Interviewee: Emma Jo Williamson
Date: November 13, 2008
Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Description: Emma Jo Williamson’s first job after college was in social work before making a career change and teaching Home Economics at Plaquemine High School in Iberville Parish for thirteen years. She then decided to go into school food service. She began her new career as an Assistant Director of the parish for two years before assuming the position of Director. Emma Jo retired after twenty-seven years of serving the children of Iberville Parish.
Melba Hollingsworth: This is Thursday, November 13th, 2008 and I am here at East Baton Rouge Parish Child Nutrition Programs and my name is Melba Hollingsworth and I am here doing an oral history with Emma Jo Williamson from Iberville Parish. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, your family and where you grew up before we get started; a recollection of your childhood.
Emma Jo Williamson: Well, I grew up in Plaquemine. I was born in Plaquemine. I have one sister and four brothers; one is deceased. My father decided that all of us including us girls had to be educated so that we wouldn’t have to depend upon anybody and he made sure that all six of us had our degrees and could take care of ourselves. We all married and we all lived in Plaquemine. My father and mother are deceased; let’s see, out of all of us I think that there is twenty-nine with all of us together, grandchildren included. My sister was a teacher and now she is retired, I have a brother that is a judge, one is an assessor, one was an attorney and he is now retired, and one who is deceased worked as an accountant for Dow Chemical. And my children, there are five of them; I have four girls and one boy. They have all gone to school and they have gotten their education. One is a producer-editor at CNN in Atlanta, my son is a construction supervisor in Atlanta, my oldest daughter is the nutrition director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, one [daughter] is a housewife with four children, and [my final daughter] is an executive secretary for the Sheriffs Association. So they all are all out of the house in a way. So I do a lot of traveling, a lot of babysitting, and enjoying my retirement which is almost seven years.
MH: So you actually have eight grandchildren?
EJW: Eight and hopefully we will have the other one legally by Friday! And if not legally, then she will be illegally ours.
MH: Tell me about your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs. Did you eat in the schools? What schools did you go to?
EJW: Well, I went to school in Plaquemine; Plaquemine High School and Plaquemine Elementary and we had cafeterias. But none of the children in the school, unless you rode the bus, ate in the cafeteria. We all lived within walking distance; you had neighborhood schools in those days. And we all lived within walking distance of the house so everybody went home for lunch. You had an hour for lunch, which was a lot of time. It is so different now. And we walked home for lunch until we got into high school and then things changed a little bit. You could eat in the lunchroom, we still had an hour for lunch, but the high school was built in the new part of town which took you about twenty minutes to walk from my house to the school and back so that did not leave you with much time to eat. So maybe once or twice a week we ate lunch. In those days it was the principal and the cafeteria manager, there was no supervisor, they did the menus and they did the food ordering from the local grocery. The local grocery store which was across the street from us, would deliver the groceries to the school. It was different. Maybe once a week we ate in the cafeteria. So my cafeteria experience did not start until I was in college.
MH: Well tell me about where you went to school in college. You finished from Plaquemine High, right?
EJW: I graduated from Plaquemine High and I was all set to go to Texas State for Women and my dad had finished LSU. His college roommate had become President of Southeastern and they had no one from our area that had gone to Southeastern, so he started recruiting students from our area to go to South Eastern. And at that time Southeastern had maybe about 1200 students; very, very small school. And so my dad told my sister she had no choice but to go to Southeastern, because she was scheduled to go to LSU. He wanted to help his college roommate out so she went to Southeastern and then he said “I guess you have to go too.” So all six of us children went to Southeastern because my dad’s college roommate was President of Southeastern at the time.
MH: And that’s in where?
EJW: In Hammond. And so we all graduated from there. And from there I went to Nicholls and started on a Masters and finished it at LSU.
MH: So what was your undergraduate degree in?
