Interviewee: Gail Johnson
Interviewer: Melba Hollingsworth
Interview Date: Nov. 12, 2008
Description: Gail Johnson was an area supervisor and later a child nutrition director in Louisiana.
Melba Hollingsworth: Would you begin by telling me a little bit about yourself – first of all your educational background and what motivated you to get into child nutrition programs?
Gail Johnson: Oh ok, you want me to introduce myself. Okay my name is Gail Johnson and I have a B.S. in Foods and Nutrition and a Master’s in Management. I never anticipated getting in food service; I started out as a Registered Dietitian in a hospital where I did an internship.
MH: And what schools did you go to?
GJ: I went to Southern University for undergraduate school and my graduate degree came from Howard University. And my internship I did at Hines VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois. My husband got out of the military 30 some years ago and he was a Vietnam veteran and they had a RIFF because they had too many helicopter pilots at that time, well that’s how we wound up in Louisiana because he got a job here. So I started teaching and while I was teaching during my summer years I was a Coordinated Undergraduate Program Director and Assistant Professor at Southern University. I found out then that was not the area that I loved because I had worked in management all the years that I had been working before at the hospital. And in management I like the numbers, I like the figures, teaching I found out after two years was not my area of interest. I started working in Summer Feeding. They called the University to ask if there was someone that they could hire to work in Summer Feeding.
MH: So what year was this?
GJ: 1978. Well at that time I said, “I know someone who can work in Summer Feeding,” so I started working in Summer Feeding. So I worked in Summer Feeding and at that time I went down to Iberville Parish and there was a lady over there who told me that I should come and work in School Food Service. And I didn’t think I could at that time because East Baton Rouge Parish required that you have a degree. And I did leave because I found out that I was not very good at the University structure and I started working in School Food Service where I really enjoyed it and believe it or not I started out as a manager. And everybody said you have been an assisted professor at a University and you’re going to work as a manager in this school, and I said well.
MH: What school was that?
GJ: Where I was an assisted professor?
MH: No the school – the one you started at.
GJ: Oh the school that I started working at, the first school I started working on was Highland Elementary.
MH: Yes I remember that.
GJ: Which is here in East Baton Rouge Parish and that was a shock for me to come in – because when I walked in the training was – because I had worked in the private sector before I came here, which was for the Marriott Corporation, and I did a lot of training for the Marriott Corporation and I was accustomed to structure. And we didn’t have as much structure when I came in but it became the best thing for me because I became a manager it has let me determine what we would need later on in school food service. This was a good thing because it changed a lot of things. By me working in school food service they had a position that opened up for an area supervisor. At that time they had three area supervisors and I applied for the position, which was in 1984, and I became an area supervisor at that time.
MH: And who was the director at that time?
GJ: The director was Mary Eleanor Cole; she was the director at that time. And she hired me as area supervisor and we had more schools than we have now. Now we only have 93 schools because we shut down quite a number because of the population, as us being an urban school district we were losing the population as people were moving to the suburbs, because when I came in we had 126 schools.
MH: You had 126, and now you have what?
GJ: Ninety-three, plus alternative schools, I also do feed charter schools and recovery school districts, which are another form of charter schools. So I feed 93 regular schools and 6 charter schools; so I do feed more than the group of people that we have.
MH: What is your enrollment?
GJ: Oh, enrollment right now is about 42,800, and when I first came in our enrollment was 56,000, so it has reduced.
MH: And what is your average daily participation?
GJ: About 34,000 for lunch and about 18,000 to 19,000 for breakfast. And the snacks -about 2,000 – and the snacks are going up because of the schools that we have that are in academic correction. We are having more and more schools that are having after-school programs and they are asking for snacks. So our participation is going up and that varies by day, which is mostly like any other school, and the snack participation is increasing.
MH: So, you were an area supervisor.
GJ: Yes, and then Mrs. Cole retired.
MH: What year was that? Do you remember?
GJ: Mrs. Cole retired in 1992. She retired in June of 1992 and I became the director in August of 1992. And the first thing that happened to me in August of 1992 was that a storm came through.
MH: What storm was this?
GJ: The big storm, Edward. It zipped across from Florida and came off the coast and came into here. And I had a school that burned down in the same month and no refrigeration for 66 schools the first month I became the director of school food service. So it was an enlightening experience for me. However, at that time, even before I came in I did have a plan of action already written. When we had the storms this year we had the same plan of action; we didn’t change anything from that time. We had a control center; I immediately came in and borrowed a freezer truck, a 53 Refer, which is a truck that can be either be a refrigerator or a freezer, and is run by diesel. And we went to 66 schools and got the food out and saved most of it. So during this hurricane, the last one that we had which was Gustav, we used the same process. So we didn’t change anything over all those years; that was 1992 and we’re here over 16 years later and we did the same thing.
