Unprecedented pressures exist on food security and farming capacity in the U.S. borderland states, according to a new regional food assessment by University of Arizona researchers and their colleagues.

The economic downturn, water scarcity, rising oil prices, climate change and the loss of prime farmlands are creating "a perfect storm" that is likely to leave many hungry people in its wake.

The Sabores Sin Fronteras Foodway Alliance has just published "State of Southwestern Foodsheds." Noted agricultural ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan, a research scientist with the UA Southwest Center, said the 36-page collection of essays "is the first assessment of the health and well-being of food systems in the borderlands states."

The publication emerged out of workshops with farmers, ranchers, food bank professionals, gardeners, students, scholars, restaurateurs and others affiliated with the alliance. The report was edited by Nabhan and recent UA graduate, Regina Fitzsimmons.

The report includes a number of findings. The rates of hunger and food security in Arizona and New Mexico are rapidly rising at a pace exceeding that of the national average. Based on current U.S. Census data, Arizona is now the second poorest state in the nation and New Mexico ranked third. Both are among the lowest 13 states for food security and among the six worst states for dealing with childhood food insecurity.

The research team compared recent food system innovations in Arizona with those in New Mexico to understand how these advances affect the otherwise deteriorating environmental, economic and nutritional health of borderlands residents.

By discerning where leverage points are for positive change, Nabhan and Fitzsimmons hope to stimulate more innovation, such as encouraging more low-income people to use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to purchase fresh foods at farmers markets, rebuilding meat processing infrastructure or grouping several restaurants to share transportation costs of accessing local produce.

At the same time, the food-producing capacity of the desert borderlands is under severe stress. 

A quarter of America's ranch and farmland loss from 1982 to 2007 occurred in the four states along the U.S.-Mexican border: 925,700 acres in Arizona and 465,300 acres in New Mexico.

In addition, recent droughts have impacted the availability of water for food production, with Lake Mead recording its lowest-ever levels in 2010. Other reservoirs used for irrigation have shrunk to 12-15 percent of their normal capacity, triggering water rationing in a number of places. 

Farm labor shortages have exacerbated these problems.

Food bank dependence

A growing number of residents in these states now rely on food banks. Other forms of food relief hit an all-time high following the 2009 economic downturn. 

All five of the major food banks in Arizona and New Mexico reported to Feeding America that they are struggling to meet their demand. As an example, requests for assistance at the Roadrunner Food Bank in Albuquerque increased 50 percent following the downturn and a doubling of unemployment in the area. Other food banks, soup kitchens and relief organizations have reported similar trends.

Despite these discouraging trends, more borderlands residents are innovating and redesigning their foodsheds to resolve such problems.

While New Mexico has achieved more positive policy change, Arizona has excelled at market-driven solutions. Arizona now has 72 farmers' markets. New Mexico has 63 markets, which have grown more than $1 million in gross sales since 2001.

There are now 29 community-supported agriculture projects in Arizona and 25 in New Mexico. New Mexico has 43 restaurants that feature locally grown foods, and Arizona has 33.

Farmers and ranchers in both states are investing more effort in directly marketing heritage foods they've produced to farmers' markets, restaurants, roadside stands and online demand from consumers. Some of these foods – such as Navajo Churro sheep and White Sonora wheat – have been raised here for centuries, but are now making a comeback in niche markets.

In addition, many ranchers are now engaged with land and water trusts to protect the food-production potential of "working landscapes."

Urban farms and homesteads have begun directly marketing their food and fiber products. Native American communities on Indian reservations are also redesigning their food systems, including managing mobile markets to ensure the health of their youth and elders and to prevent further rises in the already astronomic rates of diabetes.

The report, said Nabhan, offers many preliminary recommendations for innovations that arose out of workshops held over the last year, and it encourages communities to host town hall-style meetings to discuss their food and farming future.

Hard copies of this report are available for $5 for community discussion purposes. It also can be downloaded from www.saboresfronteras.com