Interviewee: Lori Buzzell

Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce

Date: February 18, 2016

Location: Anchorage, Alaska

Description: Lori Buzzell worked for seven years in the Juneau, Alaska school nutrition program and now works in curriculum development, including incorporating a wellness policy into the school physical education programs. 

Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is February 18, 2016. I’m here in Anchorage, Alaska, at the AKSNA annual conference, and this morning I’m talking with Lori Buzzell. Welcome Lori and thanks for taking the time to share with me today.

Lori Buzzell: Thank you.

JB: Could we begin by you telling be a little bit about yourself, where you were born, where you grew up?

LB: Sure. I was actually born on an Air Force base in Blytheville, Arkansas, but I lived there only until I was ten days old, and my family actually was originally from Illinois, so was back in Illinois. But two weeks after I turned seven my family moved to Alaska, and I live in Juneau. I was raised there. So I have lived there since 1970, and that’s been my home.

JB: So you moved there at seven?

LB: Yeah, two weeks after I turned seven.

JB: So you would have spent most of your elementary, junior high, and high school there?

LB: I was in the second grade when we moved there.

JB: OK. Was there a lunch program?

LB: I first started out at Glacier Valley Elementary and I don’t remember a lunch program there, but we got rezoned when I was in fifth grade and I ended up moving to Auke Bay Elementary for my fifth and sixth grade years, and that’s my first recollection of a lunch program. And actually that’s where I met my husband.

JB: Oh, in fifth grade, wow.

LB: It was a very influential year.

JB: I’m telling you. Do you remember some of your favorite menu items there?

LB: You know, the only menu items I actually remember are peas and fruit cocktail. And the sad piece is the reason I remember that is because that’s what we used to have food fights with. I cannot tell you what the main course was, but I love – of course every kid loves fruit cocktail. We loved the fruit cocktail, but there were always those peas that you were supposed to be eating, and we found other ways to use those. And also, after lunch was over I would always be the one in the lunchroom helping to do the cleanup. We had lunch ladies of course doing the cooking and stuff back then, and oddly enough, in later years when my husband and I got together, it was actually his mother. So my mother-in-law, one of the first times when we all got together, she remembered, “Oh, you used to come help me in the lunchroom.” I was like, “Oh boy, this is a small town.”

JB: And I understand that Juneau’s not even on a road system. Is that right?

LB: We have about forty, forty-five miles of roads.

JB: I mean you can’t drive into it?

LB: You can’t drive in or out of it, no.

JB: That just amazes me.

LB: We have about 33,000 people there now, but back then we only had about 10,000 people and it was truly small and spread out.

JB: It’s grown fast.

LB: About forty-five years –

JB: Tripled in size.

LB: Tripled in size. So yeah, those were my fond memories of Auke Bay Elementary, our first meals.

JB: So after high school what did you do?

LB: After high school I actually went to college briefly, but my husband decided to propose on the ferry ride down, which was kind of unfair.

JB: On the way to college?

LB: On the way to college, so I was only down there for a very, very short period of time, and then I came back to Juneau and got more working in state work, but my passion at that time was working in the travel industry, and that’s what I had gone to college for. So I ended up working in the travel industry on and off for thirteen years. And then those kind of all went to online and travel agencies kind of drifted away. And so we decided to, after seventeen years of marriage, to have a little one, and that changed my whole perspective of what my priorities were in life, and school nutrition kind of came into the picture at that point.

JB: How did you get involved in child nutrition?

LB: After my son finally went to school I decided to go back to work, and I didn’t want to work year round because I wanted the summer breaks and such, being a stay-at-home mom and not wanting to let go and have to be full time work, and so a position with the Juneau School District came open in the school nutrition program, and I’ve always been, I grew up with a mother who battled weight, and so really understanding the good nutrition piece of that. My mother always seemed to struggle with her weight. It was really hard, because I was blessed with being thin. I think I just have kind of a higher metabolism and she didn’t. And even though we would eat the same things I never battled with that. As I got older though I really wanted to make sure that my family and my son, the nutrition piece of it was really important. And so what better way to then work with the school district? I just kind of have that passion for nutrition and having a balanced meal. It’s OK to have a dessert as long as you have a balance. It’s all about that. So being able to be offered that job and the opportunity to work in school nutrition, and be with my son at the schools on occasion, that just kind of brought it all back around, because what I learned through my job with school nutrition also helped me be able to bring that home. My husband does all the cooking, but I have that influence of “No, this is what we need to be doing.” And he’s a good cook and likes to do healthy cooking anyway, but I think again what I was raised with and understanding those struggles, I wanted to make sure that our family really knew the importance of the nutrition, and my son growing up with what a balanced meal was all about. And so again being able to get a job with the school district in school nutrition was exciting for me because I really have a passion about just eating right. So it seemed to be a good mix.

