Interviewee: Helen Phillips
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: June 15, 2016
Description: Helen Phillips discusses her experiences as a school food service director, ASFSA State President, and SNA President.
JB: I’m Jeffrey Boyce, and it is June 15, 2016. I’m here at the Institute of Child Nutrition at the University of Mississippi, and I’m with Helen Phillips. Welcome Helen, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
HP: Thank you, Jeff. It’s good to have the time to talk with you.
JB: Could we begin by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?
HP: Yes. I am Helen Phillips, and I was born in Richmond, Virginia. And when I was two, we moved to Virginia Beach. Then we kind of went on a little tour. I went to kindergarten in Ohio and first grade in New Jersey, and then we settled back in Virginia Beach. When I was in fourth grade, we moved to a really small beach community that’s called Sandbridge. And so I have been in that same beach community ever since I was in fourth grade. I work with the Norfolk Public Schools. I’m the director of school nutrition, there. I started in 1992 as a supervisor with Norfolk Public Schools. And I always say I’m a little bit different than most school nutrition directors or school nutrition professionals, because when I went to college I actually wanted to be in school nutrition. So I don’t know anyone yet that I’ve met that actually had that as their goal when they went to school.
JB: I think that’s the first time that I ever heard that. That’s interesting. Before we get too much into your career, tell me about – you said kindergarten or first grade at where?
HP: Kindergarten in Ohio, first grade in New Jersey, and then back to the beach.
JB: I’m guessing military family?
HP: No, actually. My father, I think, was trying to find himself, and he did a couple of sales jobs, and found ourselves moving around a little bit, and then he got kind of settled back into Virginia Beach again.
JB: Were there school nutrition programs when you were in elementary?
HP: Oh, absolutely. I have always been one that loves food, so the school nutrition program was always important to me. I remember the days of getting the lunch menu. We’d tape it up on the refrigerator at home and my sister and I would mark our initials next to which days we wanted to eat. I have a brother that’s six years younger, and so we were never in school at the same time, but we actually have some family dinner favorites from when I was a kid, that we actually came home from school and would tell my mom about this great school meal that we had, and we would tell her what we wanted and she would make it. So two of those, the first one is spoon burgers, and spoon burgers are nothing more than mashed potatoes with like cheese and ground beef on top, but we loved it at school and we got Mom to start making it at home. And then the second one, I’m fifty-two, so pizza was not a real common food when I was little, but the elementary school had pizza burgers, and they were English muffins with tomato sauce, ground beef, and cheese on top. And we thought they were fabulous, because we didn’t know really what pizza was, so we thought they were wonderful.
JB: Okay. So after high school what did you do?
HP: After high school, I went straight to college. I went to James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was a dietetics major there. And in my sophomore year I spent a semester in London, which was really like the highlight of my college days. We didn’t have any textbooks. We went to school only two days a week. So I lived in London, and we had classes two days a week with professors from the University of London, and then the rest of the week was spent out in the field doing real things, like we’d go to art class, but then we’d go out and tour art museums. We would study architecture, and then we would go tour architecture of London. We had theater class, and then we would go to the theater in the evenings. So it was a wonderful experience, and I could check the box on all of my electives for school by going to London, so it was a fabulous experience for me.
JB: Sounds like a wonderful experience. So you said you went to school to become a child nutrition professional. What interested you about that?
HP: I’m not really sure, except that I did always have an interest in food. My mother went to Longwood College in Virginia, and she didn’t graduate, but she was studying home economics when she was there. So I always laugh and say my mom was like should have been a pioneer woman, because she did everything from scratch, and I say now she did everything the hard way. She grew gardens all the time at home. We picked every kind of vegetable you could pick, and strawberries, and my mother and my grandmother worked together to can things and freeze things, so good fresh food was always a part of our life, and we ate a good variety of food, and I guess like a lot of Americans our social time was coming together around meals and around food. And I don’t know exactly where the desire for school food came. I will say part of that was when I was in high school during the Reagan years and the ‘ketchup is a vegetable’ thing kind of came out then. And I do remember that. But I like kids too. I was always the one that I’m always at the kid table. I don’t really always socialize with the adults as much as I like to socialize with the children. I guess I’m a kid at heart too.
JB: Nothing wrong with that. So after college what was your first job?