EJW: Home Economics, General Home Economics. And then I did not use my degree at all because just out of college I said that I was going to go and save the world. So I went into social work which was alright but I couldn’t save the world! The people didn’t want to be saved so I said this is not helping me it is just making me depressed. I had married by that time and when my oldest child started school I was working five days a week, from eight to five and two weeks vacation a year. I had no family life, none! So a position came open in the school system and my sister was teaching first grade and they couldn’t find a kindergarten teacher. This is when kindergarten came into the schools. So my sister came to me and told me that the Superintendent was looking for a kindergarten teacher and asked me “Do you really want to change jobs?” And I was looking so I said “Let me think about it.” So the superintendent called me and said “I have this position, your sister is a good teacher, I guess you’ll do!” I said, “Ok, where am I going to go?” He said when I went to speak to him, “I don’t want you in kindergarten. There is a position open in Physical Ed at Plaquemine High School.” He said, “You can go there.” I said, “Oh no, I am not very sports oriented, not at all.” He said, “Well, just go there and tell the children to play basketball.” I said, “Ok!” So I changed jobs and my uncle happened to have been principal at the school so that worked out fine. I stayed there for about two years in that position, no, it was about a year in that position. Then a job came open in Home Economics and I took that job and I stayed there as a teacher for thirteen years.
MH: Thirteen years as a teacher?
EJW: As a teacher and that gave me twenty-one years of work already. And then the position came open as an Assistant Supervisor. By that time my children were ready to go to high school and college and I needed money, you know. So when the position became open with food service I applied not thinking that I would get it at all because the person who wanted the job more than I did had one or two more classes to take; I was finished. So I got the job. I stepped in not knowing anything about school nutrition.
MH: What year was this do you remember?
EJW: Nineteen seventy-seven because I went to Europe for the bicentennial in ’76, so it was the next year when I came back.
MH: And that’s when you took the position?
EJW: Yes. I took the position in seventy-seven.
MH: As the child nutrition director?
EJW: As the assistant at that time and she decided that – that was the year that they changed Social Security. At that time you could get your husband’s Social Security even if you worked for the state or the federal government and they changed the Social Security system right around that time and so she retired around seventy-eight or seventy-nine where she could still draw her husband’s Social Security plus her retirement because she was ready to retire. So she came to the office after I had been there about eighteen months and said, “I’m retiring tomorrow and the job is yours!” I said “Oh, but I don’t know enough!” That was my answer, “I don’t know this business enough.” And she said, “You will learn just like I did,” because she was the first supervisor over there and that was when the state had mandated that schools have nutrition supervisors.
EJW: What was her name again?
EJW: Mercedes Beaumont. So she took the retirement and I went to the Superintendent after she left. She said, “I’m leaving!” I said, “Are you not going to stay today?” And she said, “Nope, I’m out of here!” She came in and decided that she was gone. I talked to the Superintendent and he said, “I know, she has already been over here and I was going to call you.” He said, “You have to apply for the job but it is going to be yours anyway.” I said, “Ok, but I don’t know enough.” He said, “You’ll manage.” And that’s it and I did manage. You know, it came and I stayed…well, I can’t even remember how many years, but twenty-seven years I think.
MH: Twenty-seven years you were Director? Now, was Mercedes the first Director?
EJW: Yes, she was the first one.
MH: For that whole parish?
EJW: For that whole parish, yes!
MH: So you were the second one?
EJW: I was the second one. And I left just because I got tired of working, I got tired of dealing with the board members, and I got tired of the politics. I miss the people; I miss the comradeship because South-Central people were so nice. All of the supervisors in our area helped everybody. Like I just went in there and talked to Gail and all the staff and I am so glad to see them because they are still here and a lot of them were here when I came. But I would say that about eighty percent of the people that I started working with are gone. And I have to mention this to you. Do you remember Barbara Crocker? She was a supervisor in West Baton Rouge Parish. And Barbara almost, well, she just about took me under her wings after Mercedes left and I would call her. She would say, “Emma Jo, if you ever need any help, just let me know!” And I did. I would call her and she would help me immensely. And I spoke to her about four years ago, and I don’t know if you remember Sid Crocker who used to do the announcing for the LSU football games, and that was her husband who just died recently. Well, I called her and told her that we were doing a story on past presidents of school food service association for the fiftieth anniversary in New Orleans and I wanted some input from her. And she gave me so much information and then I told her, “You know, Barbara the reason that I stayed in food service this long is because of you!” And she remembered how she had helped me. So that is just one of the ways how close people were, that they could remember everything.
MH: You all really networked didn’t you?
EJW: Oh we did. You picked up the telephone when you needed something, needed to know something… how to work with people, we helped out.
MH: So that was one of your mentors, huh?
EJW: I love Barbara to death. To this day I will say that she was the person that made me want to stay with school food service.
MH: Well, tell me about the enrollment in the parish, your participation, and your percentage of at-risk.
EJW: Well, if I can remember. You know, I have been retired for almost seven years so it is going to be kind of hard to remember. When I went to school food service I think that we had thirteen schools.
