Interviewee: Frank Ippolito
Interviewer: Meredith Johnston
Date: July 21, 2005
Description: Frank Ippolito grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. He began work for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service in 1982. He holds a degree in Chemistry and Law from the University of Alabama. He is currently the Director of the Governmental Affairs Office at Food and Nutrition Service.
Frank Ippolito: Happy to be here.
MJ: Would you tell me a little about yourself and where you grew up?
FI: Well, I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. I attended the public schools of Birmingham. I am a good old southern boy and my family had grocery stores in the city of Birmingham, and the state of Alabama, and so I became introduced to food and good eating early in life.
MJ: What time period would this have been that you grew up?
FI: Well, it was basically the 1950s, the 1960s. I graduated high school in 1965.
MJ: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs?
FI: Well, believe it or not my earliest recollection is first grade. In going to school, first day of school or several days thereafter, of going through the lunch line and being told how to go through the lunch line, how to take your tray, how you were to ask for what you wanted, and how to check out, and just getting the whole feel of the lunchroom. I also remember the cards. We had, everybody had a lunch card. Every single student had a lunch card, and I can remember what they looked like. They were like a 5×8 card, white, and they would stamp them or they would click them.
MJ: What foods did you have?
FI: Well, you know, I was thinking about the kinds of foods that we had when I was in school, and we had a lot of the foods. Most all of the foods, I must say, in the Birmingham public schools, were prepared from scratch. We had homemade rolls. I can remember this. This was years ago now remember, and they drizzled butter over the top of them. We had mashed potatoes, we had fried chicken, we had southern foods, greens of some kind or another with some sort of fatback in them. We had things like that, homemade pies, homemade cakes. And I can remember one day actually, something happened in the lunchroom and the ovens were not working and they actually put together for us ham sandwiches, ham and cheese sandwiches, which I can remember to this day were some of the best I have ever had.
MJ: How did you become involved with child nutrition programs?
FI: Well, that story is probably too long for this interview, but the way I became involved, I started working for the Food and Nutrition Service in 1982. Prior to that time I had, I began work in the state of Alabama for the Alabama Air Pollution Control Commission and I was the general counsel there. I left there and went to the Department Of Health and Human Services and worked in an agency that was called the Bureau of Quality Assurance, which eventually evolved into the Health Care Finance Administration. And from there I went to Social Security Administration and I worked on a number of projects having to do with pain. When is pain so severe that you can actually reimburse a person for it for Workman’s Disability? And from there I went to the Department of Defense and was counsel for the Defense Investigative Service, and then came here. So, I don’t know that there was a natural progression. It just seemed that those years of experience in all those different activities actually did prepare me well for this job that I have now.
MJ: Was there someone, a mentor, who was influential in directing you in the field?
FI: Well, you know that is an interesting question because my parents were always people who believed in public service. Even though neither one of them ever participated in what I would call public service they always felt that their children had a duty to give back to the community. And so my brother and I both ended up working for the state or for the federal government in one capacity or another. So my parents were very influential. They were leaders in the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. They have always been very, very big on various local charities, and they just instilled in their children at an early age that service to the federal government or to any government, or to the state, was of the highest order you could probably aspire. But in college and in school, especially in law school, I had an associate dean by the name of Camille Cook who had a seminar that she gave on environmental law, and in that course I learned a number of things. I learned, number one, that there were times when the greater good was better served doing some of those things that were unpopular rather than to follow the crowd. I also found that with my background it was easier to get a job from some of the courses that I had taken, and this environmental seminar certainly opened up an avenue for me to pursue, and that was the Air Pollution Commission.
MJ: Would you like to tell us a little bit more about your educational background and how that prepared you?
FI: You know, like I said, I was a product of the Birmingham Public School System. I graduated from high school in 1965. I got an undergraduate degree from the University of Alabama, a B. S. in Chemistry, in 1969. I went for a year to graduate school in political science, and then was accepted in law school in 1970 and graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1973.
MJ: Would you tell me more about your career and the positions you have held, maybe in more detail about what you did in those positions?
