The town of Ajo is going from “food desert” to "food oasis" by instituting and expanding home and community gardening projects.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the "desert" label to the former copper mining town 130 miles west of Tucson. Its residents are determined to change that to "oasis."
With a population of fewer than that 4,000 people and only one grocery store, Ajo has limited fresh food options available.
However, citizens of the community are joining to transform the dry desert soil into a productive growing medium.
Nina Altshul, member of the Ajo Regional Food Partnership, said the focus on fresh fruits and veggies started about five years ago.
“It all started with people wanting to eat and people wanting to communicate with each other around food,” she said.
Gardens, flowers and fruit trees are a common sight in Ajo today, Altshul said.
“We continue to say we will transform Ajo into a food oasis, and continue to resist the official designation as a food desert,” Altshul said.
Fran Driver, a registered nurse and CEO of the Desert Senita Community Health Center, said gardening is pivotal in isolated communities such as Ajo.
“The health aspect of gardening and bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the table is why we got started,” Driver said.
She said most people in Ajo do not live in walking distance of their only grocery store and were limited to eating food from less-than-healthy outlets. With the movement to local gardening, the goal is to increase exercise, promote healthier eating and reduce the risk of diabetes.
The growth of Ajo's community gardens would not be possible without residents' efforts and funding.
Don Luria, a board member of the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona and chair of Slow Food Southern Arizona, said the two organizations have made grants to the community, because it gets non-profit organizations to work together.
“The grants are really a major effort by the Community Foundation to make major change,” Luria said.
Ajo residents Don and Gayle Weyers received a grant from PRO Neighborhoods and the Pima County Health Department to complete work on their backyard garden, which consists of plums, beans, peas, apricots, tomatoes, melons, guavas and more.
“Have you ever tasted a sun warm, ripe apricot fresh off the tree?” Gayle Weyers said. “Life doesn’t get any better than that.”
The Weyers often invite neighbors over to enjoy the fresh fruits and vegetables from their garden.
Alktshul said her best advice to people looking to begin gardening in the desert is to start with the soil and plant what you like to eat. If you get excited about your favorite food growing in your yard, you well continue to grow it, she said.
Ashley Grove is a journalism student and an intern for Arizona Public Media.