Interviewee: Gene White
Interviewers: Meredith Johnston & Beth King
Date: June 8, 2004
Location: National Food Service Management Institute
Description: Gene White grew up in Ohio and attended Miami University of Ohio, graduating with degrees in Home Economics Education and Nutrition, which was called Dietetics at that time. She then continued her graduate education at Ohio State University. She worked more than twenty years as Food Service Director in China Lake, California. She went on to become that state’s Director of Nutrition Services in the late 1970s and while in that position she served as President of the American School Food Service Association from 1977-1978. Currently she is involved with international feeding programs.
Gene White’s oral history interview was updated on May 15, 2013, by Jeffrey Boyce. The update can be found at the end of the original interview.
Meredith Johnston: This is Meredith Johnston, and it is July 8, 2004, and we’re here with Gene White, and we thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.
MJ: Would you tell us a little about yourself and where you are from and where you grew up?
GW: Actually I’m from Ohio originally. I was born and raised in a small town in Ohio where my father was a schoolteacher, my mother was a nurse. I think I had [like] many kids in my era, we all looked forward to what we were going to do when we could get a little older and perhaps leave and then go on to do something else. My real goal was to become a doctor; that was really what I wanted to do. But, for a lot of reasons, family illness and so on, it just wasn’t possible for me to do that, so I decided to go into nutrition, which I thought was an allied health field that I would enjoy. And so I went to Miami University of Ohio, graduated there. I had two degrees, one in Education, in Home Economics Education, and the other in Nutrition, which was called Dietetics at that time. And then I worked for a few years after that and then went to Ohio State University and got my master’s, so briefly, that’s where I started.
MJ: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs or school lunch programs?
GW: You know, I think my very earliest was at Miami University of Ohio in Home Economics. And we were asked to help with the school lunch program on campus where there was a daycare center, but it was, even in those days, a center where they were feeding children. And I clearly remember receiving USDA commodities and helping open commodities and found that they were full of plenty of food. Now that was a long time ago, but that was my very first recollection of the commodity support, really a federal program to feed children in schools, so that goes back a long ways, early college days at Miami University of Ohio.
MJ: Can you give us an idea of when that would have been, what time period?
GW: In the 40s, 40s, that’s a long ways back. And then in graduate school at Ohio State, I had a fellowship there and it was totally devoted to school feeding and the National School Lunch Program. And there was a tri-state study that involved Ohio, Iowa, and Kansas, these three land-grant colleges, and we were doing research on the effectiveness and the content of school lunches, so my master’s thesis and my graduate work, and then I stayed on two years at the Institute of Nutrition and Food Technology, all related to research in school feeding, school food service. So that was quite an interesting and beginning start, never thinking I would work in the field later.
MJ: How did you become involved with child nutrition programs?
GW: Well, I think my real involvement took place after I was married, which was in 1952. And we were stationed on a Navy facility, and my husband was a physicist working for the Navy as a civilian, so we didn’t have to migrate from station to station like so many military people do. And in this little desert community on this Naval base in China Lake, California, they wanted to start a school lunch program and had the federal funding to do it on the base where we had several schools. So I was recruited to come in and do two things, spend half my time teaching Home Economics and the other half of the time running the first school lunch program. Then, of course, soon I was out of the teaching and full-time in school food services, so that’s the way I got started.
MJ: Can you think of any stories or things that happened to you then that are memorable?
GW: Well, I have some wonderful memories of my twenty years in the desert there, running the school lunch program. I think two are particularly important. I found there was a little abandoned mining town about forty miles from our Naval base where there was a tiny school with fifty children, and of course, no school lunch program at all. And we were able to get our school board convinced that we should send lunches to those children, way back in this little ghost town, but we had no transportation. So, I went to the Post Office and we finally convinced the postmaster to send the lunches by the postal delivery each day, so the U.S. Postal Services delivered the lunches to this little desert mining town and the children were fed free lunches, everybody was free there, and that was a very satisfying thing for me. It was a lot of fun.
MJ: You told us a little bit about this, but could you tell us more about your educational background and how that prepared you for the child nutrition profession?
GW: Well, I think technically, of course, in Nutrition, you know, I felt really well prepared, particularly after the graduate work at Ohio State and staying on two years with the Nutrition Institute there, so I felt well prepared professionally. But I think the real commitment that I saw was to try to use these programs to reach out to help some of the poorest in the poor countries, poor states actually, who didn’t have access to school feeding. So, to me it was a health issue, an educational issue, I have to confess, a humanitarian issue too, it all blended together.
MJ: Is there someone, a mentor, who was influential in directing you in the child nutrition field?
GW: Perhaps in my early days in Ohio I was befriended, actually somewhat adopted professionally by a lady who was the Chief Nutritionist of the state health department, and she was very helpful to me in getting me into the American Dietetic Association and helping me reach out professionally. And I think, then, I’ve had a lot of wonderful mentors and friendships and people I’ve worked closely with. I think some legislators have been influential, and I think the professional friends in ASFSA, I think Jo Martin has been a wonderful source of inspiration and fun and sharing throughout the years, because our paths have tracked quite similarly throughout the country.
MJ: Would you tell us about your career and the different positions you have had in the profession?
GW: Well actually it’s fairly simple. I was twenty years, actually more than twenty, in China Lake, California, in this rural school district where our enrollment was around 3,000 and we served about 1,200 meals a day, so it was very small; one of the smallest programs in California. Then I got involved in state legislation because we needed more money to feed our children, and we were very successful in getting Ronald Reagan and then Jerry Brown, two governors, to sign some very significant legislation. And then one day I got a strange call from the Superintendent of Public Instruction here in California asking if I would consider applying for the job of State Director. And so I did come and talk to them and found that when they said I could have the job, I had just been elected President of ASFSA, so I had a real conflict. And I talked to them, you know, California and they said, well you can’t do both. And I decided that I would need then to honor my ASFSA election, which I thought that the priority, even though I would love to have been State Director. And I told them I had to make that choice and they called me back two days later and said well, they would give me a chance. If I thought I could do both they would let me try, so I started being then President of ASFSA and State Director the same year.
MJ: What year?
GW: I think it was ’76, something like that, and so I had a real workload that was unbelievable. And I wasn’t able to travel to the states like our Presidents are today, so I would work all day in the state of California and then I would take the redeye on Friday night and do state conferences and be back in time to go to work Monday morning, so it was probably the most difficult year I’ve ever had, but one of the most challenging, of course.
MJ: Any particular memories that you can recall, special events or anything that, that you participated in during that time period as President?
GW: Yes, I think here in California, with the state agency. When I started here we had perhaps a total of about twenty-five on the staff, and, in that number, about four professionally trained people. And I worked eight years with the help of many, many people, but I left the job knowing that we had a solid staff of about two hundred and fifty people. Twenty-five Registered Dieticians, and we had some tremendous growth. The federal legislation was very supportive of getting many of the state agencies, and so we were able to get a wonderful, strong, supportive staff. And, yes, we were able to grow and expand and serve children, which was the important thing.
MJ: Would you tell us about your involvement with the National Food Service Management Institute and the establishment of the Child Nutrition Archives?
GW: That’s fun, yes. Okay, in 1990 I was chair of the ASFSA Public Policy and Legislative Committee and, with Marshall Matz, who you know is our counsel in Washington. And we kept thinking, there has to be a way to help schools grow professionally and technically. And as Marshall said, we need something like a Hamburger Institute, which was his way of saying we need an institute that will help professionally train people and develop materials and resources to improve the quality of programs and help them grow and expand. So we got this bright idea about going to Congress and asking for money to develop an institute. And so, I have the original paper that I wrote for him to begin to use, to start the mechanisms of legislation. And then, of course, it passed and that’s when the Institute was formed. And so it was an incredibly wonderful thing to see the first ever National Food Service Management Institute. And the additional joy now is to see, thirteen years later, the wonderful growth and services that are being provided; it’s just incredible. So I have a lot of joy in seeing how those early, early discussions we had have become so enlarged and expanded to serve the schools and the children, so I think that’s wonderful. In terms of the archival center, two years ago I was called to Washington to do some interviews on C-Span. And so, after C-Span interviews one day, Barry Sacken who is the ASFSA Legislative Coordinator on staff there, who was with me that day, we started talking about the need for archives, and I mentioned that I had a room full of archives materials. So he said, “Well, let’s go over and talk to Thad Cochran and see if we can get some money for the Institute to have an archival center”, which we did. And of course that was the beginning of what we have today for our archival center.