MH: The parish?
EJW: The whole parish had thirteen schools. This is Iberville Parish. From that we pared down in a few years to eight and they have eight schools today. They consolidated the schools and they were fully integrated at that time. We had approximately, I would say, between six thousand and seven thousand children in the school system. And about the time that I went in to school food service, I would say we had about sixty to seventy percent of the students, mostly elementary children. We had a hard time of getting the older children in the high school to participate until we started making some changes. And in the schools per diem, we had a construction program and we built eight brand new schools. Well not eight; but we built six brand new schools and we revived two, refurbished them. We went back and consolidated the schools and then we made some changes. We put in fast food lines, we put in salad bars, and we put in potato bars. We had, when I left three or four offerings every day for all of the children in the high school and the middle school, and in the [inaudible] they had two choices all the time. Every once in a while we would give them three choices which would include hamburgers, hotdogs and extra items. When I retired we were feeding eight-five percent of our children and that included the high school children too. Also, when I left we were getting ready to initiate a “grab and bag” where they could go in and they could grab a cold sandwich with some type of cold vegetables and a cup of fruit and the milk or juice or whatever they wanted. They could grab this and they could go and sit on the outside and eat. That had just been brought up to be put in for the next year when I had left. I don’t know how that worked out but I am sure that it worked out. At breakfast, well, we had a fairly decent breakfast program when I got there and we were feeding about fifty percent of the children which is really good. When I left we had about sixty-five to seventy percent that ate breakfast. The children that we did not get were those children who came in when the bell rang. Those were city people and town people who lived close to the school and drove in and sat outside and did not eat at all. What else can I tell you about the system over there?
MH: What about the folks that worked over there and how many employees did you have?
EJW: I started off, and this is a number that I can remember, I had one hundred and thirty-seven employees when I started off and when I left I had eighty-nine. So, we had to consolidate. We did not fire anybody and we didn’t let anybody go, rather, we did it through attrition and when they retired we did not replace them. When they consolidated the schools you did not need as many employees as you had. I had two people that were in food service when I arrived at the school that were still there when I left and they were going on thirty-two years. One of them retired about six years after I did and, in fact, she just retired last year and the other one is still there. When they get a job in school food service people have a tendency to stay. Its just like a school food service supervisor, they don’t leave. You take the job and you enjoy it so much that you don’t want to go anywhere else until it is time for you to go. You know when it is time for you to go! The only thing is, is when people retire they miss the people. I kind of miss the job a little bit but not as much as I miss the people.
MH: Do you remember something unique about the state of Louisiana in regards to child nutrition programs? Have you traveled quite a bit around?
EJW: I have traveled the United States with school food service.
MH: What is unique?
EJW: I think that Louisiana has the best system in the whole country. I did a lot of work and was very active in our association in the state and national, and I did a lot of work with a lot of people around the country and they did not have the participation that we had, they didn’t have the type of meals that we had, and maybe I am being biased in being that way but our children in my parish, and I don’t know how it is in other parishes around, but in my parish in the rural parishes they liked home cooked meals. They did not like fast foods, they did not like you to have pre-wrapped foods that was already prepared and all you had to do was heat it in the oven, and I found that a lot of states did that. They brought things in that all they had to do was to put it in the oven and heat it up or steam it. Their participation was not near – sixty percent at the most – with a lot of the people that I spoke with. When I told some of these counties and states that I was going up to eighty to eighty-five percent of my meals they told me that I was lying. I said, “If I have to prove it to you I can show you my records of what I have.” They then would ask me, “Well, how do you do that?” and I would respond, “I feed them what the children want!” They wanted home cooked meals. To prove it to myself, when school opened one year, and it was so hot and our schools were not air conditioned at that time, I told my staff, “You all prepare cold sandwiches and give them fruit and cold vegetables and we will have not hot food for the first month of school,” and we lost participation after the first week. I mean participation dipped and we had parents calling us saying, “Where are the hot meals?” and “Our children need hot meals, because when we get home we don’t have time to cook, so please give us hot meals.” So that proved to me that not only did the children want the hot meals but the parents wanted the children to have a good meal in the school so that they would not have to prepare them at home.
MH: What was one of their favorite meals that you can think of?