FI: When I worked for the Air Pollution Commission, it was my first job out of college, and I served as their general counsel. And during that period of time it was an interesting time because the Counsel was gearing up to set up regulations to implement the Clean Air Act. So we traveled all over Alabama having hearings, determining what kind of regulations we were going to have, whether they were going to be more strict than the Clean Air Acts. I can remember one particular hearing we had in some city, maybe it was Evergreen, Alabama, where there was a paper mill, a little saw mill, that was really polluting terribly, and so the gentleman who owned the saw mill came in from Mobile in his limousine and so forth, and the Commission was seated up front and we were having this hearing, and he said that he would not “kowtow” to the Commission and he would not abide by the regulations, that they did not need to be interfering in his business, and that he would blow the place up before he would allow us to administer his company. So I just calmly took the microphone and told him that he would need a permit first to blow it up, and that just sort of calmed everybody down and we were able to move on. But after that I had given a little talk over in Atlanta at EPA, and unbeknownst to me there was a gentleman in the audience by the name of Michael Goran, who had been tapped to be the new head of the Office of Quality Assurance, and he called me and he asked me if I would interview with him for a job at the Bureau of Quality Assurance, at then Health, Education, and Welfare. The name had not been changed to HHS as yet. So I did and I was hired, and what I was hired to do was to set up a legislative office, and I had never done that before. I didn’t know anything about that, and the person who helped me do that was a woman by the name of Rhoda Abrams, and Rhoda had worked at HHS for a number of years, so she was very instrumental in assisting me in setting this office up. She explained to me how to write “bureaucratese” and we did that many, many nights in her office after work. We learned how to write properly for the bureaucracy. She taught me how to set up briefing books for witnesses on the Hill. She taught me how to write testimony. She showed me how to brief witnesses and get them prepared for hearings and get them prepared for mark-ups, and how I needed to set up an office that would support the administrator, the Under Secretary, and the Secretary when they went up to the Hill. And because of her assistance we became very successful, and we actually set up a new technique for utilizing briefing books that was eventually adopted by many people in the government. From that office, and after several stints in the office of the Secretary at HHS, I went over to the Social Security Administration for a very brief time, just because I thought that I needed a change of pace. But once I got there I didn’t much like it, to tell you the truth. It was sort of a dull routine after what I had been used to. So I applied for a job with the Department of Defense and was hired as the general counsel for the Defense Investigative Service, which was totally different, and what we did at DIS was we were responsible for people’s background checks, for determining whether they got top-secret clearances or not, and also companies that did business with the government and got contracts with the government. We would certify and make sure that they had top-secret clearances and that they were indeed at least 51 percent American owned. And so that was an interesting, interesting work for a while. I actually certified top-secret clearance for a gentleman who was a devil-worshipper, and he got that certification because he was being discriminated against because of his religion. He was already a colonel in the Army or something; he was already doing biological warfare and he wanted to be certified for atomic warfare, so we did certify him. So I left there and came to this job that I have now with Food and Nutrition Services. I saw it advertised. It looked very interesting, something that I was very interested in getting back into, which was the governmental affairs, congressional relations field. And so I came back in 1982, started working at FNS as a legislative specialist. And in ’88 I became director of the office, and I have been director of the office ever since.
MJ: Well, what changes have you seen in the child nutrition programs over the years?
FI: Well, the changes that I have seen are first of all with the School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, most of the feeding programs is that we have moved from quote unquote a “feeding program” to a “nutrition program.” Years ago the advocates, Congress, and this agency just looked at “Let’s feed children.” Many, many years ago when this program was first started that was the primary concern. We need to get food into children. Children are malnourished. And so we didn’t much care, it’s my perspective, what we put into them, as long as they were being fed. Now that has changed considerably. In the last ten or fifteen years it is more what kind of, what is the quality of the food that they are eating? What is the nutritional value of the food? Is this meeting the R.D.A.s? Is there too much fat? etc., etc., so we have moved to a more nutrition-based program. We have also moved from the idea that this is a welfare program. It is pretty much recognized on the Hill now that this is not a welfare program. School Lunch in particular is not a welfare program. This is a program where children are given nutritious food, and it is a nutrition program. So that is a huge difference over the last decade. And I think that’s what’s the most lasting impression in this program now, is that we have moved from that, from welfare, from feeding, to nutrition.
MJ: Could you go into a little more detail, maybe more about the legislation or on the Hill then, the differences and changes that you have seen in the legislation?
FI: Well, I have been through five Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorizations, and I must say that to get to the point where we are now has taken a considerable amount of education. Fortunately, we are very lucky in the Food and Nutrition Service in that on both the House and the Senate side we have had pretty much the same staff members, believe it or not, for that entire period of time, so that we all know each other and we all trust each other at this point. And in the beginning they, the staff on the Hill were typically, typically not wanting to change. They felt that the programs were working the way that they should be working, that they really weren’t broken and why would we need to change to a nutrition-based program? Why do we need to do weighted averages? Why do we need to look at the nutritional content of food? These kids were eating, they were, but then, things started to crop up – plate waste. A lot of plate waste in schools. The fact that we were in the middle of an obesity epidemic; the fact that parents were complaining about the quality of the foods in the schools and that they wanted more and different things in the schools. They wanted skim milk. They wanted yogurt. They wanted all these different things. They wanted us to keep up with the times. And I think that finally the staff on the Hill realized this, that the School Lunch Program was stuck. It needed to move forward. It was becoming a dinosaur, and so we needed to move forward, we needed to modernize the program, we needed to bring it up to date, and we needed to put it back in the mainstream of what people in America were doing and thinking, and so eventually that is what is transpiring. Anything on the Hill is going to take time. It is not overnight, especially in this field. And so it took a number of, it took endless conversations, meetings, writing of legislation, attempts to show how this would benefit constituents so we could show, we could justify any moneys that we were spending on this program. So it has taken about 25 years to get to the point where we are now. And we are still trying to move forward.
