Interviewee: Eleanor Pratt
Interviewer: Meredith Johnston
Date: September 24, 2004
Description: Eleanor Pratt began her career in the child nutrition profession as food service director for Clarksville, Tennessee, schools in 1957. With a master’s degree in Home Economics she went on in 1960 to a career with the USDA Southeast Regional Office as Home Economist. She retired thirty-four years later in 1994. Ms. Pratt died at the age of 88 on August 18, 2014.
Interviewee: Eleanor M. Pratt
Interviewer: Meredith Johnston
Interview Date: September 24, 2004
MJ: We’re here with Ms. Eleanor Pratt in Atlanta, Georgia. Thank you, Ms. Pratt, for inviting us into your home and answering our questions. Could you tell us a little about yourself and where you grew up?
EP: I’ll be happy to. I’ve always, I was born and always lived in Tennessee until I came to Georgia. I was born in Franklin, Tennessee, and at the time I was about two years old my parents moved to Pikeville, Tennessee. And at that time that was really a very courageous move on their part. It was really like the pioneering spirit because they were poor and was leaving all the family they had and want to go into Pikeville, Tennessee, a place they had never known, and to manage a farm. And it was a way for them to have a better lifestyle. And then I went to school for 12 years in Bledsoe County High School building. All 12 years was in the same building. You started in first grade on the first level and when you graduated, when you finished with the 6th grade, you got to move up to the second floor and that really was, you know, something that we were excited about. We were moving to the seventh grade floor where the high school groups were. But I graduated from high school in 1944 and was valedictorian of my class. But I don’t consider myself a smart person; I just consider myself a very dedicated person who was willing to study and answer all the questions that the teachers asked ‘cause I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t make a good grade. So it wasn’t that I was smart, it was just that I was willing to devote time and energy to learning. And I’ve always enjoyed learning and I still do. Even in my retirement I get excited about learning something that I hadn’t been exposed to before. After I graduated from high school, I didn’t get to fulfill my dream at that time of wanting to go to college. My parents were relatively poor and had a good living but they didn’t have money to send me to college. So I went to Chattanooga and enrolled in a business school and that led me into a career in the business world. I worked; my first job was with an architectural firm and I was secretary to the owner and kept the books for the company. So the combination of responsibilities, being secretary to the owner and also doing the accounting, and I stayed there about two years and then left that, still in Chattanooga, went with another firm – a construction firm, and had very similar responsibilities as a secretary and bookkeeper. And I am always grateful that I had that, those classes at business school on accounting and then had the opportunity to be the bookkeeper for two different firms, because I loved bookwork, as they used to call it. And that has helped me a great deal all through my life to have had that training and that experience. I even still do my own income taxes as a result of that. Then after. Wait, let me get my thoughts. Oh, while I was in that second job in Chattanooga, I started going to night school at what was then the University of Chattanooga private school, which was later to become part of the University of Tennessee system. I went to evening classes long enough over a period of time that I, when I transferred to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1955, I was halfway through my sophomore year. And then I stayed there until I finished a degree. And that was in 1957, and I graduated in the top ten percent of the class of the University. And I thought here I spent all this time going to college and had meant so much to me but nobody had offered me a job. I was just so disappointed and dismayed that I, nobody wanted to hire me or that nobody was seeking me. I had a nice surprise. The superintendent of schools in Clarksville, Tennessee, had been looking for someone to replace the Food Service Director there who had resigned. And he had contacted Dean Harris at the University of Tennessee and she recommended me for the job in Clarksville, Tennessee. So that was really my first introduction to school food service. At that time we called it school lunch.
MJ: And what time period would this have been?
EP: Well, I was in, I had a belated career in attendance in college. I had worked see with these two firms in Chattanooga for a number of years and then I went to, graduated from college in 1957, so it was then that I went to Clarksville. After an interview with the superintendent, he offered me the job. And I was real excited about it because it was going to be challenging and fun and a way to learn more. I had majored in institution management so here was an opportunity for me to show what I had learned, whether or not it could be put into use in a supervisory position. I am not sure I answered your question about the time.
