Interviewee: Gaye Lynne MacDonald
Interviewer: Melba Hollingsworth
Date: February 23, 1010
Description: Gaye Lynn MacDonald worked in the school nutrition program of Bellingham Public Schools in Bellingham, Washington for 32½ years; 20 years as the program director; overseeing 23 sites offering breakfast, lunch and after school snacks. In 2002-2003, she served as president of the American School Food Service Association, representing 54,000 members. Since 2005, Gaye Lynn is President of MacDonald Consulting, assisting school districts in determining effective school nutrition program solutions, as well as serving as a trainer consultant for the National Food Service Management Institute, the State of Washington (Child Nutrition and Department of Health) and the State of Idaho.
Melba Hollingsworth: This is Tuesday, February 23, 2010, and I’m Melba Hollingsworth. I’m the Education and Training Specialist at NFSMI, and I’m here with Gaye Lynn MacDonald, and I’m glad to be doing your oral history.
MH: So, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up.
GLM: Well, I grew up in Bellingham, Washington, which is where I still live and had my food service career. I’m an only child. I don’t know what that means but, and I love singing and dancing, and had some enjoyable times doing that, which is probably why I’m wearing this Broadway t-shirt.
MH: So what is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs? Where did you go to school?
GLM: I started out at Lowell Elementary and that is where I first encountered school lunch. We did have a lunch program and a milk snack break, so kindergarten I can remember going down into the basement where the cafeteria was. Luckily, Lowell sits on a hill that overlooks Bellingham Bay, so the cafeteria, while it was kind of a small room, had windows on three sides, and so we had a beautiful view of the bay and playground, and we would sit there and have our little half-pint of milk and a graham cracker and then go back upstairs. And then as we got into the upper grades, first grade on up to sixth grade at that point, then we would go down for lunch. And Mrs. Twaite was our food service professional in the kitchen, and I just loved her. She loved me too because I really liked to eat. It was a great experience. There were things I didn’t like about it. You know at that time, so let’s see, it was probably in the ’50s – early ’50s, everybody got the same portion on the tray. So a kindergartener would get the same as a third or fourth or fifth grader. And so it was a lot of food and sometimes there was so much that the piece of bread that you always got every day with a big pat of butter on top, was sitting on top of the beets, or the canned hot spinach, neither of which were my favorite choices. So like most kids I ate everything that I liked first. And in those days they wouldn’t let you leave until you had tried some of everything, so I would pretend that I was trying those things ’cause the bread was soggy from whatever it was sitting on, and that wasn’t very good. But I always drank my milk first, and then I could stuff everything else into my milk carton – and then I could have dessert. It worked.
MH: Tell me some of your favorite menu items.
GLM: Oh my gosh. I loved the macaroni & cheese. I loved all the homemade bread products. My mother was not a baker. I loved hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes and of course the holiday meal, the turkey & gravy. Those were just the best.
MH: Tell me a little bit about your educational background. What degrees did you earn?
GLM: Well, I have a rather unconventional education to move into food service. As I said, I love to eat. Food has always been of great interest to me, and so as I was growing up and going into high school I took some nutrition classes and I really liked that, but when it came time to go to college I went to North Seattle Community College ’cause my husband was going to the University of Washington, and I determined that I wanted to go into the Executive Secretarial Program. And what was interesting about that and how it related to child nutrition is that when I finally got a job in the Bellingham School District it was as the secretary to the Business Administrator. The Business Administrator had oversight for child nutrition, transportation, and insurance. So with business classes you learn to be very organized, you learn to look at the business aspects, you really look at how the systems are put together and how you can make them more efficient, of course to make your supervisor look good. So he could see that I really had an interest in the child nutrition part and he said, “What’s your background?” So I told him that I had taken some nutrition classes, but I could see that you really had to have a strong background in systems. And he said, “Well, I think you should join the School Nutrition Association and see about getting education through that entity.” And so I did, and he was a fabulous mentor and allowed me to take classes, and so I really say my education is focused to school nutrition, and I took everything that was out there. I became certified; later I became credentialed. And that’s how I gained all my experience, was actually taking those classes and applying it day-to-day in the field, and I got to do that for thirty-two and a half years.
