GCU takes national stage at CityServe celebration
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
When Greg Harman happened to sit next to CityServe co-founder Dave Donaldson at a meeting on the Grand Canyon University campus, he had no idea what it would lead to: a new partnership with CityServe International, an organization that has done something extraordinary.
During the pandemic, it mobilized, at lightning speed, faith-based and community-based organizations to distribute more than 132 million boxes of food — that’s 3.3 billion meals — to more than 16,000 nonprofits since May.
Harman, Assistant Vice President of Academic Alliances, also had no idea he would take the spotlight at a virtual celebration that would include not just CityServe International leaders, but champions of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which made it possible to feed those families in need. The Jan. 13 meeting also included attendees Ivanka Trump, Advisor to the President, and Paula White-Cain, Chair of President Donald Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board.
Harman, as a featured speaker, highlighted the work GCU did in December with CityServe in west Phoenix.
The University was the site of two days of distributions of 30- to 40-pound boxes of food assembled by Shamrock Farms. Hundreds of student and staff volunteers disbursed 2,100 boxes to 21 partner organizations, including churches, social service agencies, refugee ministries and other nonprofits.
“That came at such a crucial time of year for these families,” said Harman, who shared at the meeting that GCU sits in west Phoenix, an area of high need.
“What a joy it was to witness families pick up their boxes and to know they were receiving a healthy food option.
“Grand Canyon University is very thankful and honored to have been asked and looks forward to future endeavors with CityServe to see how God will use this partnership to impact and transform west Phoenix.”
Ivanka Trump said the Farmers to Families Food Box Program has been extended through at least April, with another $1.5 billion allocated to the initiative. Created under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the USDA is purchasing fresh produce, dairy and meat products from distributors whose workforces have been significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Those distributors then drop off the food boxes to hubs, such as GCU, which then delivers them to community organizations.
To date, more than $6 billion has been allotted to the program as the initiative readies for a fifth round of disbursements.
Ivanka Trump relayed how the initiative was created at a time when farmers were having to dump food because of the pandemic – food that normally would go to school lunch programs, restaurants and the like that were closed because of nationwide shutdowns. Food banks, at the same time, were stressed with trying to feed struggling families. The president asked her to step in and get involved.
“Families across the country were hit so very hard by this unprecedented pandemic through no fault of their own,” Trump said at the meeting. “We created this innovative program – a multifaceted program, really – to help stabilize our food supply chain by empowering our workforce, incorporating American farmers and ranchers and, most importantly, getting food to those in need.”
Besides Harman, the meeting also featured CityServe partners such as Alfie Oakes, President of Florida-based agribusiness Oakes Farms. Oakes, who farms about 3,000 acres, said his business was “on the verge of losing millions of pounds of food — food waste that was going to occur through the COVID-19 events — and this program came along. … We were able to harvest all that and get this into the program, and we even started doing that before that program came to me, because I couldn’t bear to see all the product lost. So it’s been an amazing blessing to us.
“We’ve been able to keep many of our employees employed through that because of this program and really get healthy food out to people that might not otherwise get that healthy product. This has been a great moment.”
Brent Maracle of the Native American Fellowship of the Assemblies of God said lines to receive food boxes were a few miles long in each of their communities.
“Every household in these communities received a box, regardless of their socioeconomic level,” said Maracle, who shared how gift-giving is important in Native American culture.
“It’s frequent our people feel forgotten in conversations of governance and race and socioeconomics, and having the opportunity to bring these boxes to my people brought to me a reminder of who I am,” he said, relaying his title in his Native American language and explaining that it means “He Makes the Day Good for Them.” “It’s a reminder to my people that they aren’t always forgotten or overlooked. Jesus did not come to steal or destroy but to bring life and bring it more abundantly, and we’re able to re-emphasize that gospel.”
Pastor Frank Woodson of Mission Alabama said CityServe and Farmers to Families has been “a life-changer in Birmingham” by contributing not just the food that people needed but, through CityServe, the logistics. The Mission Alabama network fed more than 1.8 million Alabamians in 2020, he added.
He was particularly amazed, he said, by seeing everyone work together for a common cause of helping their neighbors.
“We had every persuasion of every gender working side by side. It was a miracle. Maybe it was like what heaven would look like. People we thought were so far away from God that we’d be surprised to maybe see them standing in the kingdom of God – that right there gave me the confidence to know that we would be all right as a state and as a nation if the body of Christ just comes together.”
The food distributions are just the first steps in GCU’s partnership with CityServe, President Brian Mueller said at one of the food box disbursements in December.
Donaldson was seeking a university to partner with and found it with GCU, which like CityServe wants to mobilize faith-based communities to be a transformative force where they live.
He said the plan is to make CityServe GCU the first distribution HUB in Arizona. As such, GCU will provide a warehouse to receive donated products, such as household items and clothing, from such businesses as Costco, Home Depot and Amazon. Those products will go to Points of Distribution, or PODs, such as churches and local nonprofits, which then will make sure families in need receive those products.
“This is only one spoke in the wheel to community transformation,” Donaldson said, “because we envision helping people via programs like job readiness, fiscal literacy, foster care and adoption, freedom from addictions and more. This will all dovetail nicely with other GCU programs, such as Habitat for Humanity.”
Harman said the Farmers to Families Food Box Program distribution events fit well with the initiatives the University has in place already to support and impact the community.
“Because the University has been able to develop solid relationships with many churches, schools, social service agencies, refugee ministries and other nonprofits, working with them to impact so many families during the Christmas season was a huge blessing. It was also great to have our students directly involved in this endeavor. They help to showcase the heart and soul of GCU as they enthusiastically serve those in our neighborhood.”
He added that CityServe is excited to work with GCU and wanted to highlight the work it is doing at last week’s meeting:
“Being able to participate in such a significant way was a huge blessing. It elevates the brand of GCU across the country and enables others to learn about how the University is impacting west Phoenix and the area around our campus.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.