MJ: Yes, would it have been the ‘50s, the ‘60s?
EP: Well, when I went to Clarksville, it was 1957, summer of 1957, and I stayed there two years and had just a wonderful experience there. I jotted down some things about the program. It was in the early days of school lunch programs. And they had centralized the menu planning and centralized the purchasing of the foods so I had both of those responsibilities back during the two years that I was there. I really enjoyed doing both of those because I had a minor in nutrition and that helped to bring in the knowledge that I had learned, gained at the University of Tennessee. There were seven schools in the system, two black and five white. That was a time, you know, before we were integrated. That really didn’t, was no problem for me or any of the other people in the school system. The staff in the school lunch program was integrated, but the schools were not integrated as such. I felt that I had even though this was my first exposure to school food service, I felt that I made a good connection with the superintendent and he supported me and kept in touch with me through meetings at various times. He’d always ask me, “Is anybody giving you a problem, or are you having any problems?” It was just a wonderful relationship that developed between him and me. And when I went there, the school lunch program was in the red so that was a challenge for me to see if I could operate a successful financial program, and before the end of the year we had gone from a red balance to a black balance and of course that made him think very highly of me because I had taken them out of that financial deficit. And you asked about who was my mentor in any of the positions that I had and at this one in Clarksville, Tennessee, it was Mrs. Cleo Carpenter, and she was a lovely lady who was on the state staff and very helpful to me. She was attractive, very dedicated to school food service. She came to Clarksville frequently to help me learn the program and talked to me about things I should be doing. I had all the supervision responsibilities, but as I look back on it I didn’t do very much in nutrition education and I think that’s been one of the exciting things that’s happened in school food service is that other school food service directors have done some wonderful things, very beneficial in terms of nutrition education for children and helping them to understand what we were trying to achieve through the school food service program. I listed some things that to me were typical of school food service back in 1957, ‘58, ’59, when I was in Clarksville, Tennessee. The first thing that came to my mind is that hamburgers were the most popular food and the kids were wanting us to serve chocolate milk. At that time we were only offering, as they called it, white milk. But the kids were saying, “We want chocolate milk.” And plate waste was a challenge at that time, more so in high schools than in elementary schools. We had higher average daily participation in elementary schools than we did in the high schools. I already mentioned that we had centralized purchasing and centralized menu planning. That was sort of new and not as popular, wasn’t being done as much then as now. We also had central storage, had a freezer and dry storage. And the school system owned a truck that they would use for other things, too, and they would deliver the commodities from the storage areas as I directed and as the schools needed them. And also I would purchase in bulk and put them in the storage areas and disperse them by way of that truck as needed. And that was a tremendous saving to the system and that’s one of the reasons that we were able to move from a deficit to a profit. Not a profit, but a financially sound program. Equipment was by today’s standards somewhat inadequate. You can imagine, but I will always remember the delicious food that was prepared on that equipment. It didn’t seem to, it probably limited us somewhat in the items that we could prepare, but it certainly didn’t diminish the quality, I don’t think, of the food that we served. I often wish that I could have one of the cinnamon buns that they made from scratch. And on the days that we were serving cinnamon buns you know all the teachers would say, “Oh, we can’t wait for lunch to be near.” It would, you know, the aroma of those buns baking was just simply wonderful and helped to bring the teachers as well as the students into the lunchroom. We did encourage the teachers to eat in the lunchroom. We felt that was good, set an example for the students. Equipment I could describe primarily as ovens with cooking surfaces on top. And they would of course do all the baking in the ovens and all the, most of the other preparation on the cooking services. We later did, we did have steam-jacketed kettles that we used like for pinto beans and any other dried beans and of course for some other foods, but