Interviewee: Emma Sidney
Interviewer: Linda Godfrey

Description: Emma Sidney was a child nutrition program manager in Alabama.

Linda Godfrey: Mrs. Sidney thank you very much for allowing us to do this interview for the National Food Service Management Institute. Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up.

Emma Sidney: Ok. I grew up in the Avondale Project.

LG: Is that in the Birmingham area?

ES: Yes. I am the oldest of nine children. I went to Whatley Elementary. Hayes High was near Whatley, but I didn’t want to go to Hayes. I went to Ullman High

LG: Ok. And why was that? Was there a reason?

ES: Well, most of my friends went there and I wanted to go there because my friends when to Ullman High.

LG: Ok. Some things never change do they? That’s the way our children are today.

ES: Right.

LG: What’s your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs, and what was your attitude as a student in the cafeteria?

ES: Well, when I was going to school – it’s been a while – I liked working in the cafeteria. We used to work in the cafeteria to get free lunches. Children get free lunches now, and at the time when we were going to school and getting free lunches it wasn’t like what the children are being served today. They’re getting nutritious lunches. I used to love to work in the lunchroom to get a free meal, which I wasn’t able to get free lunch – I pair for my lunch – and I worked in the lunchroom to get a free meal.

LG: So what was your attitude about working in the lunchroom? How did you feel about it and talking with the people that worked there? Were they ladies that worked there or gentlemen?

ES: Most of them were ladies. They were nice people. They treated me nice. They always asked me if I wanted to work in the lunchroom and I said, “No, I don’t want to work in the lunchroom.” “Why?” “I just don’t want to work in the lunchroom.” But I just wanted to work in the lunchroom to get a free meal.

LG: Ok. When you think back about then you were in school and working there and getting your free meals what was your favorite meal? What was your favorite menu item? What did you look forward to eating the most?

ES: The soup. It was delicious.

LG: And what kind of soup was it?

ES: It was vegetable soup.

LG: Oh, ok. Was it different from what maybe what your mom had at home?

ES: Yes. It was different. It tasted different and was better than my mom’s cooking. Sorry Mom. It was good. It was good. I liked soup and crackers.

LG: Now what about breakfast? Did they have a breakfast program then?

ES: No, no breakfast program.

LG: They didn’t when I was in school either. I had never heard of a breakfast program. What about snacks? Did they have snacks – peanut butter and crackers or anything like that?

ES: They made peanut butter cookies and we bought peanut butter cookies. That’s the only kind of snack that they sold at the time when I was going to school. And we loved to buy the peanut butter cookies, and even after school they sold peanut butter cookies. When we were dismissed from school we would go to the lunchroom on the way home and buy peanut butter cookies.

LG: Ok. Did you walk to school?

ES: Yes. We walked to school.

LG: Did they sell milk with the cookies or just the cookies?

ES: They sold milk. We had milk.

LG: So you bought milk, and do you have any idea – can you remember what you paid for that? I just always think that’s interesting.

ES: If I’m not mistaken I think like five cents for a carton of milk.

LG: Things have changed haven’t they?

ES: A whole lot.

LG: They have changed. What about your educational background? Did you graduate from high school?

ES: I have a GED certificate and I went to Jefferson State Junior College for a couple of years in Food Service.

LG: Oh, wow. Was Miss Janie Green your instructor there by any chance?

ES: Yes.

LG: She was a friend of mine. Did you finish that program at Jeff State?

ES: No, I didn’t. I didn’t finish.

LG: It was an excellent program, I know that. How did you become involved in child nutrition? How did you start working in the school and the cafeteria, and why?

