Interviewee: Craig Weidel
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: March 6, 2011
Location: Washington, DC
Description: Craig Weidel is an area supervisor for schools in Arizona.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is March 6, 2011, and I’m here in Washington, DC, at the Legislative Action Conference with Craig Weidel. Welcome Craig, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
Craig Weidel: Good morning Jeff. It’s a pleasure to be here.
JB: Would you tell me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and grew up?
CW: I was born in Dayton, Ohio, and I lived in a small farm town about 24 miles northwest called Brookville. They had about 3,500 people and I lived there until I was about ten years old. Then I moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and I’ve been there since 1962. So I kind of consider myself a semi-native – I’ve been there a long time.
JB: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs? Was there a school lunch or breakfast program when you were in elementary school?
CW: Yes there was. I was thinking back on this and I think probably it started in fourth grade in my best recollection, and I participated all through elementary, junior high, and senior high. I ate lunch every day at school.
JB: Do you remember any of your favorite menu items?
CW: I think my favorite was probably Sloppy Joe’s , Tater Tots, corn, and then in our cafeteria they made kind of a twisted cinnamon roll that kind of permeated throughout the day as they were baking those – that was probably the favorite part of the meal for me.
JB: Did you notice any difference between Ohio and Arizona with what they served?
CW: With the ethnicity of Arizona, with more of a Hispanic population, I maybe did have more Mexican-type items like tacos and those types of things, which coming from Ohio, I wasn’t really used to those things – a few different things, but pretty much the same items throughout.
JB: Tell me a little about your educational background. Where did you go after high school and what degrees did you earn?
CW: After high school – well I kind of consider myself – and actually I finished my degree because of the American School Food Service Association – kind of an interesting story. I had gone to Arizona State University – I had gone for four years, and I’m a little bit embarrassed to say this, but I was two activity credits shy of my bachelor’s degree in Physical Education. At the time I was married and had two kids, and I just couldn’t afford at that time to not only finish the degree, but at that time starting salary for teachers was – it was back in the ’70s and it wasn’t very good – so I just kind of took a side path and went on and did some different things. Then in 2000 I was encouraged to run for a board position with the at the time American School Food Service Association, which is now the SNA, and in order to do that you had to have an undergraduate degree, so I went back. I think I had to have four classes and I did that online through Maricopa Community College in the Phoenix area and finished my degree, so I do have a Bachelor’s of Science in Physical Education.
JB: Has that helped you with your position?
CW: You know, it really has Jeff, and I’ve brought I think a different perspective. Over the years we’ve talked about the importance and the important link between physical education and nutritious eating and health. And I think that brings a different view to what we do, and this is my nineteenth year back here for Legislative Action Conference, and I can remember talking years and years ago about that importance, and it’s nice seeing it come into action with the First Lady and her emphasis behind Let’s Move and those types of things. So yes, very much it has.
JB: So how did you get involved in child nutrition as a profession?
CW: Well, at the time I was unemployed. My background at that time was in warehouse logistics management. I worked for a large warehouse in the Phoenix area, serviced Circle K convenience stores, and then we had some military business. And they decided to move out of the Phoenix area, so I was unemployed, and I answered an ad in the paper. There was a position for warehouse supervisor for Mesa Public Schools and I applied for that and got the position. So that’s how I started with child nutrition.
JB: Tell me about the positions you’ve held over your career as you advanced.
CW: I was warehouse supervisor for seventeen years, and then our current director moved on and became an associate superintendent, and one of the other in-office area supervisors got her position. So at that time I decided I needed a new challenge – get out of the warehouse and get more experience working in the schools and being able to see the kids more, so I applied for her position and I got her position as an area supervisor. At my current job now I’m in charge of our back of the house software program that we have, and then I also do the profit and loss statements for our department. And in addition to that, inventory control, and then right now I supervise high schools. At the time that I came into the office I had twenty-one schools that I supervised.
