Food box distribution a bright light for GCU partners
Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
Cars wound like a ribbon through the Empower College Prep parking lot, spilling onto Colter Street. Peppered among those cars: a woman on a bicycle, one on foot, another with an empty stroller.
They waited patiently, long before the 4 p.m. Farmers to Families Food Box pickup time Wednesday, for a truck to arrive from Grand Canyon University, just across the bustle of Interstate 17. The University is so close that Empower Family and Community Liaison Kristina Fuentes, clipboard in hand as she checked in families, can see Grand Canyon Education’s 27th Avenue Office Building from her own office at the west Phoenix charter school.
Once the truck arrived, it took less than 30 minutes for the line and those boxes – 75 of them – to dwindle to nothing.
Every box accounted for. In 30 minutes.
“Our families have expressed a lot of needs about things that you and I might take for granted – diapers, water, food. And so it’s been a blessing to be able to meet those needs of our families,” Empower College Prep Executive Director Brian Holman said.
He shared how, seeing students in the school’s hallways happy and learning, it’s sometimes easy to forget how much they’re having to overcome, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The school was able to meet some of those needs with the help of GCU, the CityServe Network and Shamrock Farms, which partnered for Wednesday’s food box event. It was one of two USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program distributions hosted by GCU and CityServe.
Over two Wednesdays – Dec. 2 and Dec. 9 – the organizations distributed more than 2,000 boxes of food to churches, schools and community organizations, which then disbursed the food to the families they serve. While some organizations picked up those boxes at GCU’s 27th Avenue Business Complex, the University also delivered boxes with the help of about 300 Canyon Christian Schools Consortium and Spiritual Life student volunteers.
Through the Farmers to Families initiative, created under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the USDA is purchasing of up to $4.5 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat products from distributors such as Shamrock Farms, whose workforces have been significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Those distributors drop off the 30- to 40-pound food boxes to hubs, such as GCU, which then delivers them to community organizations, such as Empower.
The University has embraced its partnership with the charter school, where GCU alumni teach and GCU students do their practicums. Empower has used space at the University for its events, and it’s also a Canyon Education Participant, a GCU program that offers tuition assistance and professional development through the campus’ K12 Educational Development team.
To accomplish Empower’s vision of getting students ready for college, Holman said, it has to be aware of and meet its families’ needs. It can’t do that without partnerships like the one with GCU: “No organization can do it on its own,” he said.
Another GCU partner school, Westwood Elementary, also doesn’t go it alone. It is one of the University’s Academic Excellence Sites, where College of Education majors are embedded in Westwood’s classrooms during their teacher training and Learning Lounge learning advocates (LEADs) serve as mentors in the after-school program.
Distributing food boxes to Westwood – faculty handed out 35 boxes – was just another way GCU wanted to help the neighborhood school at 23rd Avenue.
New Principal Adrienne Stephenson shared how difficult it was to reach some of their families to even tell them about the food distribution. Many of them have had to shut off their phone service. Many don’t have the internet, either. It’s the reality of the pandemic.
“A lot of our families are having to make difficult choices,” said Stephenson. “Because of the pandemic, a lot of them don’t have work right now. Or if they do have work, they’re working nights or working double shifts. So right now, they’re having to decide, what do I spend my money on?”
Stephenson said families have asked for Christmas help, and outside of the food distribution, the school passes out meals twice a week.
“We have such a large turnout,” Stephenson said. “Our families are needing them.”
It’s been tough for the teachers, too. They haven’t seen their students, who have been distance learning since March: “We’re starved for child interaction,” Stephenson said with a laugh.
She and the other teachers and administrators at Westwood have to be more than teachers, especially during COVID-19.
“You’re not just a teacher. You’re a mom, a nurse, a counselor, a therapist, a cousin. You’re the child’s everything,” Stephenson said. More importantly, “we are our families’ lifeline right now.”
Westwood Assistant Principal Paige Bodam said the school’s staff and faculty want to do anything they can for their families to help take a bit of the pressure off.
“The more we can do to serve our community, we’re proud to do it and we’re so glad we have GCU to help us. I can’t even put into words the impact this will have for some of our families,” she said as one family pulled up in its car to pick up a food box.
“Give the kids hugs from us; we miss them!” she told the family.
Another distribution site, Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, last week received 100 food boxes that served about 300 refugees and asylum-seekers in Phoenix. Many of those are large families – up to 12 people in a two-bedroom apartment, said the organization’s Faith and Community Engagement Coordinator Charlotte Shurtz.
“Though they may receive help through food stamps or community support, it is not unusual for them to suffer from food insecurity,” said Shurtz, who added of GCU, “We’re so grateful for your willingness to help these families during these challenging times.”
Homeward Bound received a delivery of 19 food boxes from GCU on Wednesday that will go to the families it serves – families who are transitioning out of homelessness.
Fifty-five families are living at the Homeward Bound campus, which is less than a mile from Westwood Elementary (it’s where many Homeward Bound school-age children attend school).
One of the requirements of living at the facility is that residents must bring in some kind of income but KateLynn Dean, the organization’s Associate Director of Community and Youth Programs, said many of those people have lost their jobs. So the nonprofit has put a pause on eligibility requirements for its current families, as so many things have been put on pause because of the pandemic.
Like Homeward Bound, GCU, too, had to adjust its plans during the food distribution when 22 families who weren’t on the list for food pickup stopped by.
“We were able to serve families we didn’t expect,” Community Relations Manager Debbie Accomazzo said. “We planned in such a way that we were able to serve their needs. Every family that needed a food box was served. Where there’s a need, we’ll fill it.”
The two Farmers to Families distribution events were just the first in what GCU President Brian Mueller says is a bigger partnership with CityServe.
The University hopes to become a CityServe HUB, or warehouse distribution center, for surplus supplies from retailers and donations from private individuals. To facilitate that, GCU would need to supply a 55,000-square-foot warehouse to store those products, which will be delivered to PODs, or points of distribution, such as churches or community service organizations. Those PODs then will take those products to their own neighborhoods and the families who need them.
“It’s a partnership with a national organization that has an incredible concept, one that needs people out in the field to execute that concept,” said Mueller. “When we work together as an entire Christian community, we can accomplish so much more.”
Where there’s a need, GCU will fill it.
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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