ES: I started out on a job-training program called the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and it helped young people learn the trade of food service that were out of school – had dropped out of school. And it helped them get started in the workforce on how to work and then finish school – get the GED education. I started on the job training at Whatley Elementary. We worked there every day and we got paid at the end of the week, like forty-five dollars a week. And the director at the time was Dr. Hall. She’s deceased now, but she helped me to get started to going to school to get my GED, and then she placed me at Whatley Elementary School with Mrs. Dowdier, who trained me. That’s who got me started, but the first time I started working at Whatley Elementary School, the manager, Mrs. Lidia Dowdier, she didn’t need anyone at the time because she had enough staff. And she told me that she didn’t need me but she said, “This is a child. I’ve got to give her a chance.” And she did. She told me to come on. She said, “I’ll find something for you to do.” So she put me on washing fruit. It wasn’t like it is today. At the time we had to wash and cook the fruit and vegetables instead of ordering pre-prepared items. And then she started training me and showing me how to do other things, like cook vegetables and meats.

LG: So you really started out what we would consider the entry-level area in child nutrition.

ES: Right.

LG: Now I want to get back to what you just said about Mrs. Ethel Hall. Are you talking about the Mrs. Ethel Hall that was on our state board?

ES: Yes, Mrs. Hall.

LG: Ok. She was a wonderful, wonderful person.

ES: Yes she was.

LG: I was pretty sad when she died this year. She helped a lot of people and I had developed a working relationship with her over the years too. So you became involved in child nutrition really because you had to have a job, right?

ES: Right.

LG: Was this before we had integration?

ES: Yes.

LG: Can you tell me anything about that?

ES: Well, during the time I started at Whatley it was mostly black. And Woodlawn High School was close to Whatley, and it was predominantly white.

LG: What about in the child nutrition program? Were the employees there both black and white? Was it mostly one or the other?

ES: At the time I started at Whatley it was mostly black employees.

LG: And if there were any white employees there how did they work together?

ES: Everybody pretty much worked together. There was no difference.

LG: I think that sometimes people tend to think that in the South we never even spoke to each other.

ES: Right.

LG: Did you have that attitude?

ES: No. No ma’am. No.

LG: The next question is about mentoring? Do you feel like there was anybody in your career that really directed you or helped you out to become the wonderful manager that you are today?

ES: Well, my mom.

LG: Ok. And tell us about that.

ES: She worked in the cafeteria too. She started out at Huffman High School. She worked under Mrs. Osmond.

LG: Now Huffman was predominantly white wasn’t it?

ES: Yes. She worked in food service. She probably would still be working in the system today, but she disliked getting paid once a month. So she moved forward. She worked at a restaurant Leo’s Seafood Restaurant. She was the head cook there. By having nine children – she had to raise all of us by herself – so she needed the money every other week or twice a month to take care of my sisters and brothers.

LG: Did she encourage you to work in child nutrition?

ES: No. She didn’t. But when she started working in the school system she asked me if I wanted to do that. I told her not really, but it’s a job and I had to do what I had to do, and at the time I had a baby, and so I had to take care of him – I had a son – and it as a job. I really wanted to be a nurse. That’s really what I wanted, but at the time food service was the only thing that I could get the job right then. So that’s when I started working at Whatley.

LG: Ok. So how many children do you have?

ES: I have three. I have a forty-three year old son, a twenty-nine year old daughter, and a twenty-one year old daughter. One of my daughters is an LPN and the other daughter is going to school to become a nurse, and my son does landscaping.

LG: Ok, great. Did they attend the schools where you worked in the cafeteria?

ES: Yes, my son and my daughter.

LG: Did they ever say anything to you about that, or what the children said about the food, or how they felt about it?

ES: Not really.

LG: Did they eat in the cafeteria?

ES: Yes, they ate in the cafeteria, both of them, son and daughter.

LG: Did they like the food better at school than they did at home?

ES: [Laughter] Well, I guess not, but they ate in the cafeteria too. They were on the free lunch program.

LG: Ok. And what positions – you started out at Whatley, and you really started out washing vegetables, so tell us about the progression, because you’re a manager now at a very good school, have good participation, so tell us how you got here.

ES: Well, Mrs. Lula Childress –

LG: I know Mrs. Lula.

