Interviewees: Shirley Watkins, Dorothy Pannell-Martin, Anita Ellis, and Stewart Eidel
Interviewer: Beth King
Date: June 23, 2004
-Discussion prior to group discussion-
Dorothy Pannell- Martin: Corn on the cob.
Shirley Watkins: You put that on the menu?
Martin: Yeah, that was my big addition to the menu. So I thought, the only way I knew corn came was –
Anita Ellis: – on the cob
Martin: On the cob, in a shuck, so I bought all this corn, and for eight hundred students at one of my high schools.
Watkins: And they had to shuck the corn.
Martin: So, about 10:30 the manager called me and she asked me to come over. She said, “My employees want to talk to you.” I had no idea what they wanted, but when I drove up to the back, where the dumpsters are, I saw the loading dock. All them folks were out there shucking corn. The silks were everywhere; everywhere were silks, and they just looked at me. I’ll never forget that look as long as I live.
Watkins: And you slid down in that car and thought you’d never come up again.
Martin: Yeah, I really felt stupid, I really felt stupid. Well, I didn’t put corn on the cob like that again. If I couldn’t afford it frozen it wasn’t going to be on the menu.
Watkins: But you know what, when you looked at? We used to keep the menus in a file every year, by month, and it was stored, and they still have them. So as far back as when Vivian Pilant was Director of Food Services in Memphis, we had those menus. So, the menus were, were there. We got a call from Elvis Presley’s people one day, and they said, “Could you find for us menus that you all used when he was in school at Humes Jr. High?” And I said, “Yeah!” And they said, “What? You really have that?” And I said, “Yeah.” Well we went back and pulled the menus out –
Martin: I was at Humes that very same year in the seventh grade.
Watkins: – and gave them to them. And the kinds of things that they had on those menus would resemble things that you would have had at the Peabody, or at any fine hotel in that city. The menus were just incredible, and undoubtedly it would be some of the things that you’re talking about, the shucking the corn. I don’t know how many calls they would have gotten from people then, because they might have had fifteen to twenty to twenty-five people working in the cafeteria.
Ellis: Oh, oh my goodness.
Watkins: Oh they had lots and lots of labor.
Martin: You know, and I don’t remember if I ate at that school or not.
Watkins: You don’t remember whether or not you ate?
Martin: I don’t. I don’t even remember eating, period. I was at Humes that same year.
Watkins: Well now I remember coming up as a kid at Hope, and I only ate lunch maybe once or twice a month. My father’s brother’s wife was a cafeteria manager. But in Hope the cafeteria was operated by the Home Economics teacher, and then she got maybe one or two people in the community to come in and cook.
Martin: Right, to come help.
Watkins: Yeah, and she was a good cook, so I loved to eat on the day that they had beef stew.
Beth King: I’ve been hearing some of your earliest memories, or some of your memories of child nutrition programs, so I’d really like to hear from each of you about your memories, maybe earliest memories of child nutrition programs. First of all, introduce yourself and tell what you’re doing, what you’re doing now in your career and a little bit about what you’re doing in child nutrition programs, your earliest memory of child nutrition programs.
Martin: Where do you want to start?
King: We can start with you Dot.
Martin: I’m Dot Pannell-Martin. I’m president of In-Team Associates and it’s a consulting company that specializes in school food services. And I was formerly a school food servicedirector for a number of years, and my first memory of school food services was when I was in the tenth grade. I really can remember the wonderful smells, and I didn’t eat every day because my mother thought I could come home and eat more inexpensively; I don’t think it cost but a quarter but to eat at school. But at any rate, I would get to eat in the cafeteria. Notice I say get to eat; that was a real privilege, I really enjoyed it.
Stewart Eidel: I’m Stewart Eidel. I’m with the Maryland State Department Education as a trainer now, and I think I also have to agree that it was probably tenth grade that I remember eating in the cafeteria. And I had several friends whose parents worked there, and that was probably what prompted me to go in there anyway, was because I knew these moms. They were my friends’ moms so it was a warm, comforting where you could go and have, I think even then pizza was the primary thing on Fridays.
Ellis: Ah, that shows you’re much younger than some of us.
Eidel: And then, pizza was popular then, back in the seventies. So I remember that warm environment being really helpful. But I think I too packed a lunch, my parents probably did it for what they perceived as economic reasons; not nutrition, that was for sure.
