Community Success Stories: Rural residents find grass roots solutions to life in a food desert

By: Elizabeth Kizer, MS, DrPH student

For rural residents living in food deserts, increasing the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables takes initiative and creative thinking.  In Florence, AZ, local residents and a variety of groups and non-profits have formed a community coalition to improve the food environment.   They recently completed an assessment of their community’s food environment with the help of a doctoral student from the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.  While they found that stores and restaurants were lacking in their offering of healthy foods, their assessment revealed many grass-roots efforts that were providing healthy foods to Florence residents. 

In April, Lina Austin (in red) hosted a tour of “Seed the Future” backyard gardens in Florence.

One of these is the Future Forward Foundation (or 3F, as it is known locally) is a non-profit agency focused on improving the local production of produce.  In Spring 2013, their “Seed the Future” backyard gardens initiative resulted nine gardens with a total of 1800 feet of bed space.  The gardens were provided to residents free of charge, but recipients had to agree to water, weed, and care for the gardens during the growing season.  This month, many of the gardens were planted with winter plants.  Jim Tchida, Lina Austin and Russell Freeman are the driving forces behind this initiative.  “We‘d like to produce enough fresh produce for all those in need in the area,” said Tchida, Chairman of the Board.  In August, 3F received a donation of two refrigerated vans. “Now we know that we can distribute what is grown while it’s still fresh,” Tchida said.

With two donated refrigerated vans, the backyard garden produce stays fresh while it is delivered to those in need. 

The Dorothy Nolan Senior Center has developed an innovative program to offer fresh produce to the senior population.  Each week on Thursdays, Bingo players at the Center see a long table filled with colorful fruits and vegetables to be given away as Bingo prizes. Bingo winners take turns choosing one large or two small produce items until all of the items are gone, a fun process that takes the better part of an afternoon.  The Center staff drive 70 miles round trip to the Apache Junction Superstition Ranch Market (widely hailed as the lowest cost source of produce “near” Florence) to stock up on the goods. 

Dorothy Nolan Center
The Dorothy Nolan Senior Center gives away healthy fruits and vegetables as weekly bingo game prizes.

A local woman, Denise Kollert, has collected over 50 signatures on a petition to persuade a cooperative, called Bountiful Baskets, to start a site in downtown Florence.  The population in Florence is separated into two communities roughly 12 miles apart.  The more affluent part of town currently has a Bountiful Baskets site, but the food desert part of town does not.  Bountiful Baskets is a national cooperative that operates through the contributions and volunteer efforts of participants.  Every Monday, participants go online to purchase a basket of vegetables or fruits for $15 plus handling/fuel surcharge fees, and the produce is delivered on Saturdays. “There are many seniors, and people without transportation, that would benefit from having a site in [downtown] Florence,” Kollert said, “I would like to help them have this option.”

 “Bountiful Baskets” like these now available in more affluent areas, may soon be on their ways to food desert areas of Florence

Although people living in rural food deserts have insufficient access to healthy foods from stores and restaurants, residents of Florence, AZ have begun successful grass roots efforts to improve their food environment.  A community action coalition is also examining policy and environmental changes that would positively affect the availability and price of healthy foods.  Stay tuned to this rural community success story that is evolving each day.






About the Author

Elizabeth Kizer is a doctoral student studying public health policy and management at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. Her current research interest is how rural communities can improve their nutrition environments and make healthy foods more available. Her focus is on identifying policy or environmental changes that can affect the availability of healthy foods. Ms. Kizer utilizes community-based participatory research frameworks in order to engage community members facing disparities in terms of access to healthy foods. If you have any questions about this project, please contact Elizabeth Kizer at

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