ES: She was the director, and she came over to Whatley one day. She was Mrs. Dowdier’s supervisor. She came over to check and see how everything was going, like our supervisor does today. And she saw me and she came and asked me if I wanted to be a manager. And I told her I would give it a try. She was very impressed with how I was working and cooking and everything, and she said, “We need young managers like you.” She asked me if she gave me a position as an assistant-manager would I take it. And I told her, “yes, I’ll give it a try.” When I thought about it I saw it was more money and I needed more money. I said, “Yes ma’am. I’ll give it a try.” And she told me there was an opening at Jackson-Olin High School and she was going to call the manager there. And the manager at the time was Barbara McCord. And she called Mrs. McCord and told her that she was sending me over there. And that’s when she sent me to Jackson-Olin and I started working there as an assistant-manager.

LG: Is Mrs. McCord still working?

ES: No, she’s retired now. She doesn’t live far from here.

LG: Oh really? And how long were you the assistant-manager at Jackson-Olin?

ES: I was the assistant-manager there until ’96, and they sent me over here. At the time the name of the school was Glenn Middle. When I became the manager over there Mrs. Snow said she saw potential. She said she thought it was time for me to progress and move on so she said, “I’m going to send you over to Glenn Middle, because the manager over there, Leslie Hall, retired, and she was going to send me over there as the manager.

LG: And when did you become the manager at Glenn?

ES: ’97.

LG: So you’ve been a manager since ’97.

ES: Yes.

LG: Now tell us a little bit about this school, because it’s a new school, right?

ES: Right. We just moved in August of last year.

LG: And what was that like?

ES: It was awesome. The old Glenn was a good school, nice school, but it was time. It had old equipment and everything and we need more equipment. We didn’t have that many children at the time; we served like 300 students a day. And since we’ve been here we have like 550 or more, because they’re pretty much enrolling every day. And it was a challenge, and it was different. I was excited about coming into a new school. And once we got here – we moved in in August -it was really awesome and I love it.

LG: Did you have a lot of instruction on how to use the equipment when you moved in, and how to take care of things. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

ES: The people came out from different companies to demonstrate the equipment to me and my staff. They showed us how to work the equipment. They made appointments before school started and came out and showed us how to use and work the equipment.

LG: So you felt pretty comfortable with all of it?

ES: Yes.

LG: Ok. Now you you’ve been involved in child nutrition for a long time, right?

ES: Yes. This year in September it will be forty-one years.

LG: Over the years – and you have progressed from being an assistant to being an assistant-manager and then being the manager. Along the way have you found in working with people that you have people that have difficulty sometimes reading? Have you ever encountered any of that with people who worked for you, and if so how did you handle that?

ES: Pretty much everybody that has worked with me has been able to read and write and understand.

LG: You’ve been very fortunate then, very fortunate.

ES: Yes.

LG: What would you say a typical day for you is like? Do you have a typical day?

ES: [Laughter] We all do.

LG: Tell us about what happens when you come in in the morning – just tell us about the day from there.

ES: Ok. When I come in in the morning I get started with breakfast. Sometimes the menu will be a little confusing and congested, but we have to feed the kids, and we do what we have to do. I don’t let it stress me out – I let it get to me sometimes, but [then] I say, “No, this is not going to happen.” I just go with the flow. It’s got to be done so I just do whatever I have to do to run my program.

LG: Do you ever get calls from parents about anything?

ES: Oh yes, especially at the beginning of school.

LG: Tell us about that and why you would get calls from parents.

ES: Most of the calls I get from parents they want to know why are their children not eating, or why are their kids not getting free lunch. I tell them it’s the beginning of the school year and most of them are coming from different schools and they are new to the system. And most of the students that come into the system coming from a new school have to pay for their lunches at the beginning until they get into the system. We have to card their name and let them eat or else use our charge card to let them eat.

LG: Tell us about your charge card. How does that work?