MJ: That’s exciting.
GW: It is exciting.
MJ: Would you talk more about your involvement with ASFSA and your experience as President of the organization?
GW: Actually, it’s somewhat laughable now, but I’m not really a joiner, I’m not really an organizational person, but I learned a long time ago that the way I could best serve children was to have help. You have to have help, and ASFSA was that resource that I saw that could help me, and it has very faithfully for many years. So, really, ASFSA to me has been a springboard to get help for children in schools, legislatively, educationally, and many other ways. So, to me, ASFSA has been that resource to help make this happen.
MJ: Could you talk a little bit more about the time period you were serving as President and events that were going on, and how ASFSA responded?
GW: Actually, when I was President we were at a very important time in terms of program development nationally. For example, we were well into the seventies, these were the McGovern years, when the Senate had appointed a Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs and Senator McGovern chaired that committee. And his work, over a period of seven years, created a national awareness to the need for school nutrition programs, and also it created the legislation that made it happen. I’m talking about, of course we already had the National School Lunch Program, but I’m talking about the School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program for Children. All of these things really were developed through the work of George McGovern and that Senate committee. Of course, in 1969 we had the first White House Conference, and pushing that was Richard Nixon. So you see, we’ve had wonderful bipartisan support. A Senator who was a Democrat leading the whole nation in terms of nutrition and what was needed in schools, but then here comes a Republican President who has the first White House Conference on Nutrition. So I think that’s one of the great strengths of ASFSA, has been involving a non-partisan, non-political approach to school nutrition programs.
MJ: Would you tell us about your experiences with international feeding programs?
GW: That’s fun. Well, two things. When I was President of ASFSA, no, let’s even go back. When I was President of the California School Food Service Association, my theme that year was The Possible Dream, and then in ASFSA the theme was Commitment to Every Child. And I’ve always felt that when you talk about all children, that is beyond our borders. Of course we’re concerned about our children here, we will always be and they will always have priority, but we have to realize that we’re in a global family now, and that family has tremendous needs for child nutrition programs. So it’s been a natural evolution to remain committed to this country’s child nutrition programs and needs, but to also now take our knowledge and our experience and use it on an international level, so that’s why we got involved in international feeding.
MJ: Could you give us some, maybe some more specifics about exactly what you are doing?
GW: Well, I’ve actually been very privileged to work in two ways. One is to actually go into the countries and work, and two organizations helped me do this. One was the U.S. Agency for International Development, and through that agency in Washington they put out a call for help to feed children in other countries, and I was sent to Tunisia. So I went to Tunisia. Then, more recently, I’ve been able to do work for the United Nations World Food Program, and that’s been a very constant tie for many years now. Right now we are working in Latin America. We now have a three-partner commitment where the United Nations World Food Program, ASFSA, and the government of Chile have formed a partnership in response to the request of Latin American countries to have an organization something like ASFSA, so they can meet together and work together to expand their school nutrition programs. They call them school feeding programs, but it’s all the same.
MJ: Could you explain more about, about the name they’re proposing, the name school feeding programs?
GW: Well I had to learn, somewhat to my surprise, that in the developing countries, which would be most of Latin America, nutrition is something that is yet to be considered seriously. The real goal is to feed children. So they call their organization not school nutrition programs like we do, but school feeding programs. Getting the food out has been the most important thing, because there is so little.
MJ: What changes have you seen in the child nutrition profession over the years?
GW: You know, in some cases and in terms of philosophy, there has been practically no change. You go back to 1946, the actual legislation that started the National School Lunch Program, and look at the legislation today, there is a very consistent commitment to children, to all children, to nutrition standards, to quality meals, to government administration and federal funding, that really hasn’t changed. The thing that has changed, in my view, is program operations. And here I’m looking at such things as technology, such things as professional development and training, menu planning techniques and systems, nutrition standards; those have all progressed with the evolutionary development of those areas in our country, but the commitment, the philosophy has remained very consistent. And that, in my view, is one of the biggest strength’s of our nation’s child nutrition programs. The philosophy hasn’t changed, feed them all.
MJ: What do you think has been your most significant contribution to the child nutrition field?
GW: Well, I’m going to start by saying I’m not sure how much I have contributed, and also, I know that nothing we do is done alone. But I think there are some areas where I have been privileged to be part of others who have worked on this, I think legislation. Particularly the federal and state of California legislation. I think, with the help of many other people, we’ve been able to break new ground there and get commitments that we’ve never had before. I think as State Director of California, I have good feelings about the fact that I was able to lead a strong, professional staff, well committed, caring, and prepared to move ahead, and they’ve done a beautiful job. Those have all been rewarding for me. I think to me personally, my greatest fulfillment has been the fact that I feel what little I’ve been able to do with the help of others has helped children. I think many children who would not have had a voice in the programs today if we hadn’t worked so hard to include them all internationally in other countries, as well as here.
MJ: What keeps you involved in the profession?
GW: Well, I think work is fun. I’ve always loved what I do, and the greater the challenge, the more I enjoy it. I don’t think we ever quit caring or working. To me personally, life is a tremendous gift. Having a few extra years tagged on has made it even better, and so I think as long as we have opportunities to serve, we need to do it. And I think there are many opportunities ahead for us in the future; we’re only just beginning.
MJ: Could you talk a little bit more, you mentioned there had really not been that much change in the philosophy, could you talk a little bit more about that, and also maybe any changes that you notice in operations?
GW: Yes. Alright, well let’s look at operations, when we actually go about the whole procedure of serving food to children today. First of all, the programs today are much more complex and difficult to operate and manage than they were thirty years ago. The regulations have a good purpose; they’re intended to strengthen the program in terms of accountability, in terms of verification of those who are eligible for free or reduced priced meals, or the full-paying child. But the result of this now is that programs have become exceedingly complex and costly to administer, and that cost is really coming off of the plate of the child. So what I see happening is that the added complexity of the programs is diminishing the amount of monies available to actually provide more service. Now you can go another step and look at how we actually prepare our food. In terms of technology we have some very sophisticated food preparation equipment. On the other side of the coin, we are using more convenience foods. So you have this dichotomy of extremely sophisticated food preparation equipment, but we’re also using many more convenience foods. As we use the convenience foods, which were not used extensively, again, let’s say twenty-five years ago, we find this now raises the whole question of nutrition integrity. We get into the question of nutrition integrity and we have to look at the components, the elements of the convenience foods we’re using, and know that they actually may be cost effective, and that’s a question mark. Nutritionally we have some real concerns about fat, sodium, and so on because now we are required by law since 1996 to comply with the Dietary Guidelines. So, in some cases, we are moving ahead very rapidly to do the right things, but it’s creating some other problems that are counterproductive, and to me that’s one of the important things that’s happening here. How we are moving ahead with technology, but we’re also somewhat dragging our feet in terms of nutrition accountability. Nutrition integrity, in my view, is one of our biggest concerns. This is not a new concern, but it’s become much more acute because of competitive food sales, the contracts in schools, and what’s going on to supposedly bolster up the accountability financially in school feeding, particularly on the other side of nutrition failures, in some cases. So I see us moving ahead technically, but I see us somewhat having struggles, tremendous problems with nutrition integrity and nutrition accountability.
MJ: Anything else you would like to add, any other comments?
GW: Well, I think the future is always something we talk about because it’s good to look back, as we have this morning, but I also feel we learn from the past only to prepare us for the future. And so, I think the archival perspective is all-important. We need to say, having done this and learned this and experienced all of these episodes, what carries us forward now in terms of the programs. Sometimes I think we don’t talk enough about the future, almost maybe too much about the past. So, I guess, when I look to the future, I feel we are somewhat moving ahead towards what I like to think is a universal program. We are just in the reauthorization period now, just ended last week with legislation in Congress to reauthorize the programs. But, significantly this year, we now have a pilot study going on in five states to be funded and researched on the effect of reducing the reduced price meal category. Which then means if this indeed does become national policy, we will have two categories, free and paid. So, then does this mean that someday we may have pilot programs to do away with the free meals, I mean the paid meals, and have all free. So, I think if we are going to really be consistent in our desire to have school nutrition tied to education, then we are approaching a time when school nutrition programs will be an integral part of education, and funded the same for all children, and that, to me, would be a wonderful achievement, yet to come.
