Interviewee: Clare Miller
Interviewer: Melba Hollingsworth
Date: December 3, 2008

Description: Clare H. Miller, MS, RD is a registered dietitian with thirty years of experience in the Child Nutrition (CN) Programs. She recently retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture where she served as supervisor of a special nutrition unit which provided technical assistance and leadership in the development of nutrition policy and nutrition standards for the Child Nutrition Programs. She was lead for the development of the HealthierUS School Challenge. Previous to her work at USDA, Clare was a program specialist with the school meals programs for the Louisiana Department of Education, and was the director of school meal programs for schools within the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana. In semi-retirement, Clare now does consulting and training for the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI), for State Agencies, and other organizations. She has been a member of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) for over 45 years and the School Nutrition Association (SNA) for over 29 years, and has served in various leadership capacities in both organizations. Clare holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management and a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition from Louisiana State University. She completed a dietetic internship at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, Houston, Texas.

Melba Hollingsworth: I am Melba Hollingsworth and I am here on December the 3rd, 2008 at the National Food Service Management Institute with Claire Miller in Oxford, Mississippi. Claire Miller, do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?

Clare Miller: I’m from Livingston Parish in Louisiana. I went through the 11th grade at Albany High School, and then I finished my senior year at Denham Springs High School. My dad was the Ag teacher and my mother was the first grade teacher.

MH: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs?

CM: Actually, I am one of those dinosaurs who were in school when the National School Lunch Program was signed into law. I was in the first grade. Up until that point we brought our milk in a pint jug, and a sandwich, and we put it in a cooler at school. During that first year, it was actually in Holden, Louisiana, we started getting hot food. So, I am one of the originals from that initiation.

MH: How did you become involved with the child nutrition profession?

CM: Back in those days, the Ag teacher ran the canning center during the summer, and the Home Ec teacher planned the school menus and supervised the school lunch. My high school Home Ec teacher was my hero. I thought she was wonderful, and I knew I wanted to major in Home Economics. But I started thinking that I really wanted to do a specialization and went into Dietetics. But, it was years later that I moved into the child nutrition programs. I first thought that school lunch would be a boring job. One meal a day and you’re done. I came to realize what a diverse career that could be and how many challenges people face, and I moved into that in the 70s.

MH: Tell us a little about your educational background and how it prepared you for a career in child nutrition.

CM: I majored in Dietetics and Institutional Management at LSU. I then did a dietetic internship at the VA Hospital in Houston, Texas. We had only a one-week exposure, maybe it wasn’t even a week, maybe a day they took us to a school and we watched school food service. I really didn’t have a good introduction to school food service. It was only later when I started back to graduate school and got my Master’s that I became interested in working in school food service, because in Louisiana, to be certified as a child nutrition supervisor, you had to have a Master’s Degree, so I wasn’t really qualified to move into one of the positions in Louisiana until I got my Master’s and then I thought that I might like to try that angle of school food service.

MH: Was there someone, a mentor, who influenced you directly as you entered the child nutrition field?

CM: I think at different levels…different people. As I mentioned before, my Home Ec teacher got me interested in Home Economics.

MH: And her name was again?

CM: Ms. Holden. She was one of my high school Home Ec teachers. My senior year, I had Ms. Hornsby. Ms. Sylvia Dunn from Louisiana, it was her mother who was my high school Home Ec teacher and was a big influence, too. And then, I’ve had different mentors at different levels, because I have worked at different levels of child nutrition programs. At the local level, there were some dieticians who were working with the Department of Education, Louisiana Department of Education, it was Jane Mandell and Joanne Pulls and Sylvia Dunn, and they kept saying, “You need to work in school food service.” So I went first to the State Department of Education as a consultant, and then after 11 years, I thought, “You know, I would really like to get out in the local, and see…”

MH: Do you remember what year you went to the Department of Education?

CM: I went to the State Department in ’78 or ’79, I was finishing my Master’s. In ’89, I went to work for the Diocese of Lafayette as a local director with 37 schools. My mentor there was Gladys Reche in the Southwest Region. She was a supervisor with the Diocese of Lafayette and was retiring and talked me into taking her position there. And I went there for another ten years, and Dorothy Caldwell went off to Washington and was appointed as the Special Assistant to Shirley Watkins, and she called me one day and said, “You know, they are going to have a lot of new openings for senior level dietitians or nutritionists at USDA, and I think you ought to apply.” She said people with program experience go to Washington. So, at the age just two months shy of 60, I applied for a job with Civil Service in Washington, and interviewed and took the job and got to spend the last eight years of my career in Washington with a new focus…a policy focus. And I enjoyed doing that until I retired.

