By Corey Hawk.
Shea Wenk hushes two barking dogs, both adopted Pitbull-American Bulldog mixes, as she picks up the phone. “They’re old,” she explains. She saved them from euthanization. Wenk’s work with the Pueblo Nutrition Initiative, a group that works with Pueblo Elementary and the Scottsdale Unified School District to ensure all kids have healthy options at school, is indicative of the same passion that convinced her to rescue her dogs.
She and other concerned parents were able to persuade their school’s nutrition department to get rid of almost all foods with MSG and high fructose corn syrup. No more Pop-Tarts, no more Doritos, and no more Cheetos.
During nutrition lessons with kids, Wenk learned that an average school lunch at Pueblo Elementary could contain as much sugar as three McDonald’s ice cream cones. “Why do I have to protect my kid from school and school lunches?” she asked. But it wasn’t enough for Wenk to protect only her own kids.
A previous foster mother, she felt an obligation to kids throughout the whole school district. “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as other people’s kids,” Wenk said. She explained that packing her own kids’ lunches solves only a small part of the problem.
Many students don’t get exposure to healthy food at home, and that’s the bigger issue. Besides, Wenk says, if the students who struggle the most with reading are supposed to get the most attention from the teacher, why shouldn’t it be that way for nutrition?
Starting in January of this year, Pueblo Elementary started serving only what Wenk calls “power lunches” on Mondays and Wednesdays. These are lunches that the Pueblo Nutrition Initiative determined to be healthy. She said exclusively offering healthy food is important because healthy food initiatives in the past fell flat due to lack of interest from students. “They may offer this dinky-looking salad, but who’s going to take that when the other options are a corn dog, a hot dog and a Pop-Tart?” Wenk said.
Unfortunately, Wenk said getting rid of snacks entirely was off the table. “Every time a kid gets a school lunch, it brings a decent amount of money into the school,” she said. “And schools in Arizona need the money desperately.”
Wenk said her inspiration for teaching others to live a healthy lifestyle comes from her mother, who died of colon cancer when Wenk was only 26. “It blew my mind that someone who looked so healthy could be so ill,” she said.
Her mother ate a diet that Wenk described as typical of modern Americans: lots of red meat and fast food. From then on, Wenk made it one of her life’s goals to educate people on living healthy.
Wenk said she’s excited to continue making progress with the Scottsdale Unified School District, now aiming at changing policy instead of tackling one school at a time. Still, her main focus now is marketing what she’s already created. “If we lose money because the kids don’t want healthier snacks, then it might go back to the way it was.”
Corey Hawk is a student of journalism at Arizona State University.