Food and Social Justice

An approach to Social Justice through Food Equity in the Diocese of Arizona

The text of presentation by Bill Robinson in Sedona, Arizona 

Bill Robinson <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.> 

Food Equity exists when there is equal availability and affordability of adequate, healthy, nutritious, and culturally acceptable food. Food Equity does not exist In Arizona.  Nor does it exist within the Native American Nations.  In Arizona, according to statistics (correlated by the Feeding America Food Bank System, USDA, FAPA, and FEMA), 1 in 5 children, 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 7 seniors are at risk for daily food.  Nutritional deficiencies in our State's Indigenous population have led to America's highest rates of morbid obesity and type 2 Diabetes. 

Transfiguration in Mesa has two vigorous and successful programs that deal directly with Food Equity--A Million Meals for our Neighbors, and The Crazy Chile Farm.  While organizationally independent of each other, their objectives and outreach are carefully intertwined. Million Meals is a parishioner supported funding mechanism that funnels money through United Food Bank to support, primarily, UFB Agencies within a six-mile radius of the church. In the 12 years of the program’s existence, it has funded over 1,336,000 meals in our neighborhood.  The Crazy Chile Farm, on the other hand, functions as a revenue generator. Operating under the 501(c)3 of The Diocese of Arizona, the CCF is a ten thousand square foot commercial farm whose revenues cover its own expenses and whose profits are used to help support Transfiguration outreach programs--including Million Meals!

In 2004, the U.S. Dept. of the Interior proposed the Arizona Water Settlements Act, which laid out a plan to restore water to the entire 5000 sq. miles of Southern Arizona reservation land. It then took 10 difficult years for the various agencies of the Department of Interior, and the legislatures of Arizona and New Mexico to approve that proposal. But they did! In 2014, Tier-2 of The Settlement Act was approved.  The water restoration began in that year by using the 360-mile Central Arizona Project canal as a delivery system. Additionally, the Gila River, which had been reduced to an intermittent stream in the 20th Century, was allowed to flow with greater regularity. Since then tribal officials, educators and outside support groups have been working ceaselessly to recruit and train a new generation of O'odham, Yoeme (Yaqui), Pima, and Maricopa peoples to grow their traditional crops. But there is a high hurdle to overcome. As mentioned earlier, seeds of traditional crops are in extremelyshort supply.

The response of The Crazy Chile Farm at Transfiguration has been to repurpose 5000 sq. ft. (roughly 50% of our growing surface) to grow seed crops of specific indigenous food plants that are in very high demand and very short supply.  In some cases, the seeds we provide are from varietiesapproaching extinction. This past summer we qualified for a Bulk Seed Exchange Program with Native Seeds/SEARCH, a non-profit heritage seed bank in Tucson specializing in preserving and redistributing Native seeds. We were given Yoeme Blue corn seeds, which we grew in one of our fields. At the end of the season we were able to give back to NS/S 5 times as many genetically un-crossed seeds as we had received.  NS/S will redistribute these seeds, mostly into the O'odham, Gila River Pima and Pasqua Yaqui Communities. We kept some of the seeds for future crops at The Crazy Chile Farm. We have given other seeds to indigenous growers in the Gila River Community and to members of the Omaha tribe in Nebraska.

Another part of our response has been to work with the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ajo, AZ. The Ajo Center is operated as an Anglo/ Hispanic/ O'odham Farm and Food Cooperative. Last summer theyprovided The Crazy Chile Farm with indigenous seeds that are in short supply. We, in turn, grew the seeds at our farm in Mesa, taking care that the resulting plants were not cross-pollinated. At maturity, the seeds wereharvested, returned to the Ajo Center, and distributed among the three dry-land farms managed by Ajo. Most of the seed crops grown in these dry land farms are shared with other O’odham farmers. Remaining cropsgrown by Ajo are delivered to the Ajo Cafe, operated by the Center. There, traditional recipes are prepared for customers to introduce locals and visitors to nutritious traditional foods and recipes.   

Although our program appears very successful, its weakness is its small size. By ourselves we cannot keep up with the demand. We are constantlytold by NS/S, by the Ajo Center, and even by the Director of the Arizona State Department of Agriculture that the seed shortage within the TohonoO’odham and other indigenous communities in Arizona is endemic.  Obviously, for this project to reach its full potential we will need partner growers.

In the past year the outreach parameters of Transfiguration and the Crazy Chile Farm have begun to move in a new direction.  In addition to growing and selling chile products to cover our expenses, we have begun  

working with Native American farms and communities within the 4400 sq. mi. (2.8 million acre) Tohono O'odham Nation, and within the Gila River Pima Reservation.  We are working with them to help re-establish traditional agriculture and the historic, traditional (and nutritious) foods that result from those methods.

