Undergraduate Research on Tucson Food Systems

The following undergraduate students have completed research on food systems in Tucson and Pima County.

Jaclyn Mendelson is an undergraduate student in the Honors College at the University of Arizona, who wrote her thesis under the supervision of Dr. Stephanie Buechler.

Food Justice Policy and the UNESCO City of Gastronomy: How the Designation Can Lay a Positive Foundation for the Future of the Food System of Tucson, Arizona Oasis in the Desert: Comparing the Distribution of Food Deserts to the Distribution of Community Organizations Combating Food Insecurity in Pima County, Arizona

This thesis aims to understand the present food situation in Tucson, AZ and the implications for the city’s December 2015 UNESCO International City of Gastronomy designation. Through qualitative research and feminist methodologies, this thesis raises the voices of leaders within the Tucson food system to gain deeper insight into how to work towards a more socially just food system, and why this is important. In the hope that this thesis can be used as an advocacy tool for policy-makers and grassroots leadership, the topics addressed cover food justice and security through representation for the underrepresented, culturally significant food access, and long-term solutions. By understanding how the local government has made space for the designation, this thesis provides ideas that the local government should encompass in order to move forward in allowing the designation to positively impact the Tucson food system and the groups it currently inequitably affects.

To access and download the thesis, click here or find the document at the bottom of the page. 


Bailey Lockwood is an undergraduate in the Honors College at the University of Arizona, who wrote the study "Oasis in the Desert" under the supervision of Dr. Daoqin Tong.

Oasis in the Desert: Comparing the Distribution of Food Deserts to the Distribution of Community Organizations Combating Food Insecurity in Pima County, Arizona

The goal of this study was to determine the geographical relationship between food deserts and organizations that combat food insecurity in Pima County, Arizona. A food desert is a low-income area characterized by limited access to affordable, healthy food options, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. The term “food desert” was defined using the USDA criteria for “low income” and “low access” neighborhoods, which can be found here. Food deserts constitute some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods in a community; thus, it is critical to understand how effectively food assistance organizations accommodate these areas.

In order to determine how thoroughly food assistance sites in Pima County are distributed among food deserts, ten different food assistance organizations were identified: Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Community Gardens of Tucson, Flowers and Bullets, Food Resilience Project, Food in Root, Iskashitaa Refugee Network, Market on the Move, Produce on Wheels without Waste, Southwest Community Center, and Tucson Village Farm. One-hundred thirty-nine food assistance sites operated by these organizations were then broken down into six categories: Farmer’s Market, Food Bank and Food Distribution, Community Garden, Farm and Garden Education, Produce Distribution, and Schools. For the purpose of this study, a food assistance site is a location that increases the amount of healthy, accessible food in the community. The site coordinates were subsequently plotted against the food deserts in Pima County in the ArcGIS mapping program. In this study, a food desert is a census tract that fulfills the USDA definitions of low income and low access. The map was then analyzed to answer the following questions: Which type of food assistance site is most commonly found in food deserts? How frequently are food assistance sites distributed within food deserts? How widespread is this distribution?

The map showed that of the 139 food assistance sites mapped, 31 (or 22%) fall within food deserts. Moreover, the category with the most food desert sites is School at 44%, while the category with the fewest food desert sites is Community Garden at 8%. While 43% of food deserts contain at least one food assistance site, 52% of urban food deserts have at least one site. No sites fell within rural food deserts. The Community Food Bank operates 44% of the total food assistance sites.

The study revealed that a large majority of the food assistance sites (78%) did not fall within food deserts. Of those that do, a majority are operated by the Community Food Bank. The map also suggests that some duplication exists between similar organizations, with sites concentrated in some areas and sparse in others. The most prominent gap is between urban and rural food deserts, with the latter having no identified organizational presence. However, the study is merely a geographical survey, and there is not enough information at this point to draw conclusions about how effectively each organization assists those in food deserts or other food- insecure neighborhoods. At this stage, the research is not prescriptive, but the access maps can be provided to relevant groups in order to give them insight into how their work functions within the broader network of food assistance organizations in Pima County. In combination with demographic data about individual site use, organizations can use the maps to avoid duplication and to focus on the most food-vulnerable areas when adding or revising site locations. 

Learn more about the food assistance organizations featured on the map:

Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona: http://www.communityfoodbank.org/

Community Gardens of Tucson: http://www.communitygardensoftucson.org/

Flowers and Bullets: https://www.facebook.com/FlowersBullets/

Food Resilience Project: http://feedingtucson.org/food-resilience-project/

Food in Root: http://foodinroot.com/farmersmarkets/

Iskashitaa Refugee Network: http://www.iskashitaa.org/

Market on the Move: http://the3000club.org/wordpress/marketonthemove/

Produce on Wheels without Waste: http://www.borderlandsfoodbank.org/produce-on- wheels/

Southwest Community Center: http://southwestcommunitycenter.org/community/happy- food-program/

Tucson Village Farm: https://tucsonvillagefarm.arizona.edu/get-involved