HP: My first job out of school was unfortunately not in school nutrition. I was with the WIC Program. And a funny story there is when I graduated college all sure that now I’m going to start my school nutrition career. I went to see the director in Virginia Beach Schools, where I grew up, and he pretty much told me he would never hire me for anything because I was overqualified because I had a college degree.
JB: Oh my goodness.
HP: So I thought, “Oh wow, I just spent this four years at school thinking this is what I want to do, but I guess I didn’t do enough research before I went in that no one’s going to hire me now.” So I did get a job with the WIC Program, and I worked there for about five and a half years. And then I went up to the DC area to be a concierge in an office building. Well, that was actually the job I got once I got there. I went there with no job, and then landed a job as a concierge in an office building. And then I took a vacation to the Virgin Islands, and then I felt that draw, so I moved to the Virgin Islands for a few months to wait tables. Then I came back to my little beach community in Sandbridge and was waiting tables there on someone that I knew. The kitchen was backed up and things were going kind of slowly, so I felt the need to kind of entertain them so they didn’t realize their food was taking so long. And the next day one of the men at the table went to my mother’s place of business – she had a gift shop – and said, “What in the world is your daughter doing waiting tables?” And as moms do, she said, “Augh, Helen can’t decide what to do when she wants to grow up.” So he asked about my background, and said that Norfolk Public Schools had an opening in school nutrition. So my mother came home from work and she told me all about it, and as we do when your mother tells you, “Like oh yea Mom, whatever, I don’t know.” But sure enough, a couple of days later I got this job description in the mail from the man I’d waited tables on, telling about this job in Norfolk Public Schools School Nutrition. I thought “Wow, this is like too good to be true.” So I went. I had I think three face-to-face interviews, a written interview. It took me like four or five different times going in there to interview, and I finally landed that job. And I knew once I got in there that this is where I wanted to be. I loved school nutrition. And my first week on the job we did a tour of schools and I went to the man who had sent me the letter, and he was a principal at a middle school. And I went in there with the two ladies I worked with and he asked them to please leave. And he said to me, “I’m so glad that you’re here, and your director really needs some loyalty and commitment, and one day you’ll have her job.” And I just laughed. I thought, “No way. I don’t want that job.” And so that was in 1992, and in 2001 I was the director of school nutrition in Norfolk Public Schools.
JB: Has there been a mentor or anyone along the way who kind of helped you guide your career, maybe this principal?
HP: Probably the principal – definitely. Mike Caprio was his name, and he definitely got my foot in the door where I thought I didn’t have any opportunity. So I am very grateful to him. And he would help me and nudge me along the way. He’s retired now, but he lives in the same beach community that I do. And I think other school nutrition professionals – I really don’t think I could pinpoint one. I have a lot of really close friends all across the country that have guided me all along. They’ve encouraged me, and they’re the people I call whenever I get stuck on a problem, or need an opinion, or I just want some more examples of different ways to do things. So I kind of have my own network of people that I like to call my ‘Go to people’ and I think I’ve been really influenced by a nice mix of my good friends.
JB: And what was your next position?
HP: Well, I started, again, as the supervisor for Norfolk Public Schools, and I was there about six years. And then I moved to Suffolk Public Schools, which is a more rural community next to Norfolk. And I was a director there for about three years, and then the woman who had been the director in Norfolk when I was there, she accepted a different position, so I came back to Norfolk as an assistant director, and then a year later as the director, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
JB: I see. So you came back to the original school where the principal told you you were going to be the director.
JB: Do you feel like your educational background has helped prepare you for what you do?
HP: Absolutely, because I was a dietetics major with a hotel/restaurant management minor. So I think the nutrition background is a big help to me. It helps me appreciate that aspect of the job and the importance of it in our role as school nutrition directors. But also having the hotel/restaurant management experience – and both of my parents were self-employed – so I think some of that business acumen kind of wore off on me, maybe as osmosis, as a kid. But I think it’s really important that nutrition directors have that good combination. We are running a business and we have to be kind of CEOs of our own business, but you have to do it with nutrition integrity in mind. And so I think my combination of dietetics and then the hotel/restaurant management business aspect was perfect for the job that I ended up in now in my career.
JB: What’s a typical day like for you, or is there such a thing?
