Interviewee: Gertrude Applebaum

Interviewer: Meredith Johnston

Date: Jan. 31, 2005

Location: National Food Service Management Institute

Description: Gertrude Applebaum devoted forty-seven years of her illustrious career to the Corpus Christi School District, forty of which were spent as Food Service Director, and then seven as Assistant Superintendent. Soon after becoming a member of the child nutrition profession Ms. Applebaum attended the meeting in Chicago where Food Service Directors and the National School Cafeteria Association voted to merge and form the American School Food Service Association. She served as President of this organization, now known as the School Nutrition Association, in 1981-82.


Meredith Johnston: We are here at the Child Nutrition Archives with Gertrude Applebaum. It is January 31, 2005. Thank you very much for being gertrudeapplebaumhere today. You were telling me about the first meeting to organize the School Food Service in the fall of 1946. Could you tell me some more about that?

Gertrude Applebaum: As I look back – I was hired as Food Service Director in February 1946. A short time later I heard about a meeting scheduled to take place in Chicago in October to talk about school food service. Being new to the industry I knew I had to attend that meeting. What better way to meet people in the same profession? I attended the first meeting when School Food Service was organized. This happened after the National School Lunch Act was signed into law in June 1946 by President Harry Truman to take care of food surpluses and provide meals to schoolchildren. There were two organizations at the time and they both dealt with school food service. The two organizations (Food Service Directors and the National School Cafeteria Association) decided to meet in Chicago for a conference, and in October 1946 the two organizations decided to merge. The leader presiding at the meeting was Mary de Garmo Bryan, an outstanding spokesperson for child nutrition. The meeting took place at the Sherman Hotel. Of all things to remember, I remember what I wore to that meeting. Trivia of interest that I wore an A-line short dress with a powder blue top and black skirt. Although I knew no one attending the meeting, I wanted to be there to meet the leaders in the field, and I wanted to learn more about school food service. What was fascinating about the meeting is what they talked about. What they talked about then is what we are talking about now. They talked about nutrition. They talked about how to finance the program, training, and facilities. Mary de Garmo Bryan’s book published in the late 40’s contains information that is as current today as it was then. At the Chicago meeting School Food Service came into existence as a result of merging the Food Service Director’s Conference and the National School Cafeteria Association. School Food Service became American School Food Service in the 50’s. The reason it became the American School Food Service Association is that states wanted to affiliate with the parent association and so it was decided to change the name to the American School Food Service Association, the umbrella organization for states to join. For example Texas became Texas School Food Service and Mississippi became Mississippi School Food Service. Year after year more states joined. The second meeting of the Association was held in Dallas, Texas, and how well I remember that meeting also. At that time, it was interesting, there was not the ‘reach out’ in food that you have today. Not many delegates were familiar with Mexican food. I was able to introduce them to it. Today of course there is such a reach out in foods eaten because of travel. There wasn’t the same mode of travel in those days that you have today. In fact, to attend the first meeting in Chicago I traveled by train. I think one of the first questions you asked was how did I get involved in school food service. Back in 1943 I already had my degree from the University of Chicago, I was married, and my husband was stationed in Corpus Christi. I came there to live, and I worked as a nutritionist for a government sponsored program, it was called the Lanham Act, which was under the auspices of the Corpus Christi Independent School District. In 1946, after the war had ended, my husband accepted a job offer and we returned to Corpus Christi to live. I applied for a job with the school district. They had a school food service program operating in 13 schools and fed about 4,000 students. There was a director at that time, I never met her but I remember her name was Avalee Austin; she had just left the job to pursue a degree. But thinking back to those early days, the program lacked financial organization controls and organizational management. For example, each manager planned her own menus and then went to the corner grocery store to buy the food. Being a recent college graduate, I was young; I thought I knew everything. One thing I did know was that the management and operation of the Corpus Christi food service would have to change and change it did. One of the first things I did was to centralize. I centralized menu planning, purchasing, record control, and training, relieving managers of those responsibilities. By the 50’s, we had a food service operation we were proud of. I used Mary de Garmo Bryan’s book to develop the system. Every era was an interesting era. Certainly the 50’s was. Hope I have described a bit of history, how I got involved in school food service. School food service became a real passion for me; I had a real love for it. I realized in the early years that nobody saw as many students as the cafeteria manager did or had a greater impact, and I realized the importance of school food service. Let me describe the 50’s as I remember. Students had great respect for teachers and they feared principals. Parents were respected and their word was law. All of that was to change in the 60’s. I helped organize the Texas School Food Service Association in the 50’s and held numerous jobs including Legislative Chairman and Exhibits Chairman. I was an active participant in the Association.