MJ: Well, thank you very much for talking with us this morning.
(Beth King continues the interview.)
Interview picks up in middle of conversation
Beth King: ….and he said?
GW: Well, there is one occasion, on one of our many trips to Washington, a few us were talking with Hubert Humphrey, Senator from Minnesota. And he was a delightful man to talk with, and he was known as ‘The Happy Warrior’. He always wanted to talk and then expand on the larger view of things. So, on this one occasion, about three or four of us were talking to him about funding for the Sschool nutrition programs, trying to tell him how important it was to keep the funding going. So, we got through that discussion; then he leaned back in his chair and said, “Well, you know, I think we need to look at the overall effect of what we’re talking about here.” And he said, “You know, the destiny of a nation really depends on how well that nation cares for three groups of people, and these are children in the dawn of life, seniors who are in the sunset, and the disabled who are in the shadows of life. And how well we care for those people is a strong bellwether, an indicator of the ultimate destiny of our nation.” And so then he went on to say what we are talking about today, and that is we must never forget that although we are very focused on the mechanisms of feeding children in schools, the larger issue is that as we do this, we are really helping shape the destiny of our country. And that’s an ongoing commitment that we must have as individual workers in the program, as the agency directors, as ASFSA members, those of us at the Institute. It’s a long-term commitment that what we’re doing to feed children has a larger issue of affecting the destiny of this nation. And in my view, as the developing nations start feeding children at school, they’re helping to turn the destiny of their own countries, globally. And I think that really helps us understand why it’s so important to do what we’re doing.
BK: Do you think that today’s school food service and other child nutrition professionals or personnel understand this?
GW: You know, I’m not sure how much they understand, because a few of us have been blessed to live long enough to have this historical perspective. But, I think part of our role is to help carry that message forward so they understand the larger purpose of the very specific tasks that we’re doing. I think these archival interviews that you’re doing helps do that, but I think we’re all charged with the responsibility of really helping directors and all school food service understand that we are of course feeding children, but we are doing even more than that. That through these children that we’re helping educate and have sustainable health, we’re helping them become productive citizens in a democracy, and this affects the destiny of our country, so it’s a big picture we’re working on here.
BK: And now we’re taking this, our message, internationally and, how may our message that we’re taking internationally, have an affect on the rest of the world?
GW: I think it’s important with international work to not try to make them like America. I think we’re trying to help them, in their own regions, preserve their culture. But help them then develop the programs that are right for that culture, and that includes good nutrition at school for children. But we have to realize that in so many of these developing countries there is no government to work with. You don’t have a Congress like we have to work with, so we have to take a different strategy and a different strategic approach, but it’s just as important for those countries to have adequate school feeding programs as it is here, because those countries are so vulnerable. The children have to be prepared intellectually, with health, to become part of the society, part of the political life of their countries. So, when you work with school feeding in a developing country, you’re helping as we do here, develop the destiny of that country, and that’s a long-term process.
BK: Is there any data to support school feeding and what its advantages are?
GW: There’s wonderful data on the effect of nutrition on cognitive development globally. In fact, this summer at the Global Child Nutrition Forum in Indianapolis, we’re bringing in a speaker from London who is an international expert in just this very topic, the effect of nutrition on cognitive development. And she’s with the International Center for Child Development in London, but they work globally. There’s a lot of data available. Again, I’m hoping we can access more of our people to that data, because it’s a story that needs to be told. It affects development here as well as in other countries.
BK: You mentioned some statistics about what, education and what–
GW: Yes, when you look at the effect of education in developing countries we have wonderful data, most of it from the United Nations on the effect of education on family life. For example, we know that when a mother has even one or two years of education, formal education, she has fewer children, she has fewer low birth rate babies, and she has children who are more likely to go to school themselves, and usually the nutrition of that family improves because they have a little higher economic level. Now still an added development to education is getting children to school to learn about AIDS. That’s a difficult thing to talk about, but AIDS has decimated some of our countries and particularly South Africa, where today something like three million children are orphaned because of AIDS. The projection shows that within five years that’s going to double, so that’s all part of education; children have to go to school to learn about this. So they have to have a total education opportunity here. One of the things the World Food Program is doing to encourage girls to get to school is to give the family oil when they permit the girl to go to school, because the families say, “Oh, our girl cannot go to school because she has to stay and work on the farm.” Now we’re saying, “You let your girl go to school, we’re going to give you oil to help supply your food.” So education, education, education is the key to breaking the hunger and poverty cycle, but more importantly, to help people lead full, productive lives wherever they are, here and in other countries throughout the world.
GW: But education is documented. I mean, the fact that women can be so responsive to education in terms of their family life is so important. One of the interesting things happening with the AIDS decimation is going on in Zimbabwe where a very important organization of volunteers, volunteer women, is caring out something called The Memory Project. Well what’s The Memory Project? They find the many families where the mother is dying of AIDS, and so these volunteers go into that home and with the mother, still living, and the children they develop a little book or little box where they preserve the family memories. They want to know what foods do you like to eat, who are your relatives, where do they live? Things like that to preserve their family stories, and then the very last thing they do with the mother still and the children is work out a way that the children can still stay together after she’s gone. So The Memory Project is a wonderful thing in Zimbabwe, and it’s catching on and going to other countries as well. Now, having said that, look what happens to a family decimated by AIDS where there are no parents and where there are no schools, or no school feeding programs. If we can have schools in these areas, and if they can have school feeding programs, that becomes not only the survival point for children, but the learning point, because the family structure is gone. So there is no way we can overemphasize the importance of getting girls, particularly, to school, feeding them while they are there so they can come and learn, and then helping them become productive citizens. School feeding globally is the new priority with the United Nations, so we’re privileged to be just some small part of helping make that happen, because we know how to do it; we know it makes a difference. The data clearly shows what’s needed, clearly shows it can change lifestyles and the style of life in countries themselves, so school feeding has a whole new international priority and we’re prepared, through our experience here, to help make that happen, so how can you say no? You can’t say no. People often say to me, “How can you justify helping other countries when we have so much need here?” Well the answer, I think, is quite simple. Of course we have needs here! Look, let’s assume you live in a nice big house like we do in this country with our progress. Your neighbor next door knocks on the door and says, will you help me feed my children. Do you say no? You say, “Why of course we’ll help you because we do so well for our own.” You don’t deny your own children help because you help somebody else; you just take care of them all. So I think we need to change our understanding of what’s needed in these countries and how we can help, because in the end, to be totally selfish, we’re helping ourselves because it’s an avenue towards world peace, which helps all of us. So it’s a long, long road that we’re traveling, the journey has never ended, but I think the important thing is to keep traveling; that’s the important thing.
BK: That’s a very noble goal.
GW: That’s the important thing, to keep the journey, stay with it. It’s a wonderful opportunity we have. And I think ASFSA, we’ve had members who keep saying, “You know, why, why, why do we do this, why do we do this?” And that’s why, that’s why, you have to look at the bigger picture. And now we’re seeing, we’re looking not only at the destiny of this country that we’ve just talked about, their own school feeding program, we’re looking at the destiny of the global family and where it’s going. I happen to believe that, you know, if we could have had well-educated families in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of the tragedies taking place there might not have happened. That people can be educated and strong enough and concerned enough to become involved in their national life, and not let dictators rule their lives. But getting girls and women educated has to be the national priority. It’s the United Nation’s priority, it’s the priority of the World Food Program, UNICEF is wholly involved in this and working with families to get girls and women to school. You know, again, you have lower, you have fewer low birth rate babies, you have fewer children, and the longevity of the children in those families increases by several years for each year the mother is educated because they know about nutrition and sanitation and so on; they’ve learned it in school. So, it’s the destiny that we’re all really working about in many different ways.
BK: When’s the next trip? They usually, ASFSA, are they still doing those trips?
