Interviewee: Joan Williams

Interviewer: Annette Hopgood

Date: April 15, 2011

Location: Savannah, Georgia 

Description: Joan Williams served as a school nutrition director in Georgia for over twenty-seven years.

Annette Hopgood: I’m Annette Hopgood and I have Joan Williams with me today. Joan, tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up, and your earliest recollections with school nutrition.

Joan Williams: Ok. I grew up in different parts of Georgia, mainly in Beaufort, Georgia, and I also lived for some time in Louisville, Kentucky, and graduated from Baldwin High School in Milledgeville, so I’ve been in several different school systems as a child. I always ate school lunch. My mother always said, “You’ve got to eat a good school lunch because it’s a great meal.” So I was really grounded by my parents supporting school meals. I never brought my lunch. [I] remember the great hot rolls, the vegetables, the milk in the little glass bottles as an elementary student. That was always fascinating to drink out of a glass bottle. And then when I was in high school in Milledgeville I remember the wooden tables with the old wooden chairs – we only had one choice – you got that meal and that was it, or nothing at all. Our director was Sarah ________, who was a very big legend with Georgia school nutrition programs. I always remember Sarah coming to the cafeteria and being so neatly dressed and being very professional. I took the route of being a Home Economics teacher from the interest from my Home Economics teacher, went to Georgia Southern College and received my degree in teaching. I moved to Carroll County, Georgia to begin teaching there in 1976. The program at that school was very meager. They had treadle sewing machines and very little equipment, so I saw it as a challenge. And the principal offered me the job and I said, “Sure”, not knowing what I was getting into, but they were building a brand-new high school the following year, so the thought of building a new program in a new school was exciting, and I love a challenge. So I accepted the job and moved to Carroll County without knowing a soul, and then after seven years I was ready for a little something different, and my principal came to me one day and he said, “I’ve just returned from a principals’ meeting at the office, and we have recommended the superintendent that they hire a school nutrition director, and I think you ought to apply. I think you would be very good.”

AH: This is the first director that they have had?

JW: First director in Carroll County. At that point in time the principals were doing all of the free and reduced applications. They had set the pay scale for their employees, and at different schools employees made different rates of pay, depending upon how profitable or financially stable that school nutrition program would be. The principals had discovered that employees in one part of the county may make five dollars an hour more than maybe someone else in another part of the county – maybe not quite that much, but it was a big difference there. They also received a state review that year, and they had found that prices were being charged differently from school to school because of the salesman, and so there were problems in that area. The menu quality wasn’t consistent throughout the county, and the principals were having to deal with all of the day-to-day operations of a school nutrition program. So, that was the reason why they requested that they hire a school nutrition director.

AH: This was early ’80s?

JW: This was in ’83. This was around January or February of 1983, and Mr. Golden came to me and told me about the position. I’d already been asked to teach the food preparation class that summer to managers, and it was the 16-hour class, the two-week class, and I taught the class and loved the ladies, and loved the challenge, and so I said yes and haven’t looked back at all with any regret. I love a challenge, and the thoughts of building something from the ground up is what motivated me. I did that with the Home Economics program. I felt like I had achieved that goal and I was ready for the next challenge. I was twenty-nine years old and I had a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son, so I tackled coming into the cafeteria where all of the employees and all of the managers were old enough to be my mothers or grandmothers, but they welcomed me with open arms and taught me a lot. And I had great mentorship from Annette Bomar Hopgood during my early years, and one of the best bits of advice that she gave us – when you go into a new position like that was go in and tread lightly and see a lot, and make good relationships, and don’t make a lot of changes. Let them get to know you first before you do that, and so that’s what I did.

AH: So you lasted a few years.

JW: I lasted for twenty-seven years. I went in and observed what they were doing.

AH: You were hired also to centralize some of those functions that you mentioned.

JW: Yes, because that was part of the grant incentive, was to centralize. The managers had made their own menus. They did their own orders. They still did payroll journals and ledgers. Everything was done by hand. Different banks were used. The school secretary would collect the money for the lunch money and send it to the manager. The principals would approve all the applications. They would do all the hiring of their employees and any kind of disciplinary action they would have to take. I even had some principals who loved to go and find surplus equipment and surplus food, and they would go out and get very involved in trying to find the best deal. Within the first three years we had to centralize some of the functions, and so one of the first things we did was centralize the accounting. And to do that it meant having to go to a computer system to be able to do that. And this was in ’85, ’86, when computers were not as prevalent as they are today. And so we did purchase a computer and software, and we had to go and bring in all of the monies from all of the different banks and get those principals to sign us a check over. And some did it fine and some were a little hesitant to sign over that money that they’d been responsible for. But they all did contribute and gave the money to us. We opened up a central bank account. I gave monthly reports to principals and met with them a lot, just built a really good relationship.

