Interviewee: Dorothy Pannell-Martin
Interviewer: Meredith Johnston
Date: June 23, 2004
Description: Dorothy (Dot) Pannell-Martin graduated from the University of Mississippi where she wrote her MA thesis on the National School Lunch Program. She worked for five years during the 1960s as a supervisor and then as assistant director for the Prince George’s County (Maryland) School Food Service program. Ms. Pannell-Martin then served as food service director at Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools, one of the nation’s largest school systems, for 17 years. She authored the classic textbook School Foodservice Management, which was first published in 1975 and is now in its fifth edition. Ms. Pannell-Martin also wrote the USDA Food Buying Guide, the Menu Planning Guide, and a Child Care Equipment manual. In 1981 she founded inTEAM Associates as a consulting service. In 1992 she retired to devote full-time to the company and to do training programs across the United States.
Meredith Johnston: It is Wednesday, June 23, 2004, and I am here to interview Ms. Dot Pannell-Martin at the Child Nutrition Archives. Thank you very much for doing this with us.
MJ: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs or school lunch programs?
DM: Tenth grade.
DM: Yes, there was a school lunch program at my high school and I, it always smelled so good, and I really looked forward to lunch there.
MJ: How did you become involved with child nutrition programs?
DM: Well, when I was in graduate school, my advisor, who was Dr. Blanche Tansel at the University of Mississippi, steered me that way. She was very much into working with school food services. The University offered classes for school foodservice managers in the summer. So, she suggested that I do my research and thesis on the School Lunch Program. So I did. I was also a lab instructor at the college because I was working my way through college, a graduate degree. And I was one of the graduate school instructors. When the school food service people came in they were so much fun to work with and I thought, “Wow, that’s a neat group of people to train and to work with.” Then, when I moved to Chapel Hill, NC, again Dr. Tansel came into the picture. She knew the N.C. Director of Child Nutrition. She contacted her and helped to get me a job. I was lucky. I was the director for the Chapel Hill City Schools, my first job in food services.
MJ: Do you have any vivid memories or particular stories about that time?
DM: Oh yes. I was out of college and I thought I knew a lot about what I was doing, but I found out very quickly I didn’t. So many of the managers were old enough to be my mother. An incident that I remember quite well was when I decided to put corn-on-the-cob on the menu, and the only way I knew corn was on the cob in a shuck. We were serving about 800 at one of our high schools. Somewhere around ten thirty in the morning the manager called me from the high school and told me that her staff would like for me to come over. And so I went over and parked at the back near the dumpsters. Well, all the high school employees were out on the loading dock shucking corn; silks were everywhere. And when I walked up they just looked at me. I never put fresh corn-on-the-cob on the menu again. When I did put it on the menu it was to be frozen, not in the fresh form.
MJ: That’s great. Would you tell us a little about your educational background? You touched some on that, but how that prepared you for the child nutrition profession?
DM: I started at Mississippi College in Clinton, majoring in Accounting, but I got my bachelor’s degree in Home Economics. I wouldn’t take anything for starting in Accounting, because that prepared me, as much as any nutrition course, for the job I’m doing, or did. And I switched my major about the end of my sophomore year to Food and Nutrition. Well, actually it was general Home Economics. Then when I got to the University of Mississippi there were two majors being offered. One of them was Child Development and the other was Institutional Foods Administration. I chose the food, rather than the child development area, and that sort of steered me in the way I went. I think every job that I had prepared me for what I do in school food services. When I was at the University of Mississippi I worked in the accounting office and I was in charge of payroll. Then I became the assistant to the chief accountant, preparing profit and loss statements, budgets, and things like that. It taught me so much about finances and I wouldn’t take anything for that. So, you know, each job we have we can pull from – that is our experiences.
MJ: Was there someone, a mentor, who was influential in directing you in the child nutrition field?
DM: Well, Dr. Tansel, who I have already mentioned. Unfortunately she has passed away. She was very dedicated, and she did steer me a lot in that direction, and, I guess you could say, she was a mentor. When I became a new director, I remember Jo Martin, for example. She was key to me. She taught one of the first supervisors’ training seminars. I can remember it so well. It was on work scheduling. She impressed me so much, and I always kept that as one of my guidelines, to do work scheduling.
MJ: Would you tell us about your experience in school food service in a little bit more detail?
