Spaces of Opportunity: Increasing access to “desert food”

By Jason Pena, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

It was a cool December morning just south of the Salt River near Phoenix when we arrived at Spaces of Opportunity. This part of the community has historically been marginalized by economic hardships, but in 2015 something changed for the better of the community. Spaces of Opportunity was founded in 2015 on the idea brought forth by the Roosevelt School District to turn 19 acres of vacant property, which for over 40 years was cotton and maize, into an urban community garden. 

The committee was assigned the task of writing a White Paper on the feasibility and estimated resources to make such a big undertaking happen. Spaces of Opportunity is surrounded by schools on three corners of the property within a neighborhood. This hypothetically made it a perfect location for community education and outreach. After three years of planning and construction, Spaces of Opportunity opened in 2018 to the public. It is important to note that Spaces desires to be run completely by volunteers with little to no staffing and are in the process of evolving to a C3 organization. The largest funding received to date was from Sprouts in the amount of $500,000 which was used to widen the road, install restrooms, and create a parking lot and various structures throughout the property.

Upon arriving in the parking lot, one will first see the tactfully rusted Spaces of Opportunity sign which appeared to be made from a local craftsman out of metal and a CNC machine. The parking lot is large enough for 20 or more vehicles, but your eyes quickly gravitate to the 600-foot-long mural along the east side wall created by Isaac Caruso. This colorful mural tells the story of agriculture in the Arizona desert while showcasing other cultures who have contributed to the diverse crops being grown at Spaces. We were lucky to have John and Silwan as our tour guides along a well-defined path which happened to be the first feature built at Spaces. John and Silwan led 18 inquisitive students along this path while patiently stopping at each feature to describe the crop and its importance to the garden or farmer. One student asked John to explain how he aims to educate the community located within a food desert of the great opportunity to grow their food organically at Spaces. John passionately responded that he prefers to educate the community on the possibilities for “desert food” instead of focusing on living in a food desert. John quickly deferred us to the cactus garden which was only one of the many delightful and unique crops being grown there. One would not be able to tell from simply standing in the garden but the entire property slopes a total of 6 feet from the north to south side. This practice supports irrigation methods just as the larger farms nearby utilize. 

Most food grown within Spaces is sold at local farmers markets to help support the costs and provide a small profit to the Spaces farmers. The cost is $5 per month for a 50-foot-long garden plot and they currently have 250 plots within Spaces. Beyond the garden plots are much larger incubator farm plots for those farmers who wish to develop a business. Spaces has 35 incubator farm plots of which currently are run by farmers who speak over 6 different languages. Seeds from all over the world, such as Iraq, are being grown here. The Incubator farm costs $600 per year per 1/4 acre and the farmers receive support from Spaces volunteers to connect to farmers markets. This herein lies the challenge facing Spaces and where more support is needed. The cultural and language differences of such a diverse group of farmers do not easily translate to an acceptable profit, especially when selling direct to consumers would provide the highest return. If a farmer can obtain the correct GAP certification for her or his incubator farm, the next barrier is language. Most do not speak English as their first language so a need for interpreters and tutors are in high demand.

Secondly, the incubator farms are ¼ acre so the farmers are limited to the yielded quantities produced and therefore cannot supply the consistently large demands from grocery stores. The food grown at Spaces is high quality and provides an opportunity to diversify your pantry, but the farmers are competing against large grocery chains for the consumer grocery budget instead of working with the grocery stores. Third, growing food is already challenging and combining that with the need to be an entrepreneur is especially hard. Business tutoring and support is needed to help sustain these farmers.

Lastly, government subsidies and other political barriers often work against the small farmer even though the opposite party would argue that they support low prices and food availability for the masses. Government subsidies, such as those for corn, make it less expensive for a consumer to buy from a national food chain when small farmers are not receiving the same scaled support nor do they benefit from the economies of scale achieved by the large corporations. Some support has been received over the past year through Covid relief programs and most goes to the farmer, except for approximately 20% which goes to the Spaces co-op for overhead costs. 

The greatest need of Spaces of Opportunity and many other small organizations and farms throughout our communities is quite surprising in our age of technology: social media support. Social media is a major income driver by the way of traffic and advertising. The ease of technology allows consumers to quickly procure food through an app, but it is the tech savvy entrepreneurs and heavily funded marketing departments of large organizations that are able to drive traffic to their brands and products. 

We need to support our local small farmers with not only our grocery budget but also with our talents. John wishes that if you only hear one thing from our visit it is to “give back and think about our planet.”

This blog is part of a series from the December 2021 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.