Interviewee: James L. Jones
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: February 17, 2016

Description: James L. Jones is a child nutrition director Alaska.

Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is February 17, 2016. I’m here in Anchorage, Alaska, at the AKSNA meeting. I’m with James Jones this afternoon. Welcome James and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

James L. Jones: It’s good to be here, a pleasure to meet you.

JB: Could we begin by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born, where you grew up?

JJ: I was born in Charleston, South Carolina. I grew up in Charleston, left in 1973, and went on active duty in the Air Force and spent twenty-three years in the Air Force, and then in ’96 I retired and began to work for the Alaska Military Youth Academy, where I have been currently employed for the last twenty years.

JB: Wow. Before we get into your career now, growing up, elementary school, high school, were there lunch programs?

JJ: Oh yes.

JB: Did you participate?

JJ: I can tell you that if I think about what we were able to do, I know in a lot of cases growing up in the South, my mom prepared our food. But there were times that we went to school and we ate a hot lunch there. And to my knowledge, we didn’t participate. Even though I came from a very large family of ten children, based on the income level at that point my dad made too much money for us to qualify. But I do remember having those encounters with the ladies in the lunchroom who were just like a second mom. And these were the ladies who had the big spoons and any kid that came into that lunchroom, if they didn’t behave they knew that Miss Maybelle was going to take care of them. And then Miss Maybelle was going to tell their parents.

JB: But you didn’t eat in the school cafeteria?

JJ: I did, I did eat in the school cafeteria, but it was infrequent.

JB: Do you remember any of your favorite menu items when you did eat?

JJ: Oh well, again, this is the South, so favorite menu items, they had macaroni and cheese, and there were the days that they had fried fish. Flounder was the thing down there in the South. And from time to time they would have red snapper, and collard greens, because it was fresh from the farm. There were farms all around that area. And my mom actually came from a farm. Her family owned a farm and her family owned farms out there.

JB: So they were doing farm to school way before it became popular.

JJ: Yes, most definitely.

JB: And so after high school what did you do?

JJ: After high school I went on active duty in the Air Force and I stayed in the Air Force for twenty-three years, just travelling around the world.

JB: And then what brought you to child nutrition?

JJ: I became the deputy-director of the Military Youth Academy back in 2007.

JB: Tell me what that is.

JJ: The Alaska Military Youth Academy is a challenge program. And a challenge program is a quasi-military program that’s hosted by the State of Alaska and the National Guard Bureau. And the challenge program was designed for the purpose of meeting the need of considerably at-risk youth. And these are young men and women between the ages of sixteen and eighteen years old who are at risk of not completing their high school education. So back in 1993 the first programs began and our program actually began in January of 1994. So I came on board in 1996, and I came on as an instructor, and then moved up through the ranks until I became deputy-director. And I’ve served a stint or two here and there in between governor postings as acting director. Within this program not only do we do educational services, but we also have the child nutrition program, which has been a great benefit for our program. And how our program benefits is it gives us the opportunity to provide a very nutritious meal for a young man or woman, who, in the community where they come from, they may not get three hot meals a day. And so we have a very active student population, and for them it’s amazing to have home-cooked meals almost, that are laid out based on a prescribed menu that we develop, a four-week rotational menu, and it gives them an opportunity to get that child nutrition program, breakfast and lunch, and then we also give them a snack.

JB: Are they boarders or do they go home at night?

JJ: They actually are boarders. They’re there for twenty-two weeks, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And the entire time they’re there the only complaint I get from the kids is there’s not enough food. And when you talk about teenagers who love to eat, and they’re away from the fast food, and they’re actually eating nice nutritional meals, it’s amazing to see what the benefits are, the outcomes are. And we’ve seen students come – I remember one young man who weighed about 387 pounds when he came, seventeen years old, 387, he even had a metal plate in his leg from an injury. And in the twenty-two weeks that he was there, with the meals that we served and the exercise regimen, he was able to lose a hundred pounds. So we see a lot of those types of testimonies of young people, and they go back to the type of meals that they were served, and the exercise, and the balance in between the exercise and the nutrition.

JB: And this is to try to mainstream the kids back into their communities?

JJ: Yes. Mainstreaming back into the community is one part of it, but the other part of it is for those students who opt not to go back to high school, we give them the opportunity to get their high school diploma or their GED. And then they can go into the world of work. There are some that go into the military; maybe about eighteen percent go into the military. But for the most part they’ll go into the workplace or go back to high school.

JB: What are some of the biggest challenges with the nutrition program? You mentioned the kids being used to fast food. Is that a big deal?

JJ: It is a dependency the kids have to overcome. In the first few weeks of them being in the residential program they adjust to the fact that they’re no longer getting fast food hamburgers and fries and things like that. We’ve giving them balanced, nutritious meals based on a protein and caloric count meal regimen, and they get adjusted to that. And for them it’s “Wow. OK. So this is real food I’m eating.” And as time goes on and the exercise regimen increases these same students are complaining that there’s not enough food. So we’ve actually even gone back to DC with an initiative to try and get a waiver so we can add some more calories. However, at this point, under the Healthy Child Act we won’t be able to do that. So what we do to balance that out is the evening meal is the only meal that’s not creditable, and therefore we give them a little bit more calories during the evening meal.