JB: What positions have you held in school nutrition?

LB: Well only the one, and that was as admin assistant for our school nutrition program, and I was there for almost seven years. I’ve actually been out of the program for about a year now, but my new position with the school district, I’m working with curriculum, and the wellness policy is a huge part of being able to incorporate that into our health and PE curriculum. So I’m here working on that as well as I’m part of the board, so I’m kind of here as part of the school nutrition board also. But that has kept me involved, because again the curriculum, PE, is important that we play and have that activity, but it’s a combination. It’s not just one or the other, so I’m really excited to be able to work with Adrianne again, because she’s who I worked with as my supervisor for seven years with the food program, to be able to work with her again and really keep that piece of the importance of my passion in the school nutrition and making sure that all of our curriculum has the wellness, not only the food piece, but the play piece. It really is that balance factor in bringing it all together.

JB: Is it a challenge finding the time for the play activities, the exercise? I know a lot of districts talk about challenges of even the lunchroom period, much less the recess period. Is that an issue in Alaska?

LB: It is. One of the huge challenges that we constantly battled with the schools, particularly elementary, because once they get to middle and high school they don’t have recess anymore. The kids might wander off campus on their lunch hour at high school level, but it’s not a going out and play. At that point you’re needing to be involved in team sports if you’re going to get that active play as part of your school day. The elementary level the challenge is they want to cram so much into the academic piece of it that the lunch hour is “Do we have a fifteen minute lunch hour where you cram down your food so you can go outside and play for ten minutes, or do you allow the kids to have a decent amount of time to learn to eat their food and digest it, and not shovel it in?” But then that only allows again a shorter window of going outside and actually having the activity piece of it. And so it’s kind of left up to the school sites individually. Some may say some kids get their food down really fast and then they create a ruckus, but again, how do you figure out what’s the best combination? That’s a real struggle. So trying to get that piece of the outside play, but then you have of course the PE. Some schools do it once a week, some it’s every day. In the middle school level at least they do still have PE and it’s required. I know at my son’s middle school I think they do it three days a week, but it’s only for one semester, because it’s part of their electives, and they’re given like five different options, and PE is one of them, and so you don’t have to have PE, so for kids who really love PE and want to be active, they can choose that. Other ones can have arts, they can have digital technology, and they don’t necessarily have to have PE as part of their day. So it changes a little bit at those higher levels. The elementary level, I think most of the sites, other than that outdoor play at lunchtime, they don’t get PE every day, and if they’re not getting it there, who knows what happens when they leave the school, because they go home and they start doing their electronic stuff.

JB: Exactly. Has Alaska tried just the reverse, because I know I’ve talked to people in some states where they really push the outdoors before lunch so they’re not rushing through their lunch to get outside? They come in tired and hungry and so it seems to be a better balance. Has that been tried in Alaska?

LB: We’ve had a couple of schools who have tried that and I believe one elementary school still does that. They find that the kids are a little more settled, because after they’ve been sitting all morning you’ve got that energy built up, and so they want to go out. They get that all run out and then when they come in they can settle down a little bit and have a meal. We’ve had another school that has kind of gone back and forth on it, and I think that they found it more difficult for the kids to play first and then reel them back in and have them settle down for lunch, and so they’ve kind of flip flopped. And I think that they are now doing the lunch and then the recess. Another school, which actually has a great idea, they eat first, but then they developed – they don’t call it quiet time – I don’t know what they call it, but then they give the kids like ten minutes to eat and socialize and that sort of thing, and then halfway in between they’ll actually turn the lights down and they say, “This is your five minutes of eating quiet time.” And so the kids know that they have to focus on their plate, no talking, and then after that they turn the lights back up and they say, “OK, you can finish eating and then go outside.” And that has seemed to be really successful because it gives the kids “It’s OK to be social, but now it’s time to really focus” because a lot of kids just start talking and they forget that they’re there actually to eat, because they’re so interested to socialize. But then half of it goes in the garbage, so to really make them, with the quiet time and the lights down, I wish more of the schools would adopt that because that’s really been successful.

