Meet the Arizona Nonprofit Working to Transform Urban Food Deserts - Modern Farmer

Meet the Arizona Nonprofit Working to Transform Urban Food Deserts

By going all in on permaculture and neighborhood gleaning, nonprofit Homegrown is aiming to feed Phoenix—and one day, the country.

Jérémy Chevallier (right) started Homegrown in an effort to transform the Phoenix area into a hub of local food production.
Photography submitted.

Across the Phoenix metro area, citrus trees sag under the weight of more produce than homeowners can harvest and use. Thousands of pounds of fruit go to waste every year while more than half a million area residents struggle with food insecurity.

What if these food-insecure households—more than 13 percent of the county’s population—could access the abundant provision literally dropping from trees in their neighbors’ backyards?

“Food deserts—places like Phoenix, particularly—need to be more proactive about our own generation and capture of resources,” says Jérémy Chevallier, Phoenix resident and founder of Homegrown, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making local food more accessible to the surrounding community. Through a network of volunteers, farmers markets, food banks and grocery stores, Homegrown is channeling excess fruit from homeowners’ trees to food-insecure residents in and around Phoenix.

As a 31-year-old serial entrepreneur with a background in tech and marketing, Chevallier is an unlikely candidate to propose such an earthly solution. But unpredictable food availability during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns prompted him to consider how he could gain more control over his food supply.

“I recognized that many people were starting to pay attention to not only where their food was coming from but specifically getting it from as local of a source as possible… ideally their garden or their neighbor’s garden,” he says. “And I started wondering: How close is my neighborhood to operating as a self-sustaining village?”

It’s a critical question given the state of food access in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located. The county contains 55 food deserts—areas in which residents have limited opportunities to purchase healthy, affordable food—and 43 are in Phoenix.

But despite the area’s issues with drought, the city has access to a canal system that provides a ready source of irrigation. Combined with copious sunlight and compostable waste, this system creates a “goldmine of opportunity” that Chevallier believes Homegrown can leverage to transform the area into a hub of local food production.

When properly maintained, fruit trees can maintain plentiful production for decades—production that exceeds the needs of a single household. And Chevallier quickly discovered that homeowners are more than happy to let someone take the surplus off their hands, especially when they know it’s being distributed to local residents in need.

His efforts are already paying off. During the 2023 citrus season, Homegrown’s core team of six harvested thousands of pounds of excess citrus, raised more than $5,000 for the nonprofit and sold more than $2,600 worth of fruit, juice and homemade marmalades at farmers markets. Wholesale orders from local grocers netted another $1,346.

Money from sales and donations goes directly back into the nonprofit to pay the team and purchase supplies and equipment. As its capacity expands, Homegrown will be able to deliver even more food to underserved residents in the Phoenix area. Currently, the nonprofit donates harvested citrus to partners such as Feed Phoenix, which serves 500 to 700 people every week through free community events, and the Arizona Food Bank Network, a system of food banks and pantries that feed more than 450,000 food-insecure residents across the state.

And fruit is just the beginning: Chevallier also has his eye on the Phoenix Valley’s bountiful pecan trees, olive trees and date palms. But despite the plentiful supply, he’s concerned the area isn’t ready to sustain itself solely on locally grown food—a goal he sees as essential to long-term food security.

The Homegrown team. Photo submitted.

Part of the problem lies in the city’s construction. Pavement and buildings create an urban heat island that raises local temperatures and contributes to drought conditions, making the area unsuitable for consistent food production.

Chevallier says permaculture can address the problem. Short for “permanent agriculture,” permaculture replaces traditional landscaping and gardens with “a diverse, integrated system that doesn’t look like rows of trees over here and crops over here,” he says. “It looks like a forest.” The greenery in these food forests mitigates the heat island effect and creates milder microclimates where food crops can flourish. By combining permaculture with food harvest and distribution, Chevallier hopes to usher in a future where neighborhoods can sustain themselves without the need for commercial food production.

To help the movement toward complete food security blossom in the Phoenix area, Chevallier launched and started a “Grants for Gardeners” program. Interested hobby farmers and animal keepers can apply for resources to establish and support self-sustaining permaculture installations in their backyards.

“The reason Homegrown exists is to make homegrown food accessible to anybody who wants it,” says Chevallier. “[And] a lot of times, what’s holding people back from doing more [with gardening] is simply the resources.” He wants to use Homegrown’s grants to provide the money and space for local growers to feed themselves and their communities.

Chevallier recognizes that expanding his self-described “idealistic hippie vision” will take time, and Homegrown needs additional support to make it happen. He’s currently on the hunt for more distribution partners to help channel the “absurdly huge” fruit supply into the wider community. Fellow advocates of homegrown food can also make tax-deductible donations to fund the nonprofit’s efforts.

But ideally, Chevallier wants to connect with people with the resources and enthusiasm to bring Homegrown’s vision to life in communities nationwide. “What I would love to do is for Homegrown to … be a chapter-based organization,” he says. “If we can set an example of what’s possible in Phoenix, in one of one of the harder places to do this, then we know that we can inspire people and … expand that model.”

And he’s more than happy to share the processes he’s established over the last year to enable new chapters to take root and spread. “I want people to realize that this food is homegrown, that it didn’t come from a commercially managed and owned grove or orchard, but that it came from someone’s backyard,” he says. “That, to me, is the biggest impact we have the opportunity to make, to bring people together over that shared store of value.”

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3 months ago

This is fascinating. What a wonderful endeavor. We need more people with vision to help others get homegrown food.

Karen Scribner
3 months ago

I lived in Phoenix from1985 to 1991. It was a treat to stop on the way home at my local Safeway and to finally smell the citrus blossoms that I had been waiting for. Yes there are so many trees subdivisions reclaimed from citrus groves. Where residents know nothing about gardening there is toxic fertilizer being put on trees and the runoff goes into the canals.

Karen Pelzer
3 months ago

I like this idea and am interested in what I can do to in my own backyard.

Taera Kamei
25 days ago

Am so pleased to find that someone in AZ is addressing food insecurity and what to do about it. I live in Sierra Vista (which is about an hour south of Tucson) and am trying to make a dent in the climate change consciousness here.