JB: OK. So the breakfast, lunch, and snack are part of the federal child nutrition program, and the evening meal is not.

JJ: Yes.

JB: I see. Does Alaska face any unique challenges in child nutrition?

JJ: Alaska faces a lot of unique challenges, and let me just articulate a couple. One of those challenges is the availability of food in certain seasons. Right now it would be great if Alaska had the ability to grow its brand of veggies year round. I know that there are some farms out in the Mat-Su Valley not far from here that are able to do that. But when you taste an Alaska-grown produce, I tell you what, it is like nothing else you’ve ever tasted. And so if we were able to get that on a year round basis then that would be ideal, because the students really love that. The other challenge that we face is that since we have such a diverse population of students, many of our students come from rural Alaska, and therefore without the benefit of them being able to have some of the traditional foods that they’re accustomed to we get students to let us know. They say, “This is not food that I’m accustomed to eating.” It means that they have to change their entire diet. So those are the challenges that we face just particularly with our school.

JB: Do you have a lot of problems with getting them to adapt? Do you meet a lot of resistance?

JJ: What I’ve found is that some of the students will use that as an excuse for wanting to leave. They say, “Well I can’t stay here because you’re not serving the type of food that I eat.” And what we work to do as a team, we work to talk to them about why they came, because we let them know, “Understand, it’s not going to be like home. It’s not going to be the same as where you came from. Therefore, what we need you to do, we need you to remember the reason why you came and let that be the reason why you stay and continue, because what we don’t want you to do is have an experience where, down the line, when everyone else is graduating that you started off with, that you look back and you wish that you had stayed, and then things have significantly changed.” So for the most part we don’t get a lot of students who leave because of the food choices that are available, but we know that if anyone can find a reason to back out of a commitment they’ll do that.

JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution so far to child nutrition?

JJ: I think my most significant contribution to child nutrition, just as a member of the staff, member of the team, is to ensure that our students get the best quality of food that you can ever imagine. And I get to go over to the dining facility on a daily basis, get to see what our staff are putting together, involve myself in helping prepare the menus, choosing some of their meal items, inspect some of the food items in the Commodities Program, then take a look at how those things are put together, and just the diversity of how we put that menu together, and watch the reaction on the kids’ faces. “Oh man, this is good. What is it? I’ve never had this before.” When you have a young person who’s never had a particular menu item like pulled pork, or something along that line, it’s amazing to them that food can taste this good.

JB: Do you have any memorable stories about some of the kids you’ve worked with or people you’ve worked with over your career?

JJ: I’d say that one of the most memorable stories would be a young man who – his name is Lenny Cestaro – and Lenny came to our school in 1999. He had multiple challenges just growing up at home and wound up in a facility called Covenant House, which is for kids who are away from their families. And Lenny was determined to prove who he was, not necessarily to other people, but prove who he was to himself. And for the entire twenty-two weeks, and you talk to Lenny, Lenny would say that he holds the record for being the kid who got in trouble the most. And one of the things we do when kids get in trouble, especially in the time when he came, is that they sleep on the floor. And they sleep in the floor on a poly pad in a sleeping bag. They don’t get to sleep on a bed. You earn that privilege. So Lenny actually revels in the fact that he spent more time in a sleeping bag on the floor than anybody else. However when Lenny graduated he went into the Marine Corps, spent nine years on active duty, and Lenny was awarded the Purple Heart – served in Iraq, served in Afghanistan, and I mean just a tremendous young man. And if you talk about a young man with a heart of gold, a young man who is also an artist, and a man who loves cars, especially loves muscle cars. The last time I had a significant encounter with Lenny, we saw him this past summer, but one of the things that Lenny recently did, 2013 I believe it was, is that he had a 1934 roadster that he rebuilt, and he and a friend of his who also served in Iraq travelled across the country raising money for the Wounded Warrior Program because he found out that his former company commander had been injured in a stint over in Iraq and he needed what they call an exoskeleton in order to be able to walk so he can stay on active duty. And Lenny and his friend travelled across the United States, and they drove from Alaska down to Arizona to do just that.

JB: Amazing story. What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession?

JJ: I would say that anything that a person does they must have a passion for it. And child nutrition, the ladies that I encounter, the men that I encounter in this field, are men who really understand that they’re doing more than just preparing a meal. It’s an opportunity, like many families learn, when you sit down at a table and you have a nice spread, and there’s talking, but there’s listening. And our staff gets the opportunity to impact young people on a different level. I heard some of the stories this morning. I agree that many child nutrition experts, professionals, get the opportunity to listen to a kid who’s having a bad day, sit down with them over a plate, and just let them know that just like the food that you’re eating, that everything’s going to be alright. It only lasts a little while, and then after a while it’ll be gone.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add today?

JJ: It’s just great to be here. This is my first opportunity to be at the school nutrition conference and I’m just glad to be here.

JB: It was a pleasure to meet you.

JJ: Pleasure to meet you too.

JB: Thank you for talking to me.

JJ: Thank you.