JB: Has there been a mentor along the way, anyone who especially guided your career or helped you along?
CW: I’ve been very lucky and blessed I think, because I have had actually a lot of good mentors. Probably the first mentor I had was Joelle Benza, and she was our food service director at the time. Even though she didn’t hire me she came aboard a few years after I was hired and she kind of guided me and encouraged me, especially through the association. I think that was probably the best mentorship I got from her. And then the second person was a lady by the name of Paula Barletta, who’s kind of an icon in child nutrition in the Arizona area. She was very involved. My gosh, I think she started actually in the ’50s with ASFSA, and I think when she used to come to this conference it was her and one other lady who came from Arizona, and they made all the congressional visits and everything.
JB: A native of Germany as I recall. We have her oral history.
CW: A native of Germany – very, very interesting lady – escaped from Nazi Germany. She was very passionate about it. And then of course some of the past-presidents that I’ve worked with when I was on the board, mentors, Mary Hill, Katie Wilson, Dr. Janie Thornton, Karen Johnson. Karen Johnson was also a big impetus for me continuing to run for positions on the board. And then my current director – her name is Loretta Zullo, and she’s been a mentor in a sense that she’s allowed me to do a lot of extra things outside of the job, and given me the vacation time off to pursue other things, and be able to do those types of things, so very much so.
JB: Anything special about Arizona in regard to child nutrition?
CW: I think probably in terms of an association, since we are a small state, we are very involved with the association, and some of the people have been involved at the national level because of that. For example, at this conference we consistently bring 20-25 people to LAC. A lot of states only send one, two, or three people, so we are very much involved that way, and to the national conferences we very much support also.
JB: What’s a typical day like, or is there such a thing?
CW: Typical day, wow. A typical day for me – I’m an early riser – so I’m usually in the office 5-530, which allows me to get a lot of stuff done, especially on the computer, before the phones start ringing. After that, not unlike other child nutrition professionals, we spend about eighty percent of our time dealing with employee issues, or parent calls, or administrator calls – those types of things. We do deal with those. Now that I only have six high schools I am able to get out each week to each of the six high schools. I try to go out once a week and be there either for breakfast or lunch and interact with the staff and the kids. I really enjoy that challenge with our high schools. When you asked about things that were different in Arizona, at least in our district, and we’re the largest in the state, up until this year we’ve only had three-year high schools. So this year [in] three of our six we brought ninth-graders up from junior high, so it became four-year high schools. So until this year we only had one lunch. Prior to this year our largest school had about 2,700 kids and they gave us forty minutes to do that in. Now we have two lunches and it’s been a fun challenge for us to have the extra kids on the high school campus.
JB: And you said 2,700 kids?
CW: I think our largest high school now is about 3,500 kids, so we brought up between 600-900 kids, depending on the feeder schools that came into the high school.
JB: And what is your percentage rate for participation?
CW: We’re at 51% free and reduced. When I started with the district in 1985 we were at about 31%, so we’ve seen quite a rise in our free and reduced rates.
JB: You talked about that challenge. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced over your career?
CW: I think my first challenge when I came to the district, being in the warehouse and having been for sixteen years in the warehouse business, when I started they used to shut the warehouse five days a month just to take physical inventory. We have a rather large warehouse; it’s about 50,000 square feet in total, and they literally used to walk up and down. For example they would say, “Ok, we’re going to start with green beans,” and they’d literally walk up and down six aisles checking on all the overheads and all the pallets, just to find the green beans, and then they’d start it all over again with the next item. So nothing came in, nothing went out of the warehouse, for a week. So, I was lucky to get involved with bringing in a new software for back of the house, and I worked with a company out of Tucson, Arizona, and our current director, Joelle Benza, put that company together with School-Link Technologies, and Mesa was one of the two in the country to be – back of the house, we did the beta system for them, us along with Montgomery County over here on the East Coast. That was probably, I think, my biggest challenge.
JB: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in child nutrition over the years?
