GCU-CityServe partnership delivers to those in need

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau

Students load food boxes onto a truck Wednesday at the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program distribution at 27th Avenue.

It was a crisp, sun-drenched Wednesday afternoon in Phoenix, and the chatter in the Canyon Ventures Center parking lot at Grand Canyon University hung in the wind, the excitement of a new undertaking palpable among a gaggle of GCU student volunteers.

The students donned GCU purple T-shirts, some milling about as they awaited the promise of the day, others huddled in small groups to hear student leaders provide a play-by-play of what was to come.

And what was to come felt like GCU togetherness, community and hope.

The students gathered for one of two USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program events – the other will be Dec. 9 – that GCU hosted alongside a new partner, CityServe International. It's the first event in an even grander project with CityServe, said GCU President Brian Mueller.

More than 20 church, outreach and social service organizations descended on the campus’ 27th Avenue business complex to pick up more than 1,050 boxes of food assembled and trucked in by Shamrock Farms. Those organizations then distributed those boxes to people in need. About 2,000 food boxes will be disbursed by the end of next week’s distribution.

A little more than 1,050 boxes were distributed to those in need.

It was a chance, finally, for students to return to serving the community in a more direct way after months of not being able to do so during the pandemic.

“We’re used to having an opportunity to physically serve, just in general. But it’s been a lot different this year with COVID. I think everyone was just jumping at the opportunity to actually serve people instead of just encouraging from a distance,” said Jannika Pope, a sophomore secondary education major in English who was just one of about 165 student volunteers loading boxes on site or delivering boxes to off-campus sites.

Associated Students of GCU President Dylan Mahoney said COVID has changed a lot of things at GCU, but it also has given students the opportunity to innovate and think outside the box, including at this event.

“The students here love to serve, and that’s apparent everywhere you go. I feel students here have been really eager to serve and go out and do things – do good things for the community.”

University Spiritual Life Director Braelyn Armenta said when the chance to volunteer for the Farmers to Families event came up, the Canyon Christian Schools Consortium's sign-up sheet filled up in 25 minutes.

“They’ve been so hungry to interact and to serve the community. Usually that’s something that we do 24/7. But we had to get creative and do different things – pen pals and all that kind of stuff -- so this is something hands-on that we can do, which is exciting. Even our staff feels that, too, not just the students.

“It’s added a lot of extra joy for all of us to be able to interact with others and come together around a purpose to help others and just be back into our community that we love to be a part of.”

Jared Byrd, Area Director of the Boys and Girls Clubs, arrived at about 2:15 p.m. to pick up 17 boxes for the organization’s Rosenzweig and Colangelo branches.

The clubs, he said, have remained open during the pandemic as distance learning centers for families, especially for essential workers who need a place for their children to stay, since many school districts aren’t operating in-person.

“I just think around the holidays, having some of these staple items in your household, especially after Thanksgiving, it will be beneficial for some of them, especially those who are not working right now, or the extended hours of having kiddos at the house and needing more food," Byrd said. "These boxes will definitely help them out.”

Genaro Ruiz, Director of the Chicanos Por La Causa Community Center, was at GCU to collect 100 food boxes for several of its programs.

“Right now, our surrounding area (near Carl Hayden Community High School) has been hit pretty hard by COVID, and having food accessible to them is of the utmost importance,” Ruiz said. “It doesn’t take much to create a hole that’s hard to get out of. We had families that were living paycheck to paycheck. Now it’s even more difficult.

“We are very happy and appreciate our partnership with GCU and the support we’re getting from GCU.”

Each 30- to 40-pound food box contains everything from meat to dairy products and fruit and vegetables.

Victor Flores, a Phoenix-based driver for Shamrock, manned one of the refrigerated trucks that transported some 33,000 pounds of food to GCU. Inside the plain brown boxes: bags of apples, meat, fresh onions, sliced American cheese, bags of baby carrots.

