. Somos la Semilla (We Are the Seed) was formed. It is a network of grassroots groups, organizations, funders, farmers, and clinics in Arizona-Sonora borderlands working together to grow their future through healthy food systems. We returned to observe their progress and challenges and to offer our ongoing support.

onroad_az_Ajo_KarenKaren Galliazzo, Manager of the Ajo Community Food Bank, talks with Jessica Powers

After our visit with the Tohono O’odham, we drive the width of the reservation. We pass mile after mile of Sonoran desert dotted with craggy mesquite trees, dry blonde grasses, and rust-colored dirt. The Ajo Community Food Bank is roughly two hours west of Tucson and about three hours from Nogales, nestled between the reservation, a military training area, and national wildlife refuges. Residents are a mix of Anglo, Hispanic, and O’odham. The population is slightly less than 4000. Ajo is geographically isolated and a food desert, even though Nogales is the largest port of entry for winter fruits and vegetables to the United States. The trucks simply continue north on 19 towards Tucson and don’t make their way west here.

At one point, the Ajo Community Food Bank received roughly 8000 pounds of produce every month from their former partner agency in Phoenix. The Tucson Community Food Bank ended that arrangement because of concerns that the produce was of “low quality and very close to expiration.” Emphasis shifted to building capacity of the Ajo Community Food Bank by creating infrastructure to adequately store and transport fresh produce— household refrigerators were replaced by commercial units and grant writers secured funding for a truck and driver to deliver produce directly from Nogales. A recent frost in Mexico limited availability, but additional produce is set to be delivered soon. Through an arrangement with a local CSA (community supported agriculture), the food bank receives roughly 300 to 700 pounds of produce monthly. Each November, the manager places an ad in the local newspaper offering to pick excess citrus from neighboring fruit trees. The food bank serves about 250 families once a month, giving an extra bag to families that are really hurting: “In this small town, you know,” says Karen Galliazzo, Manager.

onroad_az_Ajo_food-pantryFood available to clients of the Ajo Community Food Bank

From Ajo, we head southeast to la línea with Mexico, to the Nogales Community Development Corporation (CDC). They work on economic development in a town that sees four million pedestrian crossings annually— down from 7 million due to the recession and new passport rules. Yet the population hovers at just under 20,000 people, making it a rural community. There is high unemployment due to lack of opportunities and a relatively unskilled workforce — in contrast to the other side of the border, which is a maquiladora cluster. Most residents are employed by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, schools, or local government. There are 60 Korean business owners whose interests also need to be considered in this largely Anglo and Hispanic community.

For this community, there are international issues affecting commerce, and they see it as a regional — not national — economy: “What’s good for Nogales, Arizona is good for Nogales, Sonora,” says our guide, the effusive, spiked-haired, German-educated Nils Urman, board member of the Nogales CDC. Despite being a produce distribution hub, locals have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Nils envisions integrating healthy food at a mercado, or public, community market. There is a cultural and experiential draw that connects people to a marketplace, in spite of access to big box stores. Obstacles to managing a farmers market include a lack of experienced market managers, a need for education about unfamiliar produce, and a preference for low price points over quality.

onroad_az_border_NogalesThe border fence runs through the heart of residential neighborhoods, dividing the U.S. and Mexican sides of Nogales.

Nils drives us through town to see the different access points of the border: pedestrian, vehicles, cattle crossing, commercial, and buses. The fence is constructed with Vietnam–era airplane landing mat (tarmac) in some spots, new construction in others, and concrete fill in holes that were dug along the bottom edge. It looks like a metal spine tracing the dry earth of the hilltops. We hear stories of faith-based and humanitarian groups that leave water in the desert for people attempting to cross so that fewer people die of dehydration. The barrels on the U.S. side are consistently vandalized. Groups work with the local CREDA (Centro de Rehabilitación or drug rehab center) to leave water in the desert on the Mexican side.

onroad_az_NilsNils Urman at the border fence leading to the cattle immigration point in Nogales, AZ

The Nogales CDC also works on financial literacy, small business resources and development, neighborhood improvement projects, youth enterprise, and housing issues, including foreclosure assistance. They also work on housing in the colonias, rural—often farming—communities located within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border on both sides that generally lack basic infrastructure and struggle with issues associated with developing nations. This region is very distinct from northern Arizona. When it comes to regulations and trying to get things done, “Nogales is like a seven layer cake,” says rosy-cheeked Nils. He continues: because Nogales is on the border, it’s governed by international law. It’s also subject to federal regulations and state regulations. And then municipalities on both sides of the border weigh in. At the bottom is the private sector. Whenever we get close to getting something done, someone sticks a finger in the cake.

Next stop: Tucson Community Food Bank.

Updated 3/2013