A former Mexican restaurant in South Tucson is now a taxpayer-funded public community center with an anti-obesity focus.

The Garden Kitchen, 2205 S. Fourth Ave., has outdoor vegetable gardens, colorful scarecrows and indoor kitchens for healthy cooking demonstrations.

Organizers hope the project will become a community gathering place for farmers markets and regular neighborhood walking events.

A joint effort between Pima County and the University of Arizona, The Garden Kitchen will start out with limited hours through December: Saturdays only from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., when anyone from the public can attend cooking classes.

Saturday is the official opening, and there will be health-oriented activities for families all day.

The UA Cooperative Extension, which is part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will operate The Garden Kitchen. UA officials plan to increase its public hours and days next year.

Volunteers and staff members are ready to share budget-gourmet techniques and highlight The Garden Kitchen's "seed to table" theme, said Cheralyn Schmidt, a program coordinator with the UA.

Among other things, she said, the venue's staff will teach lessons in healthful side dishes for the holidays, and in key concepts for healthy eating - making half grains whole, focusing on low-fat dairy products and lean proteins, and making sure half of one's plate is fruits and vegetables.

"People eat healthier when they cook and garden," Schmidt said. "And we have a generation growing up that has lost that ability."

Arizona is on course to dramatically increase its obesity rate over the next 20 years, according to a September report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. If obesity rates continue on current trajectories, by 2030 the obesity rate in Arizona could reach 58.8 percent.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24.7 of Arizonans were obese in 2011.

The Garden Kitchen was once Lili's Cocina, a Jalisco-influenced restaurant that served items like camarones rancheros and enchiladas in mole sauce in a cozy setting.

When the restaurant closed in 2009, the county purchased it for $225,000 with neighborhood reinvestment money, in part to prevent another potential buyer - the Hells Angels - from acquiring it for a clubhouse.

The county has since spent another $150,000 on improvements and new kitchen equipment, plus $50,000 in federal anti-obesity money for design, inspections and noncapital equipment.

Among improvements the county made were demolishing a dilapidated adjacent single-family residence on site, along with parts of the restaurant that didn't meet code.

The county also constructed a new addition, updated the restroom to comply with disability requirements, brought the commercial kitchen up to code, installed new kitchen equipment and upgraded the building's interior and exterior.

"The purpose really goes back to the root of neighborhood reinvestment - taking portions of the community that are on (the) edge of becoming more deteriorated and building back the tax base," said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

"The building had been looked at for purchase by the Hells Angels, and that would not have been the most productive long-term use of the neighborhood," he said.

Some of The Garden Kitchen's other planned features:

• Interactive gardens, where residents will see effective ways to raise vegetables in small spaces - even in containers - while also learning tips on composting, worm farming and water harvesting.

• Video conferencing that will allow chefs to cook on site and either tape the demonstration for later distribution or broadcast the events live to schools, hospitals or other facilities in the community.

If you go

The public is invited to The Garden Kitchen's opening celebration from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday at 2205 S. Fourth Ave. in South Tucson.

The free party's theme is Healthy Halloween. Kids are invited to wear costumes; the party will include music, dancing, food and cooking demonstrations. Free parking is available in the surrounding neighborhood.

"People eat healthier when they cook and garden. And we have a generation growing up that has lost that ability."

Cheralyn Schmidt, a program coordinator with the UA

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@azstarnet.com or 573-4134.