Interviewee: Liz Solomon
Interviewer: Meredith Johnston
Interview Date: September 8, 2005
Location: Ohio Department of Education
Description: A native of Kentucky, Liz Solomon grew up in the local school system there. She then moved to Arizona, where she earned degrees in economics and nutrition. She first became involved in school food service while doing internship rotations to become a registered dietitian.
Description: Liz Solomon worked with the Ohio Department of Education from 1994. She was part of the USDA School Meals Initiative (SMI) task force and assisted in writing resources for that program. Solomon is currently an Area Supervisor for Columbus City Schools.
MJ: I am Meredith Johnston and I am here with Liz Solomon at the Ohio Department of Education. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview you today. Would you tell me a little about yourself and where you grew up?
LS: Sure. Well, first of all I am flattered that you wanted to interview me because I’m such a newbie in the world of child nutrition programs. I was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, and graduated from high school and soon moved out to Phoenix, Arizona, and lived out there for quite a few years. And my family is kind of all over the country. What else should I tell you about myself?
MJ: Well, we get to some other things later, but could you tell us about your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs and school lunch programs? Would that have been when you were growing up in schools?
LS: I remember in elementary school that I had a yellow ticket and it had to come with me to lunch. And I also got extra money to get an extra milk. And I would also, my mother would send, my mother is a health nut, and she would send a canister of brewer’s yeast and Tang that I would have to add water to. And I needed the extra milk to chase that down, because I was supposed to drink it every day and it was horrible. So I would get the extra milk money to chase down this gross concoction that I guess made me healthy. But, yeah, I remember the school lunch in elementary school and I remember the lunch ladies and in junior high, and, because my mom raised me on like healthy, healthy foods and I learned to like them, I would get extra food on days that we had spinach or collard greens or something like that, because nobody else would eat them. But, yeah, I remember having that ticket that got punched. I don’t remember where it came from.
MJ: Any memories of maybe the school lunch ladies or workers back there?
LS: Specific ones? No. Maybe in junior high. One of the ladies, I remember one of the ladies had daughters who went to the junior high school that I was going to and she was just really sweet and pleasant and they cooked good food. But that is when they had, that’s when they did a lot more scratch cooking. And they didn’t, you know, there wasn’t a chicken nugget in the world. We didn’t even know what chicken nuggets were at that time, or chicken patties, or a lot of the frozen. Really the only frozen foods that we knew of at that age back then would be like a TV dinner that Mom would do once in blue moon. But everything was scratch cooking, so we had turkey and gravy and mashed potatoes and green beans. So there were a lot more people in the kitchens that I remember when I was little than when I go out now and do reviews. I see just two or three ladies in a kitchen warming food. It is just really a lot of warming food.
MJ: Well, since you mentioned about the kitchens, then do you remember any of those types of kitchens, or seeing certain types of equipment? I don’t know as a child what you would remember, but – ?
LS: I remember the big Hobart dish trays, the dish machines. They have the big conveyor belts that would move through, and the big sprayers and the big, they had the big, gosh, I should know the name of this, bangorees? Is that what those are called? The big rollee things? The big roller parts, aren’t those called Bamorees?
MJ: I don’t know, but I know what you are talking about though.
LS: Okay. And a big long, of course it might be just because I was so little everything seemed really huge and the lunch line just seemed really long. But it probably was just my perspective for being so small. And the same milk cooler, really, that I see today was the milk cooler that I remember in school. And I still, when I go out to review, I still see kids do what we did when I was little with the milks. You had to pick it up and turn it over, because it you saw anything on the bottom it meant the milk had a hole in it. So you had to put it down and get one that was clean. And I still see them doing that today. Looking over. And that was, I don’t know it was just something. Nobody tells you. Nobody told me to do that, I just saw the other kids when I first started school, I saw the other kids doing it, so. And it was always the chocolate milk, so you would turn it over and look for chocolate. And then if there was any on the bottom you had to put it down and get another one.
MJ: What time period would you have been in school, then? When you grew up?
LS: I would have started first grade in about 1968. Yeah, 1968, I would have been six years old.
MJ: You notice I said “time period.” I gave you the option.
LS: Oh, instead of late ‘60s to, to 70s? Thank you. I didn’t catch that.