we didn’t use those as much as we did the cooking surfaces and the ovens. We did buy some convection ovens before I left there but still used the other ovens, too. We had dishwashers in all the schools. We even had potato peelers and we were peeling potatoes and had mixers so we could cream the potatoes, which was a popular item on the menu. But the kitchens were not air-conditioned and you can imagine with all those ovens turned on that it got pretty hot on a summer day, but provided warmth in the wintertime. And we had a stable work force, primarily mothers who had children in the schools. They were very pleased to have some employment to supplement the family income and were very loyal to the program, very devoted, kind, and helpful to the children. You know, if there was a sick child they were quick to respond to that child’s need if the teacher wanted her to have some particular food, or beverage. There was a good rapport between the managers and the principals. The superintendent had made it clear that the principal was in charge. And managers were to report to the principals but were under my supervision as far as the preparation of food for the lunches. I don’t know whether y’all have ever seen those heavy china plates like we used in those earlier days and I don’t even know what they are using in the schools now. But they were very heavy and often would get chipped, you know, even particularly in the dishwashing area. But it was a backbreaking job for the people who worked in the dishwashing area and also for the people who served because they had to bring those heavy plates over to the serving line. And the superintendent had given me as part of my responsibilities as having banquets for the school board. And I’d never been in charge of a banquet before but it became kind of rewarding and enjoyable serving adults in more of a dressed up environment. You know, we would have white tablecloths and served a little different menu. But the most important thing was that it was a way of providing good will between the school food program and the Board of Directors of the schools. I stayed there for two years and was very happy, but I kept thinking I wanted to go back to college. And so I had inquired about enrolling at Ames, Iowa, to do a master’s in home economics, because that was one of the outstanding schools at that time in home economics. But before I had enrolled the university, my major professor at the University of Tennessee, called me and said they had a $3,000 scholarship and if I was interested in a master’s degree she wished that I would apply for it. And she pretty much told me that if I applied I would get the scholarship. So that changed my mind about going to Ames, as it seemed more practical from a financial standpoint to go back to UT and get my master’s instead of going to Ames. At the time, $3,000 was a lot of money and it was more than adequate to take care of my room and my food and my tuition for a year that I was working on my master’s. Then while I was at the University of Tennessee for the second time getting my master’s degree, sometime near the Christmas holidays I got this phone call and it was from the regional director of the USDA regional office in Atlanta. Mrs. Carpenter had told me about the office in Atlanta and of course I had not met any of the people there but they were, the regional office only had two positions for home economists, and one of the home economists had retired and, as I understand it, a number of people at the state level had applied for the position. But Mr. James, the regional director, had not found anyone that he wanted to employ. So he was talking to the state staff in Tennessee and they told him about my work in Clarksville and that they thought that I would be a qualified, competent employee for the regional office. So they contacted me and I got real excited about the job and that I’d really like to have it but I don’t graduate until June, but to make a long story short I went to Atlanta at my own expense and met with Mr. James. And at that time the position that was filled was none other than Josephine Martin, whom all of you probably know, and she met me at the airport and took me into the office to see it and to meet some of the other people. But basically she interviewed me as well as Mr. James, the regional director. And I was thrilled when they said they would hold the position for me until I graduated if I wanted it. And I had set up three criteria, this, what I wanted out of my next job. One was that it be in a big city. Number two that it involve some travel, and number three that it was close enough to my parents that I could go home on weekends. And this job offered all of that.
MJ: And what time was this? What time period?
EP: I went in 1960, June of 1960, and I resigned 34 years later in 1994. Would you like for me to tell you a little bit about my job?
EP: In the regional office?