MH: Wow! So he was a mentor to you.
MH: Who were some other mentors that directed you in child nutrition?
GLM: He was of course my mentor in the school district, and why that’s important I think is that was in the ’70s and women were just sort of coming into ‘management’ if you will positions in entities like school districts. Remember that this is the school district where I grew up. I’d gone to school there. This was my community, so I knew all of these older people who were in leadership positions, and oftentimes it’s difficult for them to look at you in a professional way. They remember you from Sunday School, or they remember you from when you had the lead in the high school play, and so it sometimes doesn’t do your credibility a lot of good. So it was so important to have someone who said, “Look, she has this background, and she has this passion and drive. Let her run with it”, and that’s what allowed me to do that. One the side of the Association, and another thing I love about school nutrition, are all the wonderful people who are waiting for a live body to come along who is as excited about this profession as they are; so Gene White, of course, a fabulous mentor; Sue Parkhurt, who was the president of our state school nutrition association when I first started getting involved. And I tell you what, those leaders have an eye, and they will come over to you and say, “Well I’ve been watching you, and I’ve been listening to you, and I think you could do this.” I often say a lot of my success has been built on guilt because I don’t want to disappoint anyone, and if they see something in me I think ‘Wow, maybe I can do that’, and if we stretch ourselves and we believe that we can do that it generally works out. Ruth Ann Bennett; she was a state program reviewer for the state of Washington, and she came up to me after our very first industry seminar meeting in the state and she said, “You know, I think you should chair this next year.” Well, of course I couldn’t turn her down, so there you go. Let’s see, there was somebody else who crossed my mind – Carol Johnson. Carol Johnson was the Food Service Director in Spokane, Washington, and she was the legislative guru in Washington State. She would get up at every meeting and literally harangue us about what we should do in terms of legislation; we should call our representatives and our senators and whatever, and I felt so guilty that it seemed like nobody was doing this that I thought well maybe this would be a good thing. So Ruth Ann took me to Carol’s room after a meeting one day and she opens the door and we go in and she says, “Carol, I’ve got a live one for ya!” And so Carol proceeded to tutor me in the finer points of child nutrition public policy. And so for a number of years she and I would troop down to Olympia, our state capital, and we joked about what a one-two punch we had, because I would start out and set the stage and tell our story and kind of reel them in and then Carol would come up behind my shoulder and just give them the old punch about what we needed. We were pretty successful. Oh, there are so many mentors; they just go on and on.
MH: Tell us about the positions you’ve held.
GLM: In the school district?
MH: In the school district or overall
GLM: Overall, OK. Well, I’ll start with my school district career, so I started out as the secretary to the Business Administrator, and then I had some real success in adapting a personnel program from the University of Washington Nutrition Program so that we had not only position descriptions for all of our food service employees, but we also had criteria that applied to each position, and developed an evaluation system, or performance review system from that. It was the best one in the district and it really bore fruit when we had a grievance filed, because I had used the evaluation system to pass over a more senior person and put someone else in a position, or recommend that, and it held up through arbitration, and that was the only grievance that the child nutrition program had in the thirty-two and a half years I was in the program, and that was in the probably late-70s. So from that they promoted me to the Assistant Nutrition Director, because they had now kind of split some of those other tasks off out of the Business Manager position. And I was in that position for probably five years, and then that person retired, the person who was directing the program, and they moved me into the director position, so for twenty years then I was the director. At the state association level I served as the Nutrition Chair; I served as Secretary, Treasurer, of course Vice-President, President-Elect, President. I think the only position I didn’t ever serve was one of our Regional Representatives. Then of course because I had been in a state leadership role I had the opportunity to go to national events, and I was invited to go to the five-year planning in Bethesda, Maryland. Oh my gosh, this was wonderful. I loved these group meetings where the mental synergy is – it is SO exciting. So I look back and