MJ: Okay. Well, let me ask you first, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up? Where you are from?

GA: Sure. I grew up in Chicago and did all my training there; I attended Gregory Elementary School and Senn High School. We didn’t have middle schools. I went on to take my training in Institutional Management and a minor in Food Chemistry at the University of Chicago. One of my teachers there was Lydia Roberts, and probably that name doesn’t mean much to you but it meant a great deal in those days because she certainly was one of the recognized authorities on nutrition. I attended the university during Robert Hutchins and the Great Book days; in fact, I was there when the atomic bomb was being developed. I still remember, it was a closed off area, we didn’t know what was happening in those days, but that’s actually where the atomic bomb was developed at the University of Chicago. I married in 1943 and after a brief tour of duty at the Naval Air Station my husband was sent overseas. I moved to San Francisco, became a hospital dietitian in 1944 at the San Francisco County Hospital, but left for a job with Swift and Co. They offered me my own lab to pursue a career in chemistry, but I knew that was not my life’s work. In 1946 my husband and I moved back to Corpus Christi, the same year I was hired as Food Service Director. I had two children; one passed away in 1997.

My other son is a Radiologist, and he lives in Portland, Maine. He took his medical training at University of Texas and Johns Hopkins. I have six grandchildren. I worked for the school district from 1946 to 1993, 47 years. Probably nobody has surpassed my tenure there.

MJ: In the same school district in Corpus Christi?

GA: Yes. I was the Food Service Director for 40 years, and then I became Assistant Superintendent in charge of all the support systems: maintenance and operations, custodial care, transportation, and food service. The promotion came at a good time in my life; my husband passed away two months prior and the challenge of a new job is what I needed. I was able to transfer all of the management skills I applied in school food service. Management is management and I believe management skills can be transferred. I realized all that you have to do is learn the language. Every department has its own language. Once you learn that, you do the same kinds of things in managing: scheduling, people management, and understanding the materials that you have to work with. It seemed it was pretty easy for me to make that transition.

MJ: Now you mentioned something that was really interesting a few minutes ago. You said that you had the different eras, like the 50’s and the 60″s and all. How did the change in the culture, how did you see that impact school food service?

GA: Tremendously. I can remember the 60’s – the Revolutionary 60’s. We used to think school cafeterias had the greatest demographics, being a few minutes away from any classroom. We thought the students would feel it was a privilege to have the school food service program so convenient. In the 50’s students certainly regarded it that way. In the 60’s all that changed. The 60’s was the hippie era, and I can remember a lot of rebellion in school. Students rebelled in terms of the kind of foods served and what they wanted to eat; there were no food fights. The 60’s were the turbulent times. The Breakfast Program came into existence and in the 60’s a study revealed there was hunger in America. In the National School Lunch Act signed by President Harry Truman in 1946, one of the conditions was indigent children shall be fed at no cost. The problem was indigent was not defined and there was no funding provided. That was to change. The change was brought about after the White House Conference on Food and Nutrition that was held in Washington D.C. Jean Mayer from Tufts University was in charge and President Nixon was the sponsor.

MJ: Was this 1970?