MH: How easy was it to get that 18-wheeler?
GJ: At that time it was very easy, the first time around, because I was the first person out of the shoot to be able to get one. So I called our vender and our vender loaned us the refrigerated truck. He also provided us with the diesel fuel. We didn’t even have to get the diesel. He had someone to come in every day and fill it up so that we could continue to keep the food frozen, which was outstanding for a vender to be able to do something like that, so he did an outstanding job.
MH: And what about this time?
GJ: This time we had to get a generator because everything went down. We have three freezers and one refrigerator and the electricity went out to everything, so we then borrowed a generator. And our appliance men plugged it into our system to keep our food, and our freezer is still down. All of our freezers and refrigerator are still down expect for one freezer. We have three freezers still down and right now we have three refrigerated trucks. And the hurricane hit that and we had an emergency system put in where we are replacing those freezers and we hope everything will be finished by January. But it is costing us $1,200 a month for the 4 trucks that we have, so we are spending a considerable amount of money keeping those systems up and going right now and to keep our food, because we do use $1 million and about $200,000 dollars worth of commodity foods a year. And we need it and we have deliveries coming in all the time and so even though the state has a warehouse, they are delivery oriented, one time a month. And it is difficult to get it out of their freezers but we do daily deliveries so yeah and it made it to the point where we had to get our own refrigerators. So if you think about it we are getting a million dollars worth of commodities a year so we are getting 100,000 dollars of commodities in monthly. And so our turnover is fast so we needed to have our own freezer so that we could get our food in or else we would have not been able to recover. And it cost so much to store that at the state warehouse, it costs $3.25 for every item so the costs would have been prohibitive and is also why we needed our own refrigerators. We scoured the country trying to find freezers and refrigerators after the storm because so many people were looking for freezers and refrigerators. But we finally got enough so we are content now, and are hoping to get this repaired pretty soon.
MH: Well you have seen a lot of.
MH: Absolutely, now when was Gustav?
GJ: It was in the last week of August and the first day in September.
MH: It really affected the whole community didn’t it?
GJ: It did. It had an impact on the community much more so, because we had much more damage than we did with Karina. During Katrina our biggest problem was that we didn’t have much damage but we had 10,000 extra students come in. And we had to feed those students. Most school districts have an average of about 2,000, so we got five school districts in a matter of one week, which is unusual for you to increase your population by that much in just one week.
MH: So how did that affect you grocery wise and stuff?
GJ: Well that was the big thing for us. Many of the vendors lost their inventory and it was a good thing that we had our system, because our internal system didn’t go down. So by us not having our internal system go down, this was the only building that had electricity in the whole school system. During Katrina we were the most effective system in the United States, East Baton Rouge Parish was, because we brought in 10,000 students. In the first place we had to open up a new school; then we had to find supplies, we had to find food. What we did for our food, we went to the national vendors like Kellogg, we had an 18-wheeler of cereal delivered to our warehouse. We went to our national vendor of pizza and ordered an 18-wheeler of pizza. This building was called control central. We brought all our food in that we could save and put in the freezers that we had here. And then after we did an inventory we found out that we could only give everyone one serving of everything. And we did that up until January. We changed our breakfast menu to only offering one serving of breakfast and one serving of lunch, and we did that up until January because the hurricane of course was in September at that time also, so almost to the date, the same time the end of August and the beginning of September. We went through that and what helped us was that we were able to use our USDA guideline and they let us serve the children all free because some of our systems didn’t have electricity -that was the one thing that helped us out. We didn’t even ask; we just started serving the children. We didn’t have a choice. I don’t think people understand – we had complaints from the media – why did we serve the children free? I told them these people came to us without identification; they only came with the clothes on their backs. They didn’t have any food, they didn’t have any clothing, and they were all living where they could, so they had no identification. So we just let the student come in to eat because this was the biggest catastrophe that anyone had ever known. The discussion was – one parent wrote in or called the media and they were very upset because they said that we were feeding all the children free. I asked them how long we would have to wait for someone to get identification for them to eat; we were the only service that somebody was standing right in line for you to feed them. The parents came in and we were not allowed to feed them and so I opted to feed those who came with the children the first day when they came in the school. They were afraid to let their children go; they had all come in on buses and we sent them to a school. I offered to pay for it myself. I told everybody, we had about 300 parents came with their children; I told them I would pay for it. Because those people were afraid to let their children go; they didn’t want to be separated, they would have separation anxiety at that time. They were terrified. They were all living in our central place, which they had about 5,000 people down there with their children, and