HP: Yes – not really typical days. The staff that I have – some of them I’ve worked with for years in Norfolk – and we laugh about how you can’t ever make a plan. But you can kind of have an idea about what you’re going to do today or tomorrow, but there’s always going to be something that pops up that you didn’t expect. There is always a need for school nutrition directors, for supervisors, for everyone in what we do, and a typical day is I listen to my staff a lot. Sometimes there’s a line at my door with things that they’d like to talk about, so a lot of my day is spent talking, but we’ve got all kinds of things that we’re talking about – menus and promotions – and issues at a particular school. So it’s a very enjoyable job for me, but sometimes when I get home it’s like the last thing I want to do is talk to anybody.
JB: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career?
HP: Some of the biggest challenges can really just be the administration within your own school district, the politics that you have to deal with. For me, my whole career, I think one of the biggest challenges I went through wasn’t so much as directed at my position with Norfolk Public Schools, but my position when I was involved with the Association and just helping school nutrition directors be able to accomplish the nutrition standards from the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. I have always come into this business believing in the good nutrition of the program and supporting the nutrition integrity of the program. So the biggest challenge I think has been helping all directors to see that that is our goal, to offer the very best nutrition for our kids that we can. And yes, we have to balance that with that financial bottom line, but to really stick to my beliefs and stick to what I think is so important to our programs, that nutrition aspect, and helping other people to see that and to figure out their ways to be the most successful as possible.
JB: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the profession over the years?
HP: I would have to say one of the biggest changes I’ve seen has been in our USDA Foods. When I started out twenty-four years ago most of the USDA Foods we got were raw meats, raw goods, in huge bulk quantities that weren’t easy to deal with. And I’m lucky to be in Norfolk, where they had built prior to my arrival a cook/chill facility, a facility that was built really for the sole purpose of processing USDA commodities. And so they would take in all the raw goods there, with huge kettles and gigantic ovens and enormous freezers at one site – would process all of the USDA Foods into spaghetti sauces and meatloaf and chicken chow mein, all kinds of different things that we made from scratch in that facility. And then over time as USDA evolved and became where we could further process our USDA Foods, then we started realizing that we had items that we were making ourselves that weren’t the best quality, and we kept trying and we couldn’t quite get it right. So then we would find another brand like our ground turkey meat that we could send to another company who could make a far better taco meat than we could make. And so we decided we’ll stop making taco meat. We’ll let them make it for us. And gradually we kind of kept doing that until really our facility became obsolete, because it became where the expense of us making those things was just way more costly than these huge companies could do it to process the USDA Foods. So I think those changes from so much raw food and huge quantities that were difficult to manage, to where we are now where we can very easily pick and choose what you want, you can get the flavor profile that suits your children in your district, you can get just in time delivery so you don’t have to have huge storage spaces, for the most part you can guarantee food safety. I don’t have any raw meats in my schools any more at all, because everything comes in already precooked meats so we’re not handling those in the buildings anymore.
JB: You mentioned local, how did you describe it, flavor profiles I think?
JB: Is there anything unique about Virginia regarding child nutrition programs?
HP: I can’t say I can speak for the whole state of Virginia, but I know in Norfolk we’ve got some real comfort food kids. We have found that any type of item that you might think of as a good old comfort food is what our kids like. Chicken is a very popular item with our kids, and I tell people all the time that one of my top five items in the district is meatloaf. Yes, and I always get that shocked look of, “Meatloaf, there’s no way!” But they do, our kids LOVE meatloaf, and back when we used our cook/chill facility we did make it homemade from scratch and it was a very tedious process. And we were really nervous when we switched to a commercial meatloaf, but we worked very closely with a manufacturer, worked on the recipe, got it really just how we wanted it. They now use that same recipe for their meatloaf for the whole company, and our kids really didn’t miss a beat. The adults who loved the meatloaf, they could see a difference, but the kids didn’t, and it remains – like I said, twenty-four years at Norfolk – it remains still. One of the kids’ favorite items is meatloaf.
JB: What about seafood, you’re on the coast?
HP: Yeah, we’re on the coast. However, we don’t have much seafood in our school district. We do have fish, but it is pollock that comes out of Alaska. However, the processing facility that we buy our fish from is local.
JB: I guess the stereotype is not correct. I understand you’ve been president of both the state and national School Nutrition Associations, is that correct?
