West Valley Man Dedicates His Career, Retirement To Feeding Community

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Thursday, November 22, 2018 - 5:05am

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Students use donated produce to make to-go bags for students at Rancho Santa Fe Elementary School in Avondale.

Sometimes it’s easy to question the difference one person can make in the world, or even the local community. In Avondale, there’s one man who defies that doubt. He’s known among local hunger relief efforts as the “man who wears many hats” — literally.

On the Friday before Thanksgiving, dozens of fifth graders are bagging up onions, watermelons and bananas for their classmates.

Jaykub Olson, a football player, deftly juggles onions as he waits for the next bag to fill.

But, does he actually like to eat onions?

"No!" he said. "I just like juggling them."

His favorite food is watermelon, also on the menu today.

Olson and the other students are using donated produce to make to-go bags for students at Rancho Santa Fe Elementary School in Avondale.

While Olson doesn’t like onions, he does like giving back.

“I enjoy doing this because it’s like donating food to others that need it, and it’s pretty good to me.”

Olson has done this before. It’s an initiative set up by David Schwake, who was Litchfield School District’s food director for 24 years before retiring recently.

Schwake explains to the students exactly why they’re putting this food in the bags, how to do it and the type of nutrients you can find in each fruit or veggie. He’s also wearing a chili pepper-shaped hat; his pizza hat is in the car.

He’s wrangled the two classes and two extra adult volunteers to make hundreds of bags for students who get free or reduced lunch and for those who don’t.

“I want to give to everybody," he said. "If the majority of these kids are free and reduced I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, are you free and reduced (or not).'”

David Schwake
Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
David Schwake was Litchfield School District’s food director for 24 years before retiring recently.

Schwake grew up in his family’s bakery in a small town in Oklahoma. He says one of his fondest memories is when an elderly woman came up to him to tell a story about how his grandfather helped her when she came into his bakery at nine years old, saying she was hungry.

“I always get a little emotional when I talk about that because she was 70 and so that had to be 60 years ago, and she still remembered it.”

It’s an example of a small act of kindness in Schwake’s life, where it seems his entire career led to him giving back as much he can.

Schwake is a registered dietitian and was a single dad of two. He’s held several jobs, including feeding the hundreds of men who helped build the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Plant, feeding inmates at Perryville Prison, and running an Olive Garden, which he said was the hardest one.

"We should really be emphasizing what kids are eating, we should make everything healthy."
—David Schwake

But even now retired and with three grandchildren, he is on six community and nonprofit boards and is heavily involved with the Agua Fria Food and Clothing Bank.

His day starts when he wakes up at 3 a.m.

“I go and feed the ducks everyday, that’s part of my routine.”

It’s one of the few moments of rest in an otherwise packed schedule.

“I just love to be busy,” he said.

Across town, earlier that day, food bank director Leanne Leonard fielded a call from Schwake amidst the Thanksgiving holiday chaos.

“Sometimes I go a whole day without talking to him. Days like today, I’ll probably talk to him at least five times.”

Today the food bank is prepping to feed 350 households. In a few weeks, there will be 350 more.

Leonard says when she came to the food bank three years ago, Schwake was indispensable to getting the lay of the land.

Leanne Leonard
Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
Leanne Leonard, director of the Agua Fria Food Bank.

“He’s always willing to jump in whether that’s helping me pick up turkeys, helping me coordinate food drives, making sure we have enough volunteers, and if not, using his connections to go out and find people.”

Leonard says it gets hectic this time of year, and Schwake probably works 60 hours a week, including weekends, to help however he can.

She thinks of three words to describe him.

“Energetic, knowledgeable and I’ll hyphenate this one — huge-heart,” Leonard said.

Schwake’s won several awards, including dietitian of the year, school nutrition hero — but you won’t hear him talking about it.

That's according to Litchfield school spokeswoman Shelly Hornback.

“He brings together kids, students, parents, teachers, community leaders," Hornback said. She turns to Schwake. "You treat us all the same, like part of your family. We all pitch in for you because we admire you so much.”

Getting people to help other people is Schwake’s specialty. And he says it starts when students help themselves by eating properly. He says that starts by teaching kindergartners to make salads.

“And that’s the first week of school, I won’t have to talk to them for eight more years. We should really be emphasizing what kids are eating, we should make everything healthy.”

One of Schwake’s proudest achievements is getting a salad bar installed in the cafeterias for young students.

And feeding people seems to be all he can think about. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve had a great life, I’ve been so blessed on what I get to do and working with these kids. I am retired, I’m not here quite as much as I was when I was working but I’ve spent a lot of time doing this.”

Schwake has easily touched thousands of lives with his work in food, and it’s a year-round way of giving back.

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