Interviewee: Ed Cooney
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: April 1, 2008
Location: Washington, D.C.
Description: Ed Cooney is the Executive Director of the Congressional Hunger Center, which operates the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship Program and the Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellowship Program. The Fellows who participate in these programs gain both hands-on experience and policy experience. Before coming to the Congressional Hunger Center, Ed spent eighteen years with the Food Research and Action Center, as their lobbyist on school nutrition programs.
Ed Cooney: I’m happy to do it.
JB: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?
EC: Sure. I was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut. I went to local Catholic schools in Hartford, and a few private schools, and went on to college at Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts. I went oversees to teach high school in Baghdad for a couple years and came back and went to law school and joined the Legal Services.
JB: Oh okay, Baghdad, when was that?
EC: I taught high school English in the Republic of Iraq and Baghdad College from 1967-1969.
JB: Fascinating. Back to your earlier days when you were going to primary school did you participate in the school lunch program?
EC: I did not. I did go to a Catholic school, a high school that was created by Lithuanian refugees, and it was a very small school and had very few facilities of any type. Many parents refused to go to events because they thought the school itself was a fire trap.
JB: How did you get interested in the hunger and nutrition fields then?
EC: Well, I came back from Iraq and went to the University of Connecticut Law School and took a job with Legal Services and we received a grant to work on nutrition programs and programs that helped low-income people and during that process I met a woman by the name of Ann Tolman. She was the State Director of Child Nutrition in the Department of Education and I called her up complaining about school lunch regulations. She was very kind and thoughtful and said, “Well, why don’t you come in and see me?” So I did, and she explained how school lunch and breakfast programs worked and how complicated and important they were. There were many facets to putting together a regulation that affected children and I would do well to learn about that and she became my mentor.
JB: And she was in which state department of education?
EC: She was in the Connecticut Department of Education, and eventually placed me on an advisory committee to her agency and I served as an advisor to hires in the school lunch and breakfast programs. [I] learned a great deal from her about public policy and how rules and regulations affect the quality of a program that benefits children.
JB: What were some of the ways she guided your career, the development of it?
EC: Well, she encouraged me to attend various state meetings that the Department of Education would have on public policy issues relating to either competitive foods, foods that compete with school lunch, or how one might expand the School Breakfast Program to schools that didn’t have it or ways to work with school authorities on the Summer Food Program during the summer when kids were out of school. And so she would give me things to read and she would allow me to be in policy meetings when decisions were made and she introduced me to state and federal officials and also made it possible to meet with a wide variety of school lunch people – directors, cooks, assistants, all across the state. Connecticut is a very small state; you could get across in 2 hours, so it was a great laboratory to learn about child nutrition.
JB: So it sounds like you had a thorough grounding in all aspects of the nutrition program.
EC: Yes I did. This was between 1972 and 1979, and after which I went down to work with FRAC in Washington, D.C., as their lobbyist on school nutrition programs. So by the time I arrived in Washington I had a fairly well-grounded exposure to the nature and purpose of the programs, how they’re supposed to operate, the various roles school lunch people play, and the operation of that program. But I also learned about the role of the state legislator, Congress, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture played in an efficient and well-run program.
JB: What were some of the highlights of your time at FRAC?
EC: I was at FRAC for eighteen years. So that was quite a time. I think the very beginning was one of the most exciting times in a positive way. Those were the days when you could actually propose legislation that was creative and thoughtful and Congress would actually listen to you and fund it. I worked with a variety of groups including the School Nutrition Association on the 1978 child nutrition amendments. Prior to arrival here, I had been elected in a competitive election in New England to represent the advocacy committee on the Child Nutrition Coalition, which was a group looking at School Lunch, School Breakfast, the Child Care Food Program, as well as the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program. They were all up for review. As part of that process I worked with the legislative representatives like Marshall Matz, who at that point was working for the Senate Agriculture Committee. He later became Council to the [School] Nutrition Association. We worked with them on progressive changes on all of those programs and we ended up with a piece of legislation which 10,000 people commented on before its introduction.
JB: Wow, what was this legislation?