MJ: Could you tell me how you became involved in the child nutrition profession?
LS: Well, that’s a good question. I’ve always been very into cooking. I started cooking when I was three, in the house. And by the time I was six my mother had to ration the amount of sugar I used to one cup a week, because I would just go in the kitchen and bake all this food. I loved to bake. So I’ve always been very active in cooking. My mother was a health food nut, so I grew up with a lot of scratch cooking and lot of substitutions and modifying of recipes to make them healthier. Then when I was old enough I started working in the food service industry. When I was fifteen my first job was with one of the franchises and I started there to save for a car, and just continued through high school and in college. I continued working in restaurants, bars, and just around the food service arena. And so as an undergraduate with an Economics degree, I just kind of stayed at the club I was working with at the time, and decided to go back to school in the early to mid ‘90s and got a master’s degree in Nutrition. I thought nutrition and food service, it was a good match. It was nutrition and eating healthy and food guide pyramid, and I don’t know if I was just more aware of it as an adult, as a young adult, but it seemed like nutrition was kind of coming more into the forefront of people’s lives as it related to disease and things like that. So I did my program and I didn’t want to be, I didn’t think I wanted to be a Registered Dietician so I just did the master’s program. Then I got out of the grad program and started teaching at the university and decided that I really needed to go and do the Registered Dietician, the internship and take the exam and become nationally registered. Not only to just put myself in more of the situations where I could work as just food and nutrition, but also the credential was necessary in order to gain better job offers and stability. So I decided to do my internship and interestingly enough school food was my elective because it was not scheduled in my regular rounds of the internship which included, you had to go to the hospital for several weeks, you had to go to, usually hospital patient care and then hospital food service. So I did those two. I did a renal facility. I did public health, community health, and then my elective was school food, which I think I only got to do for three weeks. But the gal that I worked with I had gone to school with and she had graduated earlier than me, and she was school food service director at this school district. I worked with her and I just really, really, really felt at home, and so she had referred me to a couple of other positions which were part-time contracts and even working with her school on part-time contracts. And in the meantime I was still teaching Nutrition at community colleges.
MJ: What school district was this? What city?
LS: It was in Phoenix, Arizona. And it wasn’t the Phoenix district; it was the Baltz – B A L T Z – I think that’s how you spelled it.
MJ: And the university you were at?
LS: I taught at Arizona State, which is where I went to school. I got both of my degrees at Arizona State in Tempe, Arizona, and then did my internship right there. A lot of people had to leave, I guess, to go do internships in places the way that American Dietetic Association set things up, but I stayed in Phoenix and so I worked with Pam Guawara at Baltz School District. And then from there I just started looking for more full-time positions in school nutrition, and I found a position through another colleague who had graduated the year before me in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I was ready for a change. I was ready for a change because I had been in Phoenix for so long and it had really grown from the very early ‘80s to the mid ‘90s and so it was outgrowing itself and I had outgrown it, I think. It was just getting too big. So I moved to Albuquerque, which was a much smaller town. And I worked with the Albuquerque Public Schools there for one year. And then I moved to Columbus, Ohio, for various reasons.
MJ: When did you move?
LS: I landed in Columbus on June 1st of 1998. Before I even got here, when I was still in Albuquerque, I was calling the Ohio Department of Education and trying to find out about work here, because I knew I was going to be coming here. And I spoke with Mark Donden, who is one of the other referrals, I think, and talked to him both there in Albuquerque and when I got here, and in October of ‘98 I was hired here to do contract work for the School Meal Initiative, which had just come into regulations in ‘92 or ‘94 and was moving forward. I think it was ‘94. Check my, check the regs on that. So I did that for four years. And then two years ago I applied for and was hired as a regional consultant. Now I am serving as Interim Assistant Director until that position gets filled. Lot of states. Jumping around.
MJ: Well, that will be good in answering another question, when we get to that.
LS: Oh, okay.
MJ: Well, was there someone, maybe a mentor, who was influential in directing you to the field?