MH: Who was your boss there?

CM: Stan Garnett. He retired a week after I did.

MH: Do you remember how many people were in attendance, I mean student participation, when you went to the Diocese?

CM: We had almost all of our children participate in the school lunch program. We served about 15,000 meals a day. Because we were a private school system we had a policy that all children had to participate in the school lunch program. So we served anywhere from 99 to 100 percent of the elementary schools, and then probably almost that percent in middle, and then of course in high school, we served about 80 percent of the students.

MH: Is there anything unique about the state that you worked in regarding child nutrition programs?

CM: I think Louisiana is a unique state and something that I hope they never lose, is they had some wonderful criteria that I think is reflected in the fact that Louisiana has always had one of the highest participations of any state in the nation. Some of the things that they have always emphasized: First of all, is certification for the supervisor and director with a Master’s Degree and so many hours in Nutrition and Accounting and Institutional Management. They’ve had certification for their managers. They have to pass a state exam to show that they have expertise in areas, because the state subsidizes part of the school food service salaries and so Louisiana puts money into the school lunch program. For a while, Louisiana had a law that excluded food management companies. There had to be self-run school food service operations. And they also for a long time, I don’t know if that is eroding or not, no competitive foods…no a-la-carte foods could be sold during the lunch period. I think all of that influenced high participation. Cooking from scratch and just offering really good food to students.

MH: What was a typical day like in your career? Or was there a typical day?

CM: It depended on what level I was. At the local level, I think one of the things that I liked about working at the local level was that there was never any monotony. There was never a dull moment. You had to stretch yourself because you got into areas that you had no background in. We went to a central warehouse and we wanted to go vertical storage in our warehouse with bays and forklifts that would reach up and pull things out. I had no experience in material transportation. I had to become an expert on that…how to buy forklifts and how to buy a central freezer, so it was always a challenge. And then at the state level, I think the part that I liked so much there was providing technical assistance. It was teaching. I guess from my parents my love for teaching came forth and I enjoyed that part of training and teaching. And then at the Federal level, it gave me a new opportunity to really influence policy…to bring the local perspective and the state perspective into policy decisions. That was a great treat.

MH: What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced?

CM: Again, different at each level.

MH: Again, tell me some of the years you were in each place.

CM: From ’79 to ’89, I was with the Department of Education as an Area Supervisor. I had the Southwest region, mostly…that interesting, lovely area. And challenges were…one of the things we did when I was Area Supervisor, we set up a Southwest area purchasing co-op. We came together and decided on the same specifications for food. When we went out on bid, we referred the vendor to Southwest Regional Purchasing Guide, so we were able to get better prices; so that was one of the highlights of my career at the State Department, was working with them in developing that purchasing guide. And then at the local level, as I said, it was moving our system into a central warehouse and freezer that was a big challenge and learning new things; and then, putting computers in all of the schools. Ladies who had never sat in front of a keyboard before, all of a sudden you bring a computer and say, “You are going to put inventory, we are going to do point of service, we are going to do recipe adjustment with the computer.” I always tried when I was at the local level to take as much responsibility off the manager as possible…to do it in the central office as much as we could so that we could free the manager at the school to concentrate on quality food. They had a tremendous job out in the schools to make sure that the food was at the right temperature, that it looked good, and tasted good. So we tried to do as much as we could. We thought of ourselves as support people at the Central Office…supporting the schools. We had monthly manager meetings and we used to ask the manager any date that we had the meeting to bring in a certain food item and we would put them all around and then we would try them and get everybody to judge. This was supposed to be the same recipe, but look how it is different from school to school. And then we would pick the best roll or the best cookie, and then that person would become our trainer on that item. And then we sent them around to the other schools to make sure they were all learning to prepare that dish in the same way. And then the challenge in Washington, was working on policy and trying to interject into the conversation what that means at the local level, and what that means at the state level, and how that is going to impact the program at that level, I felt was one of my contributions while I was in Washington.

MH: So, what changes have you seen in the child nutrition program over the years? You have seen a lot. How many years is that, now?

CM: Thirty.

MH: You have been at this for 30 years. You have seen a lot of changes.

CM: Yes.

MH: Tell us about that.

CM: The school lunch program has become so complex now with all of the different menu planning structures that it is very difficult to give technical assistance, or to give an answer to a question, because it depends. Are you on nutrient standard menu planning? Are you on enhanced, food-based, or traditional menu planning? I think we have really over-complexed the program and I would love to see a simplification of the program where we get right back to the basics.