GW: Yes, in fact someone told me probably two weeks ago that it looks like we may do another one to Africa this fall. ‘Get ready to go.’ I’m going to go, I hope. We had a wonderful time in Africa. We were there a couple of weeks and it was through the People to People Program. It was started with Eisenhower and it’s purpose was just what we talked about, international exchange. So we spent two weeks there, all over Africa, visiting schools and talking with the people and meeting with them in seminars to share ideas and hear their problems and share some our experiences that may or may not have been helpful; I hope they were. But we were there when Mandela had, when he was President, and so apartheid now was legally barred. And so there was no longer apartheid, Mandela was President and he announced his inaugural talk to his nation when he was inaugurated as President, that within one hundred days there would be food in school for children. Now they didn’t have a clue how to do this, so Mandela took half of his salary as President and bought sandwiches for the children of Johannesburg schools. To this day in South Africa, when sandwiches are served they are called Mandela sandwiches.
BK: Oh really.
GW: Every sandwich is a Mandela sandwich. It was peanut butter, usually. They use a lot of legumes so, peanut butter, but the Mandela sandwich was just, that was it.
MJ: How are they documented, the trips?
GW: Well we haven’t had a global trip like that since that was done. I think that was in ’95 or something like that, I don’t know when it was, around that time. I think we should be doing more of it. We, now, this year we’ve been in Chile, I told you about that. And the thing that I was so touched, we had thirty ASFSA members pay their own way to go to that conference and help with the conference. I was the Program Chair, and I had no committee and I couldn’t begin to tell you the problems, the challenge it was to get speakers from all these countries, you know. And then, after I finally got my speakers lined up, which wasn’t until January and the meeting was in March, really February, I was still working on the program. We got the speakers lined up and they all were volunteers. We had no money for the program, not a single dime for the program. And they’re poor countries, but they said they would come, and then I had this horrible feeling, ‘What if nobody comes to the conference?’ You know, I mean they’d never had anything like this in Latin America, and I thought, ‘Oh, my.’ Because we couldn’t get the word out, invitations didn’t go out until three works before the conference, I mean, it was just, the logistics were incredible. I just about died thinking, ‘What if nobody comes?’ The first two days of the conference we had a workshop on how to build, how to develop a national organization for feeding children, something like ASFSA. Barbara was there; she led most of that two days, and I thought, ‘Well, there might be, oh maybe half a dozen people,’ you know, where the countries would send somebody to learn. When I got there that morning and I went into the conference room, standing room only. The place was filled; I couldn’t believe it. And at that total conference we had eight hundred people, and these were the poorest of the poor people that came. So, I think that’s just an indicator of the need, and in Colombia last September, that was their inaugural conference of the first ever School Feeding Organizations in Latin America. They developed one, and I told you earlier I went down for that, and I thought, ‘Well there might be oh thirty-five or forty people there,’ you know, from Columbia. Eight hundred people, standing room only in this auditorium. An industry had paid for everybody’s registration; it didn’t cost them a cent to come because they were so poor. They had meals served cafeteria-style which were perfectly alright, and they rented the meeting hall, and it didn’t cost you to go. Eight hundred people; I couldn’t believe it. It just shows how hungry people are to do this and to learn. Santiago, USDA had a booth, they went down and took several of their people, and they had a booth with education materials in Spanish. You know, how to write a school menu, not like ours but, you know, something that would be doable in those countries, and some nutrition information and things like that. Outside their booth it was standing room only to get information. They’re just so hungry for information, and it was all in Spanish, which, of course was wonderful, you know, all translated. And people just couldn’t get enough.
GW: Cubans have started a new Nutrition Institute. Last night I had dinner with a young doctor here who has been a child prodigy of ours. I’ve known Helen since she was in grade school, and she now is an internist, internal medicine specialist here in Sacramento, and I had dinner with her. And she has come back recently from Cuba to observe their medical practice, and she said they’re amazingly good. She said Cuba has an amazingly good universal health care system that we don’t even hear about here. In fact, it’s so good that they are actually sending medical experts to other countries to help care for people, and we don’t hear about that. In Guatemala, you have INCAP, the Institute for Nutrition of Central America and Panama, a wonderful, wonderful organization for those countries. There’s a lot going on out there.
BK: We just need to be aware of that fact that we’re–
GW: Yeah, in Paraguay, when I was there I found one of the big, big health problems for children was goiter, little kids with huge goiters, because there is no iodized salt. UNICEF, they were wonderful, they gave me a computer to use and all kinds of wonderful stuff and they, their big project in that country is to build a plant for iodizing salt. It was almost built when I left, so that they will have iodized salt in that country. And the Peace Corps has been trained there to go into the rural areas and show people to cut a potato or a yam or something like that, a starchy vegetable, and put their salt on it. And if it turns purple then there’s iodine in that salt and it’s safe to use, and if it doesn’t turn purple, then you don’t use that salt because your children will get goiter.
GW: Fascinating, just fascinating. Oh, we’ve learned so much but we have such a long ways to go, a long ways to go.
BK: So when are you going to write a book?
GW: Beth, I wouldn’t know what to write about.
BK: You wouldn’t? Those stories are wonderful stories.
MJ: We’ll send you a copy of them.
BK: Put them in the beginning.
GW: In the beginning, yeah, in the beginning.
BK: In the beginning of your book.
GW: What we’ve seen is the, again, you know, looking at the larger picture where we started with nothing. And I tell them, I always, at these forums that we have, like I’ll do it again in Indianapolis, I give some background on how we got to where we are, and I have to help these people understand that we started with nothing just like they are. Our programs started in the early 1900s and almost before, but let’s say the 1900s, when the immigrants flooded our eastern seaboard, children were so sick and weak they couldn’t get to school, and learn when they were there. Parents and teachers took the food to school to feed the children, just like they’re doing now in Latin America. The thing we have to help them understand is the next steps, what are your next steps now? They know the need; we knew the need back in the 1900s. We knew that we could take food to school even as volunteers, and they’re doing that. And other organizations will help, and they did in our country. We had PTA and other health and welfare organizations take food to school to feed children; that’s what they’re doing. But now their next step is to try to get federal and national commitments to feed more children, to help fund it, and that’s where we’ve hit some roadblocks right now, but we’re not over that. Now hopefully this new organization that we’ve formed will help do that. We’ve just hired a new Executive Director; he’s down there on the job. Good man, American who has married a Chilean woman and wants to go back there and live with her family, or near her family, so he’s there. So, you know, maybe it will, hopefully, get going.
BK: I hope so. It would be great to look back ten, fifteen years and see how far it has come.
GW: Yes, yes, and see them beginning to – we’re already getting requests down there. Other countries are trying to form, like Colombia, it’s own National School Program, then they will be part of the Latin American network. Like we are with states, we’re state affiliates; they would become affiliates. And we know now that Brazil is starting this, and Argentina and Bolivia and another country, I think Guatemala. So, they’re starting; now they don’t know how to do it, that’s the problem. They don’t know how to run their organization. That’s all part of it.
BK: Well, I think there’s a different culture down there.
GW: It’s just unbelievable.
MJ: That will be important to document, to get in touch with the different people in each of the countries. The person, the contact person, to interview them and also to start record keeping and documenting.
BK: Don’t throw anything away. I mean, just keep those things together because you really don’t know what’s going to be important.
GW: Keep it all, keep it all.
BK: Were the people who opposed school lunch, were they re-elected? I mean, to do away with that program –
GW: You mean back in ’95?
GW: Yes. Actually, the real world is the effect of that school lunch challenge that all they could make to the Congress is that, that was really the chink in the armor that began to show people that the Contract with America that Newt, this is what you’re talking about, that Newt Gingrich and his group were promoting was full of holes, and it was going to hurt people and not help them. And incredibly, and maybe it was divided- but school lunch became the issue that became an example of what was going to happen to people, and that’s when the thing began to fall apart. That’s when they said they got “school lunched.” That’s what really raised the whole issue with the Contract with America, and when they said they got “school lunched,” that was the issue that defeated it, started to defeat it. And then the members of Congress were getting such opposition on this that they were afraid that if they voted to end the School Lunch Program they weren’t going to get re-elected, and that’s where democracy begins to work. The people in Congress are just people, and we pay their salaries. Our tax dollars pay their salaries; they are our employees. I think sometimes we forget that. The bottom line is, they are there because first of all you voted for them, or somebody did, and secondly, you pay their salaries. So they are truly public servants, and I think we all forget that and they do too. I know one time Dick Armey from Texas, who is a very, very conservative, ultra-conservative, right wing kind of a person, and one day I was talking alone to him in his office, it was on funding; what it was all about, I don’t remember the issues. So we went through this whole legitimacy of why you need to fund school meals, and he was very much opposed to it. And in our discussion, just to break the pace, I said, “Well, what did you have for breakfast; where did you eat breakfast.” And Mr. Armey, he said, “oh, well, shoot I just ate there in the cafeteria; Ijust ate in our Senate Dining Room.” And I said “Well how come you’d do that?” And he said, “Well, first of all the food’s good and it’s so cheap.” And then I said, “Why is it cheap?” And he said, “I don’t know; that’s just what they charged us.” So I helped him understand that our tax dollars were subsidizing the cost of his breakfast, and he was questioning why we should feed children in school. And we had quite an interesting little quiet time there and so I excused myself and left, and he walked all the way down the hall, “But I need to know more about this; are you sure, are you sure?” And I said, “Yes, sir, you know, I’m helping buy your breakfast.” It’s true! It’s just how you look at it. He’s still there.
