GCU helps school districts fight food insecurity

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso

GCU News Bureau

GCU students carry food boxes packaged by Shamrock Farms to trucks waiting to take the fresh protein, dairy and produce to families in need.

When Patti Bilbrey, Director of Nutrition Services for the Scottsdale Unified School District, thinks about who she’d like to be, the answer is easy. She would like to be just like her mentor, David Schwake.

“I always told Dave, ‘I want to be you when I grow up, but I’m too exhausted to be you when I grow up,’” she said with a laugh.

Schwake, who was the Food Service Director for the Litchfield Elementary School District for more than 20 years before his retirement, was a force of nature when it came to serving his community.

Fighting food insecurity was his passion.

Bilbrey remembers Schwake telling her about his early days working in public school food service: “I had just taken over as the Food Service Director at Litchfield. I’m sitting in my truck, and I watched kids running into the school that morning because breakfast was being served,” he told her. “I thought, ‘Oh, why are they running to breakfast? We’re not serving anything all that spectacular.’ So I asked the kids, and the kids said, 'Because we haven’t had anything to eat since Friday.' I thought, no kid should ever have to feel like this.”

She said while most districts would serve meals to schoolchildren Monday through Friday, Schwake did it Saturday and Sunday, too. "Most of us didn’t because, oh, we’re not going to be able to find staff who want to work Saturday and Sunday. He said, ‘No. You make sure kids eat every day. They’re hungry every day.’”

GCU President Brian Mueller loads a few of the more than 1,100 food boxes.

Schwake, who grew up in his family’s small-town Oklahoma bakery, didn’t stop fighting food insecurity just in his school district. The Kiwanian also volunteered at several nonprofits, including the Agua Fria Food and Clothing Bank. He wore shirts that said “Eat. Sleep. Volunteer. Repeat.” His license plate read “End Hunger.” And in 2017, he was named one of five School Nutrition Heroes by the national School Nutrition Foundation.

“You make sure kids eat every day.” Those are the words that have resonated in Bilbrey’s head – words she has heard even louder since Schwake’s death Feb. 3 from COVID-19 complications.

It’s why her school district is one of a growing number of school districts participating in the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program distributions at Grand Canyon University. The food disbursements are made possible through GCU’s partnership with CityServe International, which is mobilizing community organizations around the country to get food to those in need during the pandemic.

Scottsdale Unified picked up 108 boxes of food on Wednesday at the GCU distribution site on 31st Avenue and Camelback Road. It was the first time the school district participated in Farmers to Families.

Bilbrey estimates those 30- to 40-pound boxes, packaged by distributor Shamrock Farms with fresh dairy, meat and produce, will feed 350 children, the same number of children Scottsdale Unified serves weekly in its curbside meal pickup (about 100 cars per week stop by to pick up those meals).

Bilbrey said she was in her car driving and was thinking of Schwake and his legacy in fighting food insecurity. She wanted to do something in Scottsdale to honor his legacy but wasn’t sure what to do. When she got back to her office, she saw an email from the district’s superintendent, Dr. Scott Menzel.

Lutheran Social Services picked up 100 food boxes.

“There’s this email, literally. It said, ‘I just got off the phone with (Assistant Vice President of Academic Alliances) Greg Harman at GCU, and they’re participating in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.’ He’s explaining it and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, are you kidding me?’ I kind of looked up to the sky: ‘That’s you, Dave. You found out a way for us to do it.’”

Bilbrey was familiar with Farmers to Families, having heard about the program at meetings of the national School Nutrition Association, which she serves as a board member.

“I was really excited to find out we could partner with GCU to be a distribution site. I call it, 'We’re a spoke in their wheel to get the food out,'” Bilbrey said.

A lot of people, she added, might think that a school district like hers in Scottsdale, considered the most affluent large city in Arizona, does not struggle with food insecurity, but that’s not true. Food insecurity is everywhere.

Community Relations Associate Kaitlyn Nicol checks in representatives from various community organizations.

“There’s a lot of need in areas of the district that you would be surprised. Just because somebody lives in a nice, grand house does not mean that they are not experiencing some hardship, and COVID has brought with it a lot of hardship to some of our families.”

Kimberly Luvisi, Director of Nutrition Services for Tolleson Union High School District, said that about 65% to 70% of the students there are on free and reduced lunch. “So we do a lot of things to make sure our kiddos have plenty of food.”

That included also participating for the first time in Farmers to Families. The district received 50 boxes on Wednesday. Luvisi’s team reached out to McKinney-Vento (homeless children and youths) and foster families to make sure the boxes went to those with the most need.

Like Scottsdale Unified, Tolleson Union High School District has expanded its reach during COVID-19. Not only has its mission been to educate children but to take care of the community in other ways, including addressing food insecurity. It has done so during the pandemic with meal curbside pickup and home delivery and now with Farmers to Families.

“The Tolleson Union High School District, we are ‘All for One, One for All.’ Our philosophy has always been that every adult on campus has the ability and the presence to impact a child’s life,” said Luvisi. “It doesn’t make a difference in what capacity, whether they’re a teacher in the classroom or a janitor or a cafeteria worker, our district recognizes that each of those components impact a child’s life.”

Arizona Helping Hands was one of 16 organizations that received Farmers to Families food boxes on Wednesday. The boxes will go to foster families in need.

Arizona Helping Hands, the largest provider of essential needs for children in foster care in the state, also was among the 16 recipients of Farmers to Families food boxes.

The organization picked up 50 boxes for the families it serves, many them kinship families, often grandparents, who are raising grandchildren.

“We just totally jumped on it (the opportunity), because our families do have food insecurities and can’t meet the needs, especially with families that are four to five, even eight, kids in the home,” said Laura Grodsky, Senior Service Manager at Arizona Helping Hands.

Grodsky said she was able to select families she knew would need food the most, and when her office made the calls Monday and Tuesday to find homes for those 50 food boxes, every family except for one (because of distance) immediately said yes.

Jodie Sprayberry, Chief Operating Officer of Arizona Helping Hands (center), speaks with GCU President Brian Mueller (left).

“That’s going to be so helpful for them, especially with the fresh produce, the protein, the dairy – everything you guys are going to be giving us is going to be so helpful for our families."

Wednesday’s food distribution was the fourth one for GCU, which first partnered with CityServe International in December to make sure food makes it to families in need.

The $6 billion Farmers to Families program, in which the USDA purchases food from farmers and distributors that might otherwise go to waste during school and restaurant shutdowns, is in its fifth round of distributions. It is part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, Farmers to Families distributed 132.8 million boxes of food to families in need.

Since that first distribution at GCU, the program has welcomed more and more community organizations.

Braelyn Armenta, Director of Spiritual Life, directs vehicles at the pickup site at 31st Avenue and Camelback Road.

“I feel like the biggest change has probably been just the diversity of organizations that we have now with schools, churches, food banks, families from schools,” said Braelyn Armenta, GCU’s Director of Spiritual Life.

And that reach into the community will continue to expand, said GCU President Brian Mueller, who was on site Wednesday helping load food boxes for pickup before heading to Empower College Prep with the University's executive team to deliver even more boxes to families waiting in line.

He sees the University’s partnership with CityServe eventually serving 100 PODs, or points of distribution, much like Arizona Helping Hands and the Scottsdale and Tolleson school districts.

More Farmers to Families distributions are slated for March and April. That will mean even more ways to make sure kids eat. Every day.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: GCU, CityServe continue to connect with community

 GCU TodayGCU takes national stage at CityServe celebration

 GCU TodayGCU-CityServe partnership delivers to those in need

 GCU TodayFood box distribution a bright light for GCU partners


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