EC: This was the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act amendments of 1978. Carl Perkins in the House of Representatives was the major leader on that, and George McGovern, Patrick Leahy, Bob Dole on the Senate side were major players. That legislation was debated and reviewed for a year and ultimately passed, and provided a great deal of support for those programs. That I think was a very welcome beginning and introduction to the American School Food Service Association, the organization that preceded SNA. I mentioned at a recent dinner where I was given the Gene White Lifetime Achievement Award, which was of course my greatest joy and most humbling experience in life, but I mentioned at the dinner my first interaction with the ASFSA. They were sort of the big leagues and I was this little obscure Legal Services attorney coming down to Washington. Then you get to meet these folks, testify with them in front of the Education Labor Committee. I had prepared my first presentation to a major organization which was the Legislative Action Conference (LAC) for ASFSA. I had never given a public speech before and three of the presidents had agreed to have dinner with me, talk about the presentation and help me out. So we went to Trader Vic’s at the Capitol Hill, and were having dinner, and I was unfamiliar with school lunch people in the sense of their terminology. But I had prepared my presentation and brought it with me and put it on the table and was having dinner with Gertrude Applebaum, who worked on School Lunch prior to 1946 – the School Lunch Program didn’t come into existence until 1946, so she had been working on preceding programs – and Jane Wynn, who was a very active person in the Association, and Gene White, who was the Mother Theresa of child nutrition. The meal came and I had placed my presentation on the table and Gertrude said, “Look at this. Isn’t that an excellent presentation?” Well I said, “I haven’t given it yet.” Gene leaned over and said, “Ed, she’s talking about the food.” So I was unfamiliar; I’m Irish, food was simply placed there and you ate it. I didn’t know you presented [it]. That was 1978, and that was my first experience.
JB: And she’s still active today.
EC: They all are. All three of them were at the Gene White Global Child Nutrition Dinner where I received the award. Gertrude was there and Jane as well as Gene.
JB: We have Gene and Gertrude’s oral histories on the website and I’m scheduled to interview Jane Wynn later in the year.
EC: Well you can ask Jane about the infamous hotel fire.
JB: Hotel fire?
EC: Yes. Gertrude is known as a very exceptionally stylish dresser; exciting, always provocative, and extremely colorful. In the middle of the LAC one year, they had a big hotel fire. As everyone was evacuating, Gertrude took the time to call Jane and Anne Gennings to see what they were wearing. Jane told me later that when they actually got in the street, the only thing Gertrude had was her evening gown and hotel key.
JB: What a great story. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when you were at FRAC?
EC: Well, I would say in the early 80’s it was a very challenging time. President Reagan and Congress debated whether or not to cut the School Lunch programs and decided together to do that. As a result, they cut reimbursements and other benefits by 28%, a third of all programs cut, and as a direct result of that, we lost 2,000 schools, and 2 million children dropped out of the National School Lunch Program. For a variety of reasons, but that was certainly primary among them, and in the course of these cuts, a decision was made to change the nutrition standards for National School Lunch Program. Since 1946, the school lunch provided 1/3 of the total daily nutrient intake, well 1/3 of your RDAs, which was the nutrition standard. But in point of fact there are studies that show that school lunches for low-income children represented a significant portion of the total nutrients those students would consume in one day. So there was discussion at the Department of Agriculture, and for good reasons. They were worried about the School Lunch Program. If you’re supposed to produce a meal to meet the RDA, and you have 1/3 less money, well how do you do that? So there was a discussion to cut back to ¼ of the RDA. We at FRAC were very much opposed to that. When USDA issued the regulations that would achieve that particular goal they labeled ketchup as a vegetable. The reasons were that certain items like pickle relish and ketchup were credited as nutrients, and in that way you saved money. You would be meeting a phony standard though. We at FRAC were concerned that parents would no longer support the School Lunch Program at all, because they could not be secure that their children were receiving an adequate meal, and they, the taxpayers, were paying for it. So along with the School Nutrition Association and the major commodity groups, the National Dairy Council and the milk producers and the cattlemen and pork producers and everyone else formed a coalition and fought against those regs, and those regs were removed and killed. As a result, the nutrition standard that existed in 1946, and 1981 when these cuts were introduced, and in 2008, remains in place. That is a direct result of the confidence that the School Lunch Program still is preeminent, in my opinion. It is the nutrition standards that are key. If you lose the standards, in my opinion you will lose the community’s support. So that’s why in 2008 we will be seeing another fight on this issue of nutrition standards. But it won’t be on the core of the program. It will not affect the core of the lunch program, but it will affect competitive foods. The Institute of Medicine has established nutrition standards for those foods. There are some nuances the School Nutrition Association is looking at, as well as a variety of other groups. And that will be a focus of the 2009 Child Nutrition Bill. We’ll see what happens. Again, it is the standards, stupid.
JB: What are some of the big changes you’ve seen over the years in the nutrition field?