I think you know, you’re in your district, you’re doing your job, the day-to-day things that have to get done, you have lots of opportunities for creativity, but sometimes the environment isn’t quite right and you may not feel as supported as you would like, so when you belong to an association like the School Nutrition Association you have these times when you’re together with these people who share your passion and your ideas, and it’s just exciting. So that’s where I med Dianne Besdeck, and she was from Louisiana and she was another fabulous mentor to me. She was chairing the state legislative group and that’s the group I was on. And we had to presentations at the end and I remember that the national legislative team – Ed Cooney was over in that group – and we were just having a ball. I had Marilyn Hurt and just a whole bunch of great, great folks. So we decided instead of doing just a presentation we would do a legislative rap. Oh my gosh, it was so fun. So we wrote this rap and I led the rap and I had the backup singers – Peggy Stevenson and Marilyn and whoever else was on our committee. We got just a huge ovation. Mary Nix wanted us to write it out for her so she could redo it. It was fun and Ed to this day every time I see him at something he says, “I remember. You were on the other side of that wall and everybody was having way too much fun.” But it was great. So that got me stating to be involved with legislation on the national level, and Carol Johnson, of course, one of my mentors was serving as the Northwest representative on the Public Policy and Legislative Committee, and she was coming to the end of her second three-year term. And I just thought ‘Oh my gosh, to be able to be part of shaping child nutrition at the national level – what could be better?’ So I told her, I said, “You know, I really would like to be appointed to that committee.” And she said, “Well, you just need to ask the President-Elect. Tell them that you’re interested.” And that was Sue Gregg, so at some meeting in the hallway at coffee break I screwed up my courage and I went up to her and I figured she didn’t know me from anybody and I told her who I was and what I would like. I can’t believe it. She appointed me to that committee representing the Northwest. And that was the beginning of twelve years through all the positions that I served on that committee. So as I went on I ran for Northwest Regional Representative against one of my dear friends, Kay McManus from Washington. She was another great partner, and it was the first time that they had run two people together from the same state for the same position, which put the members in Washington at a little bit of a disadvantage, but you know, things work out for a reason. And Kay won, and I was really, really happy for her, but I had for a number of years kind of been rationalizing that you know, I was just a little bit over forty and you know, things with the body start to go. So I was rationalizing a lot of symptoms that I was having until I got very ill and I was diagnosed with harry cell leukemia at age forty-four. And it was you know, a pretty bid speed bump there in the road of life, but I can’t tell you the outpouring of support and prayers and love from all of the child nutrition people. It was incredible. I still get pretty emotional about it. But the story has a happy ending because this particular leukemia is very unusual and so researchers had developed a chemotherapy specifically for this type of leukemia. So they removed my spleen but it had already gone to my bone marrow and my lymph nodes and so they said, “Well, this has just come out of the clinical trials. You’re a great candidate for it.” So I had chemo seven days, twenty-four hours a day and that was it, and after three years they consider me cured. So I am truly, truly blesses and I have a lot of people to thank for that. So at that point Vivian Pilant reappointed me to the Public Policy and Legislative Committee, and I had chaired the Child Nutrition Industry’s Conference the year before I got sick. That was kind of to keep me in the loop so to speak after losing that election. And then being ill – and then being reappointed was great. After that I had the opportunity to submit my name for Vice-President. And you know, you just think ‘Oh my gosh, how could I ever do that?’, but they had seem me working through as Secretary, Treasurer, I’d been on the Board by then, so again I think they saw something that they thought I should move ahead. And I didn’t get on the ballot the first time. And a lot of folks stepped forward who are very respected leaders in the Association and said, “Look, we didn’t make it the first time either. It’s just the process, it’s the way things go. We think you should do it again.” So I did and I got on the ballot and was elected – the first SNA President – at that time it was ASFSA – from the Northwest ever. So it was a huge honor and an experience that was an experience of a lifetime.
MH: So you feel that your educational background has helped you with child nutrition.
