Interviewee: Dorothy Caldwell
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: May 22, 2014
Location: National Food Service Management Institute
Description: Dorothy Caldwell, an Arkansas native, discusses her roles as a School Food Service Director, State Director for child nutrition, SNA President, and Special Assistant to the Under Secretary at USDA.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is May 22, 2014. I am here at the National Food Service Management Institute with Dorothy Caldwell. Welcome Dorothy, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
JB: Well, we finally got you here.
DC: Persistence is a great quality.
JB: Let’s begin today if we can by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up.
DC: Well, I’m a child of the Depression. I was born in eastern Arkansas in the ’30s, and had a wonderful farm family. I had two older brothers and three younger sisters, and we had a really good old fashioned life. I laughed and said that all of this eating local and sustainable agriculture is how I grew up. That’s how things were in my day. I do think that I was influenced by that. We had a little orchard, we had a garden, we had chickens, we had pigs. And I have great memories of sitting under the trees shelling peas or snapping beans or peeling peaches with my mother and my siblings. We all got in the act. I also loved riding around the farm with my dad, who would always go around to check on things early in the morning to see what was going on. Sometimes I’d be awake and when he came out to get in the truck I’d already be there to go with him. I don’t know that I remember that as much as I remember the stories that he used to tell about it. But I say all of that to say that I think my farm experience influenced me to go into food and nutrition. And when the opportunity came to get into school food it probably influenced me to go in that direction as well.
JB: Where did you go to school, elementary and high school?
DC: I went to both elementary and high school in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. That was a very small town of 1,600 people. We had one elementary school and one high school. And of course when I went to school there was no kindergarten, so I started first grade three months before I was six years old. For the first several years we did not have a school lunch program so I took my lunch from home. But when the National School lunch Act was passed we built a new school, one of those octagonal schools, where there are two or three octagons put together. And in the center of that was the school cafeteria. It’s my view that in the center is where school nutrition belongs in schools – not just in the center of the building, but in the center of everything that goes on in the school.
I had a wonderful home economics teacher who was in charge of the school lunch program, because it was just getting started, and in Arkansas one of the roles of the home economics teachers in many schools was to oversee the school lunch program. They didn’t do day-to-day operations, but they oversaw the managers who did the programs. She was just wonderful and she asked me sometimes to go with her to the cafeteria. She’d say, “Help me count the money,” or “Take a look at next month’s menu,” or whatever she thought might teach me something. So I had that experience with schools. The food was wonderful. It was cooked from scratch by community women we all knew. We’d have yummy chili, fried chicken, and meatloaf, homemade dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls, and you could smell those rolls baking when you walked down the hall. It was all good. I don’t know that we had anything precooked – no fish sticks, no chicken nuggets. It was all done right there. Now I’ll take that back. Everybody loved hotdogs and we did have them occasionally.
JB: So then after graduating high school you went to?
DC: I was sixteen when I graduated from high school and I went to the University of Arkansas and majored in home economics. By the time I got to declare an actual major I decided to have two, and majored in home ec education to be a teacher, and had a second major in dietetics, because by that time I was getting really interested in the science of nutrition. I graduated from the U of A in 1956, and an interesting thing happened during my senior year. I was president of the Arkansas Future Teachers of America, and was on the program with the president of the Arkansas Education Association, who was superintendent of the Marianna Schools. He made the major speech and I made the short 5-minute speech like you do when you’re a student leader. When I came back and sat down beside him he said, “I’m going to need a home ec teacher next year. Come to see me.” And so I did, and that’s where I went to teach when I got out of school.
JB: And how long did you teach home economics?
DC: I taught two years. Shortly after I went there I met my future husband, and within a year we were married. I worked the next year also, but decided not to work the third year, because we were going to have our first child. And our little girl Catherine was born. I didn’t work outside the home for several years, because we had five children. I was, as I said, one of six children, and my husband was one of just two. He loved my big family and wanted us to have a big family. And after five I said, “You’re going to have to get another wife if you want any more children.”
But we had a wonderful family, and I stayed home until our youngest child was almost two. One night we were playing bridge with the superintendent of schools, the same one who had hired me to come to Marianna to teach. The PTA there had been a bit critical of the school lunch program. They had built a new school and were no longer in the basement of this old building where the school cafeteria seated people on picnic tables with benches, that kind of thing. And the PTA was beginning to say, “We need to have better food in our new school. This is not as good as it can be.” And my oldest daughter was by that time in school, and I said the same thing to Al that night playing bridge. “When are you going to do something about the school lunch program?” He said, “When are you going to come help me?” Well, I’ve never been one to criticize something if I didn’t have at least a partial solution to offer. So I said, “Let me think about it.” And I did and decided to do it. I thought ‘Oh, I’ll work a couple of years and get this thing going, and then I’ll go back to taking care of my children and volunteering in the community.’ But a funny thing happened to me in that job. I just loved it. And I realized there was so much to do and so many things that I did not know about how to do the job really well. If I was going to do it I wanted to do it right, so I went right to work in one school. That was the arrangement I made with the superintendent: I would do half a year in one school, find out all I could find out about what was going on, and then the next year I would take over the other schools. That meant thirteen more – not a big district. It was only fourteen schools. But that early learning by watching people work and seeing what they liked about their jobs and what they didn’t like about their jobs, seeing how long it took them to do things, and what could be changed and what couldn’t be changed served me well. One of my favorite stories is that I had done some new menus with several changes, and the manager said, “Oh, we can’t do this.” I said, “Well, why not? What’s the obstacle?” She said, “Well we don’t have enough pans.” And I said, “I know where to buy pans.” And I think that’s really the way we need to approach a lot of problems. If we say we can’t do something, find out why we can’t do it, and many times that obstacle can be removed. She was thrilled to death when she got her new pans. I also had learned a lot of lessons about the value of being a people person. At that time we didn’t even have minimum wage and that change came about the first year I was working. Well, the women in the cafeteria were convinced that I had something to do with it. Of course I did not. But having people believe in you and think that you have their back, so to speak, is a very important part of being a school nutrition director or really of doing anything else that requires you to manage people.