EC: Well, I remember being directly associated in some of those changes with the ASFSA, because there were only two groups in the 80’s doing 5-year plans; one was the Soviet Union and one was the School Nutrition Association. So in 1980 we all, and when I say we, there were representatives of state directors, anti-hunger groups, local nutrition groups, state officials, federal officials, in 1980 we got together for a week in Williamsburg to discuss a 5-year plan. What should be the changes? In that particular instance, one of the things was an expansion of the School Breakfast Program. And five years later we met in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, and had another discussion, and at that particular time they wanted to establish the American School Food Service Association as a pro-nutrition, national organization. There was a vote and people thought that was a pretty good thing to do and that’s what they did. In 1990 we had another such conference and talked about the Summer Food Program and School Breakfast again and set up goals and I would urge the researchers in the National Food Service Management Institute, I’m sure they already have, but to take a look at those 5-year plans. There was blood in the street. Just like you would at the Republican or Democrat National Convention, people fight for change, they think their country’s future is at stake. People really get earnest, and so they wrote papers and people fought and decisions were made and they are all recorded. The results of the 5-year planning are in place and can be reviewed. The ASFSA was located in Denver, and they wanted to be seen as an organization on an equal par with the educational groups, like the PTA, like the school superintendents, like the school principals. Well [these other groups] were all [located] here in Washington, D.C., and so at one of those 5-year planning meetings decided to move to D.C. so we can be seen as an equal playing field. All these superintendents and teachers all have a point of view on things, but we’re the school lunch people and we’re a multi-billion dollar program and the future of the nation in terms of its education, getting kids able to compete in the marketplace, nutrition is pretty much the prominent issue. I’m sure that Ms. Parker has talked about the relationship between nutrition and learning. Well, that was a primary focus of all of our groups working together and came out of all of these meetings and that’s why they moved from Denver to Alexandria, and I think it was a brilliant decision at that time. Not everybody agreed, but I think it’s turned out that it was the right thing to do.
JB: You got to be where the action is.
EC: I think so.
JB: And now you have a new position. Tell me about that.
EC: I’m the Executive Director of the Congressional Hunger Center and we operate the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship Program and the Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellowship Program. We place some of those Fellows at the School Nutrition Association off and on, working on various projects like school lunch quality or working on the various aspects of competitive foods or school breakfast. In the Emerson Program they spend six months working in the field in a local program and then they spend six months in Washington working at something like SNA or the Food Research and Action Center or Bread for the World or America’s Second Harvest, groups like that. In the Leland Program we work with the School Nutrition Association and the Global Child Nutrition Foundation oversees. We currently have a Fellow, Nicole Woo, who was working on school lunch at FRAC a few years ago under the supervision of Lynn Parker, who is now in India working on school lunch programs for 900,000 children. This program has recently spoken to us about a partnership with the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, because they are based in Stonehill, MA, and they would like to have a closer relationship with the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, so they are thinking of placing Nicole in Washington D.C. We’re talking about a new partnership with the Global Child Nutrition Foundation and Tetra Pac, in our next class, our 5th class of Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellows, which would place somebody working on school lunch in either Indonesia or some other part of Asia or Africa or possibly Latin America. The SNA and the Global Child Nutrition Foundation have projects and interests in Latin America. We have several Fellows in Latin America and the Food and Agriculture Organization has a major initiative on hunger from Alaska to Patagonia that we are now becoming involved in. The World Food Program has an agreement with the School Nutrition Association about school lunch cooperation in Latin America. So we are very interested in helping all of those groups on their efforts to reduce hunger and improve the nutrition and health statuses of children in Latin America.
JB: So your internship program’s goal is to train leaders with hands-on experience plus policy experience?
EC: Yes, that’s it. We refer to them as Fellows because they are highly educated and trained. Before they get here, before the fellowship starts, the Emerson Fellows, recent college grads or returning Peace Corps, and the Leland Fellows have degrees in agriculture, forestry, and nutrition, and have lived oversees for a period of time. We do extensive training. So when you get a Fellow, people on a regular basis hire them. Many organizations have hired our Fellows. Also, there are twelve of them working on Capitol Hill now. I can’t think of a single Leland Fellow who has ever returned to the United States in the four classes. I’m sure there are probably a couple, but almost all of them use our program as an entry to Foreign Service, or live oversees, working for the host organizations that were their former policy placement.
JB: They stay abroad.
EC: They stay abroad. Many of them are working in world food programs that are related to the school lunch programs, the McGovern-Dole program.
JB: A fascinating thing; anything else you’d like to share with us today?
EC: Well, I think we’ve been very fortunate to have some really bi-partisan leadership on Capitol Hill all the way through. When you take a look at it, you have the giants like Bob Dole and George McGovern, but many people – Charles Percy from Illinois and Jacob Javits from New York and Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota. These are people that, while they might have had a different political bent or certainly a different party association, they were really able to cooperate with one another and achieve things on behalf of the nation’s children. And that’s still true today. You have people like Richard Lugar and Patrick Leahy and George Miller, Tony Hall, Buck McKinnon, Bill Goodling in the old days, and Carl Perkins, no matter how contentious some of the issues were you always had strong bi-partisan support, and that’s why the programs have survived and thrived and why they’re doing such a good job. It’s a credit to the leadership that these gentleman and gentlewomen have provided over the years. The School Nutrition Association and the anti-hunger community had their alliances, and when you bring in local administrators and state departments of education and agriculture and work with Department of Agriculture you have the legislative branch along with the executive branch working together. You can really accomplish a great deal and that has been our history and our legacy.
JB: Well thank you for sharing your story with us today.
EC: Well thank you, I appreciate it. I wish the National Food Service Management Institute the best on their project and we’re always willing to help.
JB: Thank you.