ASU hosts AZDA Summit with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsak

“Out of crisis, it is incumbent upon us to create something better…something more resilient.” Secretary Tom Vilsak, United States Department of Agriculture

Tom Vilsak address the AZDA Summit at ASU

Featuring 26 speakers and over 200 Arizonans in attendance – nearly 140 in person – the Arizona Department of Agriculture and ASU Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems co-hosted the 4th annual Arizona Food Summit at ASU’s Sun Devil Stadium San Tan Ford Club on March 23 and 24 for two days of information sharing and discussion on how best to move forward on creating a sustainable, healthy food system for all Arizonans.

The days were packed with speakers from across the food system spectrum. The event opened with US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Secretary Vilsack emphasized the need to link food security with nutrition security and to better translate science to help people make informed choices. Vilsack further challenged Arizonans to engage, to bring young people into agriculture and food work, to support our local farmers, and attend to nutrition security.

Throughout the day, many speakers shed light on food system challenges and solutions for Native communities. Kim Russell, Arizona Advisory Council Member on Indian Health Care, shared the sad tale of disappearing family farms in tribal land, noting that vegetables cost twice as much for her parents in Indian Country than here in Phoenix, making her parents prefer canned food. How can we build Tribal food systems she asked? She ended by sharing the 4 principles of a healthy tribal community: 1. Beliefs and Spirituality; 2. Resilience/Way of Life; 3. Self-Determination; 4. Sovereignty/Tribal Governance.

Joshua Acre, President and CEO of Partners with Native Americans, discussed how COVID shined a light on the importance of food reclamation, local/organic, gardens, and food as medicine. He stated: “We are not truly sovereign until our food is sovereign. We need to decolonize our food by advancing Native foods and chefs. We must make this a movement, not just a moment.”

AZDA Director Mark Killian asked a critical question: How do we teach people to cook? If people cook, it saves money and improves health, but we now have generations who have yet to learn the basics. Killian stressed that teaching people how to cook is a crucial step in transforming our food system to meet the food security and nutritional needs of Arizona residents.

For attendees gathered in person, the summit was a respite after a long hiatus from convening. The Community Food Reception made the feeling of togetherness even sweeter as food systems stakeholders mulled over the questions and take-aways of the day with dishes from food trucks parked at the South East Plaza by Partners with Native Americans’ Mobile Unit for Training on Nutrition (affectionately called MUTN), Sana Sana: Food Medicine for the People, Early Bird Vegan, and Big Meats Dirty Dogs.

USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development, Xochitl Torres-Small

The morning of the second day started with remarks from USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development, Xochitl Torres-Small. Joining from her office in Washington, DC, the Under Secretary discussed the crucial role that rural Americans play in growing and producing the food that nourishes people across the country, connecting and intertwining our futures from the countryside to cities. She discussed programs offered by USDA’s Rural Development agency that help rural communities in countless ways, giving the Healthy Food Financing Initiative as an example, which improves access to healthy food in underserved communities. On the many programs and loan support, Torres-Small remarked “I often hear that Rural Development is the Federal government’s best-kept secret, and we don’t want it to be a secret anymore. We want to make sure that our programs are accessible so that we’re reaching different, new communities, people who’ve lost trust in the government or who haven’t had success applying for grants in the past, we want to find ways to reach them more.”

Sharma Torrens of Arizona Association of Conservation Districts and Central Arizona Land Trust announced the first conservation easement project funded by Phoenix City Council, Maya’s 3.3-acre organic farm. While conservation easements are typically in more rural areas, this innovative urban conservation easement will help make the farm affordable for Maya, now a lessee, to purchase. It signals the importance of preserving farmland in all parts of Arizona, and has proven such a success the City approved $1 million of COVID money to conserve 2-3 farms in 2022!

Angie Rodgers, president and CEO of Arizona Food Bank Network discussed how pre-pandemic AZ food banks served 460,000 people, but this number grew to nearly 1 million in the pandemic. Where did food banks get food? 46% from the government; 29% farmers; 19% groceries; 2% food drives. Pre-pandemic government accounted for 35%, so we have seen big growth there.

Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of the Swette Center, closed the event on a high note, reminding participants that “No divide is too great. We all need to trailblaze. Communities have power; we have power. Be a puzzle master. Silo bust. Seek the technical help you may need. Always learn something new.” and reflecting how impressive the past two days had been with the incredible passion and energy from all, closed with “This summit is not the end–it is the beginning.”

Check the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems website soon for full recordings of the event!