“There’s red chili, green chili … Shamrock is making these boxes and taking them everywhere,” he said of the boxes, which weigh about 30 pounds each.

It is through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, created under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, that the USDA purchases and distributes agricultural products to those in need.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is partnering with distributors, such as Shamrock Farms, whose workforces have been significantly impacted by the closures of restaurants, hotels and other food service businesses because of the pandemic, to purchase up to $4.5 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat products. The food is packaged into family-size boxes that are transported to distribution hubs, such as GCU.

The December distributions at the University are part of a fourth round of purchases – about $500 million worth of food – that will be distributed through Dec. 31.

Greg Harman, Assistant Vice President of Academic Alliances, helps deliver boxes to Empower College Prep, one of more than 20 churches, community organizations and other points of distribution.

It was through Greg Harman, Assistant Vice President of Academic Alliances, that GCU's partnership between CityServe International -- and the Farmers to Families Food Box Program -- came about.

He was at a meeting and happened to be seated next to Dave Donaldson, President of CityServe International, a collaborative network of churches and community leaders connected to help those in need. CityServe wants to bring the church to the table to address community challenges and help local churches fulfill their purpose to “overcome brokenness and transform lives.”

Harman and Donaldson started talking, and he realized that what CityServe does in the community sounds a lot like what GCU is doing. Mueller often speaks about transforming the community through the University’s Five-Point Plan.

Donaldson mentioned Farmers to Families and an opportunity to work with a distributor in the Phoenix area, Shamrock Farms.

“Would you guys be interested?” he asked.

That opportunity made it to Mueller and, in just two weeks, the Farmers to Families distribution event came about.

“It was a God thing,” Harman said of everything seeming to fall into place.

GCU President Brian Mueller said the Farmers to Families distribution is part of a bigger project GCU is envisioning with CityServe.

Mueller said a lot of families in the community around GCU have family members who have jobs that put them at risk, meaning a higher than average positivity rate when it comes to the coronavirus.

“It affects these kinds of communities harder than it does other communities, so actually, the need goes up. This CityServe – the possibility just came along at the right time, really,” said Mueller, who added that after Donaldson came to GCU, “We started to work.”

What’s particularly exciting, said Mueller, is that the Farmers to Families distribution signals something even bigger.

GCU is in talks to become a CityServe HUB, or warehouse distribution center, for Arizona. As such, GCU would receive, store and distribute products that major retailers aren't able to resell. Those products would be dispersed to PODs, or points of distribution, such as the churches and social service organizations that participated in Farmers to Families. The PODs would identify families in need.

To facilitate that, GCU would need to provide a 50,000-square-foot warehouse.

“We would connect to probably 100 or so PODs eventually,” said Mueller.

He seems particularly passionate about what lies ahead for GCU as it continues in its talks with CityServe.

About 165 student volunteers helped at the event.

“The Christian community needs to be more outward in the expression of its faith, not as much inward," he said. "Ultimately, it is what we say, but it’s also what we do. Probably, it’s more important what we do. If you read the Bible from Page 1 to the end, it’s full of references to people that are poor, people that need help, people that need a hand up, and it should be a major focus of what the church is all about. It certainly doesn’t save us, because we’re saved by grace through faith only.

“But our response to that should be just a fanatical care for people who need help. The authenticity of our faith should, I think, be seen through our response to our salvation, which is to go out and help God’s people who are suffering, and so I think it’s important for us to just keep doing these things.”

Mueller took time out to load a few Farmers to Families food boxes himself on Wednesday as he spoke of how GCU’s amazing student body is so committed to serving other people: “It’s impossible NOT to feel good about what’s going on right now," he said.

“We’re giving food to people who need it,” said junior business management major Hope Axtell, also a CCSC student. “That’s a joyful thing; I’m glad I get to be a part of it.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


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GCU Today: They talked turkey and how to help the food bank

GCU Today: GCU baseball helps food bank get a (turkey) leg up


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