Interviewee: Brenda Hawkins

Interviewer: Meredith Johnston

Date: December 4, 2004

Location: Gainesboro, Tennessee

Description: Brenda Hawkins is a native of Jackson County, Tennessee, where she grew up during the 1950s in the rural community of Flynn’s Lick. She holds a B.S. in Vocational Home Economics and a master’s in Administration Supervision. She has served as Food Service Director for Jackson County Schools since 1971 and has also served on numerous committees with the Tennessee School Food Service Association.

Meredith Johnston: So tell us just a little more about the sack lunch program.

Brenda Hawkins: Well, the sack lunch program, my understanding was that it was started like in 1966 for schools who didn’t have access to a lunch program or a kitchen. Title I brought in the food service directors for the first time. Miss Katherine Cassetty was that person and she instituted the sack lunch program, I think in about seventeen rural schools. So they cooked in the Methodist Church and carried it out to the local schools and even the superintendent of schools helped deliver lunches.

[Begin interview]

MJ: We are here in Gainesboro, Tennessee, with Ms. Brenda Hawkins. And, Ms. Hawkins, could you tell us a little about yourself and where you grew up?

BH: Well, I am a Jackson County native. I am a local girl. I grew up here in a little rural community called Flynn’s Lick, graduated from high school here, married my high school sweetheart. I’ve just bloomed where I’ve been planted I think here in Jackson County. I am the youngest of three daughters. I’ve been protected all of my life by family and friends, so it has been a wonderful place to grow up in.

MJ: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs or the School Lunch Program?

BH: We always had lunch at school when I started school, but the program seemed to have been sponsored by the Parent-Teacher Organization. And I can remember children taking plates and flatware to school in order to have enough to serve the school. And the food I remembered that I hated was fordhook lima beans, those huge lima beans, with two and a half cup servings I am sure. But the fondest memories I have of lunch at school would be the cooks; the ladies who prepared the lunches were always so nice and on cold days would make us hot chocolate and put it back in those glass milk bottles. So.

MJ: And what time period would this have been?

BH: Well, let’s see, I was born in 1949, so it would have been in the ’50s.

MJ: How did you become involved in the child nutrition profession?

BH: By accident – I graduated from college and put in applications everywhere. I had a B.S. in Vocational Home Economics, so I naturally put an application in with the school system. But Home Economics teachers seldom retire and there is only one per system or there was at that time, so I did not think there would be much opportunity for a job there, so I accepted a position with the Department of Public Welfare. And one morning my phone rang and it was the then Superintendent of Schools saying, “We hired you last night.” I said, “You hired me? What for?” And the food service director that they had was going on maternity leave and they hired me, and after much serious thought I took the job. And he told me, he said, “All you have to do is visit the schools once a month.” And I thought, “This is easy compared to protective services of children.” But I found out that was not really what was true. So I had no intentions of ever being in school nutrition. It just came to me.

MJ: When was this?

BH: That would have been in 1971. The Director of Schools, or Superintendent at that time was my old high school basketball coach, so there were some fond ties there. But I never dreamed that it would turn into the profession that it has become today.

MJ: Well, was there someone, maybe a mentor, who was influential in directing you in the field?

BH: After I came to work, Sarah Morgan, a consultant for the State Department of Education and Food Service, kind of took me under her wing so to speak, and at that time it was a very close-knit group. It seemed like the Upper Cumberland Supervisors were one big family and everybody took the new person in and helped them, so it was a good transition into it. The lady I replaced had taken maternity leave and didn’t plan to come back to work, and she helped me a lot. And then Miss Katherine Cassetty, our first Director of School Food Services, was pretty much a mentor and was just, I was just surrounded by people to help me make it into the profession. If you have not heard about Sarah Morgan, we could do an entire session on her. She was a wonderful lady who loved children of the Cumberland area.

MJ: Anything else that you’d like to say? How did she participate, then, in the child nutrition program?

BH: Well, she was just such a friend to you that you felt like you could go to her with any problem. If you had a project that you wanted to do, then she would go to the people and help you get it instituted.

MJ: Would you tell us maybe a little bit more about your educational background and how that prepared you for the child nutrition field?