we had the buses to bus the children directly to the school. We set up a special school just for the children that were at our centers that we had. And some of them of course went to the schools, but you know you can imagine being inundated with 10,000 people, 10,000 students at the time. And our system was able to take that in; we counted in with clickers with everything. That was all we were able to do and eventually we were able to go back online. But the most difficult thing was just to feed those children. They didn’t have shoes; some came barefooted, so we supplied them with shoes, food, and clothing when they came to the school. And the first thing that everybody wanted to do was eat, because they were in the center and they hadn’t had a hot meal and nobody had served them a hot meal. They probably hadn’t had a hot meal for 3 or 4 weeks, so almost a month. So when they came in to us they were able to get a hot meal which was the best thing, and the parents were satisfied after they came to the school and we transported them and let them see what was going on. We had one major school, centers all over and they were in all of our schools, so you can imagine taking in 10,000 students all at one time. It was horrendous for us because at that time our population was still 45,000 and then we went up to 55,000 at that time, so that was a big increase for us. The ripple affect was that we had to find furniture, food, clothing – everything to re-house or re-populate all the buildings that we didn’t have any more. So we had to go find equipment to go back into the schools that we had taken out just to put on serving lines and be able to serve the children. So we had to re-populate a school that we had just totally stripped and wasn’t going to be using for awhile; it was a difficult situation for us. The biggest thing for us was getting food and getting the vendors in, because all of our major vendors had flooded out; that was the thing. We didn’t even hear from our vendor for a week; we didn’t know if he was living or if he was dead because the area that was flooded was the area where his store was and all of his products were flooded out at the same time. We worked through it; it was a difficult situation. I have to say the staff was wonderful. We came to this room, this was called command central; this room was really command central for us and we were in this room all the time working through everything. But the good thing about it – we did have an inventory, we did have our server still working here, and everybody had downloaded and saved all the information and taken it home anyways so we still had backups. We proceeded to find out how much food we had, then we decided what we could do. Then came along the second storm after that one was over with, and then we didn’t have bread because we only had one bread maker in all of Louisiana if you could believe that.
MH: Are you talking about the second storm Rita?
GJ: Yes, Rita came along.
MH: And that was when?
GJ: After Katrina passed. And Rita came along – there was a big flood in the middle part of Louisiana so we had some students come from that part. It wasn’t that many but at that time we didn’t have any bread; there was only one bread maker and no clean water. So we didn’t have bread for some of our meals and when we did have bread we accepted any kind of bread. Some meals had hot dog buns instead of a slice or a roll; we used rolls on our meals some days; we had hamburger buns, we didn’t have a regular roll for a long period of time so it was very difficult for us.
MH: So where did you get the bread?
GJ: They imported bread from all of our vendors outside of the state; they went to Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, wherever they could get bread from any bread maker from outside of that, and we took whatever we could get. We just wanted to have it for our service. But one of the things that we did do was we went to the principal-staff conference which we held once a month and I explained to them that we did not have bread and that they would have to accept whatever we had. So they worked with us and our vendor Clive Peters who was our dairy person; we buy about 2 million dollars, we are their major source of income. So they sell about 26 million dollars worth of milk products a year and we but 2 million of it, so we were their major system and they definitely wanted to make sure we were alright, so they were there to service us. Of course that wasn’t a perfect situation because we didn’t open up the schools at the same time, and this is the same thing that happened this time when we had the storm here in Baton Rouge. Every school was without electricity; nobody had electricity.
MH: So that was a different reversal type thing.
GJ: It was a reversal from what we were with Katrina – we had electricity. But this time we did not have electricity in the Gustav storm, every school was out of electricity. So we had to go through and make sure all schools were up, and a big part of it was that equipment wasn’t working so then our appliance personnel had to go into every kitchen and make sure every piece of equipment was working. And that was a different thing for us because if it was shut off as many days as we had, and then bring freezers, refrigerators back up, not microwaves but ovens back up, they didn’t always work. So we had 77 freezers and refrigerators out at the same time, so they had to go to all the schools and make sure they were put back in again.
MH: So did you have an ample supply of disposables?
GJ: Oh we had plenty of disposables because we only use what’s called single service of everything. We had warehouses still up; we still had the people to deliver and out of these only one kitchen was damaged where a tree fell through it. We had damage to the roofs of the schools but only one food service kitchen was damaged. So we were lucky there, that we were able to bring all of them back up – not on the same day – we brought up 66 the first day and it took us two weeks to get the schools open. That was the thing for us – it took two weeks to get all the electricity on and get all schools up and ready to go.
MH: So two weeks after the storm ended?