EP: It started out that I was a co-worker with Josephine Martin, and she was very kind and thoughtful and helpful and all the things that you would expect of Josephine. And she never felt like she resented having someone else there because she worked alone in the interim, but her philosophy was that, well she recognized that we worked, we probably worked differently and her philosophy or concept was that there was so much work that needed to be done and working with the state agencies that we could create our own style of work and do different things so it did turn out that way that we had a happy time doing some things together but there were times when it seemed that she would be having assignments that she would do alone and I had assignments that I would do alone, but I couldn’t have had a more dedicated helpful mentor than she was during those first few months. Unfortunately for me she only stayed about a year and then returned to the state agency as the, the state agency of Georgia, as the School Food Service director. Our primary job was to assess the state agencies in operating the school food service programs. We had to evaluate them and write reports. Sometimes you felt like that you were having to point out things they were doing correctly as well as things they were not doing correctly, because it was important that we determine whether or not they were meeting the Federal requirements. Those were our guidelines, of course, were the Federal requirements. But I think the best part of the job for me was that I had an opportunity also to work further with the people on the state agency and provide training for them and help them develop programs and materials and help them as a teacher in some of their training programs every summer and went back for the state supervisors meeting and these were things that both Josephine and I did before she went back to the state agency. And I understand that some of the materials I developed are in the Archives at the Institute. And that makes me very happy to know that they are still being visible.
MJ: We are so happy to have them there.
EP: And while I was with USDA I really had two careers. The first one was as a home economist where I was working with state agencies, but at some point in this time period there, we started having what was known as processing contracts. Donated foods were sent directly to commercial companies to make into end products or items that the schools wanted to use in their menus. And there had been an audit of the regional offices that pointed out financial irresponsibility on the part of the regional offices that was a great embarrassment to the regional office directors. So Mr. Kirby, who was over the school food service programs in the office, wasn’t going to let it happen again. He took immediate action. He felt like that he was going to do something. That he was not going to be given a bad, get a bad report on his duties, so he created a position in that regional office that he called the “processing contracts specialist.” And it turned out to be good luck thing for me, but he appointed me to be that person. And I was so disappointed and so unhappy, I remember I cried. You know, I didn’t want to do that. But I checked around in the office to see what had been done already and it was primarily that someone checked in the contracts when they came into the regional office and then they were placed in a stack on a desk. Just were sitting there. And when the states wanted, or when the processors wanted more donated foods they would call the state agency and tell the state agency how many pounds of donated foods they wanted and the state agency would have been sending the requisitions to our office. But what was happening was that the processors were building up big inventories on paper that they did not have in their warehouses. They were using our commodities, or the donated foods for commercial production and that was the main finding in the audit that these processors were using our donated foods to create profits for themselves. And so I began to develop procedures for the state agencies and for the processors, working with the state agencies to see what problems there were, other problems there were and what we could do to solve them. That was quite a challenge for me and brought me a lot of pleasure in that I like to help people and that job, or that particular responsibility gave me that opportunity. And it turned out that the other regional administrators liked what Mr. Kirby had done for the Southeast Region and they began to hire a person in the position as processing contract specialist and they used some of the materials that I had developed and looked at them and helped them and if they wanted to amend them, and some of them used them exactly as I was using them in the southeast. We had a real close-knit group, you know. There were just one or two people in each of the regional offices plus the staff in Washington. We’d get together occasionally in the Washington office and it was a chance to get to know our counterparts in the other regional offices rather than just in phone conversation. But I still keep in touch with two of those processing contract specialists. You asked about what I felt was my greatest contribution. I think that for me it was that when I was a home economist that I had an opportunity to develop materials and guidelines and newsletters, various things that would help the state agencies in working with the local school systems. They often times duplicated what I had developed and sent it on to the managers, to the local supervisors for use with the manager’s training. And then I think my greatest contribution with the processing contracts, as a processing contract specialist, was developing a manual that was used too, but there were no guidelines, so this manual provided guidelines for the program, how it was to be operated, and audits after that were more favorable than that first one. As I look back on my employment with the regional office I jotted down a number of things that were typical of the program at that time. And I will be glad to review some of my thoughts with you if you want me to.