GLM: Oh my gosh, absolutely. You know, for me what’s important about education is that it’s ongoing. In this profession, well I suppose all professions to some degree, things change and you have to keep up. It’s not just business as usual, and if you adopt that attitude your program in your district, or the programs in your state are not going to be the best that they can be. You always need to be looking out. You always need to find what the cutting edge is and if you can, go there before it comes. That was how we were able to develop such a fine program in Bellingham, was because I was involved at the state and national levels taking classes, doing trainings, and knowing what was coming and being able to come back and say, “You know, we’re going to have to comply with the dietary guidelines. It’s going to come, so let’s work on it now.” So when that came into law we were already there. No problem; we didn’t have to get any waivers and we got great press because we were ready.
MH: What was the student enrollment at that time?
GLM: Ten thousand five hundred students; we had twenty-three schools; thirteen elementary, four middle, two high schools – I hope that adds up to twenty-three. And we had a staff of seventy at that time and they were fabulous. You can only do so much from the back office. It’s the people on the line who are the face of your program and you have to find the spark that ignites them to want to keep changing. My mentor Mr. Peterson, the very first one I spoke about, when he interviewed me he had a little placard on his desk, and the saying on that placard stuck with me and I still apply it to my life. ‘When you’re green you’re growing. When you ripen you start to rot.’ That’s how I feel about education, about being creative and trying to change things, because you need to always be green, and there’s always room to grow, and if you don’t pursue that you’re going to be like that zucchini that you leave on the vine, and there it is in October kind of ukky under the leaves.
MH: So what was your average daily participation of those ten thousand students?
GLM: We did about fifty-five percent I think for lunch, and when we started the Breakfast Program, of course like most of the nation, it was only about 2,500, that was about our top, but we felt pretty good about that participation – not as good as it is in the South, but Washington traditionally has had a lower overall participation. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s always been that way, but we felt really good about what we were doing.
MH: Can you tell us something unique about your state with regard to child nutrition programs?
GLM: Let me say something that I think is special about our state, and it has to do with legislation. We have been able in Washington State to get our legislature to provide a per meal reimbursement for breakfast over and above what the federal reimbursement is, and we did that by coming together with a coalition of anti-hunger folks who had gotten breakfast legislation passed in the state without working with the child nutrition folks. And when I was elected State President one of the first things I did was to get everybody together and say, “You know, we totally support this in concept, but you need to understand the financial impact to the district, so how can you help us to get more funding?” And it was the start of a wonderful partnership that still exists today. So after that we were then able to get our state to cover the 30-cent breakfast co-pay for reduced students in our state. And that went so well and we had such great data to show the legislators and to thank them for that, that we were able to get them to cover the 40-cent lunch reduced co-pay for grades K-3. And we have been able to hang on to that funding; we’re now in another budget cycle right now, and so we’re hoping to preserve that. We’ve helped the anti-hunger people get additional money for Summer Food Service. We’ve gotten additional money from the state for grants to help start up new breakfast programs and new lunch programs, so I think that’s very unique. We’re the first state in the nation to get the elimination of the reduced co-pay, totally for breakfast, partially for lunch. And we believe that that’s going to help SNA at the national level to make that a national legislative priority.
MH: So, what was a typical day?
GLM: Is there a typical day? I think there’s a framework of a typical day, because you have deadlines, right? You know you have to go in and get breakfast and get it out at a certain time and you’ve got to keep going and get lunch out at a certain time. Within that framework on any given day it can be like being in a blender. You’ve got personnel things that happen. You’ve got deliveries that don’t show up. You’ve got principals who are unhappy. You’ve got meetings that you have to go to. But you know what? That’s one of the things that I loved about this job is that every day was a new day and every day was different. And you had the opportunities to impact the lives of children, to positively impact the lives of your staff. I loved it.
MH: I guess you’ve already mentioned some of the biggest challenges you faced, but is there anything else; what about at work?