Watkins: I’m Shirley Watkins, formerly Under Secretary for USDA and a former director of child nutrition programs in Memphis. And I currently have my own business, it is a school food serviceconsulting business and we work primarily in looking at environmental issues, and looking at environmentally friendly cafeteria operations, and we specialize in school food serviceprograms. And I’m really concerned about the space allocation for children and the equipment issues surrounding the management of child nutrition programs. My earliest memories were in Hope, Arkansas, as a child. We started out and we really didn’t have a real cafeteria in the elementary schools when I was in elementary school because a lot of kids walked home for lunch. And I went home and ate lunch with my mother and father every day. And when I got in junior high school there was a cafeteria, and we could go. Now, in elementary school we had milk, and they had milk at every child’s desk, and you paid for the milk or they gave you some free milk. And I was allergic to milk and didn’t drink the milk, so I was glad to get home for lunch every day, and I wasn’t that far. But I did get a chance in junior high school to go to the cafeteria, and I didn’t get a chance to do that but maybe once a month, because I would only choose those days when they had a peach cobbler or a blackberry cobbler, and when they had a stew that was really wonderful, that my father’s aunt was the cafeteria cook. Because the cafeteria program was actually managed by the Home Economics teacher, so that was a little different spin, and I think that was probably more of the trend in Arkansas. Coming from rural Hope, Arkansas, was a real experience; the village did raise the children in that small town.
Ellis: I’m Anita Ellis. I’m from West Virginia. I was formerly with child nutrition programs in the state of West Virginia as Assistant Director of Child Nutrition Programs, and coordinated the Nutrition Education and Training Program. There was a time when we had money for nutrition education and training; I think that’s long gone now. Right now I am the president of NFE, which is Nutrition Foodservice Educators Incorporated. I specialize in working with school districts on procurement and food servicetraining. My first memories of school lunch, actually the first thing I can think of, something that is long, long gone which will show my age I guess, but is the Milk Program. They had a Special Milk Program so that you could have milk at a break, and I’ll never forget that it used to upset me because the milk was warm. And of course I loved milk, and it made me, you know, it frustrated me that it was always kind of warm, because they would bring the cartons out and set them in the hallway and then the kids could go out during break and have the milk. So that’s one of the things that sticks with me from the early days. And I think, gosh, when did they do away with the Milk Program? Long, well, while I was still at the state department of education, so that’s been awhile. And that’s kind of a loss too, I think. Special.
King: Well, I’m Beth King, and I’m Acting Director of Technology Transfer here at NFSMI, and my earliest memories of child nutrition programs with school lunch actually go back to the first grade, and I ate school lunch all through school. I remember eating in the first grade, I remember the Milk Program, I remember we had chocolate milk at recess. I think we paid three cents for the chocolate milk, and we brought our little three cents every day and paid for our milk. And the wonderful spaghetti and those wonderful homemade rolls. I can still, I can still smell those rolls now; they were just so wonderful, so wonderful. We’re here because we’re all working in the Orientation to Child Nutrition Management Seminar, so what we have in common is training. And what I wonder if we can just talk about are some of the issues about training. First of all, I’d like to know about how training topics may have changed over the course of your career or, how is training today different from training that you might have experienced earlier in your career.
Martin: One thing I see is, we do a cost control seminar and I see the demand greater today and I see directors far more interested in it because they’ve got real life problems back in their school district and their bosses or school boards or whatever are saying the bottom line has got to be positive, or, so they feel a real need for it today, whereas if I had tried to do this training in 1970, sometime in that, there would not have been the audience, because we had more money than we knew what to do with at that point in time in school food services. But as budgets have been cut and things have gotten tighter and school programs have been, school food servicehas been charged with a lot more things than they have in the past, I see a real change in that demand and that need that people really feel is serious.
Watkins: I look at the training that we currently have for food servicesupervisors and directors as being very limited, based on my early experience in child nutrition programs. While the interest is there, now it is largely because you don’t have the support at the state and federal levels to provide the training that’s necessary. As an early supervisor in the early seventies, there was a value placed on training for food servicedirectors and supervisors from both the state and federal levels. You don’t have that same value at the federal level, nor the state. States don’t have the capacity now to provide the training that’s necessary, so as Dot indicated, school food servicedirectors and supervisors are starving for information. It’s unlike what we knew when the three of us, both Dot and Anita and myself were working in school food serviceand starting out in school food service. There was a value established to training; there is no longer a value established to training, and it’s not necessarily in school food service, but that’s in corporate America. The first budget that is cut anywhere is training; the first budget that was cut in child nutrition programs when we really felt it was Nutrition Education and Training. That NET money was cut out, so I think we are caught in a situation now where the National food serviceManagement Institute is in the right place at the right time, which was what we envisioned is being able to provide that training that’s necessary. It’s unfortunate that budgets have been cut; it’s unfortunate that people don’t value training. That’s why we have so many school districts in school food servicethat are having so many many problems that are not addressed, it’s because of that lack of training and that value being eradicated or eroded. We need to see that value reinstated, and a wonderful model is the model in Maryland, but how many states will be able to go back and replicate that in tight budget situations? That’s as I see it.
