Interviewee: Cyndi Nobles
Interviewer: Melba Hollingsworth
Date: January 22, 2009

Description: Cyndi Nobles has worked for the child nutrition state agency in Louisiana for over thirty-four years.

Melba Hollingsworth: Well, it is January 22nd, 2009 and we have here Cyndi Nobles and I want you to tell me a little bit about yourself and where you grew up.

Cyndi Nobles: Well Melba, I was born in New Orleans but I grew up in Baton Rouge. My parents moved to Baton Rouge when I was really young, probably about three so I went through most of my elementary and junior high schooling here in Baton Rouge. And then when I was in junior high my parents moved back to New Orleans and so I went to high school in New Orleans and then came back to New Orleans to go to LSU and I have been here every since in Baton Rouge.

MH: Well, what is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs? Did you have school lunch and did you participate?

CN: Yes I did participate in the school lunch program however; one of my earliest recollections of the child nutrition program was being in first grade at a provincial school and they had very strict rules there and if you did not eat certain things that were on your plate or if you didn’t touch something then you couldn’t get up. So, I remember that but not so fondly and so the milk carton became my best friend. [Laughter] But I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed school lunch and the older I got the more that I participated in the school lunch program. My favorite thing about school food lunch was the bread that they use to make from scratch but unfortunately a lot of people are not making their own bread now but that’s my favorite recollection.

MH: Do you remember any menu items? Did you go to the New Orleans Arch Diocese schools?

CN: No, when I went to secondary school in New Orleans I was in public school. And I also have to admit to you that once I got to high school it was not really advertised as an open campus but we managed to slip out at lunchtime sometimes and go to a sandwich shop down the street so I wasn’t always in the lunchroom. [Laughter] But most of the time I was.

MH: So you do recall one menu item?

CN: The bread! That was my favorite thing absolutely without a doubt.

MH: Well tell me a little bit about your educational background and what schools did you attend and what degrees that you earned.

CN: OK. Well I am a graduate of LSU and I got my undergraduate degree in Vocational Home Economics Education. And when I was doing my student teaching I kind of realized that I did not want to do the same thing everyday. You know I wanted some more variety in my career and in the future and so at that point I decided that I wanted to go into dietetics so I got my Master’s degree at LSU in food and nutrition. And at that time if you had a Master’s degree in food and nutrition and you could pass the dietetic registration exam, then you could become a registered dietician. So that is the career path that I chose and I am very happy that I made that decision.

MH: Did you do any internship?

CN: No, I didn’t. The Master’s degree at that point in time could be used in place of an internship and so once you completed your Master’s degree and you could pass the dietetic registration exam, then you could become registered.

MH: So, how did you become involved with the child nutrition profession?

CN: Well, when I got out of college I first started working for a food service management company and I worked with a company named Mississippi Valley Food Service Company and I worked with them for about five years. I had a lot of good and different experiences with them. I first started out with a job at the woman’s hospital with the food service management company with their therapeutic dietitian there for a couple of years. And then from there I was recruited by the food service management company to open up a new account that they got at the state capital building here in Baton Rouge. It was the employee and public cafeteria and I stayed there for I think about 18 months and then they wanted me to coordinate the elderly feeding program that they were doing all over the state and so I worked with that and my territory was state wide. As I said I worked in elderly feeding and I would go around to our central kitchens and do training and monitoring. At that point in time I had heard that one of my former college professors was working for the Department of Education in the division of nutrition assistance and I just went to talk to her to see about perhaps maybe making a career change and getting into child nutrition because prior to hearing about her there I didn’t really know much about careers in child nutrition programs. So at any rate that’s how I gravitated to towards the child nutrition programs and through that contact I was hired to be a program manager which at that time we were called and each of us had a certain territory of the state that we covered and most of our worked involved monitoring local school districts child nutrition programs and providing technical assistance and training. I have been with the Department of Education now it will be thirty years next month.

MH: Thirty years next month, wow! Well, was there someone who served as a mentor that directed you in child nutrition programs then?

CN: That would be my former professor Jane Mendel who is now in Washington working with USDA.

MH: Right! She just got a major promotion which is fantastic. So, you have told us all of the positions that you have held but what actually what are the positions that you have held in the state department and what do they call that?

CN: Well, as I mentioned I first started out with the Department of Education mainly working with the school breakfast and lunch programs and the position was called at that time Program Manager. And I basically stayed working in that particular part of the program probably for about twenty-one years and then I applied for a position with the Department of Education in the Child Nutrition programs to coordinate the summer food service program. Prior to that point in time there was a whole section that did the summer food service program and it was not connected with school food service. But at the time that I applied for that position our director was trying to merge the two programs and so since 2001 I have been working very closely with the summer school food service program but I still work quit a bit with the national school lunch and breakfast programs and recently we got a new program and it is called the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and I am also coordinating that. We just basically got that program off of the ground and we are running that program now in five parishes in the state so we are just getting started with that program.