JB: And what level of school?

LB: That’s elementary.

JB: Interesting. I’ve not heard that before.

LB: I think that’s a good one.

JB: Is there anything unique or does Alaska face any particular challenges regarding child nutrition programs?

LB: I think getting fresh stuff here is huge. The shipping piece of it, the expense of it, because if you want it fresh you can’t necessarily have it sit on a barge for a week. In that, a lot of the fruits and vegetables we do get have been frozen or picked when they’re not completely ripe because they know that they’ve got that shipping time. And so by the time you get it here there’s no flavor. Our fruits and vegetables really aren’t that good in comparison to some states where they have that really fresh stuff, and we don’t have that, but at least we get it. I think that’s a huge challenge to get the stuff that is fresh and be able to keep costs – I know in Juneau we struggle with costs, but it’s nothing compared to further north, out in the bush.

JB: Getting into the interior?

LB: Oh my gosh, where they pay three dollars for one apple, just some of the expenses are outrageous. And who can afford that? That’s just crazy and the variety too, trying to get variety for kids to understand what a pear looks like, because they’ve seen apples and carrots. Those are pretty standard. So having choices that are inexpensive enough to bring that to the table for them and expose them to different things I think are some of the big challenges. We don’t have a trucking road system so the only thing is barge or flying, and flying is expensive and a barge takes forever, so how do you make all that work? That’s a huge challenge.

JB: When you can get the products are the children receptive to these strange looking things they’ve never seen?

LB: It depends. Sometimes they’re like “Oh that looks really cool.” At an elementary level, this was so funny, one time I was out kind of helping, and they were serving beets. And the beets were all cut up in little squares. Well this little one, must have been like a first grader, definitely the primary of the elementary level, piled a whole bunch on her plate, and as she’s going to the checkout line and walking across the cafeteria goes, “Oh, that jello just looks so good.” And I just started cracking up and I didn’t have the heart to tell her, “Sweetheart that’s not jello. Those are beets.” I was a little distracted with other stuff so I wasn’t able to follow up with her and see that look on her face when she stuck that ‘jello’ in her mouth. They serve the beets on occasion so hopefully either somebody eventually informed her or she suddenly developed lack of taste for jello, because she thought that’s what it was. So sometimes they’ll try it if it looks interesting. If she hadn’t thought it was jello she probably never would have tried it, but maybe she ended up loving beets. But there’s hominy and some of the other stuff on there and kids just look at that and say, “Uuuuuuh, I don’t think I want to try that.”

JB: I don’t blame them with the hominy.

LB: It’s a little bit far-fetched. But if it looks somewhat interesting I think that they will try it, as long as it’s not too far out there.

JB: What’s a typical day like for you, first when you were in school nutrition?

LB: I don’t know that there is such thing as a typical day.

JB: I hear that a lot.

LB: Yeah, because you wear so many hats. I was the admin assistant, office job. My shift was early enough in the morning that my first priority was getting all the applications processed for the day so that we could update anybody that needed the meals for the day, so that once breakfast started at the schools by 8:30, anything that had come through, they were ready to go.

JB: So the applications aren’t just a yearly thing, they’re done throughout the year?