GA: It was 1970. I was a delegate to the White House Conference on Food and Nutrition, one of the few to be invited. What is still vivid in my memory, mothers came from Watts in California to let the delegation know their children were hungry. Their voices were heard. The free lunch program was funded and criteria were established based on family size and income. The lunch program expanded. To feed the increased number that suddenly came to lunch the pre-plated meal, similar to what we think of as a TV dinner, helped solve the problem. Facilities were taxed. Many cafeterias were built to solve the problem. I remember something I want to share with you that happened in the late 50’s. In Corpus Christi, where I was Food Service Director, the number of schools had increased. As I visited schools I noted the quality, the taste, and appearance were different, although by 1959 I had standardized menus and recipes. I heard about a consulting firm in California that dusted off an old concept and was hired to build a central kitchen in Norwalk, CA, to provide meals to feed students in all schools. At the same time a central kitchen was being built in Salt Lake City, Utah. A central kitchen, this was the answer I was looking for. I knew I had to visit the operations; I did and when I returned I would institute the third central kitchen in the USA. There was little information about central kitchens; operating one was pretty much trial and error. There was also criticism about preparing food in one facility and serving the food in another facility. In the beginning in Corpus Christi one school prepared and sent meals to three schools. After a year it was necessary to move to a larger facility, a high school; the number of schools to receive meals increased. The third move was to a central kitchen, built in 1962. Central kitchens were hardly a trend, but in the 80’s and 90’s the concept became a trend. And now to return to talk about the 70’s; in the 70’s the numbers fed increased due to the funding of the Free/Reduced program, and school food service programs found themselves in a favorable position financially. In the late 70’s we were jolted by criticism in newspapers and magazines about excessive food waste. Federally subsidized programs were required to serve the Type A meal consisting of five components. Students would say, “I don’t want that. Don’t put that on my plate”, and were told “You’ve got to have it”. Fat in the menu was not an issue in the 70’s. Students dumped what they didn’t want to eat, creating criticism regarding waste. The Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, Mary Jarrett, proposed a solution to the waste problem called Offer vs. Serve. Shirley Watkins and I were involved in testing the concept. Offer vs. Serve meant five food components had to be offered; if students took three of the five items that would be a reimbursable meal. Offer vs. Serve did combat waste. I was the national President of ASFSA in 1981-1982, when President Reagan had his famous budget cuts, and how well I remember those budget cuts. We became more conscious about finances; we had to be responsible for our finances and we really had to look at waste. We had to look at labor waste, at food waste. And even though it was a very painful time I think what happened as a result was we developed better organized programs. The budget cuts had some positive effects. The budget cuts also had a negative side, some of the food service programs actually dropped off the federal program. As national President I remember traveling from state to state telling people, “We are not going to out of business.” People thought we would no longer have a lunch program. I told them we would climb the mountain, and would end up probably better than we ever had been. I told the many groups I spoke to and actually that is what happened.

MJ: You were doing great things.

GA: I have been very active in both the Texas School Food Service Association and in the national association. I probably have held almost every office in both associations. The offices I held in the national association were Program Chairman three times, as well as Regional Director.

MJ: How have you seen ASFSA, now SNA, change over the years?

GA: An association changes a lot with each director. For many, many years, John Perryman was the director and he was a strong, dynamic leader. There were several other directors, and now there is Barbara Belmont, who is certainly a very strong leader also. The president also plays a role in molding the association. Through the years there have been many changes. In the early years each president developed his/her own program of work without continuity, one president to the other. Mary Nix and I working together said what we needed to do was to develop a program of work that each president could add on to instead of totally changing it year after year. We’ve seen changes in the leadership in the management of the association. We knew there would be changes. I think, though, the membership actually at one point was probably higher than it is today, and I don’t think that has anything to do with the association, it has more to do with our workers. In the early years we used to prepare food from scratch. We needed long-hour employees. You don’t need them anymore. The school food service system has changed. Now most school districts, I’d say 75 percent, use convenience food, and so you need people not so much to prepare anymore, but to heat, serve, and clean. The need is for short-hour employees. Our whole food system has changed. We are still serving the same foods, but in different forms. We used to serve creamed chicken in gravy. Now some districts still do. But now chicken nuggets have replaced creamed chicken. What I see for the future, obesity is going to continue to be a major issue. Another issue will be privatization versus self-op.

MJ: Could you explain that a little?

GA: Sure. Privatization means that companies, private companies, want to take over the management of school food service operations, as compared to it being managed totally by school people. There are many huge districts today that are managed by management firms such as Sodexho, Chartwell, and Aramark. Houston, Texas, school food service is managed by Aramark. They are private companies for profit. When it is self-operated, it is for non-profit; therein is a big difference. You have to have good leadership and good management. Is there a place for these private companies? If you don’t have good management there is a place for them. Most food service programs are required to be self-supporting. Therefore it has become necessary to operate like a business using business methods for control. Understanding how to control food and labor cost is essential. Training in a standardized system of management is important to know today also. As food service changes training needs change. The tools used to train have changed. I remember using slides to train; today it’s PowerPoint and the Web.

MJ: Well, do any other memorable stories come to mind when you think about your years as President of ASFSA?

