Interviewer: Meredith Johnston
Date: December 2, 2004
Location: Nicholasville, KY
Description: Betty Bender, a native of Kentucky, was educated at the University of Kentucky, the University of Montana, and Duke University. After working in Massachusetts and Indiana, Bender married and moved to Dayton, OH, and worked for the Dayton School System for thirty years. While there she earned her master’ s in Food Management. Betty was ASFSA President in 1983-84.
Meredith Johnston: We’re here with Ms. Betty Bender in Nicholasville, KY.
Betty Bender: Right.
MJ: We thank you for this opportunity to interview you.
BB: I’m glad you came; it’s nice.
MJ: Thank you. Would you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?
BB: Well, I grew up right here where you’re sitting and went to high school in Lexington, graduated from Henry Clay High School, went to the University of Kentucky one year, and then I went to the University of Montana for three years. And from there I took my dietetic training at Duke University, and then from there I took my first job at the Massachusetts General Hospital. And my roommate and I, she was from Ohio, I was from Kentucky, so we ended up, after about a year and a half in Massachusetts. We decided we’d like to be closer to home so Marilyn and I moved to Indianapolis and took jobs there. And then I met my husband and I’ve been following him ever since, wherever he takes me.
MJ: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs and school lunch programs?
BB: Well, you’ll probably think I’m awful but when I was in high school, I was one of those kids that ran out across the street to the drug store because that was the “in” thing to do, and ate lunch there. Heaven forbid that I would go to the cafeteria. Anyway, I really didn’t get real interested in it. I had worked hospitals and I liked hospitals as a dietician and enjoyed the work. But then once I had children, what sort of got me interested in schools to start with, was the fact that I wanted somewhat the same hours as my children. And I had a neighbor who was a school nurse and she said, “Betty, they’ve got an opening for a dietician. Why don’t you go for the interview?” So I did, and that’s how I got there.
MJ: What time period would this have been?
BB: Oh boy. I went to the Dayton City Schools in ’69; that was in Dayton, OH.
MJ: You did? Well. Could you expand a little bit on that and tell us a bit more about how you became involved in the profession?
BB: Well, I went as Assistant, not as Director. And the lady who was head of the department at that time, and at that time we were really very small because we fed twelve high schools, and we fed four inner city schools, and two special education schools. So I mean everybody else, we were built on the neighborhood school concept, and every child went home at noon and the principal locked the door and that was it. Teachers could go home, teachers could do whatever they pleased. So I really got involved on a part-time basis, and then my director left and so they asked me if I would take the job. I told them no because at that time it was an eleven months job, and so my boss said well would I take it temporarily. And I said, “Yes, I’ll be glad to do it temporarily but I won’t do it permanently.” Well, they looked from January to May. In the meantime I had done the job, so then the business manager and the superintendent talked to me and they said, “We understand you’re concerned about your children. If you will do the job, you do not have to do it in this building. In other words, you can work at home if you need to, or whatever, according to your children’s hours”, so would I take the job then? So then I said yes I would. And I was really lucky; I had only one babysitter for my children. And Virginia came and she stayed until they graduated from high school, and then she came back and took care of my mother after my mother had to come and live with me. So I was really fortunate in child care, you know; I just had a good person that did it. Otherwise you can’t do all those things, you just can’t. So, that’s kind of how I did that.
MJ: Was there someone, maybe a mentor, who was influential in directing you in the child nutrition field?