EJW: Some of the favorite meals in my cafeteria were fried chicken and fried catfish! Fried chicken and fried catfish; but now I live on the bayou. I live in a very rural area. Well, it is not that rural, but it is not a metropolitan area like Baton Rouge, which is right across the river. Most of our children were country children. Ninety percent of our children were free children. We had a high percentage of free. They liked fried chickens, they liked red beans, they liked white beans, they liked fried catfish, and that was my biggest day when we served fried catfish on Friday, and it was always served on a Friday. I had almost ninety percent of my children and faculty that would eat. They liked hamburgers, but not on a daily basis. We would have those at least once a week and they liked hotdogs, but that was a twice a month thing. And when we started having the choices we had hamburgers and hotdogs every other day but the hot meals were still out there. My children just liked beans and rice. I don’t know what they do today but when I left that was their favorite, beans and rice.
MH: Something unique. I remember you mentioning the commodity program, so when did you get it because you were in that pilot program?
EJW: It was close to 1979 or ’80, but I am not quite sure.
MH: Tell me about that.
EJW: There were thirty-six parishes/counties in the Unites States that were asked to participate and Joan, I can’t remember her name, was the director of the commodity program for the state of Louisiana. She and I had started with school food service at the same time and we became friends and we traveled together. She called me and she said, “Emma Joe, the Department of Agriculture is having a pilot and they asked me to pick one parish for cash, one for commodities, and one for when they would give you slips and you would order off of the slips of paper…clock, that’s what it was called, clock.” She said, “Which one would you like because I am giving you a choice.” I said, “To get rid of the commodities I am taking the cash money!” I hated those commodities because you were forever changing your menus; you never knew what you would get. The commodities stunk!
MH: “CLOCK” was called cash in lieu of commodities?
EJW: CLOCK was called cash in lieu of commodities but I got the cash money and the CLOCK people got slips of paper that they could order from but they did not get the cash money. They ordered from a vendor and the federal government paid their bill. And they had to order certain products that they wanted. The only thing that they stipulated for me with the cash money was instead of saying, “You have two thousand dollars, which is very small, but two thousand dollars a month worth of commodities,” well, when you got your commodities I got the cash money. And then they got a slip of paper saying that they had CLOCK money that they could spend but the federal government paid the vendor. They did not get the commodities coming in from the Department of Agriculture; they just got a piece of paper where they could order from a vendor to pay the vendor. But I got the cash money and the only stipulation that I had is that I had to buy domestic products, which meant that they had to be processed or grown in the United States. We had trouble with pineapples. There were four products that we had trouble getting grown in the United States or as much as we could use in the United States. They gave us permission to get those from foreign countries as long as they were processed in the United States. And we had to make sure that all of our labels said a product of or processed in the United States. It was wonderful. I had no problems with it at all. We did the pilot and it was thirty-six of us in the United States and each was a category of the three. There were two of us from Louisiana because one of the states did not want it and Caddo Parish also opted for cash, so that they would have a cash program. The people that were in the CLOCK in Louisiana got out of it, because they did not like the program, so they just got out, and I do not know who took those in another state. But Caddo Parish and Iberville stayed with cash. We would get out money and we would spend it the way that we wanted to. This was an immense help because I made my menus at the beginning of the year and they were never changed unless we did not get something in. I also did not have to worry about whether or not the Department of Agriculture was going to send me two hundred pounds of our meat today, or am I going to have to change that, or do I need the chicken for this and I am not going to get it in on time, or is it going to come in damaged, no good, rancid when you get it, are they going to send me two hundred pounds of rice this week, or are they going to send me one hundred pounds of potatoes. I mean, I did not have to worry about that. I ordered the food just like I was going to the grocery and my money was there. We submitted a bill to them on a monthly basis as to how we spent the money, and twice a year the federal government flew us to Boston to go over the reviews with us and see how everything had been, since we had documentation that we had to keep and how the program was working. This was supposed to be a three-year study but it ended up being a nine-year study and in the sixth or seventh year the group, the thirty-six of us with the cash money, enjoyed the program so much that we started getting together on our own. We petitioned Congress to make it permanent, and they hesitated and they hesitated and finally, I think that it was in the eighth year, they agreed to make it a permanent program only for those people that stayed in the program all those years. Therefore we are totally a cash program. One interesting thing happened and I think it was in the second year, we were also getting the bonus items, and in the second year they decided that they were no going to give us the bonus items anymore and we had to use our own cash money for the bonus. Well, that was cheating me out of some money because bonus did not account for nothing and I was going to have to pay for this.
MH: Tell me what the bonus items were.
EJW: It was dried milk, butter, peanut butter, rice, flour…it was about six or seven items.