LS: You know, I can’t really think of anybody. I think it just, I guess if anyone it would be Pam Guawara, who wanted to hire me into her group at the school. However, the pay was too low, and I wanted to keep myself available because I was making more contracting by teaching and these other part-time things at that time, and so I didn’t want to take a full-time position at this low salary and then not be able to look for something else, which actually landed me in Albuquerque in what was really a nice position, so. It, you could kind of say that it was my experience in hospitals that drove me away from any kind of clinical dietetic work because hospitals just kind of freaked me out. So I was, I knew I was searching for something other than what I was doing a lot of in the internship. So. It is kind of a mentorship, I guess.
MJ: Well, you have told me about your educational background, I guess, but how would you say that it prepared you for the child nutrition profession? Would you like to talk some more about that?
LS: Sure. I think part of what I didn’t know at the time, my undergraduate degree was in Economics and through that program I took a lot of math, statistics, business management, entrepreneurship, learning how to think outside of the box, learning management strategies and techniques, working with people, and at the same time working part-time in the food service industry was very amenable to everything I was doing. And as a matter of fact, when I graduated with Economics, the owner and my boss of the restaurant and night club that I worked at, I had come and told her, I said, “You know, I am out of school now. I can’t do this any more. I can’t bartend any more because I am grown up now, and I have to get out of here and get a real job because my dad said I had to.” She said, “Well, what if you stay here and I teach you more things here?” And that worked into working with inventory and contracts. I worked with actually live music groups. We booked live entertainment seven nights a week. We also did promotions, so I was in charge of marketing and promotions. I did floor management, so I worked with the employees. I worked with all the customers that came in. I worked with the bands that were coming in and all of their needs. And it was, it was a very fun job because it was like planning an event, but at the time I was really gaining a lot of experience in working with people, like I said before, working with people, management, organization, inventory, food service, and it was a really good combination that when I did move into nutrition as a graduate degree it just all, I thought, fell into place really well. Well, then of course my master’s degree and the internship that I did, questions that I asked and calling here and talking to – Mark Dundan was so open to just chatting with me on the phone and talking about the agency, because before Ohio I had never worked for a state agency before and it is kind of the other side of the fence when you are working for a school district and then working for a state agency.
MJ: Could you talk a little bit about the differences? I mean, some of them are obvious, but could you talk a little bit about that?
LS: Well, of course, when you work for the school districts the state agency just doesn’t know what the heck they are doing. And when you work for the state agency the school districts just don’t know what the heck they are doing. Now we are going to have to line that out of the transcript. I guess the differences are just different pressures from different groups of people and who you are really working for and who you are working with. I think schools are much more, although we all have, whatever organization we work for, we have our shortcomings, we have our strengths, but I think the pressures from, the outside pressures to do your job, do it efficiently, do it well, move forward, keep up with the times, technological advances, all those kinds of things, I think schools have much more pressure on them than we do as a state agency, because I think that as a state agency we are more, we’re more guaranteed funding sources. And schools don’t have that guarantee. We are seeing that now with the pressures, the budget cuts. You know, all the states have cut budgets, and in school districts, school food service a lot of times are the last people to receive any kind of funding, or resources. They get the obsolete computers after they have been passed through. And they are the first ones to get resources removed, taken away when people are looking for money in the districts. So you know, I think that happens here, too, as a state agency, but not to the degree. I mean, we are not going to close up shop, you know, there are some schools that are having to, you know, that is their next step that they could just close up and not have a lunch program any more. So I think those, that’s the main differences that I see just being in both arenas.
MJ: Anything else you would like to add about your career and positions you have held in the profession, or talk a little bit more about what you do now, what you are doing?
LS: Well, when I went to Albuquerque, I was the Nutrition and Education Coordinator. And I planned a lot of in-service activities. I would develop and deliver some of them. I would plan others with other people developing and delivering that. And that was kind of a lot like what I had done with the restaurant/night club. It was event planning, making sure everybody had their materials in place, the place was ready, the people were coming, they knew – you know, it was putting a big puzzle together. And when I moved here I took on a much different role in doing the School Meal Initiative analyses and working with that whole process, because it was a new process for everybody. When I went to Albuquerque everything was pretty much established. And you know, this is what we need to train on, these are the programs that we do, this is on nutrient standard menu planning and this is what you need to do for that. And here it was a lot more development and it was a lot of fun. And I was also, because of my years of experience, I am supposing that is why, with the SMI I was invited and served on the USDA’s SMI task force. And that was a group of about twenty people from around the country including a lot of USDA folks who got together and created three, well, we rewrote two manuals and created a third manual for School Meal Initiative guidance. So that was a great project and that was very exciting.