BH: Like I said previously, I have a B.S. degree in Vocational Home Economics and I have a master’s in Administration Supervision. I have numerous certificates and credentials. And nothing prepared me for child nutrition. I cannot think of a single college course that prepared me for anything I do now, except the college preparation made you learn to stick it out and work through your own problems and do that sort of thing. Sometimes I feel like my nutrition training was really put on the back burner because I was too busy trying to get enough money in the account to pay the milk bills. When I first came to work we were a decentralized system. Reimbursements came in three or four months delayed. So just keeping enough money in the accounts to pay labor, much less the milk bill and the food bill, was a real chore.

MJ: Would you tell us some more about your positions, or the positions that you have held in the profession?

BH: Well, I have served on numerous committees with TSFSA [Tennessee School Food Service Association] and local organizations and that kind of thing. When I first came to work, the food service position was funded through Title I, so we wore a dual title of social worker, so I did a little bit of social work, not much, it was mostly all school lunch, and I have been part time attendance supervisor in a pinch when somebody left and I was certified for that position. One of the fondest memories that I have now as I look back over the last 33 years was that I got to come to work at a time when there were some men and women with visions for the School Lunch Program. And through the efforts of Dr. John Carter, who was then director of the Knox County system, we were able to form the first School Food Service Supervisors Study Council and from that came our very first statewide conference with TSFSA. And I have, like I say, worked on numerous committees and up through the ranks on those kinds of things – District Rep. Conference Chairs.

MJ: Can you tell us maybe a little about the issues that you’ve faced in Tennessee School Food Service Association? Or dealt with?

BH: Well, in the beginning it was mostly trying, other than financial, trying to keep our programs operating; it was a matter of becoming a part of the total education program. Dr. John Perryman, his book Perryman Revisited has been such an inspiration to me. ‘Cause people thought we were just cooks, and it took a lot for us to realize that being ‘just cooks’ was a very noble profession and that our influence on the child probably would last longer than the math and science had. But it was a struggle getting a certification for school food service directors. And becoming a part of the total education program, it was just a real hurdle. And I think we’ve done it and done it well.

MJ: How is Tennessee, would you say, unique from other states with regards to child nutrition programs, or you may want to elaborate a little bit about in a rural setting, how that would be different.

BH: If Tennessee is different, I think it, one reason would be because of our State Director Sarah White. Sarah’s saying has been, “Just feed the children. No matter what happens, just feed the children.” And we strive to do that. No matter what goes wrong, we make certain that the children have their meals at school. I think Tennessee, there are three states in Tennessee even though there is only one. There is East, Middle and West. Getting that group to become the state of Tennessee has been difficult, but we have become the state of Tennessee now, mainly because we travel everywhere. For a while you stayed pretty much in your own location. But now, if there is a school in Memphis that I want to go see what they are doing, we get in the car and we go check that out. But Tennessee, I would think, probably has the best cooks in the world, so we probably have the best food around. But I also know that rural settings are more loving, family-oriented systems and it is really something when I go to work each morning and I know each of my employees by names and I know their grandchildren and children.

MJ: What changes have you seen in the profession over the years?

BH: There have been tremendous changes in school food services over the years. The first big hurdle that came about when I came to work in 1971 was ‘cost accounting’. Suddenly they wanted us to be accountable for all the money that we had. So that was a biggie. You’ve seen it come complete circle time and time again. We now have technology at our fingertips. Children are coming through our lines keying in a number. That’s taking care of the accountability for free and reduced price meals. Our managers who’ve never thought they’d have any thing to do with a computer are now just really familiar with it in doing what needs to be done. Obesity is the issue facing us right now. Nutrient standards. So we are getting back to that nutrition training that I thought for a while had virtually gone wasted. And I say that in all good humor about it because when you’ve got to earn your money, then you’ve got to please your customers. And if they don’t eat what we provide, no matter how nutritious it is, we are out of business. We are out of business quick. So it is a fine line trying to meet those. But I would say technology and the ability to process commodities now in the Department of Defense fresh fruit and vegetable buys. Those things have all come together to make our program more acceptable to children and more financially feasible.

MJ: What would you say the changes have been in the labor force?

