Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Getting there

Phoenix is not what one might call a sustainable city. (Or perhaps I should say the Greater Phoenix Area, lumping in Peoria, Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe, and Mesa, which, incidentally, took Aaron and I a full day to bike across. Basically, I consider the area to be about 60 miles from one end to the other: the northern tippy-top of Peoria where Aunt Cami lives to where we camped in Lost Dutchman State Park, a bit northeast of Mesa, AZ.) The urban sprawl is not at all conducive to efficiency, with one strip mall after another lining the seemingly endless roads and no way to safely walk between them. Impossible to navigate on foot. Cars everywhere. Large front lawns in the desert. Portland would be scandalized at the lack of composting, the abuse of such a precious resource as water, and relative absence of public transit options outside of Tempe in this sprawling metropolis.

Even so, there are folks working to transform Phoenix. There are few buses but a fair number of bike lanes and even a decent bike trail along the canal that took me well over 20 miles across the city. There is a basic recycling program with curbside pickup. And closest to my heart, farmers' markets are on the rise. I had the opportunity to check three of these out during my time in the area last week -- one on Wednesday evening and two on Saturday morning. There were some striking differences between these and other markets I've explored around the country thus far.

The first market I visited was the Wednesday evening "Twilight" market in Glendale. (Incidentally, it was in the same plaza where I got a little salsa dancing in the following night -- woo hoo!) As Aunt Cami, Aaron, and I wandered about, I noted a higher proportion of packaged foods -- jams, barbecue sauces, cheeses, chocolate, crackers -- than most other farmers' markets I'd been to. One egg booth, one seafood stand, one beef/lamb seller, an apple cider vendor, and a handful of vegetable growers filled out the docket. While the quality of the items was consistently good, and all produce was grown without the aid of lab-manufactured pesticides or fertilizers, I was surprised by the general lack of knowledge of some of the sellers. They couldn't tell me what kinds of onions they were selling at one booth, nor the variety of mushrooms at another. I don't mean to sound critical here: I'm fairly certain that the market is one of the newer ones I've visited and I suspect this unfamiliarity will change as local consumers become more educated about their food and begin to ask more questions. Whatever varieties they were, the mystery veggies were fabulous in the quiches we made a few days later.

Fast forwarding to Saturday morning, we checked out the 20-year-old Roadrunner Farmers' Market, which featured mostly produce (with a few prepared items), all of which was either certified organic or naturally grown -- a strict requirement, I learned from Mara, one of the local market organizers -- and sold by cheerful, knowledgeable farmers. After picking up some veggies, I had a chance to speak with Kathy (a farmer and farm market manager here at the area's largest and oldest market) about the EBT and WIC initiatives. She explained how customers and farmers are growing more comfortable with the programs that seek to make fresh, local food accessible to low-income populations in the area. The way it works is as follows:

1. Customers choose eligible items at the farmers' market. (WIC recently has expanded to include fresh fruits and veggies.)
2. Farmers fill out a ticket for the items and put them aside.
3. Customers take the tickets to the farm market manager who swipes their EBT/WIC card. (The cost of machine rental is covered by the market; credit and debit card transactions are also possible for a small fee.)
4. Customers return to the farm stand, present the receipt, and collect their produce.
5. The farm market manager -- in this case, Kathy -- tallies up each farmer's sales and hands each a check for their total the following week.

Simple, right? And efficient. The same set-up appeared to exist at the Downtown Market, which we visited later in the morning. Couldn't we have a widespread system like this in DC? My understanding during my visits to various markets in my hometown and many other markets around the country is that only a fraction have EBT/WIC-ready terminals, and the reimbursement process is so slow and cumbersome as to deter many farmers from accepting vouchers. It's often simply not an option. (There are success stories like the senior program in Ohio I learned of a few months back.)

After nearly 10 months on the road, and after a friend recently requested a summary of some of my findings thus far, I'm starting to reflect on larger trends and unique solutions to common challenges around the country with an eye to implications for the DC area, where I hope to return in about four months' time. Phoenix may have a long way to go, but there's much to learn from the work being done in this desert city. It's getting there.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

1 comment:

  1. I think Houston could use some similar help.


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