CW: In a sense we have a captive audience. We pretty much feed the same kids day in and day out, but to be able to give them a variety of items that will entice them to come. Another challenge for us is our high school programs; the seniors are allowed to leave campus, but the freshmen, sophomores, and juniors are on campus. And probably our biggest challenge is the stigma that the kids that eat in the cafeteria are only the free kids. So we’ve done a lot of work on trying to implement different things. In three of our cafeterias we have mobile carts out in the eating area of the cafeterias, so they can go through the line, or they can go to one of the mobile carts, to try to encourage the kids to come down to the cafeteria. Up until this year in the high schools we had just the one lunch, so we had anywhere from five to six Cambro carts throughout the campus trying to feed the kids. So [changes] are being able to provide more points of service to the kids, and then create a variety of things that they’re going to like.
JB: Tell me a little bit about the conference you’re here for now, and why Arizona supports it so strongly.
CW: SNA has a lot of crucial conferences. For me, this is my favorite. Not that the other conferences don’t have an impact on our programs, but I think this is one where we have a true impact on our programs, especially on Tuesday when we go to the Hill and actually meet with our legislators. Even if we don’t get to meet with our members we will a lot of times meet with legislative aides who actually are the ones who guide the members and inform them on the issues and things that are coming up. Over the years I feel that we’ve had a true impact. They know who we are even though we come here once a year, when we come into the office. And even the freshmen on the Hill – when we come into their offices they know who SNA is. We are very visual on the Hill, and that’s important to our programs.
JB: Any special stories of either children or people you’ve worked with as you think back over your career?
CW: You know, the story I tell, and if I have time it’ll probably take a couple of minutes to tell this story, but it’s my true hook into child nutrition and what really made me want to stay in our business. This happened in either 1988 or 1989 – when we started Summer Food Service. At that time I was the warehouse supervisor, so I didn’t get a chance to really be out in the schools and interact with the kids and see the kids a lot. So, in the summer program we have a limited staff in the warehouse, so I physically made a delivery myself. And I was out at one of our junior highs, and it was kind of a fast-food situation where they had the little windows that the kids would come up to. And I was standing there talking to the manager in the cafeteria, and as I looked out across the eating area, through the door came a young man who looked to be somewhere around 12 or 13 years old, and in tow with him was a younger sister and a younger brother. And he brought the two siblings in and sat them down at a table, and he came up and got breakfast for all on them. And he took it back and gave it to them, and then I noticed he kind of walked away from them and he was over talking with some of his friends. And I looked out and I could see the younger sibling. He was a little guy – looked to be maybe 5 or 6 years old. He was Hispanic; had kind of long, tassled black hair and big brown eyes. But I could see that he was upset, and he was holding a banana in his hand. The manager had walked away and the other people were busy, and I looked out and I could see he was upset and I said, “I need to do something”. The brother wasn’t really paying attention to him, so I walked out and I walked up to him and I said, “Son, is there something I can do to help you?” And he looked up, and he had the banana between his two little hands, and he had tears in his eyes, and he said, “Mister, I’m hungry. I don’t know how to open it.” Jeff that was my hook. Until that minute – I realized we fed kids and we had kids that didn’t probably get food at home and stuff like that, but that was my true hook into child nutrition, and that’s why I’ve been here for twenty-five years.
JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?
CW: It’s a great profession. In our district we deal with some interns from Arizona State University. Every year we have one or two that come through, on a rotation for becoming a dietitian and things like that. And I tell them not only monetarily – a lot of district pay pretty good money for child nutrition professionals, directors, supervisors, and those types of things throughout the country, actually more that most dietitians start out with – [but] I think the thing is just the heartfelt feelings that you get dealing in the business that we’re in, and I don’t think you get that probably doing anything else. Every day is a challenge. It’s not the same thing day in and day out. So I encourage anybody to give it a try. I stumbled into it and I’m glad I did. It’s been fun.
JB: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
CW: Thank you.