GJ: Yes. And that was almost like a miracle because many people didn’t come up for 3 or 4 weeks, almost a month. And I did lose income; my income for every day that I bring in is $133,000 a day and I lost that income for 7 days. And that is one of the things that is bad about school food service because you depend on the income. And in areas where you have hurricanes and when something happens, you lose that income because what they do is they add the minutes onto the end of the day 3, 4, 5 minutes and 2 minutes maybe in the morning or they take a little bit out of lunch. Well for me, for lunch, for every minute that I am operating that is $3,000 a minute so sometimes I have lost 3 minutes at a school. So if I lose 3 minutes at all of the schools you think about that for a day I lose $3,000 and you multiply that, that’s a lot of money. So I am having to work to minimize the damage to our budget which has been significant – we have lost almost $1 million dollars of income just to the hurricanes. And that is one of the things that most people don’t realize from the outside, because they say ‘you get government money’. They don’t realize that we only get the money when we serve the students.
MH: It’s a reimbursement program.
GJ: Yes. One lady told me ‘all you have to do is go use the money that the government gives you’. And as you know it is a reimbursement rate and even our employees don’t understand they just think that we just get it.
MH: You know I didn’t quite cover – why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up.
GJ:I grew up here in Louisiana.
MH: So were you born here?
GJ: I was born and raised in Louisiana.
MH: What town was that?
GJ: A little town called Garyville; we have parishes and I was raised in St. John’s Parish and born in New Orleans at the hospital there. I went to elementary and high school at St. John’s Parish and then went to Southern University and did an internship at Hines VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois of course and then went to graduate school as I said before at Howard University. And after I did my internship I moved to New York City and worked there as a dietitian. And from there I worked for private companies overseeing 12 parishes and one of them was Marriott Corp. And then when I moved here I started in a community action agency and worked there with Head Start and then when that agency closed down I went to the university to teach as I said before I was a coordinator for undergraduate programs and then I started working in school food service, which was a shock to me. I had worked in the private industry and was surprised and how people did not look at it as a business. And when I started working and started looking at it as a business, the good thing for me working as a manger was I was able to see areas that we could improve in; and the biggest area that I saw was we transferred to convenience foods but we didn’t move the labor. We had the labor to do all this but we didn’t do the labor so that was the thing I started doing when I came in, I started working with the labor. And we were in financial trouble and we were almost 3 million dollars in the red and after 2 years we had a 2 million dollar surplus, so I had an almost 5 million dollar turn around in less then 2 years.
MH: What is your earliest recollection – did you have school food service when you were growing up?
GJ: Well what I remember about my school food service was that every Monday we had red beans and rice.
MH: In some places they still do.
GJ: Every Monday. And the reason that they said that they had red beans and rice all over Louisiana is because people would wash their clothes on Monday and put the beans out which made it easier to cook red beans and rice and not have to worry about it. I think that’s a big thing on Monday because we still have red beans and rice on our menus for Monday. And I remember the other thing was thing was macaroni and cheese and bologna cups.
MH: Bologna cups?
GJ: Yeah, you would take the bologna and sort of cook it a little bit and then the bologna would make a cup and then you would put mashed potatoes in the middle. That’s what I remember about it when I first came in. Even when I came to East Baton Rouge Parish 30 years ago that’s what they were doing. And so we have changed it considerably since the bologna cup. And we have become more conscience; I think one of the biggest things that happened to me since I have been here is the Offer vs. Serve. And when they started Offer vs. Serve I said, “It would never work.” And you know change is good and made a difference, also financially it made a big impact on our budget because what children didn’t eat they didn’t take. And we still have some of the old people coming into our cafeterias wanting us to serve the kids all the food even though they don’t want to eat it. And it’s very difficult to make them understand that they have a choice.
MH: Well was there someone that you feel was a mentor who influenced you directly to child nutrition programs
GJ: Other then the lady who asked me, “Don’t you think you might be interested in that area rather than being a teacher?” and her name was Mary Batiste and she directed me toward it and told me to go and talk to them after I working in Summer Feeding about working in school lunch program. And I talked to Mrs. Cole and she was looking for somebody and she said, “Yes, come on board.”
MH: So you feel that was.
GJ: Yes, it was just one of things being in I guess you would say the right place at the right time. And I came in as school food service manager, came in as an area supervisor and you know the last one hired is the one that gets everything, so then I was told you are in charge of the computers and free and reduced lunch.
MH: That’s right.
GJ: Yes, Yes. So by me being in charge of the computers we had the many main frames which were system 36 and system 400. And I was on the help desk and I went to Orlando to a conference and I was the only person from the school system and food service. And they said, “Why would school food service need a help desk?” They didn’t realize that we needed computers and that we ran a business. At that meeting a profound thing happened and I wasn’t even aware of it; there was a man that introduced the program there and his name was Mr. Gates, and he introduced his program at that meeting and I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. I came back from that meeting and when I became director I put in PCs and had gotten rid of the system 36 and 400s. Because I knew from that meeting where the United States would be going; everybody would be going away from those things.
MH: I gather the Gates you’re talking about is Bill?