Martin: And, you know, I think there’s such a, retirement is unbelievable. The number of school districts that are without directors or are about to be without directors. I think it’s going to be tremendous in the next five years as to how many new people will be coming on the scene where the need is greater now than it ever was in the past, because we didn’t have that many retirements, maybe one here, it was a more gradual process. But we’re seeing all those people that came in the sixties and seventies and early eighties that are now retiring.
Watkins: And what that does is to destroy the credibility of the program, because if you don’t have well-trained people and you don’t have succession planning at the state and local level for those well-trained people to operate the program, then the program gets a black eye for not having strong leadership. And you say, “What’s strong leadership?” So you don’t have strong leadership because no one is preparing in the manner of succession training for the new upcoming bright shining stars. There’s nobody there to hold their hands; there’s nobody there to guide them and direct them. And that, to me, is a sad situation for our industry. We need to change that.
Ellis: One of the things that I have sensed a real change in as well in the training area is that early on, when I first was working with child nutrition programs, there was a greater emphasis on technical assistance. And that seems to have absolutely, positively disappeared now; it’s more of a punitive kind of atmosphere.
Ellis: That what we need to do is find something they’re doing wrong and correct them on that, rather than let me help you understand how to do this better. I’m very, very sad to see that transpire. And I think when you’ve got that kind of an atmosphere, then you don’t have a helping attitude towards anyone. It’s more of a ‘Let’s get them’ and ‘What can we do to keep them from getting us?’ kind of attitude. I think that’s sad.
Watkins: Someone said that supervision is an ‘I gotcha’ rather than the technical assistance to try to help you become better, so that if you do well, then I do well. But that’s not the attitude that we currently have, which is not good and doesn’t speak well for our potential.
Ellis: You know, one of the values of meeting with different people from different states was to see how they did it, and, as we were talking earlier, there was an attitude of sharing and what are you doing that I might be able to do better. And I don’t see that as much anymore either Shirley, maybe I’m not in the circles to see that, but don’t see that as much.
Watkins: You know, mentioning that, Dot and I probably could sit here and talk for hours about our relationship in major cities, and the value of that organization and that cluster of people. We were a very tight knit group who shared with each other. If Dot was doing something she was very open and sharing of that. If I was doing something I was very open and shared that. I’ll never forget, we were talking about marketing and merchandising and I thought, “Boy, I really don’t like what I see in schools.” And I went around and took pictures and did a marketing and merchandising manual, and we started out, of course it was not professional at all, but it was pictures of what we saw, what we liked –
Martin: What we didn’t like.
Watkins: And what we didn’t like, and then people. We looked at Baskin Robbins. My son worked at Baskin Robbins and they had a fold out notebook and that stood there so when those kids were making those ice cream cakes or whatever, then they had that. So we found out where they got those notebooks that folded back like that, and that’s what we ordered. Well, we used that. Well, in the Southeast they took that and developed a merchandising manual, and we used it throughout the Southeast and –
Ellis: And West Virginia.
Watkins: And West Virginia. Well, it just kind of went around everywhere, but we didn’t have anything that we needed to hide, because Dot knew if she was successful, if she had something and we used that, we’d be successful just like Dot. If I had something or, I’ll never forget when I started out as a director, I sat in the stairwell in the Chicago Hilton and talked with two directors and I was ready to throw my hands up after they described what they went through as a director in a major city. But what that did for me was to help me understand they’ve got problems, I’ve got problems. They’ve got some successes, they were willing to share with me what they were doing, “You come and I’ll show you what we do in procurement; you come and I’ll show you the new equipment that we just bought that’s working magic.” It was that kind of training that you had, peer training for that lack of another word, and we don’t see that anymore, we don’t see that kind of sharing, and –
Martin: That was a meeting that you did not miss.
Watkins: You did not miss that meeting.