MH: Are there other changes that you have seen in the profession?

CM: I think it is lots more demanding of our managers, our individual unit managers than it ever was. They have much more responsibilities. From point-of-service to accountability to meeting the nutrient requirements…it is just really taking much more skill, I think, to operate the program than it ever was before.

MH: What do you think has been your most significant contribution to the field?

CM: I think trying to make and impact in whatever area I was in. Whether it was local, whether it was state, or whether it was national…trying to do the very best that I could. I am still, after retirement, trying to make a contribution to training, to decision making, to the national policy on school food service. So I want to continue in that effort. I have just now moved back to my home state of Louisiana after retiring from USDA and I am active again in the District Dietetic Association and just accepted Legislative Chair for our district and will be going to Washington in another month with some things on my agenda for the child nutrition programs to make sure that our lobbying group in Washington understands some of the issues.

MH: Do you have any more memorable stories or anything that happened along the way that comes to mind as you think back over your years in the child nutrition profession?

CM: I think one of the most interesting things that I heard, and I didn’t witness this either, but when I went to work for the State Department of Education in ’78, they told me that in years past the State Supervisors, when they would go out to review schools, always wore hats and gloves…very formal, you know, you dressed up with a hat and you went out. So, I think about the changes that have happened since then. When I was with the Department of Education, we used to have a review bag. It was a sports bag and it was filled with weights and cups and scoops, because we would actually go out to do a review and take apart a meal and weigh it and make sure it met the quantity requirements. I am pleased to see that we are not into that anymore. I think we have lost a little bit of that guaranteeing that every child gets a certain amount of food.

MH: You didn’t have to do that did you?

CM: I did at first. We did it at first. We took our review bags with us. We would take the meat off the bone and weigh it and make sure there were two ounces of meat, and make sure there was an ounce of grain bread, and if not, we would challenge whether the school was serving adequate portions. Now we are very conscious about over-feeding.

MH: What about a memorable story while you were a food service director…can you think of something?

CM: Well, I think one of the things that just popped in my head just then…it was a scary moment, and it showed a little bit of my ignorance in what I was doing…we had a forklift in our warehouse and our warehouseman would go in and out of the warehouse and into the freezer. And it was propane. Somebody bought it, and I didn’t realize that a propane driven forklift could be very dangerous. He had gone into the freezer and shut the door. Finally, he made it out. I was out in one of the schools, but my secretary said when he walked into the office, he was gray. They called 911 and got an ambulance and took him to the hospital and gave him oxygen. I realized how something could happen so quickly in school food service that you are responsible for. Those local directors just have so much responsibility. It was not a funny incident, but it is one that has stuck in my mind for eternity…how close we came to having a disaster there.

MH: What about a memorable story when you went to Washington?

CM: Well, coming from Louisiana, I remember one of my stories was the first snow. I went in October, and one January morning, I woke up and looked out and it was snowing quite heavily. And, I thought, “Gosh, I have never driven in snow in my life.” And, I stayed there a while, looking out the window to try to figure out what people did, and I could see them out with brushes and brooms and getting snow off their cars. And I could see them driving out and leaving and I thought that I should be able to do this. So I wrapped up with my gloves and all and took a broom down, scraped all the snow off, and took off. Instead of going… which I now know was a mistake, I should have gone the longer way, going the way that they were making sure they were clearing the roads and all. But I went the short cut that I had learned only about a month before, and Alexandria, Virginia, is very hilly, so I came down and had to stop at a red light that was at a low spot, and then I had to accelerate after the red light up the hill, to get to the office. When I accelerated, my car started going out of control…just spinning in the road. I have never been so frightened in my life. I just stopped there and all of the traffic went around me. Finally, when everybody was gone, I thought, “If I land in a ditch, I land in a ditch.” But, I had to try to get out, so I put it in low, and after swerving a while, I got enough traction to get to the office, and when I parked and got out, I thought my legs were going to fold. They were so wobbly. When I finally got upstairs, I remember somebody from the office said, “Oh my God, the one from Louisiana is one of the few who came in today.” And I said that I probably didn’t have enough sense to realize that I should not have tried to come in today. They told me how to weigh down the back of my car, so it wouldn’t happen anymore. The next year, I bought a four-wheel drive. I was not going to have this happen anymore.

MH: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

CM: It is just that I think school food service is a wonderful career choice for anybody. It has been a very fulfilling career and one of the reasons that I stay involved is to visit friends when I go across the country. You do develop lifetime friendships with people who are as equally committed to the profession as you are and that is a real treat.

MH: Well, thank you. Thank you very much.