BB: Well, as I started out to say, my prior director when I was Assistant said it was very important that I be active in the Association and that I attend National Conference, and that it was very important that I keep abreast of everything. So she started me in that avenue, you know, when I was Assistant. And then after that I, I really just got interested in it at the state level. And Ohio, at that time, we were trying to get certification after certification had come along and we wanted to see our people improve and do better. So I got real active at the state level and then active in Major Cities, and so between the two I got active in, Association wise, and interested in the child nutrition program and what it does and how, how you can influence children hopefully for a better life one way or the other. Certainly you can be a helpmate in the district by running a good program, and that’s what we did. After my prior boss left we received non-food assistance money because, as I said, Dayton had only fed these sixteen schools plus the two special education schools. And so that’s when non-food assistance money was available, and it was during the time when the Hunger Coalition was active for poverty and hunger. They were getting very active and all children should have lunch this, that, and the other. And back when Nixon said, “Every child will have a hot lunch by Thanksgiving.” So what they did in Dayton, I was getting really pushed to expand the food service program to all schools. And my superintendent understood that but we were also in great financial difficulty. In fact, schools closed for a week because they didn’t have enough money to run. And so they closed the schools down in order to get a levy passed. And so to go into investing in kitchens or any types of food service, at that time we had seventy-two buildings of which sixteen had something, so you’re talking fifty-six buildings. You’re talking a massive amount of money which we did not have and the state was not going to give us and the federal government was not going to give us. So what we did is we went to a number of different systems. We went to on-site schools, and we went to bulk satellite schools that were operating at that time, and most of those were smaller than the system that we would have had to have. And then we went to schools that had gotten into pre-plate. And at that time Columbus, OH, was already doing pre-plated meals for their district. So we went to the Columbus kitchen, we went to Philadelphia, we went to Pittsburgh, went to Chicago; went to any number. We viewed any number of kitchens and finally decided on pre-plate; presented that to the board because of the pressures to feed all children. Before that we had come under a busing order so now all of a sudden children are not in neighborhood schools, children are across town so it was imperative that we develop a food system very quickly.
MJ: Could you talk a little about the problems, or the issues associated with that, busing?
BB: With the busing? Well, of course, racial, you know, as usual. Our schools had been black on the west side of town and east side was all white, and there was no mix. I mean they really were very separate there in Dayton, and it was during a period of time when the philosophy was that black children have to grow up and they’ve got to live in the world and it’s a white world, and therefore how can they do it if they’ve never seen them, never been around them, never been taught by them? And then also, the black community felt like the schools in the black area were not up to par, were not as good as those that were on the white side of town. So we did come under a busing order and we were to bus east to west, and that means now you have a little black child whose mother doesn’t drive, who has minimal money, he’s in poverty, he’s on free lunch anyway, and you’ve got him over here. He can’t get home if he’s sick, mom doesn’t know for sure where that school is so she can’t go to parent-teacher meetings. It was not a very good time in schools; it was a hard and difficult time. So the end result, of course, as far as facility-wise, what we ended up doing was we utilized gymnasiums to feed because you could have fold-down tables and then put them up and they could clean the floor and you could go on. My kitchen was under the bleachers, and we built a central kitchen. Dayton received a half-million dollars in the first six months of the calendar year. And then as soon as the new federal budget came in July I, received another half-million. And so between April and August we built a central kitchen, and said that we were going to produce and serve ten thousand lunches the first day. Well, let me tell you, what a learning experience that is! We tested the equipment, we did all the things you’re supposed to do to make sure that it runs, but it didn’t. And the kitchen was not completed. I can’t believe that we did this now, but it wasn’t completed, but the superintendent said, “You will serve food no matter what.” “Okay.” So, we did not have a ceiling, we had lights hanging down. We did not have our pot and pan washer so I made an agreement with Bluebird Bakery and they came over every night and picked up all of our dirty pots and pans and took them and ran them through theirs, and brought them back every morning for us. And, I mean, we didn’t have a refrigerator floor but we had refrigerated trucks, so what we did is we put a walkway across where the floor was going to be poured and we wheeled our lunches out and put them in the truck. And we served; we served every day. My mother came and stayed with our children; I bet I didn’t see my kids or my husband for six weeks except on the weekend, because we got up, we were