JB: You mentioned your home ec teacher. Were there any other mentors on this early learning curve as you got into the profession?
DC: Oh, very much. I did not say Ms. Wisener’s name, and I just have to say Ms. Wisener. I don’t even remember her first name, but in my mind I can see her in my home ec class, in the cafeteria, and on our FHA trips. And yes, I had other great mentors in my career. The first year I took this job Ernestine Camp, whom I know that you and many people in the profession know, was the area supervisor for Marianna Schools, and she was just wonderful to me. She would call and say, “What problems did you solve this week?” Everything was positive with Ernestine. And she knew the regulations, she knew the history, she knew the politics. She knew everything about school meals and she thought the most important thing of all was to get other people to be as excited about your work as you were. And she said, “You won’t ever quite get them there, but you’ll get them on the way. You’ll move them forward. And if you have their support it’ll make your job a lot easier.” And through the years she remained like a second mother for me, a professional mother so to speak. When I was president of SNA my mother was no longer with me, so Earnestine would come to the banquets and a lot of the functions as my special guest, because I was so proud of her and her work with school nutrition and appreciative of her help to me.
JB: You mentioned SNA. Were you active in the state association?
DC: I was. Because Earnestine said to me almost immediately, “There’s a district meeting of the Arkansas School Food Service Association coming up and you need to come.” And of course if Earnestine said “you need to come”, you went. I was very impressed with the training they did. At that time the state department was not big into regs and rules and tracking what you were doing. They certainly wanted you to do things right, but they did their jobs by training you how to do things, rather than coming in and doing reports. Well, I went back and talked to the women in the cafeteria and we all went to that district meeting. Then the next summer all of the managers and I went to the University of Arkansas and took Part 1 of the managers’ certification workshop that the Arkansas Dept. of Education co-sponsored. I did not go back for Parts 2 and 3, but the managers did and they all finished their certification. They were very proud and so was I.
JB: How long did you stay in that position?
DC: I stayed in that position for twenty years. Your last question had asked about my involvement with SNA, or ASFSA. I went on to be state president not too many years after I started, really. I thought it was much too soon, but the opportunity came and there I went. Then after that I was Southwest Regional Director for SNA, and did a lot of traveling in the seven states that were in that region. Those are wonderful experiences and you learn so much from the professional association. The conferences are great, but equally important are the conversations you have, the networking you do with people after the programs are over, the sharing of experiences and solving problems, finding people who agree with you and people who don’t agree with you. It’s just about as important in my view to have people who don’t agree with you on everything to talk to, because you find that as you try to make your point, you refine your thinking a bit. You realize that maybe you don’t have all the information you need if you want to make this point better next time. And, of course, sometimes you learn that the other person understood the problem better than you and you were won over to her way of thinking. So ASFSA was very important to me, and today SNA is still important to me. After 20 years in the Marianna schools, I went to the Arkansas Department of Education, and was the state director there for ten years.
JB: State director for child nutrition?
DC: State director for child nutrition in the Arkansas Department of Education. And while I was there I was elected treasurer of SNA, and then later vice-president, and then president-elect and president – moving through the chairs. And then the year after that I was president of the School Nutrition Foundation, so SNA has been very, very important in my professional life. And my family would tell you it’s been important in my personal life too, because we planned vacations around SNA meetings. It fact one year we put all of our kids in our big station wagon, and we went to Williamsburg and made all of that southern route of sightseeing that kids need to do, then on to Washington, where I attended our national meeting and Marvin and the children toured every building on the Mall. That was the year that President Nixon left office.
DC: Before I went to the SNA meeting we had an early morning tour of the White House, with all the children in tow. We left right after the meeting was over that day to drive partway back to Arkansas. We had the radio on in the car and heard that the President had resigned and had left the White House. The kids have always said, “We were downstairs in the White House when he was upstairs packing.” That’s a good memory I think for them. We would also find ourselves going to visit them when they were in college or they were in their early years of marriage – seems like they were always ‘on the way’ to whatever child nutrition program we were going to and we’d find a way to see them while on the trip.
JB: Plan the route around them.
DC: Plan the route around them, that’s right.