MJ: Do you want to talk a little bit more about that?
LS: Well, we met several times in Alexandria to review the previous guidance that had been published by the USDA for the SMI nutrient analysis. And there was a lot of discussion and a lot of passion in that room, and I learned a lot from everybody in that room and hopefully made a lot of lifetime friendly colleagues and friends. And so we got to the point of development and then we met more often. I think we met for about a year working on the actual materials and then we all traveled to Ole Miss and gave the training for all of the USDA regional offices from around the country at National Food Service Management Institute, and then we broke out into our regional office areas and I went to Atlanta for training for state agency staff, so we had all of the state agencies from two regions come into that area. And then of course then they did one near California, or Colorado, one in Texas, one out somewhere in Pennsylvania I think. And so I got a nice plaque, and you know, I got a lot, like I said, I got to spend time with Stan Garnett and got to talk to him more. And a lot of the other, Bob Edie and Claire Miller and Margaret Carbo, Eva Wood, just a lot of great people at USDA that I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to spend so much time with and get to know, and learn so much, it was just a great experience. I would do it again in a minute. It was just wonderful.
MJ: Some of those people are on our interviewee list.
LS: Oh, I bet. I bet. Yes. A lot of people over in Alexandria are old school. Long time, I shouldn’t say old, long time people.
MJ: Have you been involved with any organizations, state food service organizations, national school food service organizations?
LS: Well, I am a member of ASFSA or SNA, and as well, the Ohio SNA. I had joined when I was in Albuquerque, so I was with the New Mexico, and the American School Food Service Association from there. I had also participated with some New Mexico dietetic groups. I am with the American Dietetic Association and that is kind of like this whole other groove of the professional scene. Ohio, as a team member here at the Ohio state agency, we attend regularly the Ohio Action for Healthy Kids meetings and we’ve gotten our staff involved in zones that Action for Healthy Kids has throughout Ohio, and we’re doing as much partnering with them as we can to improve quality of school meals. We’ve worked with, I guess, are you asking about the agency or just me?
MJ: I just wondered whether you had been involved you know like with any committees or anything –
LS: Nothing like Rene [Weber] and her FLAK and her – oh, my gosh, was she involved! Yeah, no, I am way behind that.
MJ: How is Ohio different from other states with regards to child nutrition programs?
LS: I think one of the big differences that has been in the news a lot lately is the issue of childhood obesity and the kinds of foods that are offered and not being in some of the other states that I’ve read about, it is obvious that more states are working more quickly toward improving the health, not only the meals, the quality of the meals, but the health and physical activity level of their students. California is probably one of the forerunners in passing a bill that affects every school district, every elementary and middle school, in the whole state. And we haven’t done anything like that here in Ohio. We have our recommendations of course, but there are pockets of schools, school districts in Ohio and schools that are really making these strides to meet the kinds of expectations that are in states like California. I think Ohio is different, too, just because of the kinds of foods that we eat here, and what the kids like. In Arizona and New Mexico, there were a lot more Mexican foods on the menu every week. And out here there might a taco, a walking taco salad, or walking taco once in a while on the menu. But back there it was very different, and then of course not just the entrees, but the side dishes were very different. And then of course, even within a school district in Albuquerque there were pockets of kids who would want more of the ethnic type foods three, four days a week and then pockets of kids who wouldn’t eat that, who didn’t like that at all and they would want more of the chicken nuggets and hamburgers and nachos and sandwiches and salads and things like that. And from what I understand, you know different states receive different information from their regional offices, maybe than we receive from our regional office. One thing that I was working on this morning is a response to some press; they want an interview tomorrow and I am reviewing that with the director here as far as the breakfast mandate, whether there is a breakfast mandate. Some states do not mandate that schools who are on the National School Lunch Program also offer breakfast under the School Breakfast Program. Some states have no mandate. Ohio has a 33 percent free eligible mandate. West Virginia mandates all schools to have the Breakfast Program. So different states are able to influence their legislature differently and make those things law, make those things required, and it all depends on funding and the ability of schools to make changes like that, and what kind of support that they receive. So I think each state is probably as different as each state is within itself, you know. As far as what schools use their funding for, where they find funding sources and what not. I don’t know. I haven’t really worked in – that’s probably a better question for someone who has been around longer than me. That’s a Stan Garnett question definitely.
