At Fuerza Local Community Kitchen – located at El Rancho del Sol affordable housing development in Mesa, Arizona – there is a bustling world of culinary activity.
At first, you’ll see kids getting ready for their year-round, after-school cooking program.
Peer into the background of the professional kitchen, and you’ll see several teams of local food entrepreneurs preparing products to sell at the local farmer’s market.
According to the Community Kitchen Executive Chef and Farm-to-Table Manager Gabe Gardner, the goal of the kitchen is to “provide business assistance for underserved, aspiring food entrepreneurs and to strengthen neighborhoods.”
The kitchen also grows its own food. The Sow it Forward vertical garden enables year-round growing, which otherwise would not be possible in the hot Arizona summer.
The vertical gardens are designed for schools, but the Fuerza Local Community Kitchen saw an opportunity to connect the self-watering, vertical micro-farms with the kids cooking classes. The greens go right from the planting pot into the cooking pot! The kids learn about healthy food by growing it themselves, which is supported by lessons from the Sow it Forward curriculum.
Sow it Forward vertical, aeroponic gardens – a program from the Arizona Sustainability Alliance (AZSA) – has been a favorite idea in the Arizona Sustainability Challenge, funded by Microsoft and run on the ChangeX platform. The program ensures that low-income school and community programs can afford the vertical garden and benefit from its bounty.
Tearsa Saffell, Priority Lead at AZSA and the Sow it Forward program leader explains the benefits:
“The vertical garden reconnects students with food. The students are making better choices and they are less afraid to try new things.”
Chef Gabe shared his secret for getting kids to try greens: salad burritos.
“Many of the kids did not recognize kale, spinach, swiss chard, or bok choy growing in the vertical garden, but when layered with a tortilla, which is a familiar food item, they were more open to trying the new greens.”
More than 85% of the families in El Rancho del Sol are food insecure. The goal of the kitchen is to break the cycle and make healthy food not only fun and interesting, but also accessible.
Chef Gabe always sends food home with the kids. Looking to the future, they would like to augment the food pantry offered by United Food Bank every other Tuesday with fresh foods from both the indoor vertical tower and outdoor gardens on the property.
This type of innovation and active programming would not be possible without local nonprofits:
Local First Arizona is the operating nonprofit behind the Community Kitchen. They have made affordable commercial kitchen space available 7 days per week, invite local food entrepreneurs to join a bootcamp to jump-start their businesses, and they run the cooking classes and community garden program.
The Arizona Sustainability Alliance (AZSA) introduced the Sow it Forward vertical garden program into low-income schools and neighborhoods for young people to have access to fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables.
The kitchen serves as a preferred placement for volunteers interested in sustainability and food systems. Jaclyn McCormick-Arigi is a senior at Arizona State University majoring in sustainability and minoring in personal health.
Jaclyn is an online student, and the Fuerza Community Kitchen offers the perfect opportunity to get hands-on with her degree. She says:
“I appreciate that Local First, the Arizona Sustainability Alliance, and ChangeX exist and that they are willing to work together. It means that I’m able to have an impact by showing these kids what nutritious food looks like.”
The Arizona Sustainability Alliance Sow it Forward program has implemented 23 vertical gardens in 16 different educational environments. Seven of these, including the Fuerza Community Kitchen garden, were made possible through the partnership with ChangeX and Microsoft.
According to Tearsa the gardens in classrooms also have a nice side-effect:
“The vertical garden lights and water system helps students to be calmer and more focused. Teachers tell us it creates a noticeable change in behavior and attention.”
Furthermore, the partnership with ChangeX and Microsoft empowers individuals to apply to start a Sow it Forward Garden (rather than a top down approach mandated by the administration). Which means that everyone – from teacher to student – is more motivated and takes ownership when they decide to start a garden together.
The result? Kids open up their eyes to new food items and create new skills and eating habits — one piece of kale at a time.
Header image: Chef Gabe and volunteer Jaclyn McCormick-Arigi with kids from El Rancho del Sol.
Microsoft is funding more community projects through ChangeX in the Microsoft Community Challenge in Cheyenne, San Antonio, Grant County right now. You can apply now to get between $500 and $5000 for your project.