ES: When a student doesn’t have money we can let them eat so much, like five dollars, until the money runs out. The parents should pay the money back, but by that time –

LG: – the parents have filled out their free and reduced price application.

ES: Right.

LG: Do you know anything about the process of approving those applications? They’re done at the central office in Birmingham City, right?

ES: Right.

LG: Do you know anything about how they do that?

ES: Yes. Once the parents fill the application out, put in their income and how many are in the household, they can even go down to Child Nutrition and get it filled out right then, or they can give them to me and I send them down. It doesn’t take longer than a week to get them approved.

LG: They have a scanning system that they put that in the computer with.

ES: Right. And they pretty much process them right quick. Before the week is out we’ll check on the computer and print out a roster and see which children have been approved for a free or reduced lunch.

LG: Do you ever go to any of the meetings that are held for training and that type of thing – annual meetings or anything that the state department has for managers?

ES: I go to a lot of trainings. They have trainings with us at the Davis Center – our supervisors. And I pretty much go to the conference every year too, to some of the trainings.

LG: I’ve seen you there.

ES: I look forward to that.

LG: What types of things have you learned? Can you think of anything that stands out with either the training that is done in your local school system at the Davis Center or at the state meeting? What have you enjoyed learning the most?

ES: The most that I have enjoyed learning is about our serving patterns, how we serve the students, and portion sizes – what they’re supposed to get. And I learned a lot about how to deal with parents, teachers, and coworkers, and children.

LG: Do you like talking to other people when you go to these meetings? Do you learn from them?

ES: Yes I do, and I like meeting other people too.

LG: I’ve watched you over the years at these meetings, and you do meet people and talk to them very well. Did you learn that from your mom, or is that just something you’ve learned over the years?

ES: Well, my mom always taught us to be respectful, treat people nice, treat people the way you would like to be treated. Maybe you will meet somebody who is having a bad day. Give them a smile and tell them something good that may make their day, and I try to do that.

LG: Do you feel that way about the children?

ES: Oh, yes.

LG: Tell us about your feelings about the children that you serve.

ES: Well, I have children of my own and I would like for people to treat my children nice. I’m used to being with middle school children – and I worked at Jackson-Olin High School – and these are babies, so they need a little bit more attention than the bigger kids do. They come and hug you and they look forward for you to give them hugs back, and they need attention too. They call me Lunchroom Lady. They call me Gummy Lady. And they just call me anything to get my attention. I look forward to the small kids. At first I had to kind of get used to it, because they are babies, but I’ve pretty much gotten used to them now, and I just love being around children, I really do.

LG: Do you ever see them out shopping or at the grocery store?

ES: Yes.

LG: And what do they say?

ES: “There’s our lunchroom lady! There’s the lunchroom lady!” They call me Gummy Lady.

LG: So they don’t ignore you do they?

ES: No.

LG: If you had to say, when you retire, “This is what I’ve accomplished in my life in child nutrition”, what would you want that to be? When you look back at your career what would you say has been the biggest accomplishment or the way you want to be remembered?

ES: Well, I would like to be remembered as a good manager, a respectful manager, a manager that liked and respected children too. And I would like to be remembered as that person in child nutrition who made a difference in someone’s life, especially when it comes to feeding the children. And I think that’ll kind of fit me pretty good, my description as a CNP manager.

LG: I would agree with that. What changes have you seen in child nutrition, and as you know, we’ll be going through some more changes as of yesterday with our new meal pattern, so what changes have you seen and what’s your feeling about those changes over the years?

ES: Well, the changes are we’ve got to get used to new systems, like technology.

LG: Ok. Were you afraid of computers?

ES: At first I was but I said, “This is a challenge. I’m not going to let something get the best of me. I’m going to give it a try.” And the things that we used to have to do when I first started like wash fresh vegetables and cut up cabbages and greens and potatoes, and things like that. But nowadays we don’t have to do that. It comes in cleaned and already prepped and ready to cook and serve, and that’s a change from like forty years ago.

LG: And shuck corn and cut it off the cob.