MJ: What changes have you seen in the profession over the years?
LS: I guess I’ve seen here in Ohio, some changes toward the National School Lunch Program becoming more of an integral part of the education process. And we’ve been fortunate here in Ohio to have some previous leaders and some current leaders who are looking to work child nutrition into the overall education process as far as the child being ready to learn, with School Breakfast; the child having all the resources they need to learn throughout the day with lunch, and even afterschool care snacks. And I think that changes just, it’s only going to move forward and become more pronounced. As least here in Ohio, that’s what I see as the future. And hopefully that will result in getting more physical education back into curriculum.
MJ: What about technology?
LS: Huge technology change. When I was a contractor here they were still doing the paper applications where the school would have to fill out the bubble sheet and mail it in, and they would bubble sheet the claims and mail it in. Now we have our entire application on the web, so school districts get a user id and a password, log on to our system, fill out their application; then we go in and approve it. Gather any peripheral paperwork that is required, and then the schools go in after the end of the month, claiming month, do their claims on line. And then that’s all processed. And the web, just the website as well, not only the process but being able to communicate through e-mail from the application information, and also through the website of just posting information. Pulling registration forms off that people can fax in. Calendars of events, planning of, of, yeah, that’s, that’s probably the largest change that there’s been, is technology.
MJ: You mentioned earlier in the interview about when you would go out and do reviews. Could you tell me a little about that and maybe the changes that you have seen or maybe the changes that are taking place now?
LS: Well, I think the changes that we’ve seen over the last several years have been moving from scratch cooking to more convenience foods, and that’s due to a lot of different reasons I am sure, mostly money. The bottom line is money. You cut the amount of labor that you need to pay people with and so you cut the amount of time that they can actually spend cooking and then you have a menu full of convenience foods, which isn’t terrible. I mean, but it’s, it is now, and it’s the future I see, and it’s not just, it’s not just schools. It’s not like if kids weren’t getting that outside of school, they would necessarily want it in school. They want it. You know, school food service is just between a rock and a hard spot when it comes to pleasing everybody. Because they want to please the children because that’s their customer, but their customer is also the principals, and the principals can say, “I want this on the menu.” And the parents can say, “I want this on the menu.” And the teachers say, “If you serve that I am going to tell my students it is gross.” And that happens. And then the whole class doesn’t want to eat lunch. So there are a lot of factors. But if they don’t serve what the kids will eat then they don’t have revenue, and therefore they don’t have a program. So they are being pulled again in all kinds of directions, like we were talking about before with pressures, the difference in working for a school district and working for a state agency. The pressures that are involved coming from all different sides for school food service. So those changes have occurred, and again like you had mentioned before the technology is changing. It is changing more rapidly in some school districts than others. I mean, some school districts have the full automated computerized collection system, collection and accounting system. The kid’s picture is up there. Their dietary special needs are up there. Their account is up there, how much money they have left, what they’re eating, so a report can go home to their parents, what they are restricted to purchasing. And then you go into schools where there is a cash box and the lady has a checklist, or they are doing tickets or whatever. Just still a big variety of, you know, and then another thing is that our whole system is online now. And some school food service offices, directors, don’t even have computer in their office. They have to do their work at home, or they have to go borrow a computer at the principal’s office or go to the library and they don’t have resources to purchase a computer. And then you have another group of people who can’t use a computer because they have a hard time learning. They never intended to use a computer when they started in this and by golly they are not gonna. They get somebody else to do it somehow, so but I think we are seeing a wave also of kind of this old school of food service directors and food service staff retiring and more school districts requiring somebody with some kind of advanced degree, whether it is a Registered Dietician or someone with a four-year degree, to come in as the school food service director, and it is my understanding that even in Georgia that they have to have a master’s level education and be certified through the state in order to be a food service director, or get that along the way after they get that, so I don’t see us doing that in any, that would be, that would be costly.
MJ: What about the issue of training, as far as the labor force there working in the cafeteria? Could you talk a little bit about that, or the training overall, in food service? How that has changed?
