GCU cooks up support for Phoenix Food Day

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Mathew McGraw
GCU News Bureau

A Learning Lounge learning advocate (LEAD) helps out at the Healthy Kids Zone.

A fire, a bus, a garden.

At the time, no one knew they would be the ingredients that would bring a community together, as they did for the city of Phoenix’s Food Day and the Junior League of Phoenix’s Healthfest.

Food Day returned on Saturday for the second year to the Cartwright Community Garden, an outdoor oasis in Maryvale that sits adjacent to Bret R. Tarver Elementary School and Marc T. Atkinson Middle School. As a plus, the Junior League Phoenix Foundation added the Healthfest feature this year.

Grand Canyon University was there, too, to add to that sense of community.

The event featured food and health exhibitors, gardening and healthy cooking demonstrations -- including by GCU Chef Michael Willison -- a mini baseball clinic by the Milwaukee Brewers with help from GCU baseball, a noon Apple Crunch, mobile market and more. The goal: to inspire people to change the way they look at food

It was at an empty lot two years ago where firefighters responded to a fire that had engulfed a Cartwright Elementary School District bus. As it turns out, the bus wasn't a typical, everyday bus. It was Gus the Garden Bus, a mobile garden that represented the district’s vision for an innovative way to teach students about plant sciences, plant cycles and healthy eating. And the empty lot wasn't just an empty lot. It was a space set aside for a garden.

City of Phoenix Environmental Programs Coordinator Rosanne Albright (third from right) said the city wants to take evens, such as Phoenix Food Day, to communities that have a need.

Phoenix Fire Captain Austin Moreland, a GCU business administration graduate who played baseball for the University from 2001-2004, just couldn’t stand by and watch that vision crumble away, since the school had no funding to replace the bus.

So Moreland rallied his firefighters, as well as police, the city and school district. He also called upon his alma mater, which he knew was invested in this community, too.

“He reached out to GCU to see if we could help with the vision of the Cartwright Community Garden,” said University Relations Manager Debbie Accomazzo.

With that push from Moreland, work began on a new garden bus and on building raised garden beds to help the school district and to honor the namesakes of the two schools (Tarver was a fallen firefighter and Atkinson a fallen police officer). Each planter box in the memorial garden is marked with a special designation for various firehouses so that “each has its own identity” but is still part of the whole memorial, said Phoenix Fire spokesman Captain Mark Vanacore.

The city responded by bringing Phoenix Food Day to Cartwright Community Garden, an event in its seventh year that travels to various locations in the city and has been at Cartwright Community Garden for two years.

“They knew this was a neighborhood they wanted to spend time in,” Accomazzo said.

City leaders such as Mayor Kate Gallego (fifth from left, front row) and Councilwoman Betty Guardado (third from right) participated in the noon Apple Crunch to symbolically show their support for healthy eating.

“Our goal is to take these events to communities that have a need,” said city of Phoenix Environmental Programs Coordinator Rosanne Albright. “In Maryvale, there are higher rates of hunger and food insecurity. We know that when people are able to eat healthy, their quality of life improves, brain power improves … they spend less money on healthcare.”

The city is in the midst of working with local organizations and the community to prepare a 2025 Food Action Plan to help improve the local food system so healthy and affordable food is available to everyone.

Albright spoke of efforts that can help, such as bringing mobile markets to communities that struggle with hunger and food insecurity, encouraging businesses that may not be traditional grocery stores to carry fruits and vegetables and other nutritious food options, or facilitating the establishment of farmers markets.

Canyon 49 Executive Sous Chef Mike Willison cooks up tacos de calabacitas (squash tacos) on the food demonstration stage.

What Canyon 49 Grill Executive Sous Chef Mike Willison brought to the table at Saturday’s Phoenix Food Day and Healthfest was his healthy food cooking savvy as he prepared tacos de calabacitas, or squash tacos, for an audience at the cooking demonstration tent.

“I wanted to show people how easy things can be,” Willison said of the tacos, made of simple sauteed squash and other vegetables and seasonings served on corn tortillas.

His advice on healthy cooking: “Keep it simple. The less you can do, the less calories you can consume,” so try something as simple as fresh ingredients and salt and pepper.

Willison said that health and nutrition is something important at GCU, too. Once a month, on the third Thursday of the month, Willison helms a healthy cooking class on campus that even has been streamed live using Zoom. He works closely with GCU Corporate Wellness Administrator Chuck Howard when presenting those sessions.

An upcoming class will feature healthy side dishes campus cooks can make for Thanksgiving.

“We even have a cookbook,” Willison said, which features every recipe ever made at those classes. This December marks two years of recipes.

Members of the GCU baseball team and players in the Milwaukee Brewers Development Program man a mini baseball clinic.

On the other side of the garden, Milwaukee Brewers Development Program center fielder Terence Doston and pitchers Wilbur Diaz and Luis Gonzalez worked with youth on baseball techniques alongside GCU baseball players at the Healthy Kids Zone.

“It’s important to give back to the community -- to build a mutual relationship with us and help the youth,” GCU pitcher Coen Wynne said. He said he often sees people from the community attending the games, and Uber drivers have told him they love GCU baseball, too.

Next to the mini baseball clinic, Mackinnie McNamara, a junior forensic science major, was manning the GCU Learning Lounge table to introduce students to the academic services GCU offers the community. The Brewers partnered with GCU in opening a Learning Lounge in the team's Maryvale baseball complex. It’s where elementary school students can receive free academic assistance from Monday to Saturday.

Jose Monarrez (in purple) tells Phoenix Food Day attendees about the academic services offered at the Learning Lounge at the Milwaukee Brewers' baseball complex in Maryvale.

While the Learning Lounge on the GCU campus is well known, “We’re trying to promote the Brewers location because it’s newer,” said McNamara, who tutors students in math and reading.

City leaders, such as Mayor Kate Gallego, said the city is “working hard for a healthy food system” just before she participated in the Apple Crunch, when everyone at the event bites into an apple simultaneously at noon to show their support for healthy eating.

District 5 Councilwoman Betty Guardado, who lives in the neighborhood, shared her own personal story when it comes to food and nutrition.

“I lost a little over 200 pounds, so I understand how important it is … to live a healthy lifestyle,” she said, adding how she’s committed to bringing healthier options to the community she calls home.

Phoenix Councilwoman Betty Guardado lost more than 200 pounds and said she understands firsthand the importance of healthy eating.

The plan for the Cartwright Elementary School District, said Dr. Rebecca Osuna, Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services, is to create gardens, like the Cartwright Community Garden, at every school site – that’s some 20 schools in the district -- “so there will be healthy eating for everyone that comes to Cartwright.”

Sandra Vasquez, who visited the Animals (and Humans) in Disaster booth, attended Phoenix Food Day and the Junior League’s Healthfest with her children. It’s something she has done with her family before.

One year, her children had the chance to help make a garbanzo salad during a demonstration: “They still make it,” Vasquez said. “I’m trying to teach them to eat healthy.”

GCU volunteers pass out apples for the Apple Crunch.

While she hasn’t experienced issues with accessing fresh fruits and vegetables, she said she would love to see a farmers market in the area. “I think that would be really good.”

Accomazzo, meanwhile, thought back to when Austin Moreland first reached out to GCU seeking help for Cartwright Community Garden, which on Saturday was bustling with visitors as Gus the Garden Bus was parked adjacent to the garden and back where it should be.

“What started with destruction has become new life,” she said.

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

Related content:

GCU Today: Hope is planted in a Maryvale community garden

GCU Today: It's clubhouse to firehouse for former GCU players

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