GJ: Yes. Bill Gates, he introduced his first program at that meeting.
MH: What year was that?
GJ: That would have been probably, and I’m just guessing – its not going be right -because I came into the office in 1984, I’d say somewhere near 1987 or 1989 somewhere in there. He introduced his program and I wish I knew what I knew now because I would be a rich lady. And his program crashed by the way – you know how you are introducing everything and you think it’s going to be wonderful. And so from that we started automating school food service it was not automated at that time. By me working with the free and reduced lunch I started working on automating school food service process and application all in the office. One of the things that happened when I came in, we didn’t have any money, we were not able to buy any computers, so I went to all the principals and asked them if they would like to be in a study. We bought six computers and I said, “If you buy your own computers I’ll give them back to you in 3 years, you need to buy them for us because we don’t have any money to buy any computers. And I will relieve you”, because they were the ones that processed applications at that time, “so you will no longer have to process applications”, and that was the winner that they would have less work to do. So what I did was I got six people to let us buy those and we got testimonies from teachers how much time it had saved them every day; it saved them like two and a half hours a week of working with applications. And some of the principals didn’t want the computer idea at their school, so what I did was I took the people with the highest performance schools and the lowest performance schools and put the computers in those and then went to the people in the highest performing school who didn’t want the computers, because we phased the computers in, because we had so many schools it was like one-third, one-third, one-third. And I said to them, “You mean to tell me that your students who are higher performing can’t do as well as those in the low performance; what are your teachers doing in your school that they don’t understand how to teach?” I didn’t quit phrase it that way but that is how I got everybody on board. Because people don’t like change; even though individuals had computers in their school they weren’t using them at that time, they were sitting in a box with dust in the back. And one of the board members said, “You will never use those computers”, and when we installed them in every school I said, “Come and see.” We used them in every school. And we did point of service persons and that means of course the children come by and you cover what they are doing. I think it was a shock to all of them because we still have individuals wondering why the people in school food service need computers and they don’t realize that we have to have accountability. During that time when I moved up to director – I like conveniences and automation because it cuts out, because court labor is very expensive. We created the first scan application in the United States, we created the first one and when we created that application the federal government said because we used federal money we had a person come in who designed applications that could be scanned. He said we paid him with federal money so that had to be given to the feds so now our applications that we use in East Baton Rouge Parish are part of a package that’s handed out by the Feds now all over the United States, that’s part of the package. And as a result of us doing that scan that is now the normal, which wasn’t at that time the normal for application process for multi-family applications; they use that now. We were also the first ones in the United States here to put all of our scanned information on disk and we keep them on file so we don’t have to have a hard copy; nobody has to use a hard copy. If somebody wanted to get our application to any school we could email them or send it to them on a CD.
MH: For verification
GJ: For verification, or for anything that they want to use it for, they are welcome to come and use it for anything.
MH: Well that’s unique. I know you’ve traveled around all over the nation. Is there anything else unique about this state?
GJ: Things that started from here?
GJ: Well, we had an individual several years back who started a – we already had one that was using the pouches in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and then of course we had you who worked on your Master’s degree . The Environmental Protection Agency said we had to reduce our garbage by 50 percent, and of course you were working with us at that time, and you did the study. And we started reducing our garbage, and now that pouch that we use here that reduces 50 percent of our garbage is now a standard across the nation, and everybody’s using it, so we can thank you for working with us to have that. So isn’t it wonderful that you were part of that process. So when I went to a national conference and I told someone that our system was the second in the United States that started -Lake Charles had started but she had had it for nineteen years, but had never expanded anywhere – when we did that, when the Environmental Protection Agency required us to reduce our garbage by 50 percent and you did the study as part of your Master’s degree, that became the norm for everybody. And when I go across the United States and talk about that they are really surprised that it came from here in Baton Rouge – they don’t have a concept. One of the things that’s also happened I have found is that as a result of that when we’ve been doing other things – because I still work with equipment – that went from 48 containers to 68 now. And one big thing that we’ve never resolved, the manufacturers didn’t realize that we changed to more milk in a container where you use less [people] to deliver, well what happened as a result, it has caused the milk boxes to be damaged much more because there are heavier items in there. Every gallon of liquid weighs eight pounds, so we have increased that container by another sixteen pounds. So that caused the milk box to sag, and that messes with the fans, so our men have figured out now in this district, and we have told the vendor that they have to cut the fans off about one-half inch to keep it from hitting the bottom and damaging more. So when we had a discussion here recently that’s what we told them.
MH: So the boxes have had to be redone.
GJ: Yes. There’s always a ripple effect from everything that you do. And every change that you do, you don’t think about what’s going to happen because of that. And that’s what happened with that and we just figured it out.
MH: I remember when we started the recycling program.