JB: So, tell me a little bit about working for the state department of education. What were your biggest accomplishments and your biggest challenges there?
DC: I guess my biggest accomplishment there was building a team. I had good staff when I went to that job. Ernestine had retired the year before. The person who had been state director had retired. And they knew he was going to retire and no one on staff applied for the job, so there was a smooth transition. I knew the state staff and respected their work totally, but we had a lot of things that I thought needed to be done, and it was important that it be a team effort. So one of the first things I did was interview everybody, just went to their office and talked about what they thought about what was going on, what was the number one thing they enjoyed doing and what was the number one thing they liked to do least, and what would they like to change. Then we did a retreat not too long after that. We got an outside person to come in and facilitate that retreat, so I was not doing all the talking, as I tend to do sometimes. And that was very good as it helped us mutually establish goals and strategies. Our number one goal turned out to be ‘Expand the Breakfast Program.’
Although many schools in Arkansas had the Breakfast Program at that time, many did not. And we had started it in my Marianna school district several years before. We began first in the rural schools where the busses brought all students to an elementary school. The high school students from several busses were consolidated onto one or two buses and went on to Marianna to the high school. Those schools were perfect places to start breakfast because the students were there and you could feed them breakfast without interfering with anybody’s schedule. It gave them something to do as well as something great to eat. There was lots of poverty in that district. I didn’t talk about that, but eighty-five percent of my students were eligible for free and reduced-price meals in that school district. So the breakfast was very, very successful. And then a funny thing happened. The principals of the ‘town’ schools started saying, “When are we going to get the Breakfast Program?” And I said, “Whenever you want it.” So the very next year we started breakfast in all of the other elementary and middle schools, and the following year we put breakfast in the high school. We had lower breakfast participation in high school than in other schools. Many teenagers just didn’t think they needed breakfast, so in high school our participation was only about forty percent. In the elementary schools breakfast participation was higher than that. In fact in some of the schools breakfast participation was almost 100 percent. Back to the state office, I think our work there really grew out of my previous work, because what I had found that worked in the school district I thought was going to work in the state office. In my local district I had full support of the superintendent, school board, and principals. If I had a new idea and the managers decided we wanted to do it I’d present the plan and a few weeks later we could be implementing it. That was not true when I moved to the state department. There were a lot more hoops to jump through. I really had been recruited for that job by a wonderful woman who was the superintendent of schools in the state. Unfortunately, she died from a heart attack about six months after I went there. The person who came after that was a very nice man, but he didn’t have the passion for school nutrition that Ruth had. And so it took a little while to build that. But we did build it. And we were very happy when our breakfast proposal legislation passed unanimously. It did not require that all schools have the Breakfast Program; it required breakfast in all schools that had a certain percentage of free and reduced-price meals. And that bothered me a little bit because I believe that school meals are for all children. They’re not poverty programs. They’re health programs. They’re education programs. But that was the best legislation we could get, and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, so we decided that we would go with it and we got unanimous support.
We also had support for the NET Program. These were Nutrition Education and Training grants that school districts could apply for. I had had a NET grant while I was still in Marianna, and there was still a little NET money when I went to the state office. We had a NET coordinator who worked with other state staff to do a lot of training throughout the state.
Our state staff was also very involved with the Institute when the National Food Service Management Institute was formed. They wanted to go to the Institute and have training themselves, and I thought ‘Some of these gals could teach some of those courses that they’re going to take’, but it was still really good for them to come, because they always learned from other people and they got energized. I was at the Dept. of Education for 10 years. While there I continued involvement I in SNA. I think I said I was treasurer of SNA shortly after I went there and later went through the chairs to be president. The staff was wonderful to take up the slack while I travelled on SNA duties. I can never thank them enough.
JB: Is it common in SNA for a state department person to be an officer, rather than a practitioner? I mean, I know you were a practitioner before.
DC: It is not uncommon, but it is not the norm, I would say. Josephine Martin was the first president of SNA that I can recall who was a state director. And she had not been a local director. Jo was an academic and had her PhD before she became state director, but she knew the programs beautifully because she had traveled the state and seen so many excellent Georgia programs. Let me see, Gene White from California was a state director, and she was president. And more recently, Nancy Rice, state director from Georgia, was president. Right now I’m not thinking of anyone else, but there’s no rule that says you can’t be. It does help if you’ve also had local experience, I think. But having the state directors’ views on the SNA board is very important, and we had a State Directors Section back then.
JB: You said you were with the state department ten years.
DC: Ten years.
JB: And where did you go from there?
DC: Well, I took early retirement after that. About a year after I finished my SNA presidency I decided that I would retire, and maybe I would consult. I was having grandchildren by that time. Maybe I would just be a grandmother. And not too long after I retired I had a call from Shirley Watkins saying, “It looks like this is going to really happen.” She was going to be appointed Assistant Secretary, a position that would soon be changed to Under Secretary.
JB: For Food and Nutrition at USDA?