ES: Yes. It was a lot of hard work, but it had to be done. We had to feed the children.

LG: If you had to think about a memorable story or a special child over the years what comes to mind? Usually when we think back about our career we think ‘Oh, I remember this child, how they responded, and that I felt good about them when they graduated’, because you’ve worked in a lot of different areas.

ES: Yes. I come in contact with a lot of students that I’ve served down the years through high school and middle school. They are nurses and –

LG: And how do you feel about that when you see those children or they come and talk to you?

ES: Right often they come to me, and some of them I know their names and some of them I don’t, and they say, “Didn’t you used to work at Jackson-Olin? Didn’t you used to work at Glenn? You used to work in the lunchroom.” I say, “Yes I did.” They are mature now and I say, “You are grown up now.” They are big kids. They’re in college or graduated from high school and have their own family. And sometimes they see me and they say, “Are you still working in the school system?” I say, “Yes I am.” They say, “Mrs. Sidney that’s been a long time. You’re still here?” I say, “Yes I am.” They’re like twenty or thirty years old.

LG: Do you feel like you’ve been a little bit a part of their success?

ES: Yes, because I had to feed them, yes.

LG: Alright. Did you ever have to talk any of them into eating something or trying something new, and how did you do that?

ES: Yes. Sometimes they’ll come in the cafeteria and, “What is that? What is that? How does that taste?” I say, “Try it. You may like it.” And they’ll eat it and they’ll say, “Mrs. Sidney, I tried the meatloaf you told me to try. I don’t like meatloaf, but it was good.” And I say, “See? Try it, you never know.” You have to make food appealing to where they want to eat it. And then they’ll be judging the food by how it looks. I say, “Try it. You may like it.” And then they do – some of them do – and they try it and they like it.

LG: If you had some young person that came to you, and I know you work with young people all the time, and said, “You know, I’d really like to work in child
nutrition and I’d like to work in the cafeteria in the schools.” What would your advice be to them?

ES: First I’d ask if that’s what they really wanted to do, and it’s a profession too. Child nutrition is a profession.

LG: Yes, it is.

ES: And I’d tell them to go to school and try to learn and get education on working in child nutrition. They say, “I want to become a manager just like you.” I tell them that at the time I became a manager it wasn’t like it is today, because you have to go through so many things like being certified. But I’ll tell them, “Give it a try. It’s a challenge. Child nutrition is a profession, and if that’s what you want to do go for it.”

LG: Would you say that people that work in child nutrition have to want to serve others, or is that your opinion of this profession?

ES: Do they want to serve others? Yes, if that’s what they want to do.

LG: What if you had somebody that came to you and said, “I don’t like children at all, but I’d like to work because it looks like an easy job.” What would you say to them?

ES: “You’re in the wrong field. You’re not meant for child nutrition. You have to like children in order to want to be in this position and work in child nutrition. If you don’t like children you’ve got to look forward. It’s not the place to be.”

LG: So child nutrition is not for everybody is it?

ES: No ma’am, it’s not.

LG: Ok. So is there anything else that you’d like to add, anything that you want to say about your career or the people that you work with or anything?

ES: Well pretty much the people that I’ve worked with over the years, it’s been a challenge, it’s been nice. There are good days and bad days, but pretty much I love working in child nutrition, and this is about the only job I ever had, working in food service, child nutrition, and I love it. And if I had to do it all over again I would start in child nutrition. Like I said, I wanted to be a nurse, but since I’ve had the experience being a manager and a worker in child nutrition I love it. It’s a great opportunity.

LG: So just listening to you it sounds like to me that you feel like your life has been very, very good because of working in child nutrition.

ES: Right.

LG: It’s been a good road for you, right?

ES: Yes it has, it sure has.

LG: Ok. Well thank you very much. I certainly appreciate you being so open in this interview and answering the questions. It’s just fun being around you.

ES: Thank you. I appreciate you. Thank you Mrs. Godfrey, thank you so much.