MH: So are you directing all of the parishes because you know that they use to divide the parishes up so everything that you are doing now is all related?

CN: Everything that I am doing right now is state wide with the summer program, the national school lunch program and the fresh fruit and vegetable program but we do have staff members that work primarily with the school lunch program and they have certain parishes that they cover.

MH: Wow! [Well], do you happen to know about how many students that we are talking about? I mean [as fare as] in the entire state?

CN: Melba, I really can’t recall that number at this time. I really don’t know. We have all of our statistics that we just pull them up.

MH: So you already told us how your educational background helped prepare you for your career in child nutrition and of course your dietetics degree and such. [Well] are there other things that you fell prepared you for your field?

CN: Well, probably just self discipline and working hard —

MH: Determined — [Laughter]

CN: Right! [Laughter]

MH: Well, is there anything unique that you feel that your state [does] in-regards to child nutrition programs?

CN: Well, I think that our state first of all has very high participation in the school lunch program which is accredited to all of the local school districts who provide a very high quality meal and working hard to find foods that are nutritious and well liked by the students. I think that our state has done very well at moving from our manual systems that we were involved with in the past and going to more electronic methods of managing our data and our point of sale. Also, our state-wide systems that we have now are automated [including] the application process and the automated claims instead of being submitted by hand or on paper and now everything is being done electronically and I think that our state has a very excellent system and I have been very fortunate to have been with the state to see all of that trans —

MH: Yes, [the entire] inception of that!

CN: Yes, all of the things that occurred to get us to that point. [Laughter]

MH: You have been through a lot of things — [Laughter] So what is a typical day like in your career?

CN: Well, I like to say sometimes that this job gives me ADD because I can’t concentrate on any one thing for too long before something comes up whether it’s a phone call or a crisis or a meeting. And it’s just really hard to always have that to do list in your mind implemented in a particular day because what you feel like you need to do is not necessarily what other folks think that you need to be doing. [Laughter] So at any rate it makes the job very interesting and there are never any dull moments, ever!!! And there are never any idle moments either.

MH: So that goes into the next question — what are some of your biggest challenges that you face?

CN: Well, one of the biggest challenges I think is in regards to the summer food service program because here we have a group of people that are very diverse that participate in this program. We have the dedicated food service professionals from the school systems which are a breeze to work with but we also have people that have no food service background, no concept in what is involved in terms of record keeping or financially what is involved or what risk there are or what needs to be micromanaged in order for the program to be successful. And to be able to work with those kinds of people and see them have a successful program is probably one of the biggest challenges. And that is followed no too far behind by the fact that in the school food service arena now we have so many charter schools rounding up that the number of school food authorities that we have are just growing by leaps and bounds and they also have very little food service background for the most part and you have to take them from the very start you know. And it requires a lot of training and re-training and there is a lot of turnover with some of our school food authorities, particularly with charter schools and such and all of that is just really a really big challenge.

MH: I can see that my goodness. So, what changes have you seen in the child nutrition profession over the years?

CN: Well, the biggest change goes back to the fact that as I said when I first started working with the program managers had so many things to do manually from their method of keeping up the children who ate and the different categories with little pieces of paper and dots and squares and checks are this category and dots are that. And they had to sit there and re-create their counts to be sure that they were using a method that would yield correct counts. And now that we can do all of those things at the touch of a button rather than all of this manual counting and re-counting, writing and re-writing, that’s probably been one of the most rewarding things to see so that managers can focus on other things. However, as we began to save time through automation we began to get more regulations and now, you know, we have a lot more other things that we have to do instead of concentrating on the simple things. Like the school meal initiative, which is wonderful, and an initiative that is great but it requires a lot of work and you know verification has become very complicated. So I have see a lot of changes and a lot of faces have changed. I think that another thing that kind of surprises me is when I first started that someone would get into the field they would never leave until they retired but now we have a lot of turnover but I think that it is just because there is a lot of responsibility and it is kind of hard to get it all done.

MH: Do you remember who the state director was when you got there?

CN: Oh gosh! Jay — Jay — well, I don’t think that I can recall the name. But he wasn’t there very long when I first started but then it was Dr. Denning and then when he left it was Jane Mendel and then Joan — what was her last name? You know, [Joan] who eventually went to food distribution — do you remember her?

MH: I don’t recall — Jane was there and then there was Dr — .I can’t think of her name —

CN: Nell Burnett?

MH: Was she at the state department?

CN: [Yes]!

MH: She was there for some time right?

CN: Oh yes, a long time.

MH: So my goodness, you have seen many faces haven’t you? Especially [being] in the state department for thirty-four years. So what do you think has been your most significant contribution to the field?