The rationale for this new direction is very compelling. The indigenous peoples of Southern Arizona lost both their water access and their water rights to Anglo farmers, developers, and the cities of Tucson, Casa Grande, and Yuma over the period of time from 1900 to 2014. This was part of the US Government’s stated policy of “pacification and assimilation”, which they believed was best accomplished by destroying the language, religion, family relationships, and traditional foods of all indigenous peoples—a policy that has been called “cultural genocide”.During that period when their water was cut off, a period of "imposed drought", four tribal groups occupying almost 5000 sq. miles, lost their 2000 year old system of self-sustaining agriculture, their traditional food supply, and their health; along with many aspects of their culture and traditional beliefs. Also during that time, seeds for the crops that had nurtured them for millennia all but disappeared.

To multiply our reach and our impact, we first thought about talking to other non-profit gardens and/or farms located at parishes, missions, or Episcopal schools within the Diocese of Arizona.  According to Brian Sellers-Petersen, author and former overseer of the Episcopal Relief and Development Abundant Life Garden Project, there are exactly three such garden ministries in this Diocese: The Crazy Chile Farm, Imago Dei middle school in Tucson, and St. Andrews Sedona.  And while three is better than one, it still represents a very small network.  Perhaps with time, with prayers and by God's grace (and maybe even an organized shove from the Diocese!), more of our churches will engage in this valuable and rewarding ministry.  But for now, because of those whose food supply is highly dependent on the seeds we produce, and the training we provide, our current recruiting efforts are focused on secular community gardens and farms, and on church gardens from other denominations. 

To that end, we are currently talking to The Association of Community Gardeners of Maricopa County, and have asked their member gardeners for help.  What we have requested is for individual gardens to set aside 100 to 200 square feet of their growing surface, and use seeds provided by The Crazy Chile Farm to do what is called a grow-out.  Then, when the crops are mature, they could harvest the seeds and return a threefold amount of what they were given.  The CGMC has 30 member gardeners, and if even ten agree to participate, it will have a big impact. It would enable us to provide a significantly higher volume of seeds than we could produce on our own.

As the efforts to grow seeds for the indigenous seed recovery program have gained momentum in the secular world, I am asked repeatedly, “Why haven’t you engaged your own church more?” It’s a fair question. There are 64 parishes/missions in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. Most of those churches have land; some of which could possibly be used for small scale growing.  Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, there are only threeongoing “Community Gardens” at AZ Diocesan parishes, missions, or schoolsIf you know of others that may have been missed in the Episcopal Relief and Development survey, please let me know! If they are willing to set aside even a small plot of land for a seed grow-out, we would be pleased to provide seed stock and growing information.

There is also a way that we, The Council on Native American Ministries, can play an important leadership role in this project; a way that will not only enhance the unity and community of our Council, it will give us an opportunity and platform to engage more of the churches in our Diocese to work with us. Most importantly, we can help reclaim the traditional agriculture, diet, and cultural history of our often forgotten and frequently persecuted brothers and sisters of the Indigenous Nations of Arizona.

The bottleneck restricting that reclamation is clearly the shortage of the right seeds, specifically Tohono O’odham 60-Day corn, Yoeme Blue corn, four different varieties of tepary beans, and O’odham Ha:l squash. So, the question is this: Would you, as a group, be willing to work with me tooutline a plan to increase the volume of desired seeds? Furthermore, would any of you be willing to talk to your clergy, and to your Vestry/Bishop’s Committee about setting aside a small portion of your church’s property to grow seeds for Arizona’s indigenous people? As mentioned in our discussion of secular involvement, we are looking for relatively small plots of land—100 to 200 sq. ft. We will provide you with seed stock, growing instructions, and training if necessary. If your answer is “yes” to either of these questions, Transfiguration, through the volunteers at The Crazy Chile Farm will be delighted to work closely with you and your own church communities to help make this a rewarding and successful project—not only for this Council, but for both the Native Communities and the Diocese of Arizona. We will gladly provide you with any information and training you may need, as well as the sharing of our own experiences. We would also be willing to serve as the logistical interface between this project and the organizations distributing the seeds among the Nations.

I don’t expect an answer from you today, but I do hope you will share any initial reactions or comments you may have. Also, if you have any concerns, I would welcome the opportunity to address them today. But first we’re going to take a break from my voice to watch a short slide show.  It shows a year in the life of a 501(c)3 farm, along with some glimpses our community interaction, and it shows something of the love and excitement that can be generated by a small community agricultural project!

Our time is about up, and we need to make it a wrap—at least for today. Thank you for listening and being a part of this discussion. I appreciate your time. Transcripts of this talk and business cards are available on the front table. Pray about this. Let me know by phone or email what you have decided, or if you simply need more information. In closing, let me leave you with this thought: At its heart, the Indigenous Seed Restoration Program is about feeding people—one of the most frequently mentioned New Testament themes—one which I believe is at the heart of our Baptismal Covenant. From the wedding at Canna through the 21st Chapter of John, Jesus is constantly feeding people. Even our most sacred liturgy, the Eucharist, is within the context of a meal. If you decide to play a role in this ministry, I can promise you, you will be both challenged and deeply touched. You will experience the awe and wonder that Andrew experienced at the feeding of the 5000. And you will be responding YES to Our Lord’s final mandate, in the final chapter, of the final Gospel: “Feed My Sheep”.  Amen!


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