at work by three and came home at ten, trying to get this all done. It just shows that the Food Service Management you take in college does not prepare you. We really built a little factory, and nothing prepares you for that in any way. We learned the good old hard way. But I had wonderful help and everybody pitched in and did their part and helped us out. We got through it and our principals survived it, and then after the first ten thousand meals we were going to go on and expand to the rest of the schools, because we were planning to ship twenty-six thousand meals from the kitchen, and we did. We started in September and by June of that first year we had a food service that was really running pretty smoothly in every school. We had expanded, but we had worked like Turks, let me tell you that. And we learned an awful lot of good things, but we had to learn them the hard way. Our original thought was we would cook early in the morning, then we would package, and then we would ship, and the child would eat it at eleven o’clock. Well the first icy day that came, well, I mean, the principals were going, “Are you going to get here today?” And we decided we’ll not do this anymore, we’ll back up. So we worked a weekend and put an extra day in our cooler. We also had been smart enough that we had all of our food tested for bacteria or any sort of food poisoning. And in working with the company that was doing this for us they simply said, “Betty, it would be much better if you gave us two days because we really can’t do in twenty-four hours what’s necessary to tell you that the product you’re serving is safe.” And so we then backed up two days and that really evened everything out. We had a meal in the school, a meal on the way to the school, and a meal being packaged. And therefore, if we had icy weather and the trucks were late it didn’t bother anybody. Or if we had any equipment break down in the kitchen and we were late packaging or producing, whichever we were doing, we didn’t upset the world. So we learned some hard lessons, but once we got those things under control and we learned about pre-plated food – there are certain things you can’t do. For instance, you can’t put a slice of bread and an unwrapped cookie in the same package, because tomorrow, if you do, the bread will be dry and the cookie will be soggy, due to the moisture exchange. We had a lot of learning to do, but I have to say that our participation was good, and we learned there were some things we just couldn’t do. You can’t run french fries on a pre-plated meal. And, of course, today french fries are not healthy, but kids like them. We just learned the good old hard way, but that’s what we did.
MJ: How long did you stay in Dayton?
BB: I was there thirty years.
MJ: Okay. Well, would you tell us a little bit more about your educational background and how that prepared you for the profession?
BB: Well, I don’t know that it prepared me for what I did in Food Service Management. I was in Food Service Management and I also took Clinical Dietetics and, as I said, I took my dietetic internship at Duke. I worked in the clinical field for awhile, but I liked management better, so then I went into the management side, but in hospitals. I was more of a central kitchen supervisor, operating the central kitchen, or administrative assistant. I had those skills and then while I was working for Dayton, got my masters in Food Management. So each of those things prepare you for what you’re doing.
MJ: Anything else you’d like to add about your career and the positions you’ve held?
BB: I loved working in hospitals but once I got to work in schools I thought, ‘Oh what a wonderful career’. I got interested in the Association and working in the state association. And I thoroughly like it.
MJ: Could you tell us, then, about your time as ASFSA President?
BB: I was there during the turbulent years. We were still in Denver. When I first went on the board I was a committee chairman and was there in Colorado when Dr. Perryman resigned. I witnessed that, when Josephine Martin and Gene White were having to deal with those problems.
MJ: What year would this have been?
BB: Let me think. It’s got to be ’76. So I was Committee Chair then. Then I went on the board, two years after as Major City Chairman. I’m trying to think what the time span is. And by that time we had already hired two Executive Directors and they had gone, and we were in the process of hiring another, which we did. And then I was off the board until I ran for President, and came back on in time to terminate another Executive Director, and then hire one. The Executive Directors have settled down with Barbara. Barbara has been a blessing to us in that she brought stability. It’s been a godsend for the Association. While I was President and President-Elect, because we didn’t want the states to think that we were in as much trouble as we were, we picked up all of the Executive Director’s commitments. During my two-year term, or during an eighteen-month term, I traveled to thirty-seven states. You usually don’t have to do that; you usually do like fifteen or so. So, I sort of passed in and out of my home and said, “Somebody please wash my clothes and I’m going to bed.” We were down to fifty-two or fifty-three thousand members. The year I was President it paid off making all those state visits because we started gaining membership. Not a lot, but we gained about a thousand members that year instead of losing. That felt good, but we had a lot of turbulent times. My executive board was a group of very strong-minded people. We did not always think alike. But we got along and we were a very cohesive board through all our troubled times. We were just good friends all the way through.