GJ: Yes. And we’re still using the recycling bins that we created while you were here. We have a recycle bin with a small mouth where we put our paper items in. And we also are still doing our cans. We separate our cans out and they pick up thirty tons of cans a year, and as a result of that when bids are taken on pick-up, that’s included because they can take those cans and sell them, so our garbage bill is cheaper because of that.
MH: Can you think of anything that’s unique in general about the Louisiana programs?
GJ: I am the only system in the state of Louisiana where all of the children are free for breakfast, but it’s getting more and more difficult.
MH: You have universal feeding?
GJ: We have universal free breakfast, but it is very difficult. Right now we are charging $2.00 for lunch, so you get two meals a day for $2.00, and they think that’s too expensive. They think that lunch should be less, that somehow or another we get all of our food free. That’s been the most difficult thing for us right now. All over the nation that’s happened. I get emails across my desk almost every day where people are talking about costs. Even if they went to a private vendor, the private vendor can rarely do what we are already doing in school food service. We process the applications for everyone. They don’t realize that much of this information, which is called at-risk information, we upload and download and do a refresh every morning, that that information is used to get more funds, more grants and everything for them. They are not savvy enough to understand what that is. One of the biggest problems we have now is with our directors who come in with limited financial literacy. Much of this is not taught in the schools. Much of the information that I have for financial management is self-taught. When I talk to individuals and I find out what they’re doing, they don’t know what their labor hours are, they don’t know what they’re producing, how many meals per man-hour that they’re producing. They are not even aware of what they need in personnel.
MH: Or raw food cost.
GJ: Or raw food cost. We just recently went onto what we call Dashboard. Our people make sure that they meet the guidelines. We email it out to them once a month. If you are inside the guidelines with your labor and everything you are OK. We have categories of green, yellow, and red. Every month Dashboard will go out to them and they will know where they are. We just started that this month.
MH: So every facility will know their bottom line.
GJ: Yes. We are still working it out, but we will have benchmarks for them to meet. We are meeting more and more benchmarks and making people aware of what they should do. It is very difficult for us, even as well as we train our employees – we have a really good training program here – for them to understand what no matter what you give away, it’s money. Somehow even our employees – the staff – think that I get all of the food free; that I don’t have to pay for anything. And that is the most difficult transition for us, is to get people to understand that. It is so hard. That is the most difficult problem that I think any director has, to get people to understand that food costs money. And I don’t have a garden back there or a cow to milk in the back.
MH: So you’ve seen a lot of changes in the child nutrition programs over the years haven’t you?
GJ: Yes. They’ve gone from where ketchup was supposed to be a vegetable.every time a new administration comes in they get someone new in and they have these wonderful ideas. One of the things that we have right now is everybody wants us to have a garden in every school, so that we can bring the produce in and cook it inside the school. Well, that’s not possible when you have urban schools and you have ninety-three schools, and so your produce is not – you can’t count on the produce that you’re going to get out of a garden that students are going to do. One administration came in and wanted to change all of our offerings. We had about five offerings and they wanted to introduce this new menu, new standards. One lady in the state of Louisiana changed to it and it cost her $1,000,000. What I usually do every time when someone comes in with new ideas and the want to change things until they find out it may not work, I ask them how long, what is the transition period for this? It’s usually four or five years. I say, “Can I be in the fourth or the fifth year?” Usually by the first, second, or third year they find out it’s not going to work. So I always ask if I can just stay with the standard menu until we find out what these people want. Let them work out the kinks. And every time we have basically come back to the basics. We have approximately 91,000 school districts in the United States, and every last one of them marches to a different drummer. Some of the school districts in Louisiana stopped making bread because they didn’t have anybody that knew how to make bread. We’d have one giant roll and then one tiny roll, and then they’d put them on the same pan and the little rolls would be burnt to a crisp and the big rolls would be all gooey in the middle, because they didn’t know how to size anything. So we got rid of the bread, because I went to the schools and I could see that the bread was as hard as a rock. That was a big thing. Now in some parishes they still have bread – about fifty percent of them are still making bread in Louisiana, but it is costing them a mint. They are not able to pay their staff to make bread and they don’t realize their cost. I did a recent survey of all schools in my local area and they are having to provide fifty percent of their money for labor. At one time the raw food cost was 54% and the labor was 46%. Now it’s flipped the other way. My labor cost is about 55% of my budget and my food only amounts to about 14%. I have other expenses in there, but what has happened is that my labor costs are so high per hour – my labor costs run about $27-28 per hour. I include toilet tissue, paper towels, everything that the people use. I also include their meals, because our meals cost me $3.79 a meal to produce lunch; to produce breakfast in one-half of that. So you include that in your labor cost because they eat lunch and they eat breakfast, plus you have to include benefits. My budget for labor is $9,000,000. My budget for benefits is $6,000,000. So you can see how much labor is.