DM: Well, I started in Chapel Hill with I think six schools and eight by the time I left there. It was a growing community and it was a great place to start – small. And then I did some teaching part-time after I left Chapel Hill; I had small children. I taught for the State Department of Education in North Carolina and would report my grades to the local community college. I had classes that were out in the field around the state. Following that I moved to the Maryland area. My husband was teaching at the University of Maryland, and so I started teaching at the University on a part-time basis. I couldn’t find a job in school food services as such that was part-time; they wanted me full-time. I taught a variety of courses related but some unrelated – like clothing. But it still was a great experience. When my children got a little older I went to work for the Prince George’s County (MD) School Food Service program. I was a supervisor with 50 schools assigned to me. It was a very large school district. And then I became assistant director of food services in Prince George’s County. In 1975 the Fairfax County (VA) school food service director’s job became available. I was in Fairfax for 17 years as food service director. One of those years I was on loan to USDA – it was a personnel exchange program. It was great. I went to USDA in 1979 I think it was. I was asked to come in because USDA needed to update the Menu Planning Guide and the Food Buying Guide. So while I was there the section I was over produced those two manuals and a child care equipment manual.
MJ: What time period would you have been at Chapel Hill and then at Prince George?
DM: Oh my, you’re really are out to get down to my age now. I was in Chapel Hill in 1962 and I stayed there two years. Then I taught at the University of Maryland for about three years, Prince George’s County five years, and finally in Fairfax 17 years. During that time I was asked to do consultant work with various people – doing various things in school districts, problem solving and things of this nature. And I had been asked to write a book on financial management for the state of Kentucky. When I took that contract I knew that I couldn’t continue to do things on the side, because I was using all my weekends and vacation days. Something had to give. So I ended up taking early retirement in ’92 with the idea that I would do training programs across the United States. We have been providing training programs in controlling cost in the food service industry, school food service in particular. And then our other big course is the inTeam Food System training.
MJ: Now, you wrote the Food Buying Guide didn’t you? Is that correct?
DM: Yes, and that was while at USDA. That was the Food Buying Guide that precedes the one that schools are now using. I had 13 people that worked in the department I supervised. USDA brought me in to be in charge of those people. And we were to produce the Food Buying Guide within about six to eight months after I got there. And believe me, that and the Menu Planning Guide were quite a challenge. The Menu Planning Guide wasn’t half the challenge as the Food Buying Guide, because I knew something about that subject. But the Food Buying Guide involved quite a bit of research. I didn’t agree with a lot of data in the Food Buying Guide, and I spent a good bit of time when I first got to USDA arguing about the information. Then I realized if I was going to get this manual published I was going to have to stop arguing and just do it. So that’s what I ended up doing. I lost my battles as to what was the yield of some foods. The Food Buying Guide left you with a lot of questions. I don’t know about the new one, but I know ours did leave people questioning some things. For example: two oz. of hotdog was valued at 2oz. of protein, but 2 oz. of ham was not. Does that make sense? No. But politics got into play, unfortunately.
MJ: Well, this sort of follows up from that question. How did you become involved in writing school food service resources?
DM: Well I guess it really starts back when I was in high school. I was one of the editors of my local newspaper, and I also wrote for The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis paper. I wrote about all of our school events. I sort of took it upon myself because I wanted our school publicized, so I started writing the articles. I got into writing back then, forced myself. In college I was on the newspaper staff for all those years. When I was doing my master’s thesis I had trouble because there were no primary sources in school food services that were in print. All of them were older and I didn’t have a current one. When I went for my orals I had trouble because I didn’t have primary sources (books). So I thought to myself, “Somebody has got to write a book!” I was keeping, like a packrat, articles out of newspapers, magazines, and so forth related to school food services. When I attended a seminar I kept everything, and I began my files. I had boxes and boxes of files. Whenever somebody needed something I could eventually find it – but it was quite a challenge. I kept thinking, “Somebody’s got to write a book.” But I was an unknown in the field. I had children and I wasn’t in any of the national organizations. I couldn’t go to the convention. So I thought, “Somebody else has got to write this book,” but nobody else did at the time. So I did it. School foodservice was first published in 1975. I went to my first national convention that year. A lot of people said, “Who in the world is this and how does she have the right to write this book?” I did it because nobody else did. That book has since been revised four times. It’s in its fifth edition right now. It is a good basic text that covers the school food service program with history, and you all have some copies here I’m glad to say. It’s a good reference book. It has just happened along the way that people have asked me to write guidance books for them. I’ve done quite a bit for state departments of education, because they know that I do write. I write some manuals, like procedure manuals, for school districts and things of that nature. It’s just all sort of evolved from that.