DC: Food and Consumer Services. At that time it was FCS. One of the first things Shirley did after she got there was get it changed to Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, as we know it today. And that was something we were going to see throughout her tenure and the time I worked with her, was that nutrition was the centerpiece of everything we did. And that was true in reality, but it was also important for it to be true in things like the name, or the talks we made. Every time you could do it you said nutrition. You just made sure that you got that in. And she even talked about the school dining room sometimes instead of the school lunchroom. School lunchroom was sort of old stuff, and we’re going to talk about the school dining room now and how we can make that environment better. So that was an important part of my work there with her. But as I said, I got a phone call not long after I had retired and she said, “Looks like I’m getting back over there,” where she had started her work at Agriculture, “and would you be interested?” I said, “Maybe.” I knew I would be the minute she said it, because I knew Shirley well. She was president when I was treasurer, and we had worked together getting the Association office moved from Denver to Washington. That was her big dream, and I, as treasurer said, “We can’t afford this.” She said, “You figure out how we can afford it.” She turned the tables on me. I’m always saying that to other people, “Now why not?” So she did that to me. So sure enough, we found we could, IF certain things were put in place. And once we had laid out the things that had to happen to make it feasible financially, then it was easy to track and see that we were really doing what we said we would do. If we had not followed the plan, we would have gone down the tubes financially with that move, but we did follow the plan, and we didn’t go down the tubes!
Anyway we had a lot of trust for each other and had a vision that was the same on school nutrition programs. So after Shirley called nothing happened for a while, and then one day I got a call and she said, “Come to Washington.” And I said, “Okay, when?” And she said, “Two weeks from Monday.” I had to put my house on the market, and do all kinds of things. Two weeks from Monday I was in D.C. I had left on Saturday and driven across country with enough stuff to survive for a month until my house closed and I could get movers. It was a wonderful four years working in the Food and Nutrition Service at a time when nutrition was moving front and center in USDA, and was moving in that direction in schools across the country.
JB: You’re an adventurous lady.
DC: Well, when you have children you learn you have to take some risks. Also, my husband died after twenty-five wonderful years of marriage and five children, and I had to think about their future, as well as my own. Now where were we when I went off in that direction?
JB: You were going to tell me about working at USDA.
DC: Okay. I was named Special Assistant to the Under Secretary – that was my first title – and worked in the office in Alexandria. And my job there was to be sure that everything that went through that office had some relation to nutrition, that we really made a push for it. As positions became available, we looked for the opportunity to hire new people who had local experience, and if not local then state experience. We believed that nutritionists should be involved in all the areas – from commodities to grants management to policy.
JB: Let’s back up just one second, because you’re talking about nutrition. I think we skipped over the part of you getting your master’s and your RD, right?
DC: Right. Oh, I forgot to tell you about that. Thank you, Jeff. That was while I was still in Arkansas. I was still in Marianna in fact, and it was before my husband died. My oldest daughter was in law school and the other children were not far behind. Catherine came home the first year and ran the house so to speak, and I had full time help, so they managed beautifully while I went to Knoxville for 5 weeks, to begin my master’s in Food Systems Administration at the University of Tennessee. The next summer I went back for five more weeks, and the third summer I went the full 10-week summer session. I took a couple of statistics courses at Arkansas State University and did a field experience in a Memphis hospital during the school year. It was a happy day when I received my Master of Science in Food Systems Administration degree in May 1978. At that time, you could take the Registered Dietitian exam after completing a master’s degree, so I did that and became an RD. Doing this while holding a full time job was difficult, but I had the full support of my family and of the school administration. My superintendent believed that the director of food and nutrition in a school district should be equal in qualifications and experience to directors of curriculum or other cabinet level positions and he gave me flexibility to earn the master’s degree. Being a registered dietitian with a masters in food systems administration proved to be major assets in getting the USDA position and in moving nutrition higher in the Department’s priorities.
JB: And you’re making sure everything is nutrition oriented at the Department.
DC: Right. Shirley also had ideas about working with health organizations and getting them to collaborate with us on materials that we wanted to develop, and so we did. We invited representatives from a large group of organizations to join us. I was the team leader, but a lot of the staff worked on this as well. I had served on ‘Creating a Blueprint: The Authors’ Panel for the Education Development Center’ funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention while I was in Arkansas. And I was able to use that experience when working with Coordinated School Health activities while at USDA. At the first meeting someone made a presentation of a dysfunctional coordinated school health program. They used something like an org chart where instead of all the circles being where they should be in a well-organized coordinated school health program, they were just randomly placed about. And interestingly enough, there was no school nutrition circle there. So not only was it dysfunctional, it was incomplete. And I made that comment. The person who was making the presentation hadn’t even missed us! And this was a really good time for us to be there, and a lot of things came from that group. Everyone began to know and think about how much school nutrition was integral to the whole child in school. The Author’s Panel I mentioned earlier completed our report and it was widely circulated in book form titled Health is Academic: A Guide to Coordinated School Health. I mentioned that CDC funded this, and that’s an important thing to talk about because the Food and Nutrition Service staff had not worked with CDC before. And because of the contacts I had made working on the Authors’ Panel we were able to schedule a meeting in Atlanta with some of the CDC staff. We talked about the direction we were going at USDA and what opportunities were there for us to collaborate with CDC. Shortly after that meeting CDC staff came up and met with us at FNS. And that started a partnership that exists to this day, and exists with NFSMI as well. I think probably the work that Shirley and I did there with the CDC probably led them to understand how many really good people were here working at the Institute. And when food safety money became available they immediately thought about the Institute. By that time a representative of CDC had been appointed to the NFSMI advisory committee.