MJ: What do you think has been your most significant contribution to child nutrition programs?
FI: My contribution is certainly not, is certainly not knowing in any great detail all the different regulations and all the different ways these programs work. My contribution has been the fact that I am the kind of person that can bring groups together that are in conflict and we can work out a compromise. We can work out something where everybody wins. My other contribution is that I can see the big picture. I don’t have blinders on, and I don’t mean this in a bad way. We have people who work in our programs every single day that work only on those programs, and my job is to try to see the entire picture where all of this fits in, and how this is going to interface with other nutrition programs, other research programs, the Food Stamp Program, and whether or not this is going to work, suggestions that the other programs might make, whether this is going to work or not. Every time we sit down for reauthorization, the program sits down and makes a number of suggestions, or we have listening sessions and people make suggestions. It is my job to look at those and say, “This isn’t going to work this year,” or “This is a great idea. The Congress is ready for this.” And so I feel that in many ways I have been able to bring groups that have heretofore been in, having different opinions, together. Well, the Congress, as you well know, is a very diverse group, and to try to bring a bunch of conservatives and a bunch of liberals together and get them to work out anything is almost impossible. Fortunately, these programs are always classified as bipartisan. Whether they are or not, that is the way that they like to look at it. So we have had our battles, but I think that one of the strengths that we’ve had is that I am always able to make sure that in the final, final reconciliation, the final conference of any legislation, we are in the room. Nobody is in the room but us and the conferees. Food and Nutrition Service is always allowed in the room, and one of the benefits of that is that if they are in conflict, they will always turn to us and say, “Well, what do you want? How can we solve this?” So we can always work this out. So that’s been my greatest contribution is that I am able to bring people together and we are able to compromise.
MJ: Could you give us maybe an example of that situation of bringing two groups of people together to work on something, to work something out?
FI: Yeah, we, several years ago in one of these reauthorizations, there’s been five of them now. They do tend to run together. Senator Dole was the chair of the Senate Ag. Committee and Senator Dole was an individual that believed very strongly in the Americans with Disabilities Act and in implementing that. And his staff person came to us on several occasions and said he wants to write something into law with respect to school lunch being accessible to children with disabilities. The House had problems with that, profound problems with that, and didn’t even want to discuss it with them. They just didn’t want to get into it. There were a lot of philosophical problems. So I eventually got them to come together, and I am not going to go into detail how that was done, got them to come together and with, you know, working through this for about three or four hours, in the Senate cafeteria. So we were in three or four hours of work in the Senate cafeteria and we were able to work this whole thing out over some very unnutritious food. You know, hamburgers and French fries and such. And so that was how that deal was struck, and there were many examples of those kinds of things, those kinds of just, “Let’s get together. Let’s get together over a glass of wine. Let’s get together in the hallway. Let’s go out on the mall and just sit on the grass and maybe we can work this out. Look up in the clouds. What do you see up there? Well, I see children and they are hungry. Can’t you think of some way that we can solve this problem?” And so, over the years, those have been the little techniques that I have used that have worked. And I am always the first one that’s shocked that they do work. So we have been successful. You know, the Food and Nutrition Service has probably one of the best track records with respect to legislation and getting legislation passed, and getting legislation passed that meets the criteria of not only the program, not only the administration, no matter which administration is in place, but also that is best for the people that we are serving. And that is always the primary goal here, is the children, the women, the infants, the elderly, that’s our primary focus. But we do it within the rules and we do it within the parameters, but we are creative a lot of times.
MJ: Well, do any other memorable stories or events come to mind when you think about your years of involvement?
