Urban agriculture is slow to catch on where it's needed most

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Panchita Cruz came to the United States from Hermosillo, Mexico 20 years ago with very little cash, but a lot of ambition.

Asked why she came, she says "for a better life."

And she's found a good life on the south side of Tucson. She and her husband founded a successful business, sent two kids to college and have settled into a home near South 12th Avenue.

She herself has returned to college at 44 years of age to get a degree in social work.

In between all of this, she has also put together an urban garden in her expansive back yard.

It saves cash but also provides the family with the nutritional needs lacking in so many diets in lower income neighborhoods.

"I think when people talk about urban gardening, this is it," said Nelda Ruiz, "We're in it."

Ruiz is part of Tierra Y Libertad Organization, TYLO, for short, a social service group on the south side that advances a variety of causes, including food nutrition.

While Panchita is able to grow what she needs in her space, it's not exactly what many have envisioned an urban garden in someone's backyard would look like.

Visions of a tilled garden with rows of veggies, sophisticated timed irrigation systems and the like gave way to containers and pots filled with plants.

Panchita grows a wide array of traditional vegetables ranging from cilantro to peppers to tomatoes to squash to beans, but her garden is anything but traditional.

It consists of a three 55-gallon drums cut in half, filled with soil and an irrigation system that any novice gardener could install.

All the materials are recycled including the chicken coop which houses the city maximum of 18 chickens, no roosters.

She has two boxes about two-feet by three-feet where she grows the tomatoes and says she gets five harvests a year.

She harvested some peppers and beans, grabbed some eggs from the chicken coop and quickly whipped up an egg burrito, topping it all off with hibiscus tea, made from the hibiscus flowers growing in the back yard.

Panchita is the poster child for what the city and county would like to see happen on the south side of Tucson.

When Pima County adopted its wellness program in 2015, food nutrition was near the top of the list of needs for people in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

"I wouldn't say necessarily that food is lacking," said Ruiz. "But there's a certain nutritional value to a food that is lacking here on the south side."

Fruits and vegetables are expensive, especially organic, and are out of reach for many people on South 12th.

The movement towards urban gardening has not caught on on the south side and likely one of the reasons it has failed to this point is cost.

"The price range is not there," said Ricardo Cazanes, the owner of Alejandro's Tortilla Factory and Bakery. "People on this side of town are not going to be able to afford it."

In his grocery, he has all the staples for tacos - cilantro, avocados, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, but little else.

He knows his neighbors will purchase it on a regular basis so there's little waste.

The other vegetables. he's not be too sure about, which is why they don't show up in his south side store.

"Some high schoolers I've come across have never seen a broccoli plant," Ruis said. "They've never seen it."

Growing broccoli is water intensive and "water is expensive," Cazanes said.

Water rates are increasing at nearly seven percent annually and for people on a budget, that can discourage them from getting into the urban agriculture business.

Ruiz conducted a survey of residents in the 12th Avenue neighborhood to determine why more of them don't grow their own.

"We asked what are some of the biggest barriers you face to gardening," she said. "One of the most frequent responses was water cost."

But Ruiz says it doesn't have to be that way.

"You can start with one pot," she said. "Put it on your window sill."

Not exactly what one envisions when it comes to urban gardening, but it's a start.

Soil and a five gallon bucket can be had for as little as $10.

And even those costs can be defrayed through a variety of programs found throughout the community.

For information contact Nelda Ruiz at Tierra Y Libertad. 

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