Interviewee: George Braley

Interviewer: Meredith Johnston

Date: July 21, 2005

Location: Alexandria, VA 

Description: George Braley grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and began work for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service in 1972. He holds a degree in Economics from the University of Maryland and a master’s in Public Administration from Pennsylvania State University. He is currently the Associate Administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service.

Meredith Johnston: This is Meredith Johnston and I am here with George Braley at the USDA Food and Nutrition Service and it is July 21, 2005. Thank you for joining me today. Could you tell me a little about yourself and where you grew up?

George Braley: Sure. I grew up actually in the Washington area, which is kind of unusual. My parents both worked for the federal government, came here during the Depression because there was no work in the Midwest at that point, came here and my dad went into the Army Air Corp and then after the war resettled back in the Washington area. So I grew up in the Washington area and have lived here most of my life.

MJ: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs?

GB: In the neighborhood that I lived in my elementary school was only about two blocks from home, so I tended to go home for lunch and then run back for recess when I was a little kid. But my first recollection, my favorite meal once I went to junior high on the bus was barbeque on a bun, and it was a standard school lunch recipe I learned later, because many years later I was at a school somewhere and I smelled that when I went into the kitchen, and I said, “Boy, they still serve my favorite, my favorite food, at least in this particular school.” So that was my first recollection once I started eating school lunches on a regular basis in middle school actually.

MJ: How did you become involved with child nutrition programs?

GB: Well, I guess it was, I was lucky. I started to work at the Department of Agriculture in a whole other agency and the work I was doing I just didn’t feel very fulfilled about, so I kept my application kind of in circulation and I got a call from somebody who was a branch chief in the Child Nutrition Division who said, “Are you interested in talking to me about a job?” potentially in what was then a pretty new organization, the Food and Nutrition Service. This was 1972. So I went for an interview with a gentleman named Henry Rodriguez and Henry ended up hiring me and I have stayed here ever since. It has been wonderful.

MJ: Was there someone, maybe a mentor, who was influential in directing you in this field?

GB: I would say early in my career the gentleman who hired me here, Henry Rodriguez, had a big influence in my life, and also my first line supervisor was somebody who had been with the School Lunch Program since its inception, a woman named Janet McFadden, and both Janet and Henry really gave me and other people like me who were young and just coming into federal service and working in child nutrition a chance to work on some really exciting things. One of my colleagues and I worked on a study of high school participation, why certain high schools have very high participation levels and why others had lower participation levels, and published some things out of that to help high schools do a better job of reaching kids and making the foodservice operation more appealing to kids, and we got to do some really exciting things and travel. So Henry I think, and Janet really gave me those opportunities.

MJ: Would you tell us a little about your educational background and how that prepared you for your present job?

GB: Sure. When I first started here I had finished a degree in Economics at the University of Maryland with a minor in Political Science there. I actually took a year off to complete a master’s degree in Public Administration, because when I first came out of college I wasn’t sure whether I would be working in the public sector or the private sector, but once I had found that I really enjoyed the work at the Food and Nutrition Service and working on the child nutrition issues, I went back to graduate school in Public Administration, got a master’s degree in Public Administration. Got a master’s degree in Public Administration from Penn State, and that, I think, really did help prepare me, both the economics part and the political science and public administration to deal with some of the issues that I’ve worked on over my career.

MJ: Would you tell us more about your career and the positions you have held and what you do now?

GB: Okay, I sure will. I was hired into the Child Nutrition Division here at the Food and Nutrition Service and worked there for quite a few years. I mentioned a project early in my career that I worked on, on high school participation, but did a lot of analytical work in that, in that part of the organization probably for about 10 or 12 years early in my career. I had an opportunity after I finished my graduate degree to come back, worked on a management by objective system that was being put into the agency at that point to try to focus our energy to accomplish certain outcomes that we were looking for at the time. I did that for a couple of years. And then I had a really great opportunity to work at the local level to go help hire and train a new foodservice director in the Virgin Islands. That was tough duty, to go to the Virgin Islands for six months. [laughs]

MJ: Really? [laughs]

GB: It really was a great experience because it is a pretty small operation by a state agency standard, so you really had a lot of the responsibilities that a local foodservice manager might have as well as the same responsibilities as a state director. I had a chance to work with some really wonderful people there and get to see the programs operating very up close and in an environment where they didn’t have a lot of resources to work with, so it was a really good experience. I did that for about six months until we had a new director on-board and trained at that point, so that was one of the exciting things. I came back from that and ended up working in the Child Care and Summer Programs Division. We had split school programs and Child Care and Summer into two divisions – did that for a period of time and then joined a newly organized office, the Office of Policy Planning and Evaluation. So it took sort of an analytical work that I was doing in child nutrition, and there were people who were doing similar kinds of work in other parts of the organization, and created an office to do that kind of across the board within the agency, and that group is still in existence today. It is the Office of Analysis, Nutrition, and Evaluation, and I think you will speak to their director shortly. After that, had different positions there, different positions of management, that sort of thing, I was selected to be the Deputy Administrator for Special Nutrition Programs, so that brought me back into program management directly including Child Nutrition, and WIC, and Food Distribution, and really all the programs in the agency except for Food Stamps, and I did that for a number of years and became the Associate Administrator for the agency, which is the kind of second position here at headquarters, and manages, gets involved in the entire operation, and all of the people that I report to are political appointees, so they tend to change with each administration and that sort of thing.