FI: Well, there are so many stories, and there are stories about, there are stories about fisticuffs that took place between members of staffs that probably don’t need to be mentioned, but these things do happen. People do get passionate about these issues. And so I have been in a couple of meetings where actual fights have broken out. But believe it or not, we settled them and everybody just sat back down and we just moved right ahead and worked stuff out, even in those kinds of tense situations. I do remember one – I have a couple of things. One time we were working in a Child Nutrition Reauthorization and I had with me a person who was the head of the Child Nutrition Division in the Office of Analysis and Evaluation. A woman by the name of Fran Zorn, and Fran was just a terrific expert in our statute, and answering questions. And she just knew everything about the programs, the statutes, the regulations, and the studies. And so we were in a conference and people would just line up to ask her questions, because they all had little pet amendments they wanted to add, and they would just line up and say, “Well, if we did this is this going to hurt this?” and she would be able to say, “Yes” or “No.” And we were just so busy and people were just lining up and all of a sudden there’s this voice that says, “I have a question to ask you about dairy in the School Lunch Program,” and she said, “Well, you are going to have to wait your turn,” and turned around and it was the chairman of the committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, who took it all in stride and said, “Okay, I’ll wait my turn.” So that was sort of an unusual time. But we’ve gone up to Senator Dole’s office. We’ve worked with a young woman who was on staff there by the name of Stacy Hoffhaus in writing a number of pieces of legislation. That was always sort of an interesting side-light with her. She was, she was an interesting person. We’ve visited places that I never thought I would visit on the Hill. We’ve gone to Senator’s hideaways up in the Capitol to work on legislation all night. We’ve had pizza brought in when we’ve been working there at night and you more or less work because you know you are not going to be able to leave, because they sort of lock the doors on you until you get this finished. I think what is interesting for me is that, as I alluded to earlier, the same staff has been there for a number of years. There are people that we have worked with for 28 years now. Dave Johnson, who works for the Republicans, he is now the general counsel of that committee, but we have worked with him for all these years and so he knows our programs. He knows us. He trusts us. He knows where to come to get information. Ed Barron, who used to work at USDA and now works for Senator Leahy, and has worked in various capacities for Senator Leahy and is just an outstanding person and someone that knows us and knows our programs backwards and forwards. And so there are people that we can work with, and understand and appreciate the work that is done by the Food and Nutrition Service, and actually by all the school foodservice workers, too. That is one thing I have to say, all these folks appreciate the work that the school foodservice personnel do, and the kinds of pressures and stresses that they are all under, and that is usually the first question they ask when we come up with any suggestion, or anyone comes up with a suggestion, “Are we going to hurt anyone? Are we going to hurt the children by doing this, or are we going to hurt the school food service personnel who have to put this food on the table for them?” And I think that is great. I mean, I think it has taken some of them a little while to learn to ask those questions, but now they do. And I think that makes all the difference in the world. We have also had a number of people that just enlivened this entire process, people like a woman by the name of Wanda Worsham, who while she has never, she has worked for the Agriculture Committee, but she was also our legislative liaison at the department for 12 years and then she went back to the Hill for eight years, and then she came back to the department and was our legislative liaison again. And her enthusiasm and her personality just made everybody that went into a room with her to work just a joy to be with, because she was just so funny and she just put everybody at ease. And she was another one of our secret weapons. We’d break Wanda out and the whole room just melts. Another funny story is we had a person, we still have a person on the Hill who shall go nameless, that is very difficult, extremely difficult. And most people do not like to meet with this individual because of the demeanor that this person usually has. And our new Under Secretary, we had a new Under Secretary, and the Under Secretary wanted to go up and meet this person, or she called down and demanded to meet the Under Secretary; she had some views that she wanted to share with the Under Secretary. And I said, “Well, you know, Mr. Secretary, she is going to call you up there and she is going to say she wants this, this, this, and this, and she wants to know why we haven’t done this, this, and this. And then she is going to light into you.” I said, “But her weakness, and she does have a weakness, and it’s Mr. Goodbar,” and I said, “If I was you, I would take a Mr. Goodbar with me.” So sure enough we go up there, and she calls us into a little conference room and she sits right across from the Secretary, and she starts wagging her finger and telling him all of the things, and they’re from the same party, and telling him all the things that’s been going wrong, and so forth. And he quickly and quietly pulls this Mr. Goodbar out from his pocket. He doesn’t say a word, and puts it on the table, and she sees it and she keeps talking. And he pushes it across to her. And so she stops and she says, “Is this for me?” And he says, “Well, sure. So are all of these that are in this briefcase.” And so we bribed her. I don’t guess, “bribed” is not a good word, but we won her over with maybe 48 Mr. Goodbars, and from that moment on, she was just as cooperative and sweet and anything we wanted, we got, and she was just as, I mean she didn’t give in totally, but she was more amenable to working with us and it was just one of those little things that after 30 years you learn about a person, of how to maybe make things a little easier. So that’s, people have a sweet tooth, and you play on that. Who knows? We might get, we might get reduced price category eliminated some day.
MJ: Anything else you would like to add?
FI: No, I think that’s it. I have a million of these kinds of stories.
MJ: We would love to hear more of them.
FI: I think that’s probably enough for today.