MH: And your budget for food is how much?
GJ: $7,000,000. That’s a big difference there. This is what’s happened to us. Everything has flipped in the last few years. When an employee walks in the door, if he is making $10,000/year his benefits are $7,000, so you’re paying an employee $17,000 when he walks in the door, which is really high. So this is what’s changed in the last few years – our labor costs. We give good health benefits here, and most people come for the health benefits, because that’s what we have. But I can see in years to come that more businesses, more school food service will be privatized because of the labor and because we can’t afford the labor – even the fuel costs have affected us. And of course taking the corn and the soy products out has also impacted our budget. My food costs went up 32% this year.
GJ: Yes. My raw food costs went up 32% this year; 20% from August to December, and we have our bids from January until May, and that’s another 12%, so that’s 32% it went up this year. What’s in the pipeline for us – we’ve already been charged – we have to purchase our food so far in advance – we’ve purchased about $7,500,000 worth of food, $1,000,000 worth of commodities, $1,000,000 worth of paper supplies and cleaning supplies. Everything is delivered on a truck, and of course that’s a fuel cost. There is nothing that is not delivered on a truck and it costs us money every time something is delivered on a truck. About three years ago we were in a workshop and I told everybody, “Our biggest cost is going to be fuel.” And they said, “How is that?” And I said, “I don’t know any product that comes into any business that doesn’t come on a truck, unless you’re at a railroad station and you get it off of there.” Everything is impacted. The biggest thing that’s impacting all of us that we don’t even realize is that the third-world countries are coming in, and I predicted this about four or five years back, they’re coming into their own now. They have more money than they had before, so they’re competing for the same resources that we’re competing for, which is fuel. Everybody is competing for the same pie, but the pieces are smaller now. So since they are competing for the same things that we are they are the biggest threat for our economy, because [things] are going to keep going up. We have a correction right now because of the way things have changed. This is November of 2008 and we’ve had this big slump, but it still has not given us any money back in our food costs, because the vendors projected the costs out for items that contain corn and soy, and cows eat corn and soy, and all the other items that we have are made out of corn – corn flakes – all of our soy products – many of our products are made out of a large percentage of soy. Every last one of these things are world commodities and everybody is vying for this small piece, so it’s costing us more money.
MH: How many employees do you have?
GJ: The employees in East Baton Rouge Parish now are approximately 460. I had 520 and in the last year or so we upped our meals per labor hour and so we’re reducing our staff by seventy from last year, from 2007-2008. From last year at this time we had 520 and we made a correction in our employees, because I saw that we were going down, so we upped our meals per labor hour by increasing the convenience foods that we have and by reducing our employees by seventy. We will be down to 450 by the end of this school year, or even less. And we’ll look at the items that we have. For every fifteen items that we add in convenience items we up our meals per labor hour, because we’re constantly changing the kinds of foods that we buy.
MH: So constantly reassessing?
GJ: Oh yes. We are constantly reassessing on a daily basis, and I do walk-throughs at schools all the time, and when I see someone and they’re sitting down when I get there in the morning, I know we have too many employees in the school. They always say, “We don’t have enough.” But if I walk in there and they’re sitting down and just rubbing the table when I get there.
MH: So what do you feel is your most significant contribution to the field?
GJ: I changed the way school food service processed their applications. That’s a biggie so far as I’m concerned. We changed here in East Baton Rouge Parish – we started that. And we had one employee mention that, and from that I got a person in and then we started that here in the parish, of course with Dr. Mann and then she spearheaded it after that, and that was one of the biggest changes. Another thing that people don’t even realize, and it’s now a standard and the federal government requires, and I didn’t even know it until our software people came here, we batch-code people when we do applications. When I came we did them in alphabetical order. We take everything now and put it in a batch and the free lunch applications, when we look it up, it’s in a batch in a drawer, because that was the first thing that we did, and I didn’t realize that what we did here in East Baton Rouge Parish is now the standard. The federal government requires that they batch the applications, and New York City just went on this about two years ago, is using the process that we started; Los Angeles came here, they’re using the same process that we started here in East Baton Rouge Parish, and that made me feel good. That’s one insignificant thing that saved so many labor hours, thousands of labor hours, because when I first started out we had five people processing applications; we have one and a half persons now.
MH: And that’s a lot, because your at-risk is about what?
GJ: Well we have 83%.
MH: Eighty-three percent at-risk students.
GJ: Yes. That’s our free and reduced right now. That’s about 35,000 applications a year.
MH: And you have a very small window to process them.
GJ: Yes, a very short time – thirty days.
MH: Do you have any memorable stories that come to mind as you think about your profession?
