Center for Regional Food Studies

The Center for Regional Food Studies integrates community outreach, applied research, and student engagement to foster positive change around food in Southern Arizona, the U.S./Mexico borderlands, and regional food systems globally.

Center for Regional Food Studies

Davis Garden - Kid holding a chicken.

Our Mission and Vision

Mission: To integrate social, behavioral, and life sciences into interdisciplinary studies and community dialogue regarding change in regional food systems. We will involve students and faculty in the design, implementation, and evaluation of pilot interventions and participatory community-based research in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands foodshed surrounding Metro Tucson, a UNESCO-designated City of Gastronomy, in a manner that can be replicated, scaled up, and applied to other regions.

Vision: To become the nexus of student and faculty engagement in generating positive change in our regional food system. We will accomplish this in ways that build collaborative capacity, diversity, equity, justice, and resilience in our arid land food system in the face of climate change as well as economic and political uncertainty.

Theory of Change: Faculty and students working together with stakeholders to build and document the impact of robust collaborations among researchers, educators, non-profit food justice advocates, entrepreneurial leaders in the farming and food business sectors, public servants in agencies, and grassroots alliances in civil society. We expect that these collaborations will contribute to the restructuring of our food system to be responsive to a spectrum of human food-related needs.   

Theoretical Framework: Rather than assuming a priori that critical food theory, Marxist critiques, neo-liberal strategies, or technological fixes can move the needle toward positive change in our food systems, we wish to test, evaluate, and revise or discard the following hypotheses:

  • Direct undergraduate student engagement with both for-profit and non-profit food and farming sectors will foster career readiness, job acquisition, and greater social responsibility with regard to food policies and practices affecting public health, land and water stewardship, and economic well-being.
  • Learning to understand, and participating in the redesign of entire food supply chains “from field to fork” can help heal the current urban/rural divide to offer greater social, environmental, and economic health accessible to multiple sectors of our society.
  • Production of a wider range of food biodiversity through a variety of venues and more affordable access can tangibly contribute to poverty reduction, enhanced food security, and control of nutrition-related diseases.
  • Formal designations such as the UNESCO City of Gastronomy for Tucson can foster both innovation and the dynamic safeguarding of food traditions in new and innovative ways.
  • Student and faculty participation in interdisciplinary think-tanks, community-based workshops, learning labs and field institutes ultimately leads to fewer “siloed” approaches to food studies and more solutions-based innovations shared with communities, tax-payers, and educators.

While the Center is not currently providing academic undergraduate, graduate certificate, master’s, doctorate degree programs, or postdoctoral fellowships, such opportunities may emerge in time. In the interim, our outreach and research efforts will consist of:

  • A website that will include occasional papers on best practices and policies for advancing change in regional food systems, as well as event listings.
  • Annual programming including a lecture series, community dialogue series, and mini-conference that center around a particular theme determined through consensus by the faculty affiliates and Community Advisory Board.
  • Community- and region-wide events, such as the 2012 Border Food Summit, the 2015 Food Writing Forum, the 2016 Food Justice, Faith, and Climate Change Forum, and the annual Food and Farm Finance Forum co-sponsored with Local First Arizona.
  • Open houses, orientations, research interest groups, and field institutes for graduate students, undergrads, faculty, and visiting scholars or food artisans from other Cities of Gastronomy.
  • Applied research projects focused on place-based, regional solutions. 

We look forward to hearing from you! 

Megan A. Carney, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Regional Food Studies
Assistant Professor, School of Anthropology

Gary Nabhan

Gary Paul Nabhan, the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems in the Southwest Center, founded the Center for Regional Food Studies. Nabhan is recognized internationally as a desert food scholar and farming activist. He is a pioneer in both the food re-localization movement and in heirloom seed conservation. Nabhan co-created Native Seed/SEARCH, received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, and is a senior contributing editor to Edible Baja Arizona Magazine, the media partner for Tucson’s City of Gastronomy news. He has written nearly 30 books on food and agriculture.

Nabhan spearheaded the UA’s role in the application process for the UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation. Nabhan, along with Jonathan Mabry of the City’s Historic Preservation Office and Vanessa Bechtol, formerly of the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, wrote most of the proposal, but Nabhan is quick to mention that their three-year quest to become a City of Gastronomy was a collaborative effort among many Tucson institutions and nonprofits.




History of Food Studies at UA

From its inception as a land grant institution, the University of Arizona has been the center of food research in Arizona. From agricultural sciences to folklore, cutting-edge nutrition to ancient food systems, UA researchers have played an important role in documenting and promoting the borderland culinary heritage that makes Tucson a distinct food city.

This expertise contributed to Tucson’s selection as the first and only city in North America to be named a City of Gastronomy by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The following are some of the programs highlighted in the UNESCO application.

College of Social & Behavioral Sciences

The College of Social & Behavioral Sciences will manage the implementation of the various research, education and international outreach efforts in collaboration with the City of Tucson Commission on Food Security, Heritage, and Economy.

Community and School Garden Program

Each semester, 60 - 70 university students work at up to 12 different elementary and high schools to engage interns, create and maintain gardens, and educate students and teachers in sustainable food systems. The School of Geography and Development faculty member Sallie Marston directs the Community and School Garden Program, aimed at connecting Tucson educators with university students and faculty eager to participate in the school garden movement occurring throughout the country.

Downtown Lecture Series

In 2014, the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences sponsored a Downtown Lecture Series featuring faculty presentations exploring food and its connections with health, culture, and environment. Almost 6,000 people attended, and live broadcasts and podcasts reached many more.

Office of Global Initiatives

As part of the UA’s fulfillment of the UNESCO City of Gastronomy obligations, the UA Office of Global Initiatives will help develop an international exchange program for public health and nutrition professionals from other Cities of Gastronomy and developing nations.

Southwest Center

Southwest Center faculty member Gary Nabhan is an internationally celebrated nature writer and food and farming activist. He is a pioneer in both the food re-localization movement and in heirloom seed conservation. Nabhan co-created Native Seed/SEARCH, received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, and is a senior contributing editor to Edible Baja Arizona Magazine, the media partner for Tucson’s City of Gastronomy news. He has written nearly 30 books on food and agriculture.

Southwest Folklife Alliance

Tucson has demonstrated success in hosting food festivals, such as the UA sponsored festival Tucson Meet Yourself, which attracts more than 100,000 people per year. Tucson Meet Yourself, and its parent organization the Southwest Folklife Alliance, are affiliated with the College of SBS and directed by Agnese Nelms Haury Fellow Maribel Alvarez, a professor in the Southwest Center and the School of Anthropology.

The Center reports to the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Its leadership consists of a Director, an interdisciplinary group of faculty affiliates, and a Community Advisory Board.


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College of Social & Behavioral Sciences