MJ: What changes have you seen in the child nutrition programs over the years?

GB: Well, I guess starting off with the meals themselves, the emphasis in the early days of child nutrition from 1946, when the programs were authorized was really to deal with issues of undernutrition, making sure that kids had enough to eat. By the time I got here in 1972, January of 1972 is when I started here, those were still sort of the paramount issues, making sure the meals were adequate in terms of calories and vitamin and mineral nutrition was important as well, but then over time of course the emphasis on some of the macro nutrients like fat and sodium and cholesterol and things like that really has changed the way the meal service has been approached over the years. I’ve seen the nutrition pendulum kind of swing, as it needed to given the health issues that society faced as they evolved over time to what we have today, which is of course an obesity epidemic. In terms of the management, I guess I would say that the programs have become more and more of a business. I would say in the early days when I was first with child nutrition, they were kind of part of a school district and part of that operation and had more of a local flavor. I would say that now they are much more businesslike. That’s got good points and bad points I think to some extent, but I think that the school food service operation has evolved in that respect. The one constant that I’ve seen is that there are just thousands and thousands of very dedicated people involved with these programs throughout the country and that hasn’t changed, whether they are working here in the Food and Nutrition Service or a state agency or a local school district. And one of the things that’s really kept me interested and eager to stay in the Food and Nutrition Service has been the commitment of the people that operate and manage these programs around the country.

MJ: What do you think has been your most significant contribution to child nutrition programs?

GB: Well, I have had the privilege of being involved in most of the policy development in one way or another over most of the last 30 years, so it is kind of hard to pick one thing out of that. I think the contribution I’ve made personally though is helping new people who come into political leadership over the agency, the agency administrator, the under secretary, and helping them accomplish what they are setting out to do, and also understanding how the organization, the Food and Nutrition Service as well as the people throughout the country involved in school food service, can help them get their job accomplished and really helping with their orientation and bringing them onboard. As you can imagine, with the number of years that I’ve been here I have seen a lot of different individuals come in, and I’ve tried to be helpful to all of them and make sure that they have a positive impression of the programs and the people that operate them, both in the agency and around the country. Being someone who can facilitate good working relationships between incoming leaders and the staff that have been here a long time is something that I hope I’ve contributed too, and I think I have.

MJ: Do any memorable stories or events come to mind when you think about your years involved with the program?

GB: Well, I can think of anniversaries where we’ve celebrated the 40th and 50th and so on anniversaries of the School Lunch Act and things like that that have been kind of fun events to look back on accomplishments and look how far we’ve come over a period of years. Personally, working in the Washington office or the headquarters office, you can get a little detached from the operations of the program. So it is nice to get out and travel and see what is going on. Fairly early in my career I spent a month in our regional office in Boston. It was a pretty new office at that point. And that gave me the opportunity to get out and actually review some schools and do some things. We went out to a place in Maine actually, up there, which was a child care center that served some handicapped children, and getting a chance to see how the programs actually operated there. We set up a whole inventory system for them and did a lot of things to get them better organized for their food service operation, but getting a chance to see up close how our programs can have a positive influence on the lives of some very special children in that case was something that stuck with me all of those years.

MJ: Well, there is one question that I did not put on this list of questions, but could you take us through maybe a typical day, if there is one, or maybe not?

GB: In my life today? Well, I’ll just take today for example just to give you an idea. I was out for the last couple of days so I am just back in the office today, and we have an issue with the, one of the department’s offices on a regulation that we are trying to clear. It is actually in another program; it is in the WIC Program, but I had a pre-meeting to try to prepare for that meeting. We are going to go down and discuss what kind of a regulatory impact analysis we have to do and that sort of thing. I had today’s session with you of course is one of the things. I have another meeting with our management staff later this afternoon. So I really end up dealing with a lot of different things during the course of the day. On the one hand that’s fun because it gives you a lot of variety in your day and you are not dealing with the same issue day after day. On the other hand, I think sometimes I feel like I wish I could get more in-depth like I did earlier in my career and get involved in an activity and really sink your teeth into and know everything about it. The one bad thing about it is I feel I know a little about a lot of things but not a lot about any one thing anymore. But I enjoy my job because of the variety and the chance to interact with the staff here as well as the people throughout the government downtown, and the department, and OMB, and places like that. But I don’t get out and meet with groups as much as I used to, so that’s the downside to it.

MJ: Well, anything else that you would like add?

GB: I have really felt privileged to have the opportunity to work, and my first love of course is the child nutrition area, since that’s where I started my career, but I really have had a chance to become familiar with all 15 of the Nutrition Assistance Programs that are operated here and I think, again, they are wonderful programs, and the reason that they work so well in my view is that there are wonderful people who are committed to making them successful throughout the country and they want to make sure that the children of the United States have as good a meal as they can, or the low-income people get the food assistance that they need through the Food Stamp Program and the WIC Program and the various activities that we have, so I’ve been very fortunate to have such a good career with such good people.

MJ: Okay, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me here.

GB: Thank you. I appreciate it.