EP: We had primarily the Lunch Program when I was in Clarksville as the local supervisor, but served milk under the Special Milk Program in some of the schools. But when I came into the regional office I saw that there had been a great deal of emphasis and success in implementing breakfast programs for the children particularly in the rural areas where they came to school without having eaten anything since the day before during our, what they had for lunch at school. I saw a great deal of choice being offered particularly in high schools, which was a new thing to me. It was I think a great improvement in our menu planning with the school food service program to give the children an opportunity to select between an apple or an orange or a beef sandwich versus a tuna fish sandwich. And of course I saw that schools were getting better and more efficient equipment than those ovens and cooking surfaces that we were using in Clarksville, before becoming obsolete and replaced with more efficient equipment that provided an opportunity to prepare some foods with less expenditure of labor. I saw great changes in the appearance of the lunchrooms. They became more attractive and I was thrilled when I saw schools adding round tables instead of long tables with benches and putting up nutrition materials on the walls and handing out leaflets for them to take to the classrooms, working with teachers on nutrition education projects. I think that’s a wonderful step for the program. More funds became available through state and local that meant that we could employ more supervisors at the local level and state level, and better qualified people. With the increase in salary they increased the requirements the employee had to meet in terms of education, training, and experience. There is more emphasis on feeding all children, not just needy children, and greater effort being made to not identify the children who were getting free lunches. You know that was a stigma that in the early years I am afraid that many children had to endure. That it was, the other, their classmates knew that they were getting a free lunch. So I was thinking it was a step in the right direction that efforts were made to insure that the children who were getting a free lunch was not identified. There was continuing emphasis on training on all levels, state level, city and county level, too, as well as the school level personnel. And I think the establishment of requirements by the state agencies helped to give encouragement for the people that were working as managers or as cooks, or dishwashers, whatever. They wanted to get that recognition, we all like to be recognized. So when they went to the training sessions to acquire accreditation this was a real status thing for them. And of course the programs benefited because they learned and they increased the efficiency of the staff in the lunch programs, the school food service programs. We began to have greater variety in the commodities, some emphasis being placed on USDA buying foods that would make nutritional contributions to the programs, not just that they were foods that were available or in surplus, but foods that were being purchased to make a contribution in terms of nutritional value. And I’ve mentioned that adding processing contracts to the program was a step in creating greater variety in menus. At the time I was in Clarksville, Tennessee, as a local supervisor, there were three guides that we had, the Menu Planning Guide for Type A Lunches, the Food-Buying Guide, and then a packet of standardized menu, standardized recipes. Those were primarily all the materials that we had at that time. And those have since become obsolete and newer materials have been developed and provided. But I still have a hard time not using that term “Type A Lunch.” I taught so many classes and workshops on what was a Type A Lunch and how do you prepare the foods in the Type A Lunch that it became a part of me. But before I left, I had an opportunity, before I left the regional office I had an opportunity to work on a project, a special project, where we were using computers to plan menus to insure that all the nutrients were there. I’ve noticed that more men as, have entered the, have entered the employ, been employed in the programs particularly at the supervisory level as we got more funds and could demand more training and more qualifications, is the word I’m seeking, of the people being employed to be supervisors. Men became interested in the program. And I think with desegregation of schools and with immigration of people from other countries into our country that that has introduced a lot of different foods to our menus. We are serving, began to serve, foods that we never served before and I think immigration and integration had something to do with it.
MJ: Do you have any memorable stories other than you have shared, that you would like to tell us?