EJW: Oil? Was it in there? Well, maybe so. I don’t really know but when I left there were only two or three items. Well, we had gotten out for the Christmas holidays and I get a telephone call. Joan, I cant remember her last name, and I know that is horrible, and she says, “Emma Jo, I have some bad news for you!” And I said, “What happened?” She said, “They are cutting out your bonus items!” I said, “They’re what!!!???” She said, “Cutting your bonus items,” and they cut some of my bonus money! I said, “What?” She said, “You have to get on the phone and call your Congressman because if you don’t, at end of the year you are not going to have them. I said, “We just started Christmas holidays and there is not going to be anybody in Washington.” Well, she said, “Do your best, and I am calling the other two parishes and you have to do what needs to be done.” So I started thinking and ran to the office and got in the door and started getting out my phone book. I thought to my self that I was going to do something that I had no business to be doing at all. I used my maiden name and I called Russell Long.
MH: What is your maiden name?
EJW: My dad was good friends with Russell Long before he passed away. Russell Long was still here and I never did this before outside of my parish. I called him and I talked to his secretary and I told her. She said, “Oh, they can not do that to you at the last minute with it being two weeks away!” I said, “Yes ma’am, they did it!” And so she said, “Let me see what I can do. Senator Long is in Louisiana and let me see if I can get a hold to him.” About an hour and a half later I got a telephone call from Russell Long. He said, “Tell me Mrs. Williamson what is going on.” And so I told him. I said, “I can’t believe that they are doing this. It is going to ruin my system and ruin my parish and I am counting on all of this money.” I said, “They told me that I was going to at least have this program for three years and I have to do something so please help us out!” And it was not just me, I was asking for him to help the thirty-six out. Well, I think that it was a day or two after Christmas, and Joan was asking me, “What did you do?” I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Who did you call?” I said, “I picked up the telephone and I called Russell Long’s office like you told me to.” Well, she said, “Lady, you did wonders. You all are going to get your cash money and get your bonus items.” I said, “Thank you very much,” and she said, “No, we thank you very much!” So then we had to go to a meeting in Boston, I think that it was in March or April, and there were thirty-six of us with CLOCK, thirty-six of us with cash, and thirty-six of us with commodities, and we were all sitting in one big room like this.
MH: From all over the nation?
EJW: Right, from all over the United States. The head of the program comes up to me, I can’t remember his name, but he said, “Mrs. Williamson, I want you to know that you almost got us into trouble.” I said, “What do you mean; what did I do?” And I knew exactly what he was talking about but I was waiting on him to tell me. He said, “I understand that Russell Long called so and so at the Department of Agriculture and reamed him up one side and done the other one. I said, “Well, I understand that too.” He said, “Thank you very much!” So anyway, that was an experience that I had, that you know, sometimes you can pull those strings when you want to.
MH: When you needed that money for the children.
EJW: Yes! I wanted my money for my children and for my department and I did not care how I got it or what I was going to do that was legal to get it because they had no business telling me that I wasn’t going to get something two weeks before they were going to cut the program. If they were going to cut the program they should have told me that a year ahead of time so that I could make the adjustments. I did not have time in two weeks to make the adjustments and they deserved all the reaming that they got!
MH: What changes have you seen in the child nutrition profession over the years?