GA: There are three interesting experiences or stories I would like to share with you. With the Reagan budget cuts that had an effect on school food service operations across the nation, I was national President. My job was to encourage directors. “We will emerge victorious and be more successful than ever.” And we did. The second, I became Assistant Superintendent, moving up from being Food Service Director for 40 years. School food service had always been well run, profitable, and without problems. A new Superintendent was hired in 1986. The three departments that created the most problems were Maintenance and Operations, Custodial Care, and Transportation. He felt with my track record I could take over the management of those departments and make them function as well as Food Service. With the Board’s blessing I became Assistant Superintendent in 1986, one of the first to be promoted to that level. In the beginning it was rough, because of all the changes needed, but within six months I began to turn the departments around. The third memorable experience happened in the early 90’s. I had traveled extensively throughout my career, speaking, evaluating food service programs, and training. I was invited to speak to a class at Texas A & M University at College Station. What I saw there changed the high school program in Corpus Christi. To feed the college students, in addition to food service at their respective dorms, was a food court featuring a pizzeria, grill area, Mexican food, sub and salad area, and American food. There also was a mini market and outdoor eating area. In the Corpus Christi schools participation was excellent in elementary and middle school, but not so in high school. High school student are a heartbeat from college; why not design the same program for high school students? I shared the idea with the Food Service Director and she grabbed on to it.

The Maintenance Department spent the whole summer remodeling high schools, putting in food courts, mini-markets, and outdoor facilities, and they were pretty successful. And today it is very successful. Today we realize that you have to become very customer oriented. Kids today eat out and see a lot of places. To capture the high school market you’ve got to certainly improve the facility, and many schools across the country are now doing that, and with considerable success. We were one of the first to put in food courts.

MJ: Well, there’s something I think we might have skipped over a little bit. Could you tell us the different positions you have held? I know you said that you have been in the same school district, but what positions have you held there?

GA: I was Food Service Director for 40 years and then was promoted to Assistant Superintendent for seven year.

MJ: Okay.

GA: Prior to that I was a hospital dietician. I also worked for Swift and Company as a food chemist. I did the original testing on shortening and ice cream. In fact, they wanted to give me a lab, but I just had a bachelor’s degree and I knew it wasn’t for me anyhow. It wasn’t a job I fell in love with or had a passion for. When I became Director of School Food Service I knew I had found my life’s work. School food service had it all. We have more impact on kids than anybody else, and it encompasses everything. It encompasses finance, purchasing, management, and personnel relationships. It just is fascinating and a wonderful career.

MJ: What was your bachelor’s degree in?

GA: It was in Food and Nutrition and Institutional Management. Let me share more stories about my early career as Food Service Director. I remember my first office was in a middle school basement and was so small that when I wanted to meet with a salesman I had to walk outside my office and stand in the hall. The following year the school board purchased a track of land a few blocks from the administration building. On this property was a small house. When I was offered this house for my office I said, “Absolutely.”, and it was called the ‘Hen House’ because we were all women that worked there. Across the street from the ‘Hen House’ was a vacant lot. I had my eye on the lot to build a warehouse. The ideal solution presented itself when a Quonset Hut was advertised for sale. Quonset Huts were used during World War II. They were metal buildings, used for many things: for warehousing, stores, sleeping facilities. The Quonset Huts were being sold by the government to schools, public agencies, for a dollar. I went to my board and I said, “I have an idea.” This goes back to the late 1940’s. “I want my own warehouse and if you will let me buy one of these Quonset Huts it would save a lot of money.” They let me buy it and put it up right across the street form the Hen House, our first office. A good-looking salesman came in and sold me a carload of tuna fish. The relevance to that story was I had absolutely no idea the size of what a carload was. Two weeks later when the truck arrived and the drivers started unloading the cases of tuna fish I said, “What is this?” and they said, “It’s the cases of tuna fish you ordered!” I tried to return the tuna fish – called the company and they would not take it back. None of my friends would help me out; you don’t have friends when something like that happens. It was probably the best experience I have ever had. Had I been a private business I would have gone out of business. I had an inventory of tuna fish and once I paid for it my bank account was depleted. I had money sitting on the shelf. Nobody wanted to be paid in tuna fish. I offered my employees tuna fish and they said, “No”; they wanted cash. I learned that you better plan your menu first; I learned that forecasting what your needs are is important. I learned that people don’t like tuna fish that much, so serving it maybe once a month is adequate, which means a case would have been enough. I learned from that experience what it means to be in business, what it means to forecast and only order what you need; what it means to get student input, and what it means to have a small inventory. It took me ten years to get rid of it. One positive note was at least it didn’t become a government commodity. There are some experiences one never forgets; this is one of them.

MJ: You just give us more information and it makes me think of more questions. Could you talk a little bit more about the White House conference in 1970, a little bit more detail?

