‘What I was meant to do’

Litchfield Park, Arizona Food Service director named Nutrition Hero

DAVID SCHWAKE, left, Food Services director for the Litchfield Elementary School District, checks on cabbage growth Feb. 7 with the help of kindergartners Kaylee Arthur and Colton Carter at Litchfield Elementary in Litchfield Park. Schwake has been with the district for 19 years and was recently recognized as a School Nutrition Hero. View photo by Jordan Christopher

When you imagine a hero, most likely capes and laser vision come to mind, but you probably don’t picture someone who feeds pupils in public schools.

David Schwake, Litchfield Elementary School District’s Food Service director since 1994, was named a 2017 School Nutrition Hero by the national nonprofit School Nutrition Foundation.

“I didn’t cry. I didn’t get real emotional, but my wife did,” Schwake said. “I was pleasantly shocked. I don’t think what I do is anything special; I just think I do what every food service director should do.”

Schwake was nominated by the school district and chosen by SNF for providing healthy menus and environments for pupils, volunteering at local organizations and food banks, creating effective school initiatives that teach children nutrition and helping the community at large.

“David’s passion, caring and dedication makes him an ideal School Nutrition Hero,” said Patricia Montague, School Nutrition Association CEO. “His leadership and creativity, both in his district and in community food programs, is admirable.”

Schwake has served as a board member of the Association of Arizona Food Banks for nine years and is on his third year as board president for the Agua Fria Food and Clothing Bank, where he has been recognized for improving pupil access to healthy foods and finding opportunities to educate communities, schools and parents about available resources, such as the Community Eligibility Provision and after-school programs.

“I’m on several board of directors,” Schwake said. “I get a real good feeling when I volunteer. I think my problem is, is that I don’t know how to say no.”

Hard work, long hours, his family and his 11,722 pupils are what he dedicates his award to and believes are the reasons he is now called a hero, he said, adding that his days are between 10 and 12 hours long.

“I don’t always get home at 5 o’clock, usually at 7 o’clock, but it’s a good feeling [to be awarded],” Schwake said. “People always say I’m working too long or doing too much, but this [award] is a way to be formally recognized that I do a lot during the day and when I go home. I don’t stop.”

Growing up, his family owned a bakery where he would help decorate cakes and create a variety of food, so becoming a food service director was his calling, Schwake said.

“This is what I was meant to do,” he said. “I feel I was put here. I think God had me come here and he kept me here.”

Because of Schwake, many schools in the Litchfield Elementary District have gardens with food that is grown, tended to and eaten by pupils and community members, which is thanks to many organizations and groups that donated time and resources, he said.

“It’s really a community garden,” Schwake said. “We got the mulch from Duncan Family Farms and we got the fertilizer from Hickman’s.”

Cabbage, broccoli, oranges, dill and flowers are just some of the treats that can be found in the gardens, with vegetables and fruits changing each season, Schwake said.

The district implemented the gardens about three years ago, but it only became a recent law that schools can serve the food they grow. Everything from the gardens is now used in the cafeterias, Schwake said.

“We try to get the items we know the kids will eat,” he said.

Having a garden not only teaches children where their food comes from, but how to create a healthy lifestyle for years to come, Schwake said, adding that the key to a healthy lifestyle is to learn young, because what you eat before age 21 is what your body will show after that.

“I’ll go into a kindergarten class and ask ‘You guys know what this is?’ They say it’s an apple. Then, I ask ‘Do you know where it comes from?’ and they’d reply ‘Albertsons,’” Schwake said. “My goal is to get as much information to the kindergarteners.”

Colton Carter, 5, a kindergartener at Litchfield Elementary, said he loves the garden and enjoys picking flowers for his teacher and some broccoli for himself.

“Broccoli is my favorite food in the world,” he said. “It makes me strong.”

Kaylee Arthur, also in kindergarten, said she can’t wait for the strawberries to be planted. When Schwake asked her what vegetable has vitamin A, she replied correctly with a carrot.

“[Vitamin A] is good for your skin,” she said.

When Schwake asked what vitamin oranges have, she again replied correctly with vitamin C.

“It’s good for not getting sick,” Kaylee said.

Another program Schwake helped implement is the summer school backpack program, where children in summer school go home with backpacks full of six meals to keep them full over the weekend, he said.

Although the program is meant for pupils who qualify for free or reduced meals, he gives backpacks to everyone so children don’t feel bad about needing the food, Schwake said.

“We did it over the summer as a pilot to show the USDA it could be done,” he said. “Parents thought it was a great idea, and so did I. I still do. I encourage other districts that have a high number of students on free or reduced lunches to look at it.”

The gardens and backpacks are only two of the many projects Schwake has been proud of during his 23 years at the Litchfield Elementary School District, and certainly won’t be his last, he said.

“I’m happy. I am proud our school is being recognized,” he said. “I’m thankful. I’m grateful. I don’t know why they picked me.”

Schwake will be presented the award in April during the School Nutrition Association’s Celebration of School Nutrition Heroes at the School Nutrition Association’s 45th Legislative Action Conference in Washington, D.C.

“I just want to give back to the community,” he said.

Written by Kourtney Balsan and published at the West Valley View ~ February 15, 2017.

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