GLM: Well, it was a pretty big challenge to keep the program on the cutting edge. It required a lot of change. We were the first district in the state to implement salad bars in our schools – in the elementary school is where we started. Then we moved on to implementing build-your-own sandwich bars, baked potato bars. Then as things changed they kind of went away and we went to doing pre-plated salads and the baked potatoes as a vegetable choice, always trying to improve the nutritional quality. But one of the biggest challenges that we faced was when I took over as the director of the program it was $180,000 in the hole. And we worked for two years, three years and we only reduced that by $40,000. And the district superintendent said to me, “You know, we know you’re working hard at getting this under control, but we really need you to make this happen.” You know, that’s a nice way of saying ‘If you don’t figure this out we’ll find somebody who can.’ And so I thought ‘Doggone it, we have worked too hard to let this stand in our way.’ So I went to a training class – The National Management Cost Control with Dot Pannell and Gertrude Applebaum – and I came back and I was fired up, and so I said to our Accounting Department, “You know what? I’m not getting reports that I need on a timely basis and I can’t pull this program together unless you start giving me these reports, and here are some examples of what I’d like.” And the Accounting Assistant Manager said, “Well you know, I have some time this summer. I’ll put these together for you.” Halleluiah, so that was rolling. Well then at the same workshop I heard them say, “You know, you could probably save six percent on your food costs just by managing waste.” Well, I’m thinking ‘OK’ so I started looking at examples and I came up with well, if you didn’t calibrate your slicer on a regular basis, and we did a lot of major orders, Subway-style sandwiches, lots of turkey breast that we sliced. But if we were slicing say, a quarter of an ounce too much, and that was going on X number of sandwiches, how many pounds would that be times what we paid? I was blown away; it was over $10,000. So then I started looking at other portion control things and other cost control measures, and just with three or four examples I was up to $50,000. I was just amazed, so I went to our high school where the Summer Program was and one of my good managers was there and I said, “Carla, don’t our staff know that if we did this, this, and this we could save all this money?” And she just looked at me and she said, “Why don’t you tell them?” There’s a concept. And I thought ‘Yea, I guess you’re right. Why don’t I tell ‘um?’ So back to school meeting – I called it Cost Control Troubleshooting. I had this great presentation and I was standing there looking at my seventy eager faces, you know, here they are coming back from summer vacation, and it just popped into my head, and I said, “Who do you think controls the costs in the food service program?” Dead silence. Finally, one lady raised her hand and she said, “We do?” I said, “Yes, you do, and you want and deserve raised. You want and deserve good equipment, and you want and deserve quality food to serve to the students. And you know what? We’re $140,000 in the hole, and we’re not going to get anything unless we get rid of that deficit.” Then we went into the examples. It was electrifying. They were so excited to get back to their schools and see what they could do to control costs. We reduced that deficit in just under two years; went to a profit. We bought two $60,000 dedicated to moving food around for our program, refrigerated in one section, heated in another. We replaced other equipment and we increased the quality of food that we were buying. Our participation went up. They were thrilled and there wasn’t a day went by that I didn’t remind them that they were the ones who did it. So when I left they were still holding that line and doing a fine job.
MH: So, what changes have you seen in the child nutrition profession over the years?
GLM: Oh my goodness! Well, I’ve seen a heightened focus on a wider variety of foods being offered to expose students to the cultures that are in the world and the cultures that are coming into the school districts as more ethnic populations move in. I’ve seen certainly a lot more regulation come into the programs, and I think to a great extent some of it’s been needed. We need guidance on nutrition and how that changes and how we need to be current. We need guidance on food safety and I know that there’s been a lot of discussion about building a program that has HACCP components. But again, because of my education within SNA, I knew that was coming. We worked with our health department three years before that became law and already had a system in place. In fact, the year that I was SNA President, Eric Bost, who was then Under Secretary, Food and Nutrition Services, came to visit our district, and he was blown away by what we were accomplishing within the new guidelines that had been set out, and the following year he sent the General Accounting Office staff, two separate sets of staff two times, one to review our program as Excellence in Food Safety, and the second time to review our program for Excellence in Nutrition, and it was so funny, because you have this team of people from the General Accounting Office – and they don’t get out much I think – and so we took them to an elementary school where – in all of our schools in elementary we had self-serve – we call them fruit and vegetable buffets. And the kids would select from three entrees and then take their tray and go through the fruit and vegetable buffet. And the kids were taking this wide array of fresh fruits and vegetables, and these people just stood over the kids’ shoulders watching them like they couldn’t believe they were taking them. Then they would follow the kids to the table and stand and watch them as they ate it and they would come back and say, “We can’t believe they’re really doing that.” Yes, you know, if you make it pretty and it’s fresh, and it looks good and the kids can make their own selection, they’ll take it and they’ll eat it. So that was, that was pretty exciting.
