GCU cooks up virtual demo for Phoenix Food Day

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Elizabeth Tinajero

GCU News Bureau

“Wait! Let me see if I’m saying ‘eggplant’ right,” Brianna Castro declared as she shuffled off The Bean Counter Kitchen set at Grand Canyon University’s 27th Avenue complex.

Canyon 49 Grill Sous Chef Mike Willison and Brianna Castro, a learning advocate in the Learning Lounge, collaborated for a virtual cooking demonstration that will be part of Phoenix Food Day.

After a quick glance at her cellphone to look up the Spanish translation, “berenjena,” she was back on set and ready to go.

Castro, an English for Secondary Education junior, spends much of her time at GCU as a learning advocate, or LEAD, in the Learning Lounge. It’s where college scholars, many of them recipients of the Students Inspiring Students scholarship (including Castro), tutor K-12 students from the surrounding neighborhood.

But at a recent video shoot, she was all about using her teaching and translating skills to help Phoenix Food Day and Healthfest, a community-building fall festival of healthy eating that is serving up its community atmosphere in a different way this year because of COVID-19.

The event, now a drive-thru experience peppered with virtual cooking demonstrations and goody-bag giveaways, will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Cartwright Community Garden, 4208 N. 51st Ave.

Castro stood alongside Canyon 49 Grill Sous Chef Mike Willison, who generously dolloped refried beans, enchilada sauce, cumin and more on strips of eggplant to create his bean and cheese eggplant enchiladas.

Castro translated chef commentary from English into Spanish.

While he cooked, Castro translated his commentary into Spanish to reach the event's Spanish speakers.

It will be one of several cooking segments to be posted on the Phoenix Food Day website (see the flyer here) as part of the event's virtual offerings. Also, families who have preregistered can drive through to pick up food boxes and goody bags filled with recipes, gardening kits, gift cards, and health and wellness vouchers.

Canyon 49 Grill will supply a coupon in the goody bag, and the Learning Lounge will include a flyer to let the neighborhood know about the academic support it provides to K-12 students.

This will be the third year the University has participated in the city of Phoenix's Phoenix Food Day and Junior League of Phoenix's Healthfest. The festival is designed to inspire people to change the way they look at food.

“It all started with Gus the Garden Bus,” Community Relations Manager Debbie Accomazzo said of how GCU became involved in the event.

It was in 2018 when firefighters responded to a fire at an empty lot that had engulfed a Cartwright Elementary School District mobile garden called Gus the Garden Bus. The bus was where students learned about plant sciences and healthy eating.

Chef Mike's dish: bean and cheese eggplant enchiladas.

Instead of letting that vision fade away, since the school didn’t have the funding to replace the bus, Phoenix Fire Captain and GCU alumnus Austin Moreland rallied his firefighters, the police, the city, the school district – and his alma mater – to help. The result: a new garden bus, raised garden beds and the arrival of Phoenix Food Day to the Cartwright Community Garden, which is where the event has inspired healthy eating for the past three years.

Accomazzo said Phoenix Food Day goes hand-in-hand with recent University efforts such as Canyon Urban Farms, where fresh produce is grown and shared with the community.

Canyon Urban Farms Manager Nathan Cooper checks the harvest on the land just north of Agave Apartments.

“We’ve got Canyon Urban Farms here, so the idea of healthy eating, farm-to-table, buying local, all of that dovetails really well with what we’re doing here relative to our enterprises,” Accomazzo said.

Castro dovetailed well, too, with the enterprise of filming cooking segments, since she once thought about standing in front of a camera as a news broadcaster. The Washington High School graduate couldn’t have imagined her job at the Learning Lounge tutoring students also would include a stint in front of the camera, this time teaching healthy eating.

“That’s why I LOVE my job at the Lounge, because this falls completely into what I want to do,” said Castro, who will combine her love of communication with helping children as a future high school English teacher.

Accomazzo said Castro shared at planning meetings how the price of food is important to her family in deciding what meals end up on the table. She also spoke about how a lot of families don’t use the sophisticated kitchen tools that chefs might use in their own kitchens.

Accomazzo found Castro's words insightful.

“She is the target family,” Accomazzo said and added how having Castro translate the cooking segments into Spanish was invaluable in helping GCU and Phoenix Food Day reach those target families.

“We exist in the Canyon Corridor in a community that is very diverse. We have to be a part of the fabric of that community, so if we’re going to put something out into the community, we need to make sure the community will receive it. Having Brianna be a part of it, it will be received.”

Castro not only translated commentary into Spanish but helped Executive Chef Chris Lenza add ingredients to his cauliflower rice dish.

Besides working with Willison, Castro translated the commentary of Chris Lenza, most recently the Executive Chef at Café Allegro at the Musical Instrument Museum. For his cooking segment, Lenza prepared a cauliflower rice dish with hominy, cilantro and bell peppers.

“I’ve always been into healthy eating … but also focusing on local ingredients and feeding our community and our youth,” Lenza said.

He often does cooking demonstrations for K-12 youth and advocates making your own dishes – buying your own dry beans, cooking them, seasoning them -- rather than buying them already processed in a can. The buy-fresh approach allows you to control sodium levels, fat levels and more.

Phoenix Food Day Planning Committee member Dr. Paris Masek, President of Green on Purpose and a founding member of the Maricopa County Food System Coalition, has overseen the food demonstrations for Phoenix Food Day for several years.

“I’m a huge proponent of eating local, eating fresh, eating nutritious foods,” Masek said.

The former fish biologist connects local farmers, who were throwing away unused product, to local restaurateurs, who could use those freshly grown vegetables but wouldn't have time to make it to a multitude of local farms every day.

Masek’s knowledge of local food systems is why city of Phoenix Environmental Programs Coordinator Rosanne Albright asked him to be part of the event.

He said Americans have gotten used to buying from supermarkets that don’t always carry local or fresh produce. The USDA considers local as something sourced from within a radius of 350 miles. So by the time a banana makes it to the supermarket, it could be a week or two old already.

“The system is so ingrained to … if I need bananas, I can go get them 12 months out of the year. So since World War II, we have moved away from seasonal eating and local food because we’re so used to the convenience of running down to the grocery store for whatever you need whatever time of year,” he said. “A lot of those ideas and practices (about buying local and seasonal) are in line with what Phoenix Food Day talks about.”

He added how medical issues, such as diabetes and obesity, can be tied to how we eat.

His advice: Grow your own garden. Head to the farmers' market.

“Why does it take a pandemic to initiate the process?”

Canyon 49 Grill's Willison, in choosing his dish, bean and cheese eggplant enchiladas, said he wanted to use what he could find in the garden and make something he thought the community would like.

The team ended the video with the traditional Phoenix Food Day apple crunch.

“When people see healthy food, they think it has to be more difficult than it is,” he said, adding, “Keep it simple.”

Castro also helped Willison and Lenza with an important tribute to Phoenix Food Day: the apple crunch. It’s when everyone at the festival simultaneously crunches into an apple.

The apple crunch made its way into the virtual cooking demonstration, too.

It’s the symbolic sound of fresh food that’s at the core of Phoenix Food Day.

It’s an apple for the future teacher -- and for these culinary teachers -- who all have a love for community.

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



What: City of Phoenix’s Phoenix Food Day and Junior League of Phoenix Healthfest

Where: Cartwright Community Garden, 4208 N. 51st Ave.

When: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday

Admission: Free, though preregistration is required for the drive-thru event

Information: https://www.phoenix.gov/oep/foodday


Related content:

GCU Today: GCU cooks up support for Phoenix Food Day

GCU Today: Hope is planted in a Maryvale Community Garden


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