While I was still in Arkansas, I had the opportunity to serve on other, outside committees and commissions, and I think those helped me in my work when I moved to Washington. I was on an advisory committee, ‘Eat Well and Keep Moving,’ that Harvard School of Public Health did, and also on the ‘Resetting the American Table: a Speakers’ Bureau’ – I was thrilled to be asked to do that one. The American Institute of Wine and Food had invited me as SNA president to come to a meeting and make a short presentation, because people were beginning to talk about schools and how important school meals were, and what we might need to change. So that was a really good opportunity. Later several members of the SNA board were invited to a meeting and a couple of us were given opportunities to be on the Speakers’ Bureau. Julia Child was at one of the meetings. You always love it when you get to do those things, but the important part of it is hearing people from other arenas begin to take ownership of good nutrition in schools.
In Arkansas I was involved with the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, almost a charter member of that group that was founded by Hillary Clinton and several other child advocates. So I think that may have had a little influence on whether or not I went to Washington. The American Dietetic Association, now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is another organization in which I was active, and had been recognized as Arkansas Dietitian of the Year. After I was president of SNA and was at USDA, I was awarded the ADA Medallion for our work in nutrition in schools. The Medallion is the Academy’s premier recognition for people’s outstanding work, but I felt like the recognition was not only for my work as much as it was the work that I was sort of the face for.
I did a lot of things with NFSMI and USDA when I was in Arkansas. I was on the Institute’s original Research, Education, Training Advisory Board (RETAB) and a number of task forces and work groups. They would have task forces on all of the different issues that were coming up, and often I’d be invited to come and work on those. Current and Future Directions of Child Nutrition Programs was one of the USDA ones. The Curriculum for School Food Service and Nutrition was another task force.
Another group I worked with was in connection with the National Action Conference: Partners to Change the American Diet. A group of organizations that wanted to advance the discussion on changing the American diet came together and I was asked to represent SNA on the planning committee and later as a presenter at the conference.
JB: Do you remember when that was?
DC: That was in ’94-’95. Another big thing in the SNA futures hopper at that time was credentialing. Many of us believed that we needed a credential similar to the RD. A lot of our members were registered dietitians, but many were not. We didn’t think it was necessary to be an RD, but we did think it was necessary to have some recognized credential that would reflect competence. So I was on the early task force. Later, long after my time as president, the SNS credential was put into place and has been very, very successful.
JB: How did your educational background prepare you for your career in nutrition?
DC: Pretty well I guess, is the short answer. The long answer is much more complicated. I didn’t mention 4-H when I was talking about how I grew up, but I was very active in 4-H and the opportunity for leadership that 4-H provided helped me develop those skills. They also helped me – as 4-H does – to have a project and to complete it, even if it gets a lot harder along the way than you thought it was going to be. The goal is not to be perfect; the goal is to complete a good project. And that was a valuable lesson for me. The two academic degrees that I earned were very important to my career. They gave me a well-rounded education. The one from UT, the master’s program I mentioned earlier, was in food systems administration. That was different from a straight nutrition, dietetics degree. I think that was important, because systems are really what we are interested in in school nutrition programs. Sometimes I thought I was in an engineering class when I was taking that master’s work, because it taught us to start with the end in mind, then identify and focus on all the steps to get there. Well that was the kind of thinking I had done over the years; it was just the way my brain worked I think. So that degree verified to me that this was the way to approach the rest of my career, and it also helped me develop skills I had not had previously.
JB: What was your 4-H project?
DC: Mostly my projects were sewing. I did have some cooking ones, but I was not the best seamstress in the world, and Mother, who was a remarkable seamstress, thought 4-H would improve my skills. And I did learn to sew better than I had before. But my most fun project was participating in cooking demonstration contests sponsored by the Woodruff County Electric Cooperative. My younger sister and I won the award three times. Now we’re going back many years ago – I didn’t dream of mentioning that today – but it has brought back a fond memory.
One of the winning demonstrations was using an electric skillet, a new-fangled piece of equipment at the time. Peggy and I developed a recipe for a Pork Chop Skillet Meal, using pork chops, topped with an onion slice and a green pepper ring that was filled with rice and surrounded by canned diced tomatoes and herbs. It was a big hit at the contest, and it is still a family favorite. But as far as being able to identify any one thing that prepared me for my career – you know there’s not any degree that makes you qualified for any job. You may get your foot in the door, but you’ve got to learn on the job in order to be really successful. I didn’t dream that I would ever be in DC working for the Department of Agriculture. I didn’t even know about that kind of position when I had my first job as a home economics teacher. But I did know that my parents had reared me to do the best I could do in whatever situation I was in. We had an interesting thing happen in our lives when our children were in public schools in Marianna. The schools were integrated for the first time, and that was a very difficult time in our little town with its high rate of poverty. Marvin and I were very convinced that we needed to be part of finding solutions to the issues. Many of our friends sent their children away to school. Others moved to areas with fewer minorities, and others started a private academy. We believed that what was best for our children and best for the community was for all of us to work together to solve this problem, as difficult as it was. So we stayed in Marianna, kept our children in the public schools, and did our best. I’m sure our children’s ‘education’ suffered in some ways from being in a school system where there were many problems, but in many other ways they got a very good education in that situation. So the reason I’m mentioning that now is you’re educated in ways that are far beyond the courses you study and the degrees you get. And our children, all five of them, have gone on to be successful, wonderful, wonderful adults. So I guess the most important part of my education was learning that you do your best every day and then the next day and the next day – and you keep your ears open to hear opportunity when it knocks.
