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by Gary Paul Nabhan

In December 2015, Tucson Arizona was designated by UNESCO as the first City of Gastronomy in the U.S., and one of just a handful of American cities in the U.N. Creative Cities Network. The designation culminated three years of collaborative work by city officials, scholars, educators, activists and business leaders. The honor rests on unique features of Tucson and its surrounding desert foodshed, including its status as the oldest continuously farmed landscape within an American city and the high diversity of heritage foods (many of them on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste) found in cafeterias, restaurants and farmer’s markets. Moreover, Tucsonans have demonstrated a unique entrepreneurial spirit in using food innovations to help recover its economy through collaborations among farmers, chefs, non-profits, start-up food enterprises and educational institutions.   

The City of Gastronomy honor celebrates the many Native, Hispanic and immigrant “food cultures” of the borderlands, not just haute cuisine. While Tucson harbors several James Beard Award-winning chefs and has spawned best-selling food writers, it is not necessarily known as a mecca for “gourmets.” Instead, its extraordinary number and diversity of “street food” carts, food trucks and food festivals reflect the living traditions of over 50 cultures. In addition, its food banks, seed libraries, nurseries and school garden programs have been tireless in reaching out to the “poorest and most marginalized” in attempts to close the hunger gap and promote broader food justice. 

Still, it’s what Tucson plans to make of the designation that matters. A new Center for Regional Food Studies at the University of Arizona was launched with a 3 day community forum on Food Justice, Faith and Climate Change. The Center serves as an official partner to the Mayor’s Office in monitoring positive indicators of food systems change identified by the 17 members of the City’s Commission on Food Security, Heritage and Economy. Both the Center and Commission will host international exchanges, and offer guidance to other American cities interested in joining the Creative Cities Network.     

Read more at tucsonaz.gov., ediblebajaarizona.com, foodstudies.arizona.edu; and azfoodstudies.com.