This article was written by past Local Food Program Director, Steve Russell. Last month our Fall Semester Local Foods Intern, Cristy Courtney and I were invited to join Joseph Martinez of Arizona Microgreens for a tour of their new facilities at the George Brooks Sr. Community School in South Phoenix. The center, as we would soon learn, is a reaction to industrial encroachment causing the families of another South Phoenix neighborhood to pack up and move.
The site was once known as the George B. Brooks Academy, a school in the Roosevelt Elementary School District #66 (RESD). Over years of industrial buildings popping up closer and closer to the neighborhood, rapidly driving already low land values into the ground, the community moved out, one family at a time. These homes would then quickly be demolished and gobbled up in the encroachment land grab. Within time, a lighting factory eventually backed itself literally up to the north side of this neighborhood school. When everyone moved away, there were so few families left to serve that the small number of students still attending were eventually bussed off to other, larger schools and the George B. Brooks Academy was vacated.
Though sitting vacant and costing the district money for upkeep, red tape made the land difficult to sell. Fortunately, haunted by the specter of an empty center of education that cost the community money every day, members of the community and local organizations came together to create the George Brooks Sr. Community School, a space for STEAM and agriculture education in Phoenix.
The center is a collaborative effort to repurpose the facility as well as cover its operating expenses. The Community School now leases office space to local nonprofits and provides afterschool enrichment activities for students of RESD, including interactive exhibits on aquaponics and composting. For more info, read the Community School’s business plan here.
Our tour started in the greenhouse, a space shared by our host, Arizona Microgreens, a demo garden by a local hydroponics equipment manufacturer called Botanicare, and also by an aquaponics demo garden curated by George Brooks Jr himself (yes the son of the guy the buildings are named after). The greenhouse was spacious, with splashes of colorful vegetation scattered about, and a large open area they hope will one day host events for the community and the schools served by the RESD. Joseph next introduced us to a fun feature out back. The facility’s wash sink has a strict organic-products only rule, and is thus safely allowed to empty out the back of the building into a winding irrigation channel. As the team cleans the microgreens and their flats in this sink, they are constantly washing viable seed into this channel, which has become a wild, low-maintenance garden out back. The food is not certified for safe distribution, so its gleaning serves as a small extra perk for the people working at the center.
The school buildings to the west of the greenhouse facility now serve as low-cost office space for community organizations such as Tigermountain Foundation. There is also a huge field to the east of the greenhouse, which will soon be the beginnings of an edible forest by The Urban Farm in Tempe.
We finished our tour by helping out with the harvest back on the Arizona Microgreens side. It was a treat to visit, and refreshing to see the community come together to prioritize STEAM and the integration of agriculture and education for Arizona’s students. Thanks for having us!