MJ: He hasn’t changed since you talked to him?
GW: No, I don’t think he’s changed, not Mr. Armey. No, he’s pretty well sealed. I think he’s still there, I’m not even sure of that. But see it’s true; we are paying their salaries. Now that doesn’t mean they should do what we tell them, it just simply means they should listen, and they should try to be non-political to the extent that they’re there to serve a greater purpose, and that’s the good of the nation. That’s why they’re there; that’s why the Constitution puts them there. The Constitution says thou shalt, the Constitution also says it is the right of the people of this new democracy to petition the government for redress of the grievances. People say, “Why, it’s indecent to lobby.” Well of course not, the Constitution says you have every right to do that. You don’t, you don’t threaten, but carry your message to petition the Congress, it’s in the Constitution. That’s in the Constitution.
BK: I think ASFSA does a good job of [that].
GW: I think so. Never threatening. It’s an educational job. Again, it’s educate, educate, educate. No, you don’t threaten, you don’t coerce, you educate and hope that the strength of education will be sufficiently persuasive to help people do the right thing. There are good reasons to question school feeding programs. You know, is this an appropriate role in school, are we competing with the private sector, we should be in there helping to get money doing this, management, this is all part of the bigger issue. So, you know, it’s always good to have a debate, and then that keeps us on our toes to have the right answers. And if they aren’t right, then we say, “Hey, we need to look at this.” We tell these countries in South America, “You know, part of the role of your new organization is advocacy, to work with your government.” So then one of our great leaders in this has been a man named Omar De Leon from the Dominican Republic. A black man who is the Undersecretary of Education, it has to be Education, from the Dominican Republic. And he was a speaker in Santiago and speaks all in Spanish, but a powerful speaker. He had the place standing and applauding and going crazy. So, then we want to work with him and he’s just lost his job because they have a new government. So, you get one little toehold like that and then it falls apart. They have a big turnover of the government in Dominican Republic, so he’s not there anymore, so now we’ve lost Omar, and he was so good. But, on the other side of the coin, I always try to say countervailing opinions because in Chile, when I was there in April there were eight of us, and we were the guests of the Chilean legislature and we went to Valparaiso and the red carpet treatment and all that stuff and had lunch, huge wonderful lunch in this private dining room with their Speaker of the House. It would be our equivalent to that. And this man was rejoicing in our luncheon because he, this bill had just passed to have universal education for children, universal, all the way through college in Chile. So, you know.
BK: That’s pretty fantastic.
GW: So, you see poor old Omar losing his job in the Dominican Republic, but then you see Chile coming through with universal education. And school lunch, a wonderful school lunch program. In the Andes mountains, it is so isolated that there are not even roads back to the schools, and the government is providing helicopters to airlift school lunches into the Andes mountains.
BK: How long have they been doing that?
GW: When did it happen?
BK: How long have they been doing that?
GW: I don’t know, but I know they’re doing it now. And it’s all a management company operation controlled with a computer system the likes of which I’ve never seen, and our American people have said they’ve never seen anything like it, it was so sophisticated. They do what’s called nutrition mapping, now I’m showing my ignorance, you may be totally up to speed on this but I wasn’t. They have a computerized system that will identify in every area of Chile the most needy children, and once that child is identified, the computer system begins to design what’s needed to care for a child with those particular characteristics. That includes the community helping that child with education and health and nutrition and everything it needs.
BK: My goodness.
GW: Nutrition mapping; I’ve never seen anything like it.
MJ: But in the U.S., what areas would you say are some of the most needy?
GW: The most needy areas? Well, that’s a good question. You know, I’m not sure it’s regional. I think some of the huge poverty areas are in our metropolitan areas. And there are regional, there are regions of the country, I mean I think, for example, New Mexico, I think some of the Southern states. I understand some parts of Texas are exceptionally needy. But I think, in terms of large numbers, you find your metropolitan areas, because in a metropolitan area you are totally dependent. You have to have money to eat, unlike in a rural area where you can be, as we would say, dirt poor, but you might be able to have a little garden or a few chickens or something like that. But in a metropolitan area, the only thing that you have to get food is cash, and many families just don’t have it for a lot of reasons. Some justify it and¾ but the fact is the child is without food and that’s what matters.
MJ: Have those areas changed, I mean I’m sure they have, but could you talk a little bit about how maybe those areas have changed?
GW: Well, I was thinking earlier that I didn’t mention this, there’s the Haines study that was done around the McGovern era. And this is an independent research organization, and they sent research teams of medial doctors and other very skilled professional people into some of the Southern, into several, it was ten states, it was a ten state survey. You probably know about the ten state survey. Do you know about that? But on the ten state survey, this team went into these ten states. I know California was one, I think Mississippi, some other Southern states; I don’t know what others were in the ten. They found, in those states, excessive malnutrition with children, and needed to know remedies for it. And then the federal programs started through the Senate’s Select Committee hearings, and there was a School Lunch Program and a Breakfast Program. They went back ten years later and went back to these same communities to evaluate what had happened, if anything. They found the only significant difference was in the health of children. Unemployment was still as high; the family disintegration was still as high. Everything else was in a collapsed state for these groups of people; the only thing that had significantly improved was child nutrition. Children were better fed and healthier and in school; that was the one thing that changed.
MJ: How has that changed since then?
GW: How has that changed since then?
GW: Well, USDA does studies. I haven’t read any of them recently. I think our, our evaluation of the effectiveness of the nation’s school feeding programs, school nutrition programs is very inadequate. That’s just my view; we don’t have a good evaluation system. Nothing is longitudinal; we do these little spot studies. Harvard will do a study, and Minnesota will do a breakfast study, all funded by Kellogg’s of course, and that builds some prejudice bias I think in the study. Even it’s credibility, even if it was an independent study, if a breakfast study is funded by Kellogg’s, you say, oh, you know. The credibility issue is big. But we don’t have longitudinal studies that are significant in this country, in my view. Now there may be others that I don’t know about. To me, evaluate longitudinally the effect of school nutrition programs on the health and education and productivity of children. INCAP, the Institute for Nutrition in Central America and Panama has some of the best longitudinal studies that have ever been done, where they have something like a twenty-year history where they have been tracking children longitudinally from early pre-school years all the way through adult life. See, we don’t really have that kind of research going on here that I’m aware. It may well be there, but I don’t know of any longitudinal studies. It would be wonderful to take these ten states we’ve talked about, take the children who were studied, you know, in the sixties and seventies and see where they are now. See, that’s what would be really very, very interesting.
MJ: Do like a comparative study?
GW: Yeah, yeah, longitudinal study.
Interviewees: Gene White & Stan Garnett
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: May 15, 2013
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is May 15, 2013. I’m here at the National Food Service Management Institute with Gene White and Stan Garnett. They have kindly agreed to update their oral histories that we did a few years ago. Thank you both for coming in today.
Stan Garnett: We’re glad to be here.
JB: Since we’ve already done your oral histories, why don’t you catch us up with what you’ve done since you retired Stan from USDA? Tell us what you’re up to now.