EP: I gave some thought to this, and there are lots of stories, but they’re not stories that I think would help people to understand the school food service program except that it shows that we wanted fun as well as what we were, as being dedicated workers. I have thought about every summer I helped the, I was invited to participate in the workshops in Alabama, and we would teach all day long and then at night we would go as a group to some nice restaurant that was air-conditioned, ‘cause we many times had been teaching in rooms that weren’t air-conditioned. But that group had the best sense of humor. They laughed and they told jokes that they were real storytellers, so I think from that standpoint it is that it shows that dedicated people also like to have fun when they weren’t working. I went, I couldn’t go to sleep last night because I was trying to remember a joke that I had heard many times and I knew that every time we heard, I heard it, and the others in the group heard it, we just die of laughing, but it is a joke that I can’t tell because I don’t have that kind of skill. But I do, I would point out that along with hard work there was the fun times, too. Not only in Alabama, but in Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, where ever, we had fun. I’d like to maybe do like some of the little summary, by saying or enumerating some of the things that I thought were key to the success of the school food service program. You know, it was successful in its own way back in 1957 when I was in Clarksville, Tennessee, but there was, there have been so many changes since then some of which I enumerated and I am sure that there are others that have evolved since I left in 1994. I think the fact that there were people, who I call giants, in the early years of the school food service program that had a lot of vision, a lot of dedication, a lot of inspiration, that set standards for the program to continue and to continue at an improved standard and at an improved rate of growth. And I know there were a number of these giants still living when I came into the program. They were state directors. But you felt fortunate to be able to listen to them and to hear them talk about what the school food service program should become. And what they were doing to help it become the program that it is today.
MJ: Could you name some of those giants?
EP: The names? Oh, I think that’s easy. I think Josephine Martin is the younger one of the group probably. But, Lucille Barnett, but the state directors Thelma Flanagan, Kathleen Gaston from South Carolina, Cleo Carpenter from Tennessee and her supervisor, Mrs. Mae Nave was her name. I never did meet her. She was an older person at the time that I came into the program. But all the states in the southeast were the ones that had directors that I would consider to be giants. And created a far-reaching vision for the school food service program. Then another factor I think is the fact that we’ve had an available work force in that mothers wanted to come into the School Lunch Program and supplement their income. And so it was sort of like they didn’t have other opportunities in the early years to work anywhere except in the school food service program so having a stable available work force I think did a lot for the program. And these mostly women, these women had a dedication to feeding the children that was so genuine and so strong that they didn’t mind working hard to prepare the food and to serve it because they knew that they were doing something that was helping children. They were, we hear so much now about in industry particularly dissatisfied workers. They want more pay. They are bored. They are changing jobs more frequently. But I think the managers and the workers in the School Lunch Programs at that time were very satisfied because they did feel they were making such a contribution. And they got very low pay, very low wages. But and then I think the training that has been provided certainly was a key to success in the School Lunch Program. On the job training, workshops, conferences, going to the national conventions. And with ASFSA it gave them a sense of belonging, a sense of being important and I think the association has, has made a tremendous contribution to success of the school food service program. Not just through having a staff at the national level but the fact that managers and cooks, anyone who was employed could go to those conventions and find material or a session that gave them new insights and they made new friends and shared their ideas and I think that it certainly was a heartwarming experience to see those people who were in the school, at the school level, having such a good time and so excited about learning. I would describe or characterize a school food service worker as qualified, dedicated people who worked hard at their job but did have fun while doing it and after they had finished at the end of the day. I think there is a quality in those people that shows that they had love for family and friends and a love for children and I think they had love for God, a recognition of a superior being regardless of what their religion was. I think these people all had those characteristics.
MJ: Anything else you would like to add?
EP: The only thing I would add is maybe some advice. You know I guess we all like to give advice. And that is that try to find a job that is satisfying to you but also gives you an opportunity to serve others and to bring some help to them, and in some ways, in any way, but also I think that it is important that you go beyond just what the job calls for and do things to make, make the program that you are working for better than just what you have to do. And that was one of the things that I always tried to do. There were people in my office who were bored but I never was bored, I always found things that I could do that maybe weren’t in my job description, or maybe that no one had assigned me but I saw it as an opportunity to help others and in doing so I received a great deal of satisfaction from it. And I think if you do this there are those nice surprises that come to you that you don’t even anticipate.
MJ: Well, we thank you very much for speaking to us.
EP: Well, I glanced at my notes and I noticed that, I saw that I had paraphrased President John Kennedy’s statement, and wrote it as “ask not what your job can do for you, but what you can do in your job to help others.” Do more than the minimum requirements of the job. That would be my advice to people seeking employment for the first time or planning to change jobs or changing professions.