Martin: It was always in Chicago, which I thought was a plus because I think the NRA, which follows it, is something that all major cities ought to, directors ought to attend because you see things there that you won’t see other places, and there’s a lot of application that you can pick up that maybe the item was not designed for you, but you can take the idea and build on it, you know. So I thought that was good. I agree with you Shirley, we really lost a lot because this was the last, I gather, major city meeting they’re going to have, this year so. That’s what I hear, the one in Florida. And I think that’s a great loss. Maybe they strayed away from what the original concept was, and it just sort of played out, but I think it’s time now to go back to it, because there are some big issues facing large school districts that I’m not sure that anyone other than large school districts can solve, you know.
King: I’d like to know a little bit about delivery methods, just a little. Has the internet helped with food training, or have other delivery methods helped, or do you think that losing some of those personal touch has really been to the detriment of training in general.
Ellis: This is probably just a prejudice of mine, but I have always felt that a hands-on kind of training, one-on-one, you know, personal contact, is so much more meaningful, and I think students get more from that. But that’s a personal bias that I have, and I’ll admit that that’s a personal bias, but that’s the way I am more successful in teaching, and I feel like that that’s the way that people learn is if they can become involved somehow in the process. I’m not sure that that happens with internet. I don’t know with like the conference kind of thing, teleconference things, I don’t know.
Watkins: I’ve seen one or two fascinating methods of internet training that kind of grabbed me, but I am like Anita. It does not give you that personal one-on-one, plus the networking opportunity. I still think you have a lot of people who are afraid of the internet, and they will agree, yes, I’d like to do that on the internet, that’s a cop-out.
Martin: But they won’t
Watkins: But they won’t.
Watkins: And they won’t use it to the extent that they could use it. If I’m by myself I learn a few things; when I’m with others I learn a lot more. The value of that is the actual conversation that I have with each one of you.
Ellis: Or a question I can ask you and get an immediate response.
Watkins: Well, I can touch you, and you can say, “Gee, I don’t know that I would do it that way, but I would do it -” and I’m not sure that I would stay on the internet long enough to see your answer, because I’m going to get up and I’ve got other things that I need to do, so I get sidetracked from that and I’d go on and do something else. But I want to share with you the one thing that, we were looking for some opportunities and the person said, “Why don’t we do this on the internet, it would save all of us some time.” So I said, “Fine, we’ll agree to that.” Well they did a Power Point presentation, it was a conference call, so it was a Power Point presentation and we all were looking at it, and then we could ask questions about what was going on, so this was an interactive kind of presentation and not one where it’s a one-on-one, and I kind of do my own thing. I just don’t think, well I think that it’s good for some people, but it doesn’t fit everyone, and I’m not sure that our community is, because of the time constraints and the kinds of things that we have to do. food serviceis hard, it’s not easy, multitasking doesn’t even identify the kinds of things that people have to do in the course of a day. There needs to be another word for it because you’re juggling all these things, so to say that when I get home I’m going to sit down and do this on the internet is not realistic. And I think for the kinds of things that we do and the people that we work with, which are the children, we’re better off touching and feeling someone and understanding how to network with people and learn from what other people are doing, rather than sitting at our desk and trying to work it through on the internet, so I don’t know that we’re quite there yet. For the business community and for the private sector, sure, but in the food service segment, I’m not sure it works for us with the kind of jobs that we are doing.
King: Stu, have you had any experience with that?
Eidel: I think we have to think about a couple things on the internet. Number one is that people are not drawn to the internet, to sit behind a computer. That’s not their goal. In our industry people don’t sit well. So if we’ve got individuals in a room and you don’t get them up moving every fifteen minutes, then the internet is not going to be a positive way for them. Now it might be fine for some things; to go and take a little exam or a food safety quiz or something like that, to get them touching that technology would be very important, but the biggest challenge I think would be the technology that exists within the schools themselves. Most of the schools in our state don’t have internet connections in the cafeteria itself for a couple reasons. They don’t want it in there because they’re afraid that managers will abuse it, just log on and use it incorrectly. And the other is people don’t know how to use it correctly, so it opens up the school system, the network, for error and fraud and things like that. I think that the other point is that with our folks and learning, you have to remember that we are task driven. Give me something to do and I want to build it, fix it, chop it, slice it, serve it. You can’t do that on a computer. You can go through it and exercise, however they still don’t get the enthusiasm of being faced with a challenge, sitting around with some people solving and producing a product and releasing it, so it’s very difficult to use for that. Colleges, universities, which I’ve worked at both, that use the internet classes, that’s fantastic because they are very self-motivated learners. Our learners tend to be a little less self-motivated; they tend to be a little more reserved, I think.