MJ: Any other issues during that time that you would like to talk about?
BB: The operation of how ASFSA was run, the folks that were there did the very best they could, but we really needed more expertise. One, we should be in D.C.; we should not have been in Denver. Two, we needed a much more efficient organization than what we were currently operating. We were sort of doing what we’d always done. You don’t get any real major changes or anything. And all of us knew that we should be in Washington D.C., but could not make that commitment with dropping membership and dropping dollars. It took some time to move from here to there. But I would say that my board sort of put a stop gap on all of the troubled times, even though we did not come up with the final Executive Director, stop gap of the management problems in the association.
MJ: One question that I wanted to ask you is, how is Ohio different from other states in regard to child nutrition programs, while you were there, what you saw?
BB: I think Ohio, how the state is organized – Lorita Miles who was state director and Bob Koon was state director, and Wade Bash, while I was there. I don’t know many states that have got, like eleven hundred little districts that they’ve got to monitor. They are usually county or combined, or if you are in Louisiana it is a parish. You don’t have all these little suburbs that have their own government, have their own schools, have their own this, that, and the other. Consequently I think for the state director, and for those of us who were working in child nutrition, it was hard to coordinate us. Everybody had their own ideas. Everybody wanted to do this, that, and the other. Now, working in Dayton, I was really fortunate because I was considered a major city at that time. Our population had not dropped like it has now. And, the major cities met once a month with the state director and we really moved forward a lot as far as commodity processing because, different from like say Southern states who were built with the idea of schools with cafeterias and so forth, Ohio is an industrial state. And so you are looking at Dayton, Columbus, Akron, Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown, all of us with pre-plated systems. The commodities didn’t fit our systems, whereas the rest of the country was not looking at that situation. So we were very different in our needs on the Commodities Program and how things worked. But they were able to help us a lot.
MJ: Paul McElwain told me to ask you about commodities.
BB: Oh, he did? [laughs]
BB: I am one of those horrible passionate ones he loved. You know about those folks. I went to Washington and testified about the cost of turkey, and how silly they were about processing them. I can remember. We finally got them to, since we all had pre-plated systems, to allow us to process the whole turkeys which none of us could cook. For me to serve a meal with pre-plated turkeys I would have had to cook 15,000 pounds of turkey. One, I didn’t have the equipment. Two, I didn’t have a place to put it. Three, I didn’t have the skilled labor to do it. I would have killed somebody first crack out of the barrel. So I had to have processed turkey: either turkey rolls, turkey slices, turkey something. So we got a contract with Purina Foods and they were going to let the eight of us process our own turkeys. And they agreed and USDA shipped our turkeys over there. And Purina called us, we were having a meeting, and they said, “Before we freeze these turkeys, if you would like to have this pre-sliced in one-ounce slices, we can do it for a penny more a pound.” Well, it sounded good to us, and we talked to state directors. It sounded good to them, because it made sense, and then ship it back to me. Well, do you think Washington D.C. would approve that? I mean to tell you, we had the most terrible arguments about commodity processing in the Midwest region of any body ever. And of course, Paul, he’s sitting here with on-site kitchens that can take care of their turkeys. So he’s looking at me, saying, “Something’s wrong with you folks up there.” But there isn’t. [laughs] We are just not equipped, or able to handle it. Anyway, on that particular episode they had to process those turkey rolls. They shipped them back to us. And then we turned around and shipped them back, and then they sliced them. Now it was three cents a pound, plus all the shipping, and then they came back to us. It was just the Commodity Program drove pre-plate systems crazy. Chicken breasts were eight ounces and my tray holds three ounces. And I can’t change my tray. It is going down a line. It is set to size and you can’t change it. You can’t stack it high. [gestures up with hands] You can’t stack it [gestures down with hands], you know. You cannot change