HP: Yes. I was president of the Virginia School Food Service Association in 2001 – 2002, and ironically I was president of the state when the national conference was in Nashville, and then I was president of the national School Nutrition Association 2011 – 2012, and was installed as the national president at the conference in Nashville. So ten years apart, which I didn’t even realize ‘til I was there, but exactly ten years apart from state president to president of SNA in the same location.
JB: Oh, wow. Tell me about those different positions. What were some of the highlights first of your state presidency and then the national?
HP: My state presidency was an interesting time too. We were looking to brand ourselves because the national association was just beginning to go through a big effort to brand the School Nutrition Association. We changed names from American School Food Service Association, so Virginia had just changed its name too. So we were looking at branding ourselves when I was president of the state association. And some of the issues that we were dealing with were some of the ones that we’re probably all still dealing with now. Then on the national front I was president on the national School Nutrition Association during the time when the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was signed as a final law and the regulations were released in February of 2012. A highlight would be from my year as president of the national School Nutrition Association is just being able to travel the country and talk to many different people, encouraging them that these nutrition standards, whatever they might be, because when I first started we didn’t know, that we could do it. And then in February of 2012 the final rule was announced, and again to support those nutrition standards, which we as school nutrition professionals had asked for for many years. We wanted national standards so that every child across the country had the same opportunity, the same kind of healthy meals. So we were excited to get those national standards.
JB: Any special stories about kids you’ve served or people you’ve worked with over the years?
HP: I miss the days when I spent most of my day in the schools, because I love to see the children’s faces every day. When I first started my career, I made sure that when it was lunchtime I would get my lunch in the serving line just like everybody else, and I would go sit at the tables with the children, and I did it from elementary up through high school. I thought even back then, as young as I was, the best way for me to learn was to sit there with the kids of all ages and see what was going on. I looked at what they brought from home. I looked at what they ate and what they didn’t eat from our meals, as well as from the stuff they had from home. So I miss that part of the job, and it is really my favorite part, is seeing the end result. Everything we do, every decision we make as school nutrition professionals is to get that best food to the children. And when you’re there to see their faces and talk to them it’s really great. And I would be in school sometimes and would have little ones come up and just grab my legs and hug me like first thing in the morning, and that’s a great feeling. How can you possibly have a bad day when you’ve got little ones just wrapping their arms around and hugging you? I like that. I like being in the school and seeing the children.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the field so far?
HP: I think my most significant contribution has been just my steadfast belief in good nutrition standards, solid standards all across the country, and that we are able to do that. I tell folks, “We don’t like do anything special in Norfolk or different.” I don’t do a lot of cooking from scratch any longer. We once did. We were a very unique facility at one time in the way we produced our food. However, we do still make our rolls homemade in our bakery, but everything else we do is buying the pre-prepared foods that the school nutrition industry has provided for us. And so I know that if I’m able to meet these standards very, very easily with the foods that are readily available, that anyone can do it. And industry’s worked hard to help us out. So I’m really just proud of our program in Norfolk. We do a great job. I’ve got a fabulous staff that believes in the fact that we’re here for the children, and every decision we make is, “How is that going to be good for the children?” If it’s a financial decision, “Oh, are we going to spend our kids’ lunch money on that?” – that kind of thing. But I am very proud to be able to mentor and to help other school nutrition directors to be as successful as possible in meeting our standards and being the best that they can be.
JB: What advice would you give someone that was considering child nutrition as a profession today?
HP: I think that child nutrition is – if you’re a dietetics person, an RD, any of that – it is the best job to have. We mostly work Monday to Friday. If you’re into food, we’re not a restaurant. We’re not there weekends and holidays. If you’re a food person, if you’re dietetics, this is it. This is THE best job. I have very much passion for what we do and the advice would be to have integrity in what you do. Stick to you guns about balancing that nutritional integrity with your financial integrity. And it’s difficult at times. As a leader I quickly learned that doing the right thing is oftentimes not the popular choice. But as a good leader you have to make that choice. You have to always be doing the right thing and doing what’s best for your children. It’s sometimes easy to slip into ‘Do what everybody wants you to do’ but you just can’t do that. You have to be steadfast in your integrity of doing the right thing, even if it makes you not quite so popular all the time.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add?
HP: It’s been a fabulous career for me. I can’t believe that I’m toward probably the last few years of my career. I’ve been at this for twenty-four years, but I’ve absolutely loved it, and any young person out there who’s at all interested in the health and wellbeing of children, this is the best career to be in.
JB: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
HP: Thank you.