SG: Ok. I retired from the USDA in January of 2008 and I pretty much began volunteering in the international scene. My career has sort of been bookended with international work. I had spent about eight years overseas in the ’60s before I joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working in food assistance programs in the developing world in Southeast Asia and Africa. And when I retired, my first overseas assignment so to speak was an invitation from the former Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Service Eric Bost, who was appointed by President Bush as the Ambassador to South Africa. So, Eric was in Pretoria and he had asked myself and Alberta Frost, who had retired from USDA a couple of years prior to me, and had been involved in the school feeding programs, if we would come down and help the Bafokeng Nation in South Africa implement a school lunch program. Now I had to go online and look up the Bafokeng Nation, because I had never heard of it before, which most people haven’t. I think it can best be described as something comparable to an Indian reservation in this country. It’s very interesting. They have a king. And actually the territory was originally owned by the Lutheran Church. And they had built a church in this area, among these people, and they eventually gave the land and everything on it to the Bafokeng people, and that’s been recognized by the South African government. So it’s semi-independent. There’s a lot of support provided by the South African government. But, they discovered platinum on the land, so they have money, and they wanted to initiate school feeding in their schools. So Alberta and I went down and spent a week with them working on establishing a school feeding program. And the following school year after we were there they implemented a school feeding program in their nation. So that was my first. And then Gene had contacted me and invited me to join the board of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, and they were planning their forum. And their first forum in Africa was in Stellenbosch, and asked me if I would work on that forum and go down, and I was happy to do that. So I did that, and then the following year we were in West Africa, in Accra, Ghana, and I participated in that. And then the executive director over the Global Child Nutrition Program, Barbara Belmont, retired in 2011, and I was asked if I would – I actually guess the safe thing to say – Marshall Matz bent my arm and said I had to do it, I had to go over and work in the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. And I said, “Well, you know, I’m retired. I can’t do anything. I’m not going back to work full-time.” But anyway, we worked out a deal, so two days a week I go over to the headquarters of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, and I’ve been working there almost two years. And we’ve had a forum every year. Subsequent to Ghana we went to Nairobi, Kenya, in East Africa and had a forum there. And in 2012 we were in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and had a forum there. And these forums bring together representatives from developing countries with the whole purpose of helping them initiate and expand school feeding programs. And while we realize that the school feeding program in the U.S. has been around for over sixty years and is very sophisticated, there are certain principles the we feel we have learned over the years in the domestic programs here that are essential to a successful and sustainable program – establishing policies, establishing oversight, establishing systems of management, establishing some sort of evaluation of your program, establishing nutritional standards, even if it is a goal you are working towards – all of these sort of things we feel are necessary to sustain a program; and to connect to the local agricultural production. Many programs were initiated using donated foods, often from the United States and other donor countries, and that, long-term, is not sustainable. And then of course the McGovern-Dole program was initiated about the time the Global Nutrition Foundation was established and the McGovern Dole program was an initiative that was started by Senator Dole and Ambassador McGovern based on their experiences in the school feeding program in the United States, and they had been long supporters of the school feeding program, and just felt that the experience in this country and the success of the program, that that could be replicated in the developing world over a period of time. So we have been doing that for the last two years. We are just getting ready to go to Brazil and have a forum in Brazil. We have a workshop the first day. We have a toolkit that was developed by the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. We work with the delegates in identifying their needs, identifying their plans and what they will do in the following year to enhance and improve their programs. We had 23 nations, all from sub-Saharan Africa in 2012 in Ethiopia, and we’re anticipating over 40 nations, again from sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Central America, and a few from Asia, in Salvador, Brazil next week.
JB: Gene, jump in here and tell us exactly what the Global Child Nutrition Foundation is and how it was founded.
Gene White: The Global Child Nutrition Foundation was created by the School Nutrition Association. There was a time about eight years ago when there was so much increased interest in school feeding, or we would call it child nutrition in this country, that we were getting calls, requests for help from really all over the world. Countries would say, “How do you do it in the United States? Show us how you do it so we can try to do something similar.” At that point the board of the School Nutrition Association decided it would be wise and more helpful to those countries if we had a separate group, a separate unit within SNA, who could answer those international requests for help. And that was really the start of a Global Child Nutrition Foundation. And so today we work all over the world. We carry the message of good nutrition, the importance of school feeding, the relationship of nutrition to learning as well as health, to the other countries. And when we go into a country we go only by invitation of that country, and we work with them in helping them understand and articulate what they really want to achieve. We try to help them do what they want to have done, based upon the experience we’ve had with policy and the building of programs in this country. So it’s been a wonderful experience. We’ve worked in many countries, Africa extensively. Originally we brought the delegates from these countries to the United States, and those were very important forums, as we call them, in this country. And then we thought, you know, we really need to get out of the United States and go to the countries that we’re trying to help. And so we did that on an experimental basis about four years ago, as Stan said. We went first to South Africa, to Stellenbosch, then we went to Ghana, and then Kenya, and the last year, in fact a year ago almost to the day, we were in Ethiopia doing the same thing there, working with the countries, giving them guidance, technical help, on how to build programs to feed children in their countries. And so it’s been a wonderful experience, I hope a rewarding experience for the countries. And I believe it’s been a very important experience for those of us who are so-called school feeding specialists in this country. We’ve learned so much from these people. In fact I sometimes think maybe they’re better teachers than we are because we’ve learned so much from them. The important thing here is to realize that these children that we’re trying to help are the world’s children. They belong to us all. And in that context then we’re so glad that we can share some of these experiences to help them do that. And I guess my own interest in this started many years ago. But more recently we, at one time, had the U.S. Agency for International Development calling the School Nutrition Association for help. And I was one who volunteered and I was sent to North Africa. I was sent to Tunisia. And it was in that experience there for about six or eight weeks that I really saw a whole different side of school feeding that I had never seen before. I saw what really happens when children are starving, and I saw many starving children there. And I saw the opportunity to reach out to these children and get them to school. When children have food at school the enrollment often doubles. More girls often come than boys. And it’s so important to give children this heads up start so they can learn, stay in school, and become productive citizens. So that’s what really motivates us. And after that I got a call from the UN World Food Programme in Rome, and they needed help to start a school feeding program in Paraguay, in South America, and Paraguay was a whole different experience with a brand new democracy. They didn’t even know what school feeding was except they wanted to do it. So that was another wonderful experience. And then I think a third thing that really got us on track as the foundation that we now have, was a call SNA got about ten years ago from the World Food Programme in Rome, and the person who was the director of school feeding in Rome, Gilboy, called to say, “Can we ever meet with you and talk about starting a Latin America school feeding network, something like what we have in the United States?” And so several of us did get very involved in that. We formed the Latin America School Feeding Network modeled after what we do here in this country with the School Nutrition Association, and instead of having states involved we had countries involved. And that turned out to be a very meaningful experience and one that in part is still going. In our forum we think we have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before, and that’s to give hands-on experience as practitioners – and that’s really what we are, we’re practitioners in this country – to show these countries just how to do it. That became a very important experience for me a year ago in Ethiopia. The Minister of Education looked at me and she said, “You know, we know there is a lot of education going on, but all we want to know is just how you do it, the practitioner’s approach”, and that’s the thing I believe we do in the foundation, is that unique approach that people have been there and done that. And I think that’s what gives us the chance to offer some really important real help. So that’s my story. The foundation was actually started in 2006. It was functioning in 2007. It took us a year to get up and running. So we’ve been in business now quite a while – seven years. We do this Global Child Nutrition Forum to train the countries. We did that even before we had the foundation. This year we do our fifteenth annual Global Child Nutrition Forum. We leave for Brazil this week to do this in Brazil. Again, in Brazil it’s going to be the largest forum we’ve ever had. Much to our amazement there are 44 countries coming, delegates from each country, so it’s almost like a mini United Nations, all wanting to get involved more so in school feeding. So that’s what we’re doing. We see school feeding as growing in terms of its global awareness and global need. The interesting thing to us is that when we started this seven years ago we talked about school feeding, the term I’m using today. Lately we’re talking about school nutrition, and that is such an important difference. We’re looking at nutrition as being an important part of school feeding. It must be there, and so we now are focusing on not only school feeding, but school nutrition, because we have the food that we can use for that fund. I think the other big thing that we’re doing is modeling what’s been done in the United States, and that is link our school nutrition programs to agriculture. The early days in the United States, in the law itself signed by Harry Truman, links agriculture and school nutrition programs. They’re in lockstep. They’re interdependent. And so we’re trying to help countries do that. Some call it homegrown school feeding. Others call it other forms of terms. But the bottom line is we’re trying to help countries link their agriculture development to school feeding, and when that happens then subsistence farmers – and eighty percent of the small, subsistence farms are run by women – it gives those women perhaps a little cash if they can sell some of their food to the schools. It gives the schools, hopefully, a supply of fresh and nutritious food. They help each other, and almost in the process start a micro industry, where the schools and the local farmers can work together for the common good of educating children and improving the local economy, and hopefully alleviating hunger and poverty at least a little. So that’s who we are, that’s what we’re doing. We see no end in sight in terms of the opportunities. There’s a tremendous amount of hunger today, a tremendous amount of child hunger. We feel this is an important contribution we can make as professionals in this country – to help other children have a similar opportunity. So that’s my story.
