Overlooked by South Mountain in southern Phoenix, bountiful rows of kale, okra, radishes and citrus trees bloom on a 19-acre community farm.
In Arizona, one in eight people face hunger. Feeding America estimates that half of these are children who don’t have reliable access to healthy, nutritious foods. Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbate the impact that food insecurity has on these already vulnerable communities.
Compelled to address these inequities, a consortium of Arizona’s community-based organizations have joined forces to create a sustainable food system, providing educational opportunities for the community, an economic engine for small farmers and a place for individual gardeners to hone their own skills.
Our mission and vision has been to inspire health and wellness among the residents of south Phoenix. — Emma Viera, executive director of the nonprofit Unlimited Potential
Unlimited Potential is one of five original founders behind Spaces, along with the Orchard Community Learning Center, TigerMountain Foundation, Roosevelt School District No. 66 and Desert Botanical Garden. Over the past seven years, Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation and Valley Leadership have also joined the partnership, bolstering their mission and bringing in additional funding sources.
‘Perpetuated by Segregation’
At the start of the 1900s, cotton grew on the 19-acre land that Spaces of Opportunity now occupies. Back then, Phoenix as a whole was seen as an agricultural hub, known for its many natural resources. But the land, owned by the Roosevelt Elementary School District, had been desolate and empty for nearly four decades before Spaces transformed it.
The story of the lot isn’t unique among the area, though. Scattered throughout south Phoenix are the city’s oldest Black American and Latino neighborhoods, which have faced decades of industrial development. For decades landfills, industrial parks and waste facilities were erected in these neighborhoods without regard for residents’ health or way of life. The expansion of two major interstates highways in the 1950s also further ostracized and displaced these communities.
“The area has been perpetuated by segregation,” said Viera.
Systemic racism and discrimination has been prevalent within the area’s health and food systems, creating disparities in accessibility. “I don’t use the term food desert, simply because we live in the desert,” said John Wann-Angeles, founding director of the Orchard Community Learning Center. “In my opinion, the term should be food apartheid because these are systemic issues and are amplified in marginalized communities.”
Wann added that with Spaces of Opportunity, the group has been able to restore food sovereignty to the community while honoring the history of south Phoenix as an agricultural hub.
Meeting the Mission
The consortium, thus far, is meeting its mission and more. Since the start of the pandemic, they’ve distributed over 70,000 pounds of food per year to families in need. More than 200 patrons visit the farmers’ market each Saturday morning.
Spaces of Opportunity has also partnered with V.H. Lassen, a local elementary school, by providing food for culinary classes and the school’s student-run vegan restaurant, Healthy Roots Cafe. (During the pandemic, the cafe was relocated to the farmer’s market.) Spaces is also home to a climate-controlled vertical growing space, known as the High Tunnel, which allows students to grow foods on the farm year-round.
In addition to their horticultural work and community partnerships, Spaces of Opportunity also facilitates an incubator program. Since its introduction, nearly a dozen micro farmers and other food entrepreneurs have participated in the initiative.
“I am very thankful for the program,” said Wendy Mundive, a vendor who joined the incubator program in 2019. Mundive produces fresh juice blends, fruit and vegetable cups, salsas and various arts and crafts that celebrate her Mexican heritage.
Mundive says the Spaces of Opportunity incubator program enabled her to reach her dream of owning a business. It also gave her a platform to share her family’s culture and history with her children. “When my kids were little, I would tell them stories about my childhood and talk about Mexican art, but they didn’t really get it,” she said. “And when I realized my kids didn’t understand [the breadth of our] culture, I said I needed to think of something to preserve our legacy and culture.”
Since joining, Mundive has been able to expand her business by selling some of her handmade crafts in local boutiques and arts shows in the city. She hopes to expand even further in the future.
Mundive’s story is one of many success stories for Spaces of Opportunity, Viera says. Through the incubator program, “the hope is that individuals learn the process of becoming a small business [so] they can continue in their journey if they want to, on their own,” she explains. “It’s the little things that let us know that we’re thriving and moving in the right direction.”
‘A Real Resource’
Spaces’ land is divided into three major sections. The incubator farmland accounts for about 12 acres. There, local farmers and those with agricultural experience come to hone their skills. For an annual fee, farmers are assigned a quarter acre spot to start, with the opportunity to grow and graduate to a larger space if they are very successful. Farmers agree to refrain from using any chemical-based pesticides; and if they hire anyone, they also agree to pay their workers at least $15 an hour.
About two acres of land is delegated for use by the farmer’s market. On Saturday mornings, families and community members come to gather and purchase affordably-priced, quality goods and produce.
The remaining five acres of land are available for use by those interested in starting their own gardens. Parties pay a small fee to claim their plot of the land.
Spaces of Opportunity’s incubator farms and community gardens have attracted seasoned farmers, as well as people who are learning how to grow their own produce for the first time, says Kevina Devereaux, senior director of social responsibility and inclusion at the Desert Botanical Garden.
What is grown remains within the community for those most in need—thus creating a new, sustainable food system. “Spaces has become a real resource for families and the community as whole,” said Devereaux.
Building Awareness and Sustainability
Growing and maintaining awareness has been a challenge for the project. Last year, Ellen Degeneres featured the urban farm on her talk show, when Sprouts Healthy Community Foundation awarded Spaces a $100,000 grant. Spaces of Opportunity also holds health and wellness symposiums, along with culinary events, to help bolster awareness about the farmland both within and outside of the community.
“There are [still] people who live within the community who are not aware of Spaces,” Devereaux says. “We’re working on building that awareness.”
The ultimate vision for Spaces, Viera noted, is to maintain an environmentally-conscious and economically sustainable farm for the community. She says the founding partners have moved to create a separate 501(c)(3) entity under the Spaces of Opportunity moniker, and that they are on the hunt for an executive director who will oversee the entire operation.
“We are looking at that sustainability out of respect for the community,” Viera said. “It makes sense for us to help develop articles of incorporation, policies and procedures that will preserve the role of the community, and be true to all the hard work that the community has done on Spaces.”