EJW: I have seen a lot I guess. I find that families are dependent upon the program to feed the children, especially mothers, because both mother and father are working and it is hard for them to get home at five o’clock, with all the extra-curricular activities that the children are in today – and transportation – and by the time that you get into the house with your children, when both parents are working, it’s six or seven o’clock at night. So, I think that the program has done a lot to help the children, but I also think that there is a long way to go. I like that they have started the healthy foods in the cafeterias because that was in the beginning stages about five or six years before I left, that we moved into the healthy choices. I think that there is a lot more that can be done out there. I would like for them to get rid of, and I know that this is something that has come in, to get rid of all of the fast foods that they are putting in the cafeterias. I think that is enabling our children to eat more fast foods than they need to. In the program itself, it had become modernized and it is not like the old time when the principals and the cafeteria manager would go to the grocery store and buy what they needed. Most of the schools had a charge account where they would ring up something and it would go to the school. They would load the groceries and buy what they needed. I think that we have become modern and I think that giving the children choices is a big thing, but you need to teach the children that the choices are there and they have to make the choices, but you have to give them the right choices. There are still some, when I was there, that had these ideas that they needed to tell the children what they needed to put on their plate. They would tell the children what to eat and I think that is wrong. I think that we need to educate the teachers as to how school food service runs. The education systems and the parishes are beginning to realize that this is a business. It is not a program. School food service needs to be a business because it is a business, it is funded by itself; you have your own money. Very few of the parishes contribute to school food service anymore. The state of Louisiana used to give the schools x number of cents per meal, but they no longer give them that. I think that the federal government has cut back on the types of foods that they send into the schools, so they don’t get that any longer. The costs of lunches have gone up. We used to pay twenty-five cents per meal for lunch and I think that in my parish it is almost two and a half dollars for lunch. When I left it was ninety cents for high school and in the six or seven years it has risen double that amount of money. It is a business and you have to operate it like a business, and it is more or less a stand alone. Of course with my own personal feelings I do not think that school food service needs to be in the Department of Education; I think that it needs to be in the Department of Agriculture. That is a stand alone program because it has very little to do with education, and I think that it needs to have its own governing body. And this is my own feeling, but the board members have a tendency to try to operate the cafeteria as their own private dining area. And I think that it needs to get away from that and needs to be a stand alone operated business. And I am not saying that you need to go into these commercial restaurants that come in, but I do think that the school food service of Louisiana needs to take a look at it and revise the way that it is funded. We used to get x number of dollars from the Department of Education for money and we used to get it directly into school food service but now it is a lump sum into the money that the school gets, and they can give you as much as they want to. We used to use it for salaries, and now I have forgotten exactly what percentage it was that we would use for food, but we no longer get that. The board gets the money and then they have to give you twenty percent, whereas we used to get the whole sixty or seventy percent. I guess that I was fortunate that my superintendent continued to give me the exact amount of money that I got prior to the way that they changed the formula for distributing the money. But a lot of parishes only got the twenty percent that was allotted to them and that caused a lot of problems. I have no idea how they would fulfill this today.
MH: So what do you think has been your most significant contribution to the field?
EJW: I think that redoing all of my cafeterias and making them modern, I mean if you are talking about in my parish. When we had the maintenance tax passed and the building tax passed I was allowed to design my own kitchens, which was really an experience for me because I am not an architect. I did take my class that I had to take but I am not a designer and I did not like the well-type kitchens, you know how everything was in the well because you were walking yourself to death. You were just going around in a circle and you were walking yourself to death. I thought that there had to be a better design. So they had this architect at the first school that we did and I guess that was my best school that I did, because the architect was so easy to work with and that was at St. Gabriel’s, which is east Iberville. We designed straight lined construction which is just like it is in a restaurant or a cafeteria, no L’s. Everything was straight and against the wall pushed out six to eight inches so that maintenance people could get in between them, and six to eight inches apart so that you could clean. And to me, I designed all of my kitchens like that so we had everything across one wall and in front of every appliance we had two work tables. And then we had what my employees named “the hawk” and that was the automatic garbage disposal that attached to the dishwasher where the children dumped their food. The machine would grind it up and put it into a bag and that cut down on my garbage at least fifty percent and cut the garbage bill in half. In addition, our schools were air conditioned. My kitchens were air conditioned, my dinning area was air conditioned, and I was able to buy everything new. So when each school was built, we got rid of everything – all the plates, forks, knives, etc, and everything went out and we got every piece of new equipment. I think that as far as my biggest accomplishment goes, that was it – to give my employees good workable kitchens, dining areas that they could be comfortable in, and that they were not worn out by the end of the day. We even did the floors. We had special floors put in. They were not cushion floors, but like the architect explained it to me, if the ladies wore the right type of shoes they would not be that tired at the end of the day. It was not that hard concrete like they had before. We had special tile that was brought in for them. We also had approval from the school system that all equipment was repaired as we needed it, we had all new walk-in freezers, and we painted and refurbished every cafeteria every three years. I think that was the biggest accomplishment in my parish.
MH: Do you have any memorable stories or anything that comes to mind as you think back over your years in the profession?
EJW: Well, I guess it’s memorable. We were the first parish in the state of Louisiana to go completely computerized.
MH: Do you remember what year that was?