JB: Do you see lots of similar problems among the countries, or are they vastly different?
GW: Well, I always find, and Stan can give his view, I find every country to be very different, but they all have the same basic needs. The countries need guidance. They need help on how to do a program. They particularly need help with policy development. How do you write a law or a policy that would serve a nation, or even a province? In this country we have a National School Lunch Act signed in 1946 by Harry Truman. Other countries want to know how they could do something like that. Funding is a problem in almost every country. We find many countries have money, but we need to help them, show how they can use it and direct those resources into feeding children. So, every country is different, but there’s a common need, a common urgency to feed children, get them educated, get them in school, and get them healthy.
SG: I think everything being said is very true, and in many ways every country is different. When we were in Addis last year one of the things we did during our workshop was have them to prioritize among – these are 23 nations, now – prioritize the issues that they face, that they could present to the whole group. We talked about all the countries that come to the forum. In addition to the delegates from these countries we have a lot of other groups that come, UN agencies – Gene mentioned the World Food Programme – USDA, USAID, a lot of private voluntary organizations, non-government organizations, OXFAM, Save the Children, Catholic Relief, CARE, all of these representatives are there, plus observers who come just to see what is happening, including now over the last few years marketplaces, where industries will come and present their products. Maybe it’s a clay stove that can be used. Maybe it’s a meal, not a full meal, but a corn blend or a soy blend, this kind of thing. So that has happened too. But in prioritizing all the needs, as Gene pointed out funding was the first thing. And even though in some of the countries we are working in are- give one example – we’ve got a project in Angola. Angola is rich in oil. Many dollars are flowing into the country at the national level, but it’s not filtering down. So, to do that you have to have mechanisms to establish a policy, establish a funding flow, and get that going. So funding was the first one. Training of personnel was a big issue – all the way down the list, even to such things as things that we talk about in this country – time for the children to eat the food, and what time to serve the meal, and that sort of thing. So there are certain commonalities among all the countries. Another big benefit of the forum is the networking that goes on. For example, in sub-Sahara Africa the Anglophone countries established their own groupings where they could share information among themselves on what their needs were, what issues they were facing, what were the best practices that might be shared, and that sort of thing. Last year when we were in Addis the French-speaking, the Francophone countries came to us and said, “We want to establish a Francophone group so we can do what the Anglophone folks are doing.” So we put them in contact with a gentleman that had been instrumental in founding the Anglophone grouping. And so it will be interesting to see when we get to Brazil next week how far along the Francophone countries have become. And now we’re dealing with the Lusophone countries, places like Mozambique and Angola, the Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa, so they can begin sharing. So the networking that goes on at the forum is in many ways probably as important as everything else that we do, because they spend a lot of time talking among themselves and working together, and we would really like to see as we progress, the ability for one country to go to the neighboring country to share their best experience, to work together and that sort of thing. I think that will happen over time.
JB: Sounds like a really interesting project. I assume you have general sessions?
SG: We do.
JB: How do you handle the language barriers there?
SG: We have translators. We have a translating service throughout the whole program. In Brazil we will have Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English, of course, so it’s all translated. They have headphones.
JB: Just like the United Nations.
SG: Just like the United Nations.
JB: Wow. It’s a bigger project than I realized.
SG: And we had, in Addis, we had about 220 people all total, so we had a large group. And we’re talking about in Brazil around 250, 275, go it’s a large group.
JB: Gene, I was re-reading your oral history from 2005 yesterday, and one of the comments you had made talking about this was the goal wasn’t to make others like America. That struck me as interesting. Do you want to elaborate on that?
GW: Would you read that again? I want to hear what I said. [Laughter]
JB: I think you were talking about being culturally sensitive.
JB: That’s why I was wanting you to share what you feel about that.
GW: Being culturally sensitive, well, we are in this country too. We’re very aware of the cultural needs of this country, which are diverse, and becoming more and more diverse, so I don’t want to minimize that at all. But as Stan said, we’re working in countries where we don’t speak the language. And also, we don’t understand in total all the innuendo, all the little pieces of the culture that shapes the lifestyle and the food habits of people. You take Kenya for example. I think there is something like sixty different tribal languages. It’s an incredible opportunity to learn the differences in these many, many diversities. So it’s a challenge. We go in to learn, and to help with what we’ve learned. And so the cultural diversity is with us, it’s increasing. I was in Washington yesterday and my cab driver was from Ethiopia. So we’re becoming a world with many, many mixtures of cultures and I think it’s very exciting, but it’s a challenge for us. And Stan mentioned the headsets that we wear so we can dial in the language we want to hear. In the training materials we also have them in multiple languages. Stan mentioned the toolkit that we use. It’s a large, 100 page document of process to develop a national school feeding program. We now have that in several other languages. We have it in English of course, but we have it in French, in Spanish, in Portuguese, and in Mandarin Chinese, and we’ve used it in all of those countries where those languages are the first language. Stan also mentioned Angola, where we’re in our fourth year of the project there. And there we had two opportunities to help that country. Again, McGovern/Dole money was the basis for the funding to another organization that helped us get there and do what we did, working at policy development. And Stan and his team have been very effective working with policy in Angola. Then quite the reverse in that country, in a province called Benguela, one of the poorest provinces in all of Africa, we’re doing training on how to operate their little school feeding program, often not even in the school building, just out in the bush, in this sort of very rough, rural environment. Now there we have written a curriculum for the training of people who speak no English. Penny McConnell, from the Fairfax County Schools, so many people know is an outstanding leader, and she’s the one who gave the leadership to develop that curriculum. And so we don’t speak Portuguese, so we were able to employ a man from Spain who was multi-lingual, had been with the United Nations. He now has been in Angola doing the training for us. We have trained him in English how to use our materials; then he helps people in Portuguese understand how to actually explain the curriculum and how to train them. It’s very simple – sanitation and food handling, this kind of thing – the basics on safe food handling to feed children in a very, very rural and very impoverished environment. So culturally, yes it’s a tremendous, ongoing challenge, and a wonderful opportunity I think, because only when you’re sensitive to that do you even begin to understand the people and their needs.
JB: Exactly. I remember how hard it was in Ukraine to learn the different cultural nuances. It was an interesting experience.
SG: We were in Angola February a year ago, and we hope to go back in August, but we’re talking about in Benguela Province, as Gene said, where in many instances they are cooking on firewood in the school yard, boiling a pot of water, making a gruel, so the training materials had to be very simplified. You know, measuring the amount of corn/soy blend, which is what’s being used, getting the water to a boiling point, how to mix it properly. And as Gene said, the food safety aspects, because in many instances this food is being cooked by ladies from the community, many times with an infant strapped on their back. So safety – you’ve got a good fire going here, you’ve got boiling water here – so it’s very interesting and very satisfying work.
JB: I expect there are even issues of potable water in some communities too.
SG: Oh, I mean it’s just gathering water from the stream, so it has to be boiled.
GW: Safe water is almost as important as food. We just got back from China, where in rural China where we’ve started almost like a snack program with some fortified materials – food based, they’re having for the first time ever running, clean water in that school. And they’re celebrating that almost as much as the food. They have clean, running water. For the first time children can wash their hands. It’s an incredible gift to that school to give them water as well as the food itself.
JB: How were you able to do that?