JB: Is there anything unique about Arkansas regarding child nutrition?
DC: Yes. I don’t know if unique is quite the right word, but we were one of the states, long before I ever knew about child nutrition, that thought child nutrition was very important to children’s’ education. Ernestine Camp, who I mentioned earlier, was very active in school nutrition back in the WPA days. Before the National School Lunch Act was passes there was money for some schools to have school lunch programs, and she not only ran the school lunch program, she also ran a canning kitchen in the summer. And there were several people like that in the state. The first director of child nutrition for the Department of Education was Ruth Powell, who was also very active in the National PTA and on their board of directors – treasurer, I believe. She did a lot to get PTA to promote child nutrition in its early years. And she was an extraordinary leader among school administrators. Many of the southern states were involved in that kind of work. The Southern States Work Group is one that comes to mind. Those pioneers believed that school meals are an education program as well as a health program. In my own little community, before I started to work, there was some money available to update equipment in schools, getting ready for the integration of the schools. Our superintendent jumped at the opportunity, and we had beautiful, beautiful cafeterias built with well equipped kitchens. The first time I visited one of those kitchens I saw the steamer and walked over to look at it. When I opened the door, I found employees’ purses stored there, because they didn’t know how to operate the steamer. We soon solved that problem and they decided they weren’t as afraid of the steam from the steamers as they thought they were. I guess that’s not unique, but it describes the nature of the communities. Arkansas is a state that has lots of poverty and lots of wealth, and that is reflected in the schools. I wish that were not the case but it is the case. If our programs ever become programs for the poor the quality will deteriorate. History has proven that. When programs are only for the poor they are not given the same level of funding and scrutiny for quality that they are if they are for all children.
JB: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced over your career?
DC: I guess I’m going to talk about the nutrition integrity standards. When I was elected vice-president of SNA the incoming president, president-elect, and vice president began working together as an executive team to plan projects that needed a focus over more than one year. One of the things we wanted to do was to work on getting standards in school nutrition. Little did we know that 20 years later school nutrition standards would be federally mandated, and there would still be controversy concerning their implementation.
The term ‘nutrition integrity’ first surfaced in a five-year long range planning conference in a work group led by Gene White. The group shared their thoughts with the nutrition education work group I was chairing. Together the two groups hammered out a beginning definition.
The SNA Nutrition Committee put together a draft of core principles for Creating Policy for Nutrition Integrity in Schools that was circulated widely for comment. The executive board made the final decision and I had hoped it would be unanimous. But it wasn’t. However, the policy document did passed easily, so we proceeded with the plan to get key health and education organizations to endorse it, and that was very successful. The American Association of Business Officials (ASBO) was the only organization giving only a qualified approval, rejecting the item ‘Food sold to students outside the school meal programs will be limited.’ That item caused them to be concerned about losing a-la-carte revenue. Years later when the Institute of Medicine made their standards recommendation one of their guiding principles was ‘The federally reimbursable school nutrition programs will be the primary source of foods and beverages offered at school,’ showing that ASFSA was perhaps ahead of its time.
By the time the Institute of Medicine wrote their report they went even further than we did and talked about competitive foods. By that time also I had authored a position paper on competitive foods and presented it to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), hopefully to be approved by the House of Delegates. One of the members of the ADA board of directors spoke against that position on the floor. Her reasoning was that ADA had a lot of contributions from food and beverage companies, and they were not going to be happy with our proposed position. And so it was her view that in her role as a member of the board of directors, she had to look at the financial picture, so she voted against it. Members of ADA’s school nutrition dietetic practice group did lots of work to develop a majority vote, and the position was passed. Different iterations of that position paper have been done three times since then, updating it as times have changed. That was a big challenge, and it was a challenge that hasn’t been fully met yet. Although Smart Snack standards were required by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), they are just now beginning to be implemented and concerns about the fiscal ramifications still exist. We have come a long way though, and many more individuals and groups throughout the country now understand that it is not only school meals that help children ‘eat to learn and learn to eat’. All the foods students have access to at home, in school vending machines, school stores, and in other away from home venues influence the eating patterns they are developing. If our students are not healthy they cannot learn. If they learn to eat well they’re going to teach their parents to eat better. If they learn to eat better they’re going to feed their children better. So making certain that all foods available in school are health promoting foods has long term benefits. And we’re still working on it.