that. And so if they sent us chicken we had to send it out and get it cut. So when they first talked about cash in lieu of commodities, boy, my name was on there in a heartbeat. I’m telling you. And I think I got it strictly to shut me up, because I was going to keep fighting about it. And ASFSA opposed it and they opposed it for legitimate reasons. A great majority of the school systems in the United States are on-site, and a great majority of them could handle the product, and this little niche of people that just couldn’t was a threat to the Commodity Program itself. How many cents were going to be donated to commodities if we turned to cash? And I can hear Marshall saying, “If you go to cash it will be in the budget as cash and they will add them all together, and you’ll lose your commodities.” Well, we lost commodities anyway. It didn’t matter whether we were on cash or not on cash, we still lost commodities. But I was on the first cash-in-lieu commodity program and that lasted two years. Then they shut us down for one year, and then there was enough noise and Senator Dole helped us, because Kansas got rid of commodities. They closed down all of their warehouses and they went to cash. What are you going to do with the whole state? So Senator Dole was a real godsend in those days. And then you could re-apply. It was to be for ten years. I am not quite sure of the timeline. Anyway, I re-applied and I was put back on it. And that time they picked up thirty. The first time we only had ten sites. But then they picked up thirty and then it was made permanent. So Dayton receives a few surplus commodities, not many. Dayton City does receives a check. And it is very handy. [smiles]
MJ: Sounds like it.
BB: And our restrictions are we must spend it on food. Well, that’s what we spend it on any way. It is very easy to document. You can spend it; you can show it. In fact I can spend it on foods the commodities are issuing. When schools began purchasing the fresh fruits and vegetables with the Department of Defense it was good. There are a lot of cities around and states that had that approved, and Ohio was one. And I wanted to be on it simply because the quality was so good and we could get some things I couldn’t get through my own vendors. I was willing to spend my commodity money to purchase those. But they never got that finalized and I don’t know if it has happened since I’ve left but it’s a good program out there. Lot of schools purchase through the Department of Defense.
MJ: What changes have you seen in the child nutrition profession over the years?
BB: Just think about the first time I ever saw a school lunch menu. At that time you must have two pats of butter, and school lunches, you fixed one menu and you will have meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, and apple pie, and hot biscuits. And that was your menu. And if kids didn’t like that you had a peanut butter sandwich on the side and they could pick up what they wanted, and you sold little, if any, a-la-carte in schools. It was strictly Type A and that was it. And that was the way you performed. It’s not that way anymore. Kids have choices. There is a lot of a-la-carte that’s sold against school lunch because we are trying to stay afloat financially. And certainly we are not putting two pats of butter on every kid’s tray. We have the nutrient analysis that you have to comply with. And also the financing of school programs has changed, because when I first went to work with the board of education, they paid my fringe benefits, they paid my retirement plan for my employees. I was never charged rent for using the cafeteria, or anything like that. And by the time I left, I paid my own fringe. And [earlier] the Board of Education did all my repairs and maintenance. If I needed a piece of equipment, they would buy it for me, when I first went to work. Well, when I left there I was like a little independent business. Granted, I worked on board of education property, but I paid rent. I paid all my fringes. I paid my retirement. I paid all repairs, all of everything that went along, and that makes a tremendous pressure on a program and what you can do for kids, to put food service directors in that position.
MJ: What about the technology?
BB: Oh, technology, you know that’s changed. [laughs] The management end was computerized and now there are these computerized refrigeration systems back to where you can check your temperature for any sort of product. And that can all be computerized. You can computerize your inventory now. All that has made life much, much better. There is a lot I haven’t seen. I’ve seen some new equipment, but basic equipment is still pretty much basic.
MJ: Could you talk a little bit about your involvement with the National Food Service Management Institute?