The White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health was held in Washington, D.C., in December 1969. The invitation came from President Nixon. Josephine Martin was invited, she was State Director from Georgia, and John Perryman, ASFSA Director. There was an eleven-state study on malnutrition that found malnutrition existed. The reason Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act was the result of forty percent of the men who were inducted into the service were suffering from malnutrition. The School Lunch program was supposed to solve the problem. Finding malnutrition may have been a coincidence. The White House Conference on Food, Health and Nutrition was scheduled. Shortly after the conference legislation was passed to fund the free lunch program. Speaking about nutrition, in the early 70’s the American School Food Service Association invited a group of people from various countries that were very interested in studying nutrition in the United States. I especially remember the Philippines and India were represented. There were twenty-seven delegates from thirteen different countries. Corpus Christi was one of the places visited. They were especially interested in the central kitchen concept. Today the association is actively engaged in global efforts. My global outreach has been primarily to Japan. I’ve done seminars there six times and delegations have come from Japan to Corpus Christi many more times. I became acquainted with the Japanese back in the 70’s. I did a presentation for the frozen food industry; many people from foreign countries were there and asked for a copy of my presentation, including the delegation from Japan. The speech I sent was printed in several trade newspapers and trade publications and was circulated in Japan. Six months later I received a phone call, “This is Harry Nishimoru from Tokyo, Japan. I was at your presentation and you sent me a copy of your speech and we would like to come to visit, to see your central kitchen and warehouse.” A month later twenty-five Japanese businessmen arrived in Corpus Christi and that visit started a relationship. They came back twelve times, bringing different groups. I was invited to Japan about six times to speak about child nutrition in the United States, and how to sell the school market. I learned a lot about their lunch program, which is excellent.

MJ: Talk about changes in the profession over the years, or changes that you’ve seen maybe in the workforce.

GA: There have been many changes. I can remember in the early years the work force was primarily women with little or no experience in food service. There were very few men employed. Once the salaries improved we began to see an influx of men into the industry, primarily in management. Another major change I am seeing today is diversity in the workplace. Once the workplace was staffed with white females – today the staff can include a high percentage of Mexican-Americans and Asians. Language often is a problem as a result of the cultural differences. Diversity in the workplace includes age differences as well as experience. School districts in the past were willing to help support child nutrition programs financially. Today school districts expect Food Service to be self-supporting, including paying for utilities and custodial care. The answer is to operate like a business, watching waste and theft.

Food has changed. No longer do most schools do scratch cooking; seventy-five percent of the food served is convenience. This resulted in a change in labor needs. The need is for short-hour employees, three and four hours, instead of the seven and eight-hour employee.

MJ: What about technology?

GA: Thank you for mentioning it. School food service is rapidly moving from a manual operation to an operation using technology. Technology had a slow start in the 80’s. Today there is absolutely no question that technology is helping us manage our programs. Not only do we have accountability at the cash register with point of sale, but back of the house technology provides inventory control, forecasting, ordering, menu planning. I have seen a transition in employee acceptability of technology. And e-mail! Nobody seems to be writing or using the telephone anymore; everything is e-mail. Even the fax machine is being used less and less. Technology will manage our systems and continue to play a major role.

MJ: What do you think have been your most significant contributions so far to the child nutrition field?

GA: Having worked in child nutrition for six decades I have had the opportunity to influence many people in many different ways. My influence was different in every decade. In the 50’s I developed a centralized management system including menu planning, purchasing, record control, and training. I became a presenter at many state meetings to describe the system. I was active in helping to promote the Texas School Food Service Association and the national association. I have always believed in a lean operation, a business approach toward management, and my primary goal was providing nutritious meals to students.

In the 90’s I retired and with Dot Pannell-Martin formed a consulting firm, inTEAM Associates, specializing in program evaluations and conducting seminars in the inTEAM System, Cost Control and Employee Management. We presented seminars in 46 states and trained thousands working in child nutrition programs. The evaluations helped make districts cost effective. InTEAM Associates enjoyed success and in 2003 merged with School Link Technologies, a software company for school food programs. Today I work for the company.<\p>

MJ: One thing I forgot to ask when we were talking about changes, what about changes in training? What do you think with the people…?

GA: I have seen many changes in the program content and method of training. For example cost control is a popular subject being taught. Haven’t I told you enough?

MJ: No. We want to hear more. Anything else come to mind?

GA: Many things have changed in school food service, but the basic philosophy has not – our job is to be a non-profit program, providing nutritious meals to all students regardless of their ability to pay. To capture the student market, in my judgment, takes three things: quality food, well presented, that students like; a facility in which to eat that is attractive, clean, and well kept; and employees that understand and practice positive customer service.