JB: What are some of the changes you’ve seen over the course of your career?
DC: Oh, many, many, many. When I ate my first school lunch, everybody ate the same thing. The food would be dished up on trays, and we would walk up and just pick one up. There may be four or five trays served and waiting to be picked up, and they were all just exactly alike. Shortly after I became director in the sixties we built a new high school and included in it opportunities to have three different lines with choices on each of those lines, so students could make a choice of which line they would choose, and some choice within each line. They had the opportunity to choose a very healthy meal, but they also had the opportunity to choose french fries every day if that’s what they wanted. That was in the old days when that was what my school board wanted me to do, so that’s what we did. But we also had a soup and salad and sandwich bar where students could make really healthy choices, much like what college kids do.
There are, of course, many other changes. When I was local director, I never paid a janitor’s salary to clean the kitchen and cafeteria floors. I never paid for the delivery man who delivered commodities from our central storage to each school. I didn’t pay for the warehouse. The community believed that the school meal program was an important part of the overall school program and they were going to support it with funds and services, just like they supported the football team and the chemistry class. Now we kept our money separate, in separate accounts, and I was limited on what I could spend those dollars on. But we were able to do a lot of things that I could not have done if I had had to pay all of those other expenses. I never paid indirect costs until I wanted a new central freezer, because our commodities were delivered in large quantities, and I didn’t have adequate freezer space. We were having to store them in an old icehouse that was much less than desirable. The freezer space I needed was costly, and the superintendent said, “We just don’t have it in the budget this year.” And I said, “Well, I have enough money in our account. I’m approaching three months of operating expenses, but the rules won’t allow me to buy the freezer with that money. It will allow me to pay the school district indirect cost, and can you put that in your budget and allocate if for a school nutrition freezer?” He said, “Yes.” And immediately I said, “Now before we do it, let’s agree that this transfer of funds is only for this year, not for next year or the next. And he said, “Agreed.” It was a one-time thing. Several years later we had a fire in one of the cafeterias, and when we got the initial drawings back from the architect with the things they were proposing for the renovation, I said, “Oh please, let’s improve this so that it fits our menus. We need a tilting skillet, a steam jacketed kettle, and a steamer.” We were still doing lots of scratch cooking. I could see my superintendent’s head shaking, so I said, “Remember that indirect cost we provided for the freezer? How about making a similar arrangement for this equipment?” And he agreed. Those are the only times we ever paid indirect costs, but we always planned ahead to have close to a three month operating budget that could cover unexpected expenses.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the field?
DC: I hope the most significant contribution is that I have helped a lot of different people view school nutrition programs differently, and view them as real health and education programs. A lot of the work I did locally was geared toward that. I did a weekly newspaper column – not just menus, I spoke to the Jaycees, the Lions Club, and the Rotary Club. And we catered the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet and did a back to school luncheon for teachers that gave us opportunities to showcase our skills. I took that same approach to the state level and continued marketing our school nutrition as health and education programs. These same values continued when I was a member of SNA’s board and later as president. And then at USDA that was Shirley’s point of view, and it was my point of view. So I guess that would be what I would say, trying to help people believe that school meals, school nutrition programs, are real health and education programs.
JB: How many different positions did you have at USDA?
DC: I had two. I went as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary. And then about a year and a half after that, Shirley asked me if I would take the Deputy Administrator’s job. I really was not too interested in that. I liked doing special projects, because I had managed people about all I wanted to by that point in my career. However I realized by that point that I could get a lot more things done if I were in that position than if I were a special assistant, so I said yes, and it worked out very well. We were able to move things faster through the agency that way. One of the things that we did after I moved to that spot was that we worked on a program with the medical profession – something we had not done much before. We reached out to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Hispanic Medical Association, the National Medical Association, and the American Dietetic Association, and got those medical groups to agree to work together on a piece that would influence their members. I led the writing team, but had lots of input from the organizations. Our finished product was Keys to Promote Healthy Eating in Schools: A Prescription for Change. And we arranged for it to be introduced at a news conference at the National Press Club with lots of hoopla, and saw both local and national results that I think have had long-lasting effects. Some of the First Lady’s success right now with Let’s Move and the HHFKA is happening because so many people across the country agree with her on the need for change. That widespread agreement wasn’t there in the ’90s, but we laid the groundwork and it has continued to grow.
JB: You’ve done a lot of writing. Do you want to talk about any of that?
DC: That’s something I have enjoyed doing a lot. I had the opportunity to write some in college, and then when I married Marvin, who was a newspaper publisher, I wrote a weekly column. And when you do those kinds of things that you have to do every week it kind of gets you in the habit of putting thoughts and dreams on paper. I submitted an article to Better Homes and Gardens titled “It’s Noon. Do you Know What Your Kids are Eating?” and was surprised, but delighted when it was accepted. When I was SNA president I wrote a column every month for the magazine, and I was able to write about things that I thought were really important, things like school nutrition is a health and education issue. Over and over you find different ways to say it. And then I had the opportunity to be on the teams with some of the health and education associations and do pieces for their newsletters, magazines, and journals. The Measure of Excellence: A History of the School Nutrition Association is another project I enjoyed working on. Jo Martin and I chaired the editorial advisory board for that book and wrote the concluding chapter. I was a reviewer for the Institute of Medicine’s Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools. I was the lead author of the school nutrition chapter in Health is Academic: A Book on Coordinated School Health. I wrote a chapter in both the first and second editions of Managing Child Nutrition Programs: Leadership for Excellence. We titled the chapter in the first edition “Nutrition Integrity.” For the updated second edition, we titled it “Wellness: Putting Purpose in Practice.”