BH: My new employees are not the dedicated ladies who were here when I first came to work. The work ethic is not as strong as far as, I used to say, company people. Company people, you went to work no matter what. And today’s new employee faces lots of issues that older employees don’t. Adequate childcare is a problem for a mother who is working and has a sick child. There is not always somebody who can be relied on now to take care of that child. But I see some very smart and industrious people coming to work who turn out not to be very good employees because they just don’t like to get up and… So I guess that is a sign of the times. I hope not, but it seems to be.

MJ: What about in training? What changes have you seen in training?

BH: Well, I remember when our training was a huge workshop to learn how to bake something new. Now our training is geared toward HACCP and food safety and sanitation. Customer presentation and that kind of thing. I do find that a lot of the newer employees are more highly trained in some areas as far as technology and that kind of thing.

MJ: What do you think, so far, has been your most significant contribution to the child nutrition profession?

BH: Feeding a hungry child. I look back and realize that God has allowed me to grow in a profession that I love. And if I cease to love my job, then that will be the day that I decide it is time to go home. But I love the children. I love the people I work with. The office staff is like family. It is just a wonderful working environment to truly grow and to do what you think you need to do really. I have referred back to Dr. Perryman’s book and one of the things that he brought out is, “What’s wrong with ministering to the needs, the health and the happiness of the children through the scripture of good food? Ours is a magnificent opportunity for service and in the words of St. Matthew, ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food.'” To me, according to the scriptures, when we’ve done that, we’ve done that to the very least. So I feel like, especially here at Christmas when you think about giving, what better gift than to give of ourselves to the children we serve. And I am not sure many other professions can have that gratification of serving that we have.

MJ: Do any memorable stories come to mind when you think back over your years in the profession?

BH: I always remember, I think it was Mary Nix and the corn, and I tried, was it Mary?

MJ: I’m not sure. It sounds familiar.

BH: I tried so hard to think about that. There is a young supervisor who will remain nameless that thought serving banana splits would be a great opportunity at the elementary school until she tried to dish out hard-frozen tubs of ice cream for 500 banana splits. So we don’t serve banana splits that way now. There is also the steam kettle that was 208 voltage and got wired into 440 volts, so I learned the true meaning of ‘meltdown’. And, chocolate pies at the high school. Had a great cafeteria manager named Miss Ina. And I said, “Miss Ina, you ought to make these chocolate pies one day.” Well, she did. And can you imagine eight-inch meringue pies for 500 students?

MJ: Oh my goodness.

BH: But it was wonderful. But we don’t do that a lot either. We’ve done that and that’s it. One time experience was enough. And when I first came to work the high school had a new cafeteria, and it has a three-compartment Fry Master steamer with the dials that you know you tighten up. They were using it to store their purses in because they were afraid of it. So that was a fascinating project to teach these ladies not to be afraid of steam cookery. And now look at what all we do with steam cookery.

MJ: Well, is there anyone else, anything you would like to add, that you can think of?

BH: Well, we had talked previously about Katherine Cassetty and the sack lunch program that really got the lunch program started. Miss Katherine is deceased now, but she was able to share a lot of those stories with me and they mean a lot. One inspiration for me has been Helen B. Smith, and she is a cafeteria manager or a field manager, I am not sure which, with the Memphis City Schools. She has been so active in TSFSA and I guess ASFSA. She’s an inspiration and I think you would find her an interesting person to interview.

MJ: Could you talk a little about what you do now? Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

BH: Right now, in addition to what everybody does, which is the reporting and the finances, we are working on a project at our high school called KISS OFF FAT. K-I-S-S stands for Keep It Simple Slim. And it is a team, you sign up for it, where we are trying to help people simply move toward a healthy lifestyle. And we have won two Best Practices awards from USDA for that and I am extremely excited to the point that I am trying to initiate a program called HUGS in my middle school which is Helping Us Get Slim by eating smart, moving more. I am excited about these nutrition, lifestyle things that hopefully we can have the children move to a healthier lifestyle.

MJ: Well, we thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to interview you, and I know that lots of other people will find these things interesting, too.

BH: Well, thank you for coming this far. I am sure that has been an adventure all its own.