Martin: Don’t you think, though, the next generation to come will be more likely to buy in some. Because, you know, you think about the ones that were introduced to computers from grade one or even before. I think they’re going to feel more comfortable with it and they will have had more of that in school, and in turn may be a little bit more attuned to it. I think that’s going to happen, and I think our use of technology is just going to just flourish over the next ten years in school food services. I hope so, because I think it’s a way to get information and get it, get good information, it can be almost management information, that is, tell you what you’re doing wrong and things of this nature once we get those programs all ironed out. And a program that will take your data and tell you what’s wrong, what you need to do, give you ideas. I see that as something that should really grow. I hope so anyway.
Watkins: On the business side, yes. I tend to agree, we are more task oriented and we want to chop it and dice it and cut it.
Eidel: Touch it.
Watkins: Touch it. But, on the other side, we are lagging in finding people who want to cut it and dice it and chop it.
Ellis: That’s going to be a bigger and bigger problem.
Watkins: That’s going to be a bigger and bigger problem. Then you wonder what will we have for food to offer children.
Eidel: That goes into the structure, the whole financial structure of the organization. If you only have four-hour employees then that’s not a career, it’s a part-time job. And then employees only buy into with their heart as a part-time, something I do on the side. If the structure of the school food service environment is such that we tend to use a lot of those four- or five-hour employees, because we’ve moved away from producing food that actually starts from scratch and then is served, to producing food that has already been manufactured or prepared in some way where we’re reheating it and serving it. So, you shorten that labor time at a cost of food quality.
Ellis: We’ve been forced into that because of reducing labor. We’re being told, “You need to cook more from scratch.” Well, you could do that when you had the labor to do that, but they’ve just –
Martin: You’d have to train them.
Ellis: Well, oh well.
Martin: Wouldn’t you hate to think if we had to make our rolls from raw ingredients in all schools today? Actually there’s not that many people out there trained to make them.
Watkins: That’s because we lost that when we took Home Economics out of schools. So, they have no way of learning how to cook and how to prepare food.
King: We’re winding down here. So what do you see is the future of training for school food service?
Watkins: I see it as a golden opportunity. Dot said earlier, the need is there, people are starving, they want the training. I see us looking at expanding training needs for school food service people. While we kind of say that you don’t have people out there who are skilled in food preparation, with the obesity epidemic in this country, we’re almost going to be forced to look at preparing some meals from scratch for children and looking at the quality of meals that children are served. While we all agree that the trained people are not out there, we all are probably going to look at ‘How can we train some people to prepare good quality meals for children at school that will reduce obesity?’
Martin: Or, Shirley, we’re going to be forcing the industry into being more aware of this, and I think that’s going to have to be an alternative for some school districts, because I look at the shortage of service people in some areas that is pretty real, plus that fact they’ve gotten themselves up to such high labor costs that, to put it back in, would be, you would have to increase the price of the meal so that it might not be bearable. So I think we’ve either got to force the industry into this, or hopefully they will buy into it. I think there’s enough publicity on it right now that hopefully that’s going to happen, because I think some districts would not have the equipment, they didn’t even plan their kitchen big enough to put the equipment in, so it would be impossible for some of them to go back without a tremendous investment. So, I think it’s going to be maybe a combination.
Watkins: I think you’re going to find combinations all over the country as you have for all these years. You look on the Eastern Seaboard; many of those schools were built without kitchens. When you start talking about No Child Left Behind, and they start saying, “Well gee, we don’t need school food service because that’s not our business. Our business is educating children and it’s not feeding children.” And you hear more and more and more of that as you talk about No Child Left Behind, but when you talk about that, children are being left behind nutritionally, and that’s why we have some of the problems that we are being faced with in this country. Because of a variety of reasons, and it’s not because of the food served in school cafeterias.
Ellis: Maybe we need to have another ten-state nutrition survey.
Watkins: How wonderful! Does that bring back memories!
Ellis: Does that bring back memories! But that was a real plug for school lunches at one time, or, you know, school meals. We talked about the ten-state nutrition survey in every, every moment and every chance we got because that was absolute researched evidence that nutrition makes a difference in kids and whether or not they learn and whether or not they’re left behind.
Watkins: I think Dot raises a question that we all have to look at as you talk about training and that’s ‘How do you work with the industry to help those school districts that don’t have the resources?’, because we got a black eye early on with this. I don’t know why we have to go back and repeat that again.
Ellis: Hopefully not.
King: Thank you all for sharing your ideas.
Watkins: Beth, you made us sit here; are you the clone of Josephine Martin?