When I moved to North Carolina after leaving USDA in 2001 I worked as coordinator of a really important program, ‘Moving Our Children Toward a Healthy Weight’. It was a Center for Disease Control program funded through the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. And I had a 100-member healthy weight task force, so working with 100 people in different small groups, and then collaborating with them to get a report written was no small thing. It really taxed my writing skills to try to keep the book we titled Moving Our Children toward a Healthy Weight: Finding the Will and the Way both motivational and action oriented. Janice LeBeuf was co-editor with me and our book was well received and has been instrumental in action.
Also in that program we had consensus panels on recommended standards for foods available in school and recommended standards for physical activity in schools. I was the lead author on the food standards and a member of the physical activity team.
JB: Any special stories come to mind as you think back about children you’ve served or people you’ve worked with over your career?
DC: One that I will never forget is I was moving from Marianna to Little Rock, and this is a really personal story, but I was in a grocery store check-out line one afternoon when the young woman who was the cashier said, “Miss Dorothy, I just heard you’re moving. I don’t want you to leave us.” I was deeply touched. Try as I might, I could not recognize how I had known her. Clearly she was a former student, perhaps a member of one of my student advisory panels, or maybe a waitress for one of our Chamber of Commerce dinners, or she had read my newspaper columns or feature stories. Something I had done had touched her in some way, and she certainly touched me. I went home that night and thought about ‘I wonder how many other children there are in the world that I may have had a small effect on and don’t even know it?’ And of course that made me think back to all the people who had affected me. One story I haven’t told you is something that happened when I was ready to go to college – the first member of my family to do so. During high school I had worked on Saturdays in a retail store owned by one of my dad’s friends, saving money for college. And I had a small scholarship to the university. One Saturday, not long before I was to leave, Mr. Rogers came and handed me a checkbook and said, “I’ve opened this account for you and you just write a check anytime you don’t have enough money for something you really need. I’ll cover it and you can pay me back when you get out of college.” Now that touched me, and that’s one of the reasons today I contribute to the School Nutrition Foundation and other groups, because he was paying it forward, and I feel the need to do the same.
When I came home for Thanksgiving that year, of course I went by to say hello and tell him my grades, and he said, “You’re not spending enough money.” And I said, “I’m spending all I need.” And he said, “No, you can’t have as much fun as you need to be having on what you’re spending.” So I spent a little bit more money the next semester. After that I got bigger scholarships and didn’t need his money, but I never forgot his thoughtfulness, his kindness, and his trust. And I have tried to make those attributes part of my life and my work with wonderful managers, cooks, and other staff in my school nutrition program and with school nutrition colleagues across the country. If that sounds like motherhood and apple pie, I guess that’s what I kind of try to be.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add today?
DC: Well do you think I’ve talked enough about nutrition integrity? Maybe you need one more spot.
JB: I do have one more question. What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?
DC: I’d say, “Go for it. It’s a wonderful profession and if you are good, you can make a higher salary as a school nutrition director that you would in clinical dietetics.” Not that that’s the reason to choose a profession, but I know it’s one of the first things young people think of when deciding on potential careers. And after they get started they are going to say, “Is this something I really want to do?” And the answer to that second question is even more important than the salary.
But I would say “Be sure that you’re willing to accept that this is not an easy job, but that it is a very rewarding job. If you love food, you love children and teens, and you believe that healthy meals are an important part of students’ learning, then you will likely be a very good and happy school nutrition director.
This reminds me of a story about my being hired as a school nutrition director that I hope you will find relevant.
When I was hired for my first job in school nutrition, the superintendent was the person who had hired me to teach home ec. Several years later, after I had stopped working outside the home to have my family, he asked me if I wanted to come back to work and help transform fourteen separate school lunch rooms into one school nutrition program with fourteen sites. When I said yes, I asked for a job description. And he said, “There isn’t one.” And I said, “You’re sure there isn’t one?” “No, but you were a pretty good home ec teacher. You’ll figure it out.” Well I did figure it out, and, in retrospect, I’m not sorry there wasn’t a job description, because I might have been bound by that. As it was, I didn’t know what couldn’t be done. I didn’t know what other people expected, other than the last thing he said was, “Just help the children eat better.” And so that became my goal-helping children eat better – and throughout all the jobs I’ve had, I think that my goal has remained the same.
So I would say to anyone considering school nutrition as a career: “If you really want to help children eat better, and you are willing to work very hard to make that happen, chances are you will find school nutrition a good career for you.”
JB: Thank you for your time today.
DC: Thank you, Jeffrey. You are a very patient and insightful interviewer.