BB: Yes. That’s one of the best experiences of my life. I was asked to be on this when you were a blank piece of paper. There was a large group of us that went to Washington and Jeannette [Phillips] was there [and] said, “Well, we have a blank sheet of paper. It is going to Ole Miss.” Now I was not involved in the political process in order to get the grant, or to get the Institute. Josephine Martin, Gene White, another group of folks did that. But I was involved in the very beginning, at the planning stage. And they said,”We can do with this whatever you folks want to do.” And they didn’t know anything about school food service, and we didn’t know anything about Ole Miss. So we kind of were sitting there. But then we got going and we laid out a basic outline. Of course the first thing you need is a director and we had recommended Josephine [Martin]. She will stretch your brain every time you work with her, or at least she does my brain. And she has enough vision to see what should come. So Jo was the first director and then we had regular meetings, and I served on that board for six years. It was nice. I got to come back as a consultant, so that was nice too.
MJ: What do you think has been your most significant contribution to the child nutrition field so far?
BB: I don’t know that I can say that I have made a significant contribution to the child nutrition field. I think the most significant thing that I did for the city of Dayton, let me put it that way, through child nutrition, is I put schools up through junior high on Provision Two. I was one of the first schools that ever did that. With Provision Two you feed all your children without charge. It eliminated tickets. It eliminated stigma. The first year is horrible because you have to have an application from every child, and that’s hard to get. And then you have to count every child because you still are only reimbursed so many free, so many reduced, and so many paid children. So that means you have to count those children accordingly. But after you have done it the first year, your percentages remain the same unless you can justify it, a major change. And so Dayton has been on Provision Two now it’s got to be close to 12 years. And I think that is probably one of the best benefits that the child nutrition program has ever done for a city, because Dayton was a very high poverty city. I don’t know as far as the program – I don’t know that I have made a significant contribution, excepting that I have always been a strong supporter and tried to do what is best for child nutrition, either at the state level or the national level. I can’t think of any great, overwhelming thing that I have done.
MJ: You have done an awful lot. Do you have any memorable stories that come to mind when you think about your years in the profession?
BB: Oh, there’s always lots of funny things that come across the table. I’ll tell you one of the funniest things we ever did. I had one of the best assistants that you ever had, Nancy Cecil, and she ran my central kitchen, and when we were still on commodities and we were trying to get rid of rice and raisins we made raisin pudding; I mean rice pudding. And we put it in the refrigerator to cool, and you have to realize that we had to make like three tons of pudding in order to serve. Anyway, the next morning, she said, “Betty, you’ve got to come to the kitchen quick.” So because my office was not in the same building, I hopped across town and into the kitchen and she says, “I want you to taste this raisin pudding, rice pudding.” It had fermented. I mean, let me tell you. It was so alcoholic you’ll never know. Anyway, we didn’t serve that. [laughs]
MJ: I was going to ask what happened.
BB: Well, we didn’t serve that but I had a few employees that took some home. [laughs] It hadn’t spoiled, but it was certainly potent. But you know, we do lots of funny things across the years, both when you are serving on the executive board or when you are in the profession, you have lots of funny things happen.
MJ: Well, do you have any interesting travel stories, when you were traveling to all those different states?
BB: Yes. I was going to New Mexico and I was going to do a workshop while I was there. So the president of the New Mexico association asked me to please bring pictures of salad bars and pasta bars or potato bars which we had in all our schools. So I had put together a pretty nice presentation and put it all on slides. And I had been traveling, and I thought, “Shoot, I am not going to carry that.” And I checked it. Don’t do that. It did not get there. But you know what, it turned out that it was a really good thing. I didn’t have any slides to show, [so I] changed the presentation to using new ideas when you have older equipment. Sometimes those things turn out for the best, but I just remember thinking, “Oh, my, here I’ve got this four-hour presentation and I don’t have a slide; and I don’t know where they are.”
MJ: Well, any thing else you would like to add?
BB: I can’t think of any thing. Goodness. You racked my brain.
BB: I would tell you this. I think the child nutrition profession is one of the finest there is. And I think I have been privileged to serve it.
MJ: Thank you so much, and for your contributions.
BB: Oh! You are good sports to down come here. I’ve brought you out here in the country.