Valley architecture and engineering firms suffering through the economic downturn are finding a diversion from their distress by designing and building structures made of food cans.
It's also for a good cause, because the food used in their creations eventually will be donated to the St. Mary's Food Bank for distribution to the needy.
The event, called Canstruction, tests the ability of the firms to use their creativity. The eight firms entered in this year's contest will compete in such categories as Structural Ingenuity, Best Use of Labels, Best Meal and Jurors' Favorite. Judging the entries will be a panel of designers and community officials.
Winners in the various categories will advance to compete in the national Canstruction contest, which is sponsored annually by the Society for Design Administration, the professional organization of administrators of architecture and design firms.
The local designers will build their structures the night of Feb. 19-20 at Fiesta Mall, located at Alma School Road and Southern Avenue in Mesa, and the projects will be on exhibit at the mall from Feb. 20-27.
"It provides a benefit for the St. Mary's Food Bank, and it's great exposure for our industry and our firm," said Brenda Gerhardt, marketing director for Strand Associates, a Phoenix engineering firm that is one of the participants this year. "And it's a fun project."
Strand's entry will be a 6-foot-diameter igloo with a penguin and a dog sled on the sides and will be titled "Shut Hunger Out in the Cold."
The igloo will be made out of cans of vegetables and tuna, the sled will be made of cans of potatoes and black beans, and the penguin will be created out of cans of black beans and marshmallows, with packages of Cheetos providing the beak and feet accents. Snow drifts will be created with bags of flour and marshmallows. Rope attached to the sled will be composed of strands of beef jerky.
A total of about 3,800 cans and packages of food will be needed for the composition, Gerhardt said.
To make sure the project all fits together, volunteers from the firm assembled the structures in a practice build Saturday with students from East Valley Academy, a Mesa high school that is helping with the entry.
Students in the school's community service club solicited food and other donations from Mesa groceries and businesses, helped design the structures and will assist in building the final display.
"They are a great help," Gerhardt said, adding that it's a way to get the students interested in design and engineering work. "They need their community service work, and this helps them with that."
The project allows the students to get hands-on experience in the workplace, said Phil Welch, the teacher-sponsor on the school's service-learning program. About 30 students have participated, he said.
"It gives the students a chance to work with professionals and meet with various businesses," he said.
Obtaining food and monetary donations was tough this year because of the economy, Welch said. But most of the local businesses allowed the school to put out signs seeking cash donations, he said.
Beverly Jenkins, a junior at East Valley Academy, said she loves the project. "It's fun building something and seeing a final product you're proud of," she said during the practice build last weekend. "And it goes to a good cause."
She added that she enjoys volunteering because "you're giving back, helping out others."
Another student, Brandon Whitaker, also a junior at the academy, said the community service project will help him earn a gold seal on his diploma when he graduates. He added that he might study architecture when he goes to college.