MJ: What changes have you seen in the child nutrition profession over the years?
DM: Oh, wow. It has really changed; there are so many changes. I think probably the biggest one has come about because of technology. I think technology is going to have its greatest influence in the years to come also, as we use more and more technology. But that has certainly been a godsend – the point of sale and back of the house software that are now available. I really appreciate that. Our customer has changed a lot too. You know, you think about the customer that grew up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, they’re quite different from the customer of the 90s and 2000s. There are still a lot of similarities, but there are many differences too.
MJ: How are they different?
DM: Well, they’re a greater challenge, I think. They’re sharp, they’re outspoken. Not that we didn’t have sharp students back in those years too, but I don’t think those students felt as much freedom to express themselves as they do today. And you have to remember in the 60s and 70s how few places students had to go to eat. I mean, we ate at home most often. We didn’t eat at a fast food restaurant, and I certainly have seen the impact of fast foods. I think fast foods have had probably the greatest impact on our customer and their demands, and what they like. I can recall in the late 60s I did a presentation in Arizona. It was on merchandising and I was talking about different foods. I did an exercise in class whereas I asked them what were their ten most popular entrees. Well, I had some foods introduced to me that I had never heard of before. Today if I did that same seminar in Arizona, or in any state, the top eight menu items are going to be the same. That is what I think fast food restaurants have done for us – made our taste for foods more universally the same in the United States versus regional or local.
MJ: I’m just curious. Like what were some of the food top ten back then? Can you remember some of them?
DM: Well, it certainly was a lot of the Mexican foods in Arizona, you know. And at that point in time we really had not introduced many Mexican foods in the South or eastern part of the U.S. We started introducing burritos and tacos and items of that nature in the late 70s. I can recall it so well because I was in Prince George’s County when I first put Mexican foods on the menu. It was such a low participation day in most of the schools – except for a couple. And I was trying to figure out why is it popular in those schools. It was because there was a Mexican restaurant in the area and obviously some of the students had eaten there. Enough of them knew what Mexican was all about. Pizza was not in the top ten back then. Grilled cheese with soup, hamburgers, hot dogs, and fried chicken were in the top ten in most parts of the country.
MJ: How has training changed over the years do you think?
DM: Well, I see far more emphasis on financial management today. Melba, who’s in charge of the seminar that you hold here (at NFSMI), said she asked the group (in a seminar) what were the subjects that were most important to them right now. Most of them, about 70 percent, said financial management. And it has become that way for two reasons. One is that school districts have tighter budgets today. School districts are expecting school foodservice to be self-supporting, whereas, in the past we operated more at the expense of the school district in the 60s and 70s. We didn’t identify some costs and they weren’t passed on to us. Luckily, our administration thought we were a part of education, and today we may be a part, but we’ve got to pay our own way. It is more and more a challenge today, because the funding unfortunately doesn’t keep pace with the cost. And I look at the price of milk, how much it has gone up just this year from last school year, I see about a two cent a unit increase. Where are foodservice programs going to get the money to pay for that? It’s a matter that the federal reimbursement rates will go up some, I trust, but it probably won’t be adequate to carry or pick up this additional cost.
MJ: What do you think has been your most significant contribution to the child nutrition field?
DM: Well, I’d like to think the textbook on school foodservices has contributed. And I think today that we, Gertrude Applebaum and I work together, have taught cost control seminars across this United States. We have taught undoubtedly two or three hundred seminars by now in 45 states. We have pretty much penetrated the market with cost control seminars. And I think it has been helpful to food service directors to look at what they do as a business, because that’s what it is. It’s a restaurant business that happens to be operated in public schools; also in private schools.
MJ: What keeps you involved in the profession?
DM: Oh, just like this morning, I did a presentation here at the Institute, to a group of people from all over the country and they were so much fun. They’re sharp as a tack and they keep you on your toes, and I enjoy, I enjoy teaching. I hope I can help them make their job a little bit better. I live for that person that says, “You helped.” It’s a lot of fun.
MJ: Anything else you’d like to add or mention?
DM: No, I don’t think so.
MJ: Okay, good. Well thank you very much for the opportunity to interview you.
DM: Thank you.