GJ: Well I have one funny thing – every year at the end of every school year we used to ask all the people, “What was your most memorable occasion?” They wanted to be really good to everybody, these people at this elementary school. They made individual pumpkin pies for all the children that came through the line and handed them all of those individual pumpkin pies, and those kids through out every one of those individual pumpkin pies. That was at Westdale Elementary and I remember that.
MH: That’s a killer isn’t it?
GJ: That’s a killer. You go through all of this work.And then the one that I remember most for myself, I was so enthusiastic. I wanted to have Santa come for Christmas and I invited all of these parents, and I didn’t know, being as naïve as I was – I sent letters home and said, “Let us know if you’re coming, because we want to make sure we have enough food for you.” And what we did, I said, “Oh, we’re not going to trust these parents because we don’t know what’s going to happen.” And Santa was supposed to come with all the children at that elementary school, so we fixed fifty extra servings as our backup. We had 150 people coming so we did 200 servings of everything. Well, 400 people showed up, and the food that we had started cooking for lunch, our rolls and everything, we had to scramble and put that in, and Santa had a fire, because we had gone to the fire department and the fire department was supplying the Santa, and the Santa was supposed to come on a fire truck, and they had a fire during the time that Santa was supposed to arrive, so Santa arrived in a car instead of on a fire truck, so I had some memorable experiences.
MH: What advice would you give someone who was thinking about making child nutrition a profession today?
GJ: I think it’s a wonderful career. You can make all the difference in the world in the health infrastructure of every child that goes into your school district. We have changed the way that children eat in East Baton Rouge Parish. We have lowered the sodium, lowered the fat, and changed all of these things in their health. Children don’t even realize – in our milk, we changed to way they order milk, or drink milk, or receive milk. They get two milks a day. We are preventing children from getting rickets, because that’s coming back now in the United States – in 2008 we have rickets coming back in the United States, because children are drinking soda or tea or whatever with their meal. The contribution that you can make it that every child who goes through East Baton Rouge Parish public school system receives a meal a day that could effect them for the rest of their life. We are a part of East Baton Rouge Parish health infrastructure and you can be part of the nation’s infrastructure and you can teach children how to eat differently even though they don’t know they’re eating differently, even though they don’t realize that they’re getting items that could prevent them maybe from being a diabetic or having a heart attack or being on a dialysis machine, that’s so important.
MH: So you really have developed a passion for what you’re doing.
GJ: Definitely developed a passion.
MH: I think the passion for professionals is that you actually see this happening every day.
GJ: Definitely. I can see the change in people who would have never used a computer before. We are now having people walk in and we teach them how to use a computer. When we put a budget in and we teach them how to use a raw food cost budget it’s a change in their lives because they say they didn’t know how to use a budget before, so it changes their lifestyle. So what we did, we threw a rock in the pond and it had a ripple effect in more than one area. Now the have financial literacy that they didn’t have before. It helps literacy.
MH: So how many years has that been now?
GJ: Twenty-nine years. Who would have ever thought that I would be here so long? It’s been a pleasure and it continues to be a pleasure and I really enjoy what I’m doing. It has been so many changes that the children don’t even know, the parents don’t even know. We’ve changed the way that they will eat for the rest of their lives. We don’t put salt on the table or any of those condiments for the children to eat because we feel that whatever we put in the food is enough. So we’re training them to accept less. We have all our products custom-made so we don’t have as much salt. Now we’re looking at maybe eliminating phosphates, because that’s another preservative that’s in the food.
MH: So in twenty-nine years you have really seen a difference haven’t you?
GJ: Yes. Well, I’ve changed the way I think about food service and I’ve changed the way I think about everything, down to the budget, and data-mining – we drill down to all the data in our food service and look at everything. That’s one of the things that we do at all of our meetings that we weren’t doing until about two years ago. We data-mine and look at things that we can change – an insignificant change that we can cut back can save thousands of dollars. Our employees now are becoming data aware – of how we use data. When we send this new process out, called Dashboard, that’s going to make them even more aware. They want technology. When I came in they didn’t want it. We had to educate the school board. We gave them a year’s warning and told them we would be sending all of our inventory information in every afternoon. We had 100 schools reporting and we nearly shut their server down. They were amazed. They were amazed that school food service was much more talented using computers, using email than what the professional staff is; that would be the principals, the assistant principals, all the people in the classrooms. They weren’t aware that school food service has become techno savvy. They were surprised that we had a computer lab just to train our people to work, that we have a helpdesk inside here, and that we can control everything from our office. They are just shocked at that. When we had the storm and people came over here it was an education for them, because they were surprised that we had a building that was clean. We had people from all over the nation to deliver items to us and they came into this building and they said, “School food service has a building that looks like this?” They couldn’t believe that we taught our people and trained our people to become managers. They didn’t realize that this IS a business – and nutrition is my business.