Now that its remodeled digs have been appropriately celebrated, the Garden Kitchen aims to serve the South Tucson neighborhood that it has called home since 2012.
Five years after it first opened its doors, the nutrition education center—created as a partnership between the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Pima County Cooperative Extension, and the city of South Tucson—hosted a grand reopening earlier this month to unveil $300,000 worth of renovations, upgrades and improvements to help the program teach community residents low-cost, seed-to-table cooking techniques.
The Garden Kitchen’s new additions include a full-size commercial kitchen, a cooking demonstration island, five new kitchenettes, and four cooking stations, where students to the Garden Kitchen’s ongoing classes can get practical training for what they’re learning throughout the year. Until now, much of the program’s curriculum was taught off-site, with instructors travelling all over Pima County to teach classes.
“I’m so happy to be have been here when this came to fruition,” said Bernice Scobie, a senior instructional specialist at the Garden Kitchen the past two years. At the kitchen’s reopening event on September 10, Scobie—along with close to a dozen other instructors teaching guests how to cook various dishes—taught visitors how to make a roasted beet and tangerine salad. “Hopefully, all of this encourages the community to come here more.”
One of those watching along as Scobie prepared her beet salad was Steve Ruiz, a South Tucson resident who said he’s been coming to the Garden Kitchen for instruction on healthier cooking for years.
“I consider myself a foodie, sure,” Ruiz said. “I’m not a great cook, but I try to learn a little bit every day.”
In between various events at the reopening, which included an Iron Chef competition, tours of the garden, and cooking demos, Jennifer Parlin, the Garden Kitchen’s de facto manager of the program and facility, told me she was happy with the turnout (about 300 people toured the facility throughout the day), but felt like there could have been a greater presence from the South Tucson neighborhood (at 4th Avenue and 32nd Street) that the Garden Kitchen anchors.
“I don’t really feel like we are a big part of this community,” she said. “Yes, I’ve made inroads with specific people and specific groups, and I’m very pleased with that. But we at the Garden Kitchen have not made the right moves to make people feel welcome. I wish more people wanted to be part of the group. That’s not to say nobody has, (because) they have. I just wish that we were more of a hub. I think there’s clearly more work to be done.”
“I hope [the remodeling] makes us more accessible,” Parlin added. “I hope it provides something new and different to people from the neighborhood to come and be a part of.”
Ed and Grace Beltran, who lead their neighborhood watch and have lived in their South Tucson home for the past 11 years, credit Parlin for reaching out to South Tucsonans and encouraging greater participation in the program. They’ve been coming to the Garden Kitchen since it first opened, and Grace—a fifth-grade dual-language teacher at Mission View Elementary School in South Tucson—plans to work with Parlin to get her students into the facility for cooking and gardening lessons.
“When we walked in [for the reopening], I wanted to cry,” Grace Beltran said.
“I think this is going to be a real opportunity for our community,” said Ed Beltran, who first met Parlin when he worked in the Pima County juvenile court system years ago and worked on a garden inside the juvenile detention facility. “This is going to help guide us and create a foundation for this neighborhood, and I think it represents real economic development in the community.”
Andrew Bravo, a 17-year-old senior at Sunnyside High School, first came to the Garden Kitchen when he was just 13, after his grandmother took him to the facility for a class on making honey. Four years later, Bravo led a cooking demo the day of the reopening, teaching observers how to make sweet potato pancakes.
Bravo’s planning to attending the University of Arizona next fall to study nutritional science and public health (Parlin has a master’s degree in public health), and he’s about to become a full-time student worker at the Garden Kitchen (Parlin offered him the job the day before the reopening).
“Wow, this is actually happening,” Bravo said, recalling his thoughts after getting the news from Parlin. “Jenn is a really strong woman, a really great role model.”
“She’s a really selfless person,” Bravo added. “The people who come here regularly, they come in and Jenn greets them all as if they’re family.”
In another four years, Bravo said he sees himself “hopefully running this place.”
“Jenn wouldn’t mind!” he said.
“Andrew is such a good kid,” Parlin said. “He really cares about people and he’s always interested in doing the right thing. I’m humbled, really, because anyone would be lucky to have him.”
Pima County District 5 Supervisor Richard Elias also attended the Garden Kitchen’s reopening, assisting in ribbon-cutting ceremonies with Scott Going, the head of nutritional sciences at the University of Arizona, and Dan McDonald, the director of Pima County Cooperative Extension. Elias also not only competed in the Iron Chef event but won it, as well, with a salad of greens and apples, summer vegetables and breaded chicken.
Elias said he sees the Garden Kitchen as a place where local residents can learn to eat healthy and take control of the food they consume “by not feeling so estranged from it.”
“You know, we have serious problems with diabetes in our Native American and Latino communities. It’s taken us centuries to get to where we are,” he said. “The pathway back is a slow one. Through education and places like this, we can learn to prepare that food. It’s about preparation.”
“In my garden at home, it’s a place that gives me peace, tranquility and a little control in our lives,” Elias added, “and people really need that right now on a broader scale.”
Scobie, whose background is in nutrition, believes in the Garden Kitchen’s mission to empower residents with hands-on, educational experience—something that should be easier to accomplish with all of its renovations and improvements.
“Cooking healthy food is a skill that not many people have. Too many people think they can’t do it, but we can show them how simple it is,” Scobie said. “Now that we have all these tools and equipment, we can accomplish that so much easier.”
The Garden Kitchen hosts its Fit First Saturday event on Oct. 7 at 2205 S. 4th Avenue, with free classes in herb gardening and cooking with fall flavors. See www.thegardenkitchen.org for details.