MH: So, you’ve talked about some of your significant contributions; tell me the main two or three that you feel are the most significant.
GLM: The one that I feel really good about is that two of my high school managers have gone on to become District Nutrition Directors. I think one of the best things that we do as Food Service Directors or leaders is to empower other people, and so to have them move on, you know you hate to see them go because they’re so good, but on the other hand you’re proud of them that they’ve made that step, and they are doing a fabulous job. I’m seeing the growth in people who start out in your program as a dishwasher and you say, “You know, I really think you could move up to be cook. Would you like to do that, and here’s how you can do that” and they take those steps; seeing that personal growth is wonderful. I think one of the best things we do is to be a mentor.
MH: So, any memorable stories about children?
GLM: Oh my gosh, yes. We had a very small substitute pool, so often if we had exhausted all of our substitutes and we had a school that needed a helper I would get to go out, which is great because it taught me what I could ask of my staff, what was realistic. So I was at an elementary school on this day and they still had some student helpers come in, and so I’m doing my thing and this little girl comes in she goes to the pantry, and she just stood there and she was looking in at the shelves and looking in at the shelves, and I said, “Well honey do you need your apron?” And she said, “No, I’ve just never seen this much food.” And so I was just taken aback, and so I asked the lead when we were cleaning up and she said that the girl was from a very low-income family and they didn’t have any food. And you know, it just brought home to me that there are a lot of children who don’t come from a very stable background and if it wasn’t for these programs, and not only the food but the loving people who work in them, their lives might be very, very different, and they wouldn’t be able to succeed in school. My granddaughter started school when I was Director and of course after her first day I call her up, and I wanted to know what she’d had for lunch, and so she’s telling me, and she says, “But Grammy, you know the best part? They had a little milk just for me.” I loved it. It wasn’t long after that that I had the opportunity to speak at the first Action for Healthy Kids conference and I shared that story. And I think it just – to me it highlights that you can never, you can just never forget the importance of the little things. I told my staff ‘How many times a week [do] you lift those milk cases out and you’re putting the milk out, and you’re not even thinking that that’s a real integral part of the meal?’ But to a little kindergartener who’s only had milk poured out of a big jug in the fridge, to have your own little milk, that’s a real special thing.
MH: So, what advice would you give to other folks who are considering going into child nutrition programs?
GLM: Oh, I say it is the best profession in the world. You get to positively impact children from the food that you provide to them to the education, the nutrition information you offer them. You get to positively impact adult learners, those people who are working in the kitchens. And then you have the power to impact those who show that leadership spark and who are then able to move on. So if you love food and you love children and you love people and you love change and you love being creative, and you can do all that within a regulatory framework, it is the best job ever.
MH: Anything else you want to add?
GLM: Only that I’m so grateful and blessed for all the opportunities that were set in my path and that I was encouraged to take to be able to have spent so much time in this position.
MH: You know, one thing that I’ve just realized – you’ve retired.
MH: And that now you are doing some?
GLM: Yes, there is life after being in the kitchen, the district office, and I have been consulting with school districts on their programs, mainly menu development and staffing, but I’ve also had the great joy to be a consultant and trainer for the National Food Service Management Institute and it seems that I’ve been able to travel all over the country and share my passion for this profession in ways that I’m very grateful for, that keeps me continuing to be involved.
MH: Thank you Gaye Lynn.
GLM: Thank you.