EJW: Melba, I can’t remember but maybe ’80 or ’81, when computers first came out. I had a friend that I had met in California and they had all to do with the cash and clock stuff and they had just put in a computer system for finances and we started talking and I said, “Why can’t we have that?” So I talked to my superintendent and I explained it to him and he said, “Well, who did it?” And I remember, if you think back, the Burris system…do you remember a Burris computer system? Well, that was the first system that we bought and it did the finances. And I said, “Oh, we can do something better than that!” We were having a problem with the free and reduced price children when we were marking them. You remember how we used to mark them on a piece of paper? I said, “I am going to institute this.” I hired a programmer and my superintendent said, “You can’t do that. That is going to be too hard for you,” so I said, “Well, let me hire this programmer.” So I hired this programmer and we tried it out in one school and before the end of the year we had it in all thirteen of the schools. But they were not connected to a main frame; they were just within each unit. And about two or three years later we added purchasing, and within five years my schools were completely and totally computerized. And that was another accomplishment that I thought that we had, and we had different parishes come down to look at what we had, the system that we had, and how we did it, and a lot of them picked up not only the computer programs, but they picked up on some of our kitchen designs also.
MH: Was it hard to train the ladies?
EJW: On the computers? No! They were so glad that they did not have to write those numbers down, they did not have to put a little cross mark here, and they did not have to look up the child’s name. At the end of the month all they had to do was to get a print out and they did not have to go back and compile a lot of information. The computers also did something else. We had, in the school system, the school secretaries used to do this for us, and they did not give a darn about doing that at all. So we took all of our work away from the school secretaries, out of the principals’ hands, and the only thing that they had to do was to take the free and reduced application and put them in alphabetical order before they sent them to my office. Applications were no longer processed in the central office; they were sent to the school board office and I processed them in my department, in my school food service department on the computer. The principals kind of fussed a little bit because I was taking something out of their hands that they thought belonged to them. They thought that they needed to know who was free and reduced price and they couldn’t find that out anymore. Because it was given to me, I had it and they would call and say, “So and so…,” and I would respond, “Well, I can not give you that information,” they would respond, “Well, how are we going to fill out this program?”, a program that they had. And I would say, “Well, you are going to have to call the state department, I can’t help you and I am not going to give you that information!” Because before we instituted that, everybody and their brother and in the whole city of Plaquemine and the parish knew who had what. When we completely computerized nobody knew anything and the school food service became totally separate from the school system as far as I was concerned, because the school system had nothing to do with it except send us the applications in alphabetical order. When I left they did not even have to do that! All they had to do was to put them in an envelope and send them to me.
MH: But the ladies did know who were the at risk students?
EJW: You mean at the cafeteria? No!
MH: When the children went through the line?
EJW: The computer came up and said prepaid. It does not tell you whether or not they are free, reduced, or full price. The computer comes in and tells you if it is prepaid, or if it is not a prepaid child it tells you that this child’s cost is x number of cents or dollars. And to this day, forty cents is still the free and reduced price. It will say the charge for today is forty cents. I guess if they are smart enough they can see that if you are paying a dollar that is full price and forty cents is reduced price. They knew that but there is nothing on the computer program that says free or reduced price in the school system. The only place that it says that is in the central office. Now that is when I was there and I do not know what it is today. I did not want that stigma in the schools because sometimes we had student workers that we would allow to run the computer system if we got in a pinch and I did not want that out there so I told them this is the type of program that we wanted. Now, of course, this was not done in a day’s time. That was done over a twenty-five or a twenty year period of time that we got it as modern as we did. So, at the end of the month they pressed two or three buttons and their work was done. It wasn’t like they stayed there two or three hours after to do their work. They would maybe take twenty minutes to finish their end of the month work. It was wonderful. And I did say that the day that we left, that they had just put in the program that the work would be sent to the central office and that they wouldn’t even have to bring it in any longer. That week, at the end of the month on the last day of the month, my secretary in the central office could go to each school and print out her end of the month report and wouldn’t have to wait on the Manager to bring it in.
MH: So what advice would you give to the future generation that is going into food service?
EJW: I’ll tell you what I told my daughter!
MH: Yes, why don’t you tell us about your daughter now? She has followed in your footsteps, correct?