SG: This has been a very interesting initiative. We all know that China is a booming economy and a booming nation right now with huge, sophisticated cities, but yet we were approached by a biotechnology firm located in Guangzhou, who to the best we can figure had heard Gene speak at a conference in 2009 in Beijing, talking about school feeding, the importance of school feeding, the benefits it brings and all those things. She did a wonderful job. And we were approached and asked if we would assist this company. They wanted to help feed children in what they called rural, impoverished schools of China. And they wanted to do it just on a philanthropic basis. They wanted to give back. And this is a vibrant biotechnology firm that is marketing throughout China. We visited their plant when we were there about six weeks ago – a state of the art plant. But anyway, working with them and then with the China Nutrition Society, who we are partnered with to help establish some nutritional standards for this supplement the children are getting. So they started the project in rural Guangdong Province as Gene mentioned, in four schools, and the schools had no running water, so the company paid for bringing running water in. It’s basically a very simplified system. The water is brought in and stored on the roof and gravity flow brings it down to the faucets on each level of the school building – there are about three levels. And that water is heated and the supplement that the children receive is put into hot water. And the children have a little mug and they shake it – they’re as cute as they can be – and that’s their snack for the day. They also get snacks to take home on the weekend. And it’s very interesting of course in China. They have the one child policy and for the most part in these rural areas the parents have gone to the urban areas to find work. So the child is being cared for by grandparents. And we’ve seen some very, very poor conditions in these rural schools in China. And the project will move to another province next year, again about four or five schools, and then in 2015 into another province. It’s been very interesting, but interesting working with the China Nutrition Society also.
JB: Is that a government organization or – ?
SG: I would say quasi, quasi.
JB: So it does more work than just with schools?
JB: Let’s talk a little about the issues in this country then, since you all should be quite aware of them. Where are we with scratch cooking? Where does that stand? Will we ever go back to that?
GW: In this country?
SG: Well, I’ll answer first. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to scratch cooking as it was even thirty years ago. Gene may have a different view, but I think there has definitely been increased interest in using fresh foods, the Fruit and Vegetable Program , the Farm to School Initiative, exposing kids to those kinds of foods, improving the nutritional value of the foods that are being used. That I think will continue to grow, but you’ll never go back to the scratch cooking of the early years of the program.
JB: So it’ll be a hybrid of fresh fruits and vegetables and convenience foods?
SG: It’ll be a hybrid – I think that’s a good summary. Gene would you like to comment?
GW: I totally agree with Stan. I think scratch cooking as we have known it for years is over. I think the challenge today is to select from the hundreds of products available, those that best meet the needs of the school, through the nutritional content, and affordability. And schools are challenged to find the products that are meeting their nutrition model the most successfully, and the cost containment that they have to have. But we have today a huge array of new products of all kinds that we didn’t have thirty years ago. So I think this is an indicator of how these programs are growing in their sophistication, in their quality, and in their availability of products to meet the needs of children. So I see scratch cooking as being history. I think today it’s technology, it’s the new, advanced food, and the challenge to make wise food selections in terms of nutrition and cost. I might go back to one awful thing Stan mentioned about making these selections in other countries like China for example. The poverty there is so great that as he mentioned we send food home with children over the weekend. We don’t do that in this country, but there, and in Afghanistan for example, and other countries, food is sent home with the school child so that child will have food, and even for the little brothers and sisters during the weekend, so they can come back to school and pick up on the nutritional quality of the food being served at school. So the fact that grandparents come and live with the children and go home often with a little food to feed them, means that school feeding there, in these poor countries is a seven day a week process, and in some cases providing much more than just one meal a day.
JB: Another topic – childhood obesity – where are we there?
SG: Oh my. Well, if you want to start from a global standpoint, I think that the bad habits that we experience in the States among many of the population, which I think is beginning to change somewhat, in some of these more advanced countries that are developing, you’re beginning to see the same thing. We learned from the China Nutrition Society for example, in the major metropolitan areas of China you’re beginning to see that. Fast foods are available, and kids are not as physically active as they were, because they have iPads, and iPhones, and computers, and so it’s growing a bit. But I think the emphasis in this country on physical exercise, and you have to give credit to the First Lady, Michelle Obama, who started this movement program, but I think it’s beginning to take. I think people are becoming aware that exercise is necessary and good for your health. I think you’re beginning to see more of a slow movement of children walking to school, biking to school. So I think we’ve turned the corner.
GW: Well, I see obesity in all the countries that we visit, particularly in the urban areas, where there isn’t as much physical exercise. But to me this whole issue of obesity is one that we need to really deal with with an educational program. You have to have exercise, there’s no doubt about that. In this country we’re restricting money for physical activity at school to get the test scores up, we know all that’s going on, and I’m not saying that that’s even bad, but here I think we have to face obesity as a nutrition education issue as well. And I think that’s one of the great needs that we’ve had globally. I think it’s one of the unmet needs, is to give nutrition education as well as the food. And I see that as being a shortfall that we have that we hopefully will be correcting in the future. Nutrition education needs to be part of the food delivery system in my view.
JB: Another issue talked about in ’04 was the AIDS epidemic as you started to get into Africa. Have you seen any improvement in that with the children?
SG: I don’t think I have enough background to really answer that question, Jeffrey. I don’t know.
GW: I think we have seen very little because we don’t focus on that particular health problem. You can look at the broader data that shows there is an increase in much of Africa, for example, and in other countries. But how it really affects children, I’m not totally sure about that. I do know that there are many homeless orphans, where the parents are both gone. I know in Tanzania there is a project; it’s called the Women’s Project, in which volunteer women will find a home where the father is already gone with AIDS, and where the mother is dying with AIDS. And these women go into that home, get the children together with their mother, who will not be there long, and they work together a plan on doing two things, first of all the family history, in other words ‘Who is this family?’ The children don’t really know sometimes, so they’re writing down the family history so the children will have that. And then the mother, with this volunteer, and her own children, will work out a plan, so that little family can stay together, when the mother is gone. So those things are going on. They’re hopeful, they’re tragic, they’re very sad, but it remains as far as I know, it’s still a very big problem.
SG: Oh, I think that’s very true.
GW: A very big problem.
JB: What about universal feeding? Will we ever have that in the United States?
SG: If you’re talking about universal free school lunch – I think is what you’re asking – I think the cost of that universal free school lunch – I don’t think we’ll ever see that. I think it’s too costly, particularly in the economic climate that we’re in now; just fighting to keep what we have is going to be the effort. So I don’t see in my lifetime universal free school meals.
GW: Well, it’s an interesting question, and one we debate every year at the Legislative Action Conference in Washington, where the school nutrition community comes together, and there are various points of view. I think when we say universal we need to say what are we really talking about. Are we talking about giving a child three meals a day? Are we talking about giving a meal at school at no cost to the child or the family? I don’t know that we’ve ever really defined that. We use the word universal, but what does that really mean in terms of production and parsing out the meals? I would agree with Stan that as we see the economy today it’s not affordable. We’re going to be challenged to keep our present programs at the nutrition standards they have now, in my view. I think though there are ways you can help fill the gap if some children aren’t getting maybe all they need at school. I still have to go back to nutrition education. I think there’s an opportunity there in education. WIC does a wonderful job with family nutrition education. I think that’s been a shortfall in our school nutrition programs, is not having an adequate nutrition education system that’s universally available for children.
SG: I would totally agree with nutrition education. Of course we had a small program that was eventually not funded, and pretty much eliminated, so – it’s very important, and we need it.
JB: Anything else either of you would like to add today?
GW: I just want to thank you for giving us this chance to set the record straight in the last few years. It’s a wonderful privilege to work with this program. I’m eternally grateful for it. It’s fun. It’s very hard work. At times it’s discouraging, but in the end what could be more important than feeding a child? And that’s what I’m coming from.
SG: Well I think I would say it’s been wonderful to have jobs and positions where I love my work.
GW: Yes. It’s fun.
SG: I have found in my lifetime, among my college friends, etc., that there’s not a lot of people that love their job, but I loved my work with USDA, I love my international work, so it’s been great.
GW: And I think too, so often people think that international work is so exciting, and a lot of fun, and it’s not – hardest work I’ve ever done, frankly, in these countries. I think we need to be sure that people understand that it’s very difficult work – but it is so rewarding, and it’s fun, and it’s challenging. And it demands all the skills and knowledge that we have to apply it in these conditions where there’s so little. So it’s a privilege to do it and a wonderful experience.
JB: Well thank you both for all you’ve already done and all you continue to do for the children.
GW: In nine years we’ll be back for another update! [Laughter]