LB: Daily, yeah. Now the beginning of the school year there’s a huge rush. We get a few hundred of them because everybody’s trying to get their applications in and qualified for the school year, but it’s a daily thing. There are certain parts of the year where we maybe only get five a week, but still we have categorical, so we have homeless referrals that we do those from our homeless liaisons and counselors. We have migrant families from fishermen, that sort of thing, that will turn in applications. We have our direct certified families who are on food stamps, and so we have those updates on a regular basis, monthly basis, sometimes daily, if referrals come through for them. So it’s not just families who are income based that come in. And particularly those who are categorical, not that the other ones aren’t important, but those are the kids that you really want to make sure, because they’re not having any other means of food. And sometimes you hear the stories that their breakfast and lunch on Friday, those are their only two meals until they come to school on Monday to get breakfast, because their parents have other priorities, and they’re just neglected in many, many ways. And so definitely to be able to get them in the system and getting them the meals, and those are the ones that love to have a full plate of everything, because they know the importance of those meals. Other kids, who it is income based, and it’s not as much of a priority, because they are getting meals at home, they are kind of a struggle and a challenge to get their fruits and the vegetables, and not just eating your piece of pizza. So the start of my day is really making sure that kids who we can get qualified to start the meal for that day is ready to go. And then who knows what happens after that? You may get a call from a school that their food server is out for the day so you’re running off to the school to help serve lunch. We have milk issues. We have a lot of milk issues coming up because sometimes they run out of milk or the milk is expired, so then you’re trying to find milk from our sources, or the refrigerator has gone out overnight, so the milk has gone bad. And then the rest of the day is really just making sure regulations are met. We do onsite reviews so going off to the school sites and making sure that all the temperatures are what they need to be, all the salad bars have the fruits and the vegetables and the variety, and making sure the kids going through are taking all the components to qualify for a reimbursable meal. So it’s very heavily regulated, so a lot of the day is kind of fielding calls, and doing that sort of thing too. Wellness policies – gosh, it’s really hard unless you have a list. It’s just such a wide variety of what your responsibilities are. But the biggest thing is really the applications and making sure that families that need really are qualified and they’re in the system.

JB: What changes have you seen over the years?

LB: Regulations. Huge changes; I think they’ve been trying to deal with the obesity issues. Trying to address that in terms of cutting back on sodium, and making sure we’re going to whole wheat. There’s a huge conversation now about gluten free because we’re not processing the wheat and gluten and stuff like we used to, and how that contributes to obesity. And we have a lot of kids, especially the girls at our high school level, and sometimes at our middle school level even are starting to be aware of that and so they’re asking for gluten free. “Can we have boxed salads that has a little chicken on it?” because they want that protein too. So I think just the awareness of the fruits, the vegetables, how we look at that, the wheat, those changes have all been good. The sodium piece of it I think has been really interesting because we do have a lot of sodium in our diets naturally because of the processed foods that we eat. But we have such a habit of wanting to put salt and pepper because that’s how we grew up of adding flavor, but we haven’t completely realized “Well, everything’s packaged and processed, so it’s already naturally in there.” First when they cut back on sodium the kids were like, “This just tastes horrible.” They don’t want to eat it. There was that grumble about all of that. Because nobody likes change, everybody has a hard time with change. So as they continued to enforce that and kids kind of got used to it then they embraced it a little bit more and kind of got used to that, because when you’re used to piling salt on everything and suddenly that’s taken away, it tastes horrible. So with those changes, they’ve been good changes, but it’s been a very long transition period for the kids to accept it and be ok, because then they go home and their parents are cooking meals, and there again, you asked about challenges earlier, that’s a huge challenge, because we try to enforce the fruits, the vegetables, not as much sodium, just a really good overall balanced diet, what this reimbursable takes – all of your components, and that’s great, but they know that when they go home it’s not being enforced at home, so as they’re growing up with that the hope is that if they’re being exposed to it in elementary level, then by the time they get to middle and high school they’ll understand themselves the importance of it. They’ll like the fruits and vegetables. And so if they start making their choices themselves, or they’re going to the grocery store with their parents, they can say, “Oh, we had some pears the other day and they were really good. Can we get some of those?” and hope then that the kids start teaching their parents, and maybe the cycle will kind of come full circle. And so seeing some of those changes over the years, the regulations have been good, sometimes like on the sodium they’ve had to sit back and say, “OK. We need to wait for products to catch up. We need to rethink this. We can’t completely eliminate sodium, because not only does the food taste like crap, but a little bit of sodium is good. We need that salt. Our body needs that.” And so they’ve kind of stepped back a little bit. And so it’s making us all just really take a look at it as an overview. I think that’s all been really good. A lot of changes, but I think they’ve all been going in the right direction.

JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the field so far?

LB: I think my biggest passion is again, the homeless. Knowing that you’re giving – school nutrition is really a passion for me and I think that being able to show kids that good nutrition is a good thing, and being able to be part of that.

JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?