CN: Well, I was part of the group that worked for a very long time with software development, not that I am capable of writing any kind of code or anything like that, but we worked with a group our of Florida at one point in time and put in a lot of work to try to get that system working for us and we eventually had to abandon that. And then a few years went by when we really didn’t get back involved in that and when we did we hired staff. So instead of picking up a package that someone had already written we had a lot of input with programmers that we had on staff to write the code and for it to do what we wanted it to do and that was very exciting and rewarding to be a part of that team to do the testing and the input into we need this and we need that —

MH: So you kind of developed your own software program and personalized it?

CN: Well not me personally —

MH: But I mean had important input in on it.

CN: I mean our group of staff that was there at the time and working on that project that to me was probable one of the most rewarding.

MH: Are you still using it?

CN: Oh yeah, we sure are!

MH: Do you have any memorable stories?

CN: Well, I think that probably the most memorable thing that comes to mind is the first year that USDA passed the regulation that put the coordinator review into place in Louisiana. The very first CRE revive in Louisiana I was the leader of that review and we had our USDA counterparts from Washington come. I am sure that you remember the names of these people — Bob [Eaty] and Stan [Garnett] and Ronnie Rhodes came down to watch me do the CRE review and it was my first one and I had not been with the state for too long and [so] I was petrified. I will never forget that but I got through it all and they were very supportive.

MH: I was going to say that you couldn’t have worked with such better people.

CN: They were great but I didn’t know that! [Laughter]

MH: I remember you coming to do a CRE review at Ascension Parish.

CN: You all passed with flying colors!

MH: No, I was petrified. [laughter] Well, what advice would you give to someone who was thinking about entering the child nutrition program field today?

CN: I would say that it was a great, great career. It has been so rewarding and I mean who could ever fault you for working in this field. It is just such a noble effort to meet the children, to be concerned with their nutritional welfare, to work with so many different people. You know you go through your career and you get to meet so many wonderful people and so many talented knowledgeable people and its just been great. And I always recommend it to anybody that was considering a field in nutrition or even dietetics.

MH: Can you think of anything else that you would like to add?

CN: No, other than that I think that this is a great project that y’all are doing.

MH: Well tell me one more thing while I am thinking — were you here and how did it affect with the storms such as Katrina?

CN: Oh, I should have said that that was one of my most memorable experiences.

MH: Tell me about that.

CN: It was just unbelievable to see the devastation in the schools and in the area. You almost had to have a gas mass to walk into some of those buildings after they had been sealed up for so long. We were involved from the standpoint that the Department of Education took over the New Orleans public school system and took a lot of schools that were under them and formed the Recovery School District. So because this was a part of the Department of Education and we were the Child Nutrition Program staff we were very much involved with trying to get schools back up and running. [Also,] we were to start new schools under the recovery school district and to find ways and means to get food available to the children because we had no working kitchens, we had problems with food sources —

MH: Vendors!

CN: Vendors, right! So what actually transpired at that point in time was we ended up having to use food service management companies. Charter schools are not bound by the laws that apply to other public schools and that’s, I guess, to give them a chance to be creative or what have you so even thought its against state policy for public school systems to use school food service management companies in the public school arena, the charter schools were able to do that so basically what the children were being fed for lunch was being shipped in from elsewhere and we were having to use a lot of frozen foods and [the problems with] heating so that was very difficult. I was glad to see, and unfortunately it took a couple of years, I was glad to see us able to do actual food preparation again in New Orleans because something cooked on site is always much better than off.

MH: And also, the population of the students must have decreased significantly?

CN: Oh yes, but it is getting more populated and the schools enrollments are climbing and its probably seventy percent I would just through out with a wild guess.

MH: Of children coming back to schools?

CN: [Yes]! And the number of schools that the New Orleans public school system lost was basically just gained back through the recovery school system. So even though New Orleans public schools went from one hundred plus schools to right now this is just a long guess but I think that they only have about fifteen, but in the recovery school district that number grows daily. I wouldn’t even want to venture to guess on that but —

MH: From one hundred schools to fifteen schools?

CN: But, the recovery school district has a very large number.

MH: Wow, well that was truly overwhelming wasn’t it?

CN: Yes it was, very much.

MH: And how did you keep count of it all and try to identify?

CN: Well, we did get some wavers for a certain amount of time where USDA allowed us to claim all of the children as free but that was just a temporary thing. And once those wavers expired we were back to the old manual ways of counting meals with checklist and such as that until they were able to slowly purchase computerized point of sale equipment and now we are getting back from having everything so manual from the way that we had to go after the storm.

MH: Well Cindy thank you so much for coming in today and providing us with this vast amount of knowledge.

CN: Well thank you Melba I really appreciate it!

MH: And we appreciate it so much.

CN: And it was so good to see you again, as always!

MH: Thank you!