LS: I don’t know if I can speak to that. Ohio has a great group of, we have a program called Neighborhood Network of Trainers, which are peer, they are food service directors who we have trained with certain modules and they are, can be hired by schools to go out and provide nutrition education or program education and training and our office pays for them, pays for their time, so that provides I think that that as well as in the future we are going to have to do more on-site training, because I think that in the past the funds were perhaps a little more liberal so far as allowing people to take time off, hire substitutes and go away for two or three days for a conference. I think that at least in Ohio we are looking at more on-site technical assistance and training in regional areas, to ease the hardship. You know it is much easier for a group of eight of us to go somewhere than it is to bring in a group of 600 so that, and also we would like to do the on-line training modules as well. If they have the resources that school districts can pull up a training CD or any kind of like a streaming video, or things like that. They could even download it and show it on a DVD. We are trying to make it more convenient to get training done for all these schools. And you know, Ohio, I think Ohio is a little unique in the number of the school districts that we have and the number of staff that we have to monitor that and also provide training. We have a little over 1400 school districts and we have nine full-time staff, so it is difficult and so each staff member does between 35 and 45 reviews a year and that includes the CRE and the SMI. Leaves very little time for us to train, and to actually go in and spend the time to provide technical assistance because we are trying to get the compliance issue done. Our funding basis is on compliance and the number of reviews that we get done and things like that, so we really look forward to the ability to provide a lot more training, and maybe by us traveling out a lot more we can maybe do this as a group and hit a lot of areas throughout the year. Also, we are going to use the Ohio Action for Healthy Kids networks because they are constantly having meetings and groups in their zones, so we are going to do more marketing for our training sessions like the NNT, Neighborhood Network of Trainers, in their zones, and they’ll help us get the word out and get more people in for training and some technical assistance.
MJ: Sounds like a challenge.
LS: Yeah it is.
MJ: A good challenge.
MJ: What do you think so far has been your most significant contribution to the child nutrition field or profession?
LS: Probably the SMI task force, being able to serve on that. But also I think I made a significant contribution to the Ohio state agency when I came on as a contractor just with the SMI and putting worksheets in place, and of course it was a team effort. I didn’t do anything here all by myself. Never have. But I think I provided a lot of leadership in how to train the staff on how to collect the information, how to staff, how to train the schools about what is going on, what they need to do. Providing sessions at conferences, state conferences and meetings, things like that. Putting together kind of the SMI analysis as part of the review process here in Ohio was fun and exciting and we are still using a lot of those materials. Then that lead to the SMI task force and that has all been very rewarding.
MJ: Do you have any memorable stories that come to mind when you think about all of your years in the profession so far?
LS: I remember when I worked for Baltz School District for Pam Guawara, we would go out to the different schools and we would observe. They did a really interesting thing called “Charlie’s Lunch”. They would take a plate every day, a tray from all the food and they would leave it out for as long as the meals were served and then they would put it in the refrigerator when everything was torn down, and they would keep it for three days in case there was any kind of an outbreak, food poisoning, or any kind of complaint. They would have Charlie’s Plate, what Charlie had had that day, and then they would have that to give to the Department of Health or whoever, and they would be able to say, “Well, this is what we served.” That was pretty cool. If I ever became a food service director I would do that. She was really bright, a really smart gal. But I remember going around to one of her schools, and I saw in line the lady who was serving one of the, she was bringing the pans back and forth with the food and everything. She bent over and sneezed in her hand, and then she started working with the food again. And I said, “Pam, I am never eating at that school again because of this.” She said, “Oh, no.” That was a gross, memorable story, but I can see it today. I mean, I still picture that. That was just disgusting. I mean, I felt sorry for those kids. There was nothing I could do really. I really appreciate all the time Mark Dondan spent with me when I got here to the agency. He really liked to take new people under his wing I think, and mentor them. He was very, very helpful and provided me with a lot of good information and knowledge and guidance. I will never forget him. That’s a great memory for me as far as helping me gain whatever I could once I got here.
MJ: Well, thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview you and also for making this room available and really helping us to put this together.
LS: Oh, it was my pleasure. It was my pleasure. I am glad. I am glad you were able to get a hold of the people that were on the list. Thank you.