LB: If your heart’s in the right place it’s a good field to go into. You’ve got to be in it for the right reason, because in order to have those conversations with parents and kids you’ve got to know that it’s not just because regulations say. It’s a wonderful field. I think that everybody can learn from it. It’ not just a job. And so I think a lot of people who are in it, I think it’s because they do enjoy it. When you go into the lunchroom and you see the kids and you hear their conversations and you’re able to be a part of that and showing them how to –  I had a kid one time, this was at elementary level – they were given a cheese burrito or a cheese taco, and there was nothing inside of it, because it was just the cheese, and they were kind of looking at it like this doesn’t look very good, and they didn’t want to eat their fruits and vegetables, so I taught them how to build a taco. How would it be any different at school than it would be at home? If you’ve got your cheese and you’ve got your tomatoes and all your makings, and your taco shell, you build that at home. Why can’t you do that at school? Yes, it’s given to you as a little cheese taco. Open it up. Go to the salad bar. Pull a bunch of stuff and put it on there. And I was telling this one kiddo to do that and they’re looking at me like, “We can do that?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” I would hope that they’re in it for the right reason. It’s not just a job. As we learn about nutrition ourselves and again kind of come back around, for us relearning it, I think we’ve gotten lazy as adults, because things are processed, and you want something quick and all that kind of thing, working in school nutrition really opens your eyes to the good stuff that we’re giving them. I think it’s a great field to be in. It gives you an opportunity to be with kids and to teach the kids in a lot of ways. Even again in an office setting you just know you’re doing the right thing by teaching good nutrition all the way around. And parents learn that too. It’s really interesting. Parents will call and say, “Well my kid says that you guys don’t serve fruits and vegetables and this and that.” And I’m like, “OK. You need to go visit the school. We have salad bars. They can go back as many times as they want.” So really being able to educate parents and kids, it’s a good feel. And we all need to be reminded about good nutrition, and being in the school nutrition field is a great way to do that – and to learn the regulations behind it, because sometimes it’s hard. Parents will say, “Why are you serving stuff that doesn’t taste good?” Well, when you have the federal government telling you that your sodium can only be this amount it’s a big education for them. I think we all just need a little bit of that education and reminders, so it’s a good field.

JB: Any stories about special children? You’ve shared a couple.

LB: I’ve shared a couple. The jello one cracks me up. That was just so funny. Carrots – Gustavus is a small community outside Juneau, and Merriweather Farms, she has carrots that she sells to us. And there was a conversation when we first started buying them a few years ago, whether when we put them on the salad bar if we should leave the greens on them. And it’s like “Well, yeah.” Because if they don’t have their own gardens at home and that kind of stuff all they see are the cut ones and the ones that come in the store prepackaged. They don’t see what it’s really about. And that was another really fun thing. It must have been at elementary level. They’re so honest and fun. You love being a fly on a wall in there listening to their comments about this stuff. So all these carrots were nice and laid out with the greens and the kids come through. “Ahhh, they’re real carrots.” They call them Roger Rabbit carrots too. But they were real carrots. And this is in Juneau, and we’re a larger community. Some of these other small places that probably only see canned carrots don’t ever realize that they come from the ground. So just to have the greens on them, and again, that little piece of education that, “Oh my gosh, they’re serving us real carrots” was just so cute, again, something as simple as that.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add?

LB: I have a real passion for it. I tease Adrianne. Like I said, I don’t work with her anymore but I tease her that in a few years, once I get to retire, that it would be fun to come back and just be a lunch lady, especially at the elementary level, where you’re really I think making a bigger difference. A lot of times by the time they get to middle and high school they’re a little more set in their ways and not as easily influenced on what they should be taking, although at the high school level, if you can be kind of cool with the kids then sometimes they’ll be OK that you’re not just this authoritative figure that’s making them take their fruits and vegetables. You kind of tease them and say, “That’ll make you big, strong muscles.” The boys kind of look at you and roll their eyes, but then they’ll take something. It’s kind of cute with that. But anyway I just have a real passion for it, and I just hope that our nation and our society can really come back around to understanding the balance of good nutrition. And I hope that we’re doing a good service by starting it in the elementary and maybe this next generation of kids will be healthier for it.

JB: Thanks so much for sharing with me.

LB: Thank you.