EJW: Yes, she has. This is my older child, and she has her degree in Home Economics in Early Childhood Development that she finished at Nicholls. She and her husband owned two businesses and she never used her degree until they got a divorce and she was out looking for a job and the only job that was going to pay her enough money to take care of her and her son was teaching. I said, “Linda, you are not going to make any money teaching, so baby you are going to have to go back to school and get your Masters and get into administration or something!” I said, “Teaching is not going to get you where you need to be!” So she took the aptitude test and they said that she should go into the food business, catering management or something like that. And she said, “Mom, this is what I got…so what should I do?” I said, “Well, you already have your degree in Home Economics so let’s look at your transcripts and go have them evaluated and see what you need to get.” She did and I said, “Why don’t you try something that will get you into nutrition,” and she said, “I would like to have a job like you had” and of course they thought mine was a wonderful job, and it was, but it had perks with it too. She said, “I would like that,” and I said, “It’s not easy and the first two or three years you have to build up your department and your career; then it more or less it works itself. You are just there to manage it,” and so she said, “I think that I am going to try that!” So she went to LSU and got her Masters. Well, while she was working on her Masters a position became open in Assumption Parish – Lou Simoneaux retired. I said, “Ms. Lou is retiring and they are looking for a Supervisor over there. Are you interested?” She had, I think, nine hours left so she said, “Oh, I don’t know!” She was going to school and traveling to Assumption Parish and she lives in Baton Rouge, so she said, “I don’t know,” and I said, “Well, think about it.” So she calls me back and she says, “What is the salary?,” and I said, “I don’t know, so you will have to call over there and find out.” She called and she found out so she said, “I think that I am going to apply for the job.” Well, Lou gave her a good recommendation and she took the job over in Assumption Parish and traveled back and forth. And I would go up there, this is the very year before I retired, and I would go up there and I would help her. I said, “Linda, this is what you need to do and you need to work with the people that you have,” and I gave her some advice. She said, “Mama, how do you get all of this done?” I said, “It just falls into place; Lou had some good employees there.” After Lou retired Linda did not exactly replace Lou. I should have said that Paula Tillman was there for about five years. I retired and then Paula took my job, and Linda went in between my retirement for about two months there. So when I retired and did go in and help Linda; I showed her what to do and she went in and completely redid their cafeteria also, and she stayed there for about three years, but she said that the traveling back and forth was horrible. And then Charlotte Gaines retired at Pointe Coupee and she applied for that one which was a little bit closer and she got that job. They were getting ready to lay-off over there in the child nutrition program and her job was up for jeopardy because they are a very poor parish so she left that. I said, “Linda, you can not keep jumping and you are going to have to stay in one place long enough,” and she said, “Mom, they are telling me that I may not have a job next year,” and I said, “Well, if they are telling you that you may not have a job next year you need to jump!” So she went to Baker and Baker did not have any money to pay her a salary after she was there for a year. I said, “Oh, you are jumping from one frying pan into a skillet!” And then Diane Mezdeke called her and said, “Linda, I know that you are having trouble in Baker. I’m retiring. Are you interested?” And she said, “Oh, yes!” It’s two miles from her house and she said, “Yes!” So Diane said “Come in and talk to Sister and I will talk to Sister for you, and so she did and she got the job and I said, “Now Linda, stay there,” and she has been there now what, four years and she enjoys it. I said, “Now, you need to stay there.” And of course she applied for Livingston, and I don’t know how that is going to work out, but I don’t think that she wants to leave the diocese. She enjoys it and she has done a lot and it is a good job. If anybody wants a good job that has lots of friends and that people get along well together and they are not stabbing you in the back as other jobs are, I say that you stay in food service.
MH: School Food Service!
EJW: School food service; I say stay there because the money is good, the perks are good, the people are good and if you need any help in any way everybody will go out of their way to help you. I have never seen, and I have had three or four jobs in my lifetime, I have never seen a department or a system, even when I was teaching, that people got along and there was no argument, no fighting, and no fussing. If I said something you would agree with me and if you did not agree with me you would tell me why you didn’t agree, but you never had the arguing, like I am going to go walk out of that door and talk about you. You did not have that. It is a very unique group of people and you have to be a very unique person to be in school food service. Don’t you think so?
MH: Yes! Yes we do and we have had many good years haven’t we?
EJW: Yes we did. I enjoyed it.
EJW: Linda is now in charge of the conference this year in Baton Rouge and I get a phone call from her and Renee in Lafayette asking, “Do you think that you can help us out?” This is going to be my fourth state conference that I have “helped” with.
MH: Now you were President, weren’t you, of the Louisiana School Food Service Association?
MH: Do you remember what year that was?
EJW: It was twelve years ago so ’93. And then I stayed active until about two years ago and I kind of got out and now I am going to go back and help. Yeah, and so it seems like my daughter, who is the oldest one, is following and doing exactly what I was doing and that’s what I am really proud of.
MH: And there is mom, the mentor.
MH: Well thank you, I appreciate it.