Gently, her spatula lifts the edge of a small demo pizza. Almost done. Who’d know it’s another secret weapon in the arsenal of Cheralyn Schmidt, the founder of Garden Kitchen in South Tucson.
She’s out to get more vegetables into our diets, so in this pizza crust she substitutes fiber-rich zucchini for the white flour. The fiber promotes good digestion and keeps cholesterol at proper levels, she says, and the veggies deliver vitamins and minerals.
Her Saturday morning audience at the Garden Kitchen is skeptical. That is, until four cooks in white coats deliver their just-cooked samples. Oh, yeah. Tasty. A keeper.
With cheese and sauce, Schmidt tells the moms and dads, kids will love to eat veggies. “I call these stealth veggies,” she says. “Freeze a few of these pizzas for whenever. Just take out and bake.”
The core gospel of the Garden Kitchen, a collaboration by the University of Arizona, Pima County and the City of South Tucson, emphasizes fresh, healthy, inexpensive food.
After the pizza demo, Schmidt segues to some survival tips: How to find zucchini at two pounds for 99 cents. And why we should plant only Armenian cucumbers. (They’re tough immigrants from Egypt and Pakistan and love our desert. Never bitter.)
The demo unfolds weekly here in Cheralyn Schmidt’s world. A few yards away grow lush stands of pomegranates, peaches, lemons, Armenian (of course) cucumbers, okra, squash, mint, lavender, and sage. Visitors spot kale, collards, quinoa, holy basil, Mrs. Burns’ lemon basil, oregano, and Papago Bob squash (the really big ones). There’s fig, apple, honeydew, and the oddly named heirloom squash: Magdalena Big Cheese.
Anyone can come on Saturday mornings to learn gardening and cooking. The staff also perform demonstrations and training in nutrition and culinary and gardening skills for community groups, churches, civic groups, schools, and even hospital staffs.
Schmidt devised the Garden Kitchen from scratch. Here her staff of chefs and educators teach food basics, slipping in ideas for national food policy, to outdoor audiences of up to 80. Many are from South Tucson, about half of them on food stamps. Several are faithful attendees every week.
Schmidt shares tips on soy chorizo and turbinado sugar; the crowd is on the edge of their seats, taking notes.
As the boss of this tiny paradise on South Fourth Avenue at 28th Street, Schmidt knows her audience. Many are mothers with zero extra time. A few of the men are chefs, curious about the buzz Garden Kitchen is creating; others are heads of their own households, like Francisco Tellez. He arrives with his wheelchair-bound mother, Socorro, in her big straw hat. They attend the garden demo from 9 to 10 a.m., and then the 10 to 11 a.m. cooking demo. After Socorro lost her husband and became too ill to cook, Frank moved in. He had to learn, fast. To economize, he’s starting a garden at their home on West Sandy Street. For him, the Garden Kitchen is a lifesaver.
Before landing in Tucson, Schmidt ran a cooking school in Austin, Texas, working for Whole Foods headquarters, rolling out themes for stores around the United States.
Four years ago, she took on Tucson’s anti-hunger project for low-income families under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, drawing on her policy wonk side to design ways for parents to involve kids in healthier home menus.
Then she got her big break.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control wanted to channel funds to Pima County to distribute to a project like the Garden Kitchen, aimed in part at preventing obesity. The CDC was establishing centers in 50 communities under its Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) initiative.
Schmidt was tapped by Ramón Valadez, chair of the county board of supervisors, to make it all work.
“We all had different chunks of the pie, government policy, food policy,” Schmidt says. “There were not really any demo kitchens like this around. They came to me, wanting me to do the idea.”
A federal grant covered refurbishing the building, a failed Mexican restaurant called Lili’s Cocina, at 2205 S. Fourth Ave. The Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang had wanted to buy it for a clubhouse. Instead, the county bought it, for $225,000 with federal funds marked for improving low-income neighborhoods, and put in $200,000 to fix it up. South Tucson helped prep the site. In ten months, in the fall of 2012, it was ready to open.
Schmidt enlisted UA faculty and staff like Dominque Henry, a specialist in nutrition and diabetes at the UA College of Medicine. As a result, at every demo Schmidt stresses tips for children and for kitchens where a person is struggling with, say, diabetes. The kitchen also draws upon the UA Department of Nutritional Sciences and the School of Geography and Development.
For a year now, people from the fashionable foothills, from nearby schools, from the neighborhood have become fans. They gather in this area of auto shops, bars and modest homes to learn from Schmidt and her team. She’s the senior program coordinator of the kitchen, working for the UA Cooperative Extension program, an arm of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, while she completed a master’s in public health.
The kitchen has eight employees and 30 volunteers, and draws on students and faculty from the UA Department of Nutritional Sciences and the School of Geography and Development. It’s just the first of several planned UA efforts to expand outreach in South Tucson.
Amid tall sunflowers and ubiquitous melon vines, some growing out across the sidewalks, her staff members begin the weekly sessions with garden demos on topics like composting or water harvesting. Visitors sit on bales of straw under a shade.
After the garden hour, everyone shifts to the outdoor demo site, drawn by aromas of cooked broccoli, cauliflower, and onions.
In short, it’s a weekly minor miracle on South Fourth Avenue.
The impact of Schmidt’s gardeners and cooks is spreading like the squash vines outside her demo kitchen. Groups of parents from low-income schools schedule trips to learn about how to “eat a rainbow” and how to find ingredients that are muy barato (very cheap). To a Muslim visitor, Schmidt recommends Babylon Market on Speedway Boulevard. “They have halal meat, cheap, and good, and they take the fat off.”
Schmidt aims to take budget-gourmet lectures anywhere people want to learn how to stay thin and eat well. “We want this woven into the food knowledge of the nation.”
Most of the advice is preventive, focusing on obesity and illness. But she offers intervention tips as well. “If people are already ill,” Schmidt says, “that can require pretty big changes in your life. I am happy to help. I meet with people who are going through a health catastrophe, a gastric bypass, cancer, diabetes. I can’t treat illnesses but I can help them a lot.”
Her health-oriented classes are among the most popular, sometimes with a focus on cooking for family members with hypertension or high blood pressure. She shows how to make dishes “sabrosos (tasty) without sodium.”
The staff members occasionally teach at a specialized diabetes facility at the old Kino Hospital, now the South Campus of the UA Health Network. There, doctors prescribe cooking classes that go beyond traditional medical systems. “We look at the entire person and why they have an illness,” Schmidt says.
Meanwhile, today’s class is wrapping up. Just minutes left for a lesson on cookies.
“Mix in the whole wheat and regular flour,” Schmidt says. “Some nutmeg, fresh grated in a spice grinder. Whisk it up. Add the zucchini and the chips.” As her assistants distribute what look like sinful chocolate chip cookies, Schmidt adds: “The kids will never know they’re packed with veggies.” ✜