AH: So they still felt like they were involved and didn’t lose their ownership as a result you your being there.

JW: Right. They got their own reports so they could see how much money their school actually had made and how they were doing. I kept in touch with them and was a hands-on kind of director. I worked out in the schools the first few years, and my goal was to go and work in the kitchen, on the line or in the back with all the programs so that I could see what it was like to be in a school kitchen. That was great advice that Annette had given us as well, because I didn’t feel at twenty-nine years old I could come in and tell someone how to do a program if I didn’t know what they were doing.

AH: If they had been doing it for fifteen or twenty years and were thirty years older than you.

JW: Right. So I put on a hairnet and an apron and came in there and told them to show me how they made broccoli and how they cooked different things, and then eventually I would see some better ways and I could suggest ‘How about trying it this way?’, and that began to work. I also during that time formed a Teacher Advisory Council. I had a teacher from every school meet with me quarterly so that we could get input from them on what they saw that was needed.

AH: That was very ahead of your time probably to be doing that.

JW: Right. And we could get concerns or suggestions, and we would take that back and try implementing that. During this time we also had to centralize our menus, and I knew that managers were very protective of their menus and what they made, but I saw where sometimes menus were not complete enough and needed more variety. So the way we handled that is I formed committees of managers, and at that time I had sixteen schools, five high schools and I believe at that time we didn’t have any middle schools.

AH: That was a large school district to have been un-centralized.

JW: Right. And the rest were elementary. Elementary was like kindergarten through eighth grade. So we met together and the managers brought their menus and we worked together to build a cycle, or suggested menus. First of all it was suggested menus and it was about maybe thirty or forty menus that they all could agree on that would be well-balanced, meet the requirements menus. So we did that for the first year, and then the next year, around ’85, ’86, then we developed more of ‘This is the cycle. This is what we need to be serving on these days.’ Then through the years – I was director there until 2010 – it evolved into being three-week cycles, it also evolved into doing salad choices, other choices on the line, other entrée choices, fruits and vegetables, more variety in the meal program.

AH: You were there for how many years in Carroll County as director?

JW: Twenty-seven.

AH: Twenty-seven years. You had to see a lot of program changes from the time that you were that new twenty-nine-year-old director. What were the things that were most memorable to you to try to change within the program area?

JW: I think one of the biggest changes that I saw in the program area would be going to computers with everything, and seeing the skill level of the managers increase. And when we went to computers for the majority of our operations I had one manager to quit because she didn’t feel like she could do computers. But then I had people who were in their sixties and maybe early seventies who we thought would have a challenge, and they learned quickly, and loved it – and so I think seeing the growth in the managers. One of the most thrilling components that I feel like in the job was being able to train the employees and the managers, and I did all the training back then. I didn’t hire it out. I taught every SL class, school lunch class.

AH: Explain to me what an SL class is in Georgia.

JW: Ok. SL class, School Lunch class is some of the very beginnings, and that was Foundations of School Lunch, which was an SL 1 class. The School Lunch classes were courses on different topics that managers needed to know, with Foundations of School Lunch, and then Nutrition, Menu Management, Food Preparation, and then after they completed those four core courses within the first three or five years of being employed as a manager, they have to take an advanced 30-hour class after that, once every three years. So I taught all the different classes, Purchasing, and Leadership, and Human Resources, and the Manager-in-Training classes, all the core classes, I taught that with my staff until probably the last five years, when I was able to – my supervising manager came on board with me and began to teach a lot of those classes.

AH: Now is she the one that replaced you when you retired?

JW: Yes she did, and that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of, is the fact that I was able to mentor someone who had the same vision that I did, and the people skills, and the love of the program, and take it and be able to assume the director’s job with great ease, and just be able to carry on. And now at conference they’ve got twenty people here, the highest they’ve ever brought, and things are going even higher. I think that some of the changes – we’ve just seen everything evolve from everything being done by paper and with a little calculator, a little clicker, and now we have state-of-the-art, point-of-sale software programs where parents can deposit money to the children’s account online – no child is ever identified as being a free or reduced child, because it’s all done by student ID number, it’s like a seamless operation. And being able to get nutritional analysis of our menus – that we know how many fat grams and how many calories – that we actually know – back in the day, as you know, it was all pretty much a guesstimate of what you were doing.

AH: I remember when I first started working in Douglas County, that would have been in ’74, ’75 initially, we actually had to send in two weeks of menus to the State Department of Education for them to do what was called a lunch analysis, if you remember doing a manual lunch analysis as part of your review, and so the little area consultants in the State Department of Education were supposed to sit down and for 1,800 schools analyze two weeks of menus. I don’t know if they ever got that accomplished. They may still be working on those somewhere up in Heaven. You’ve received a lot of recognition for different things that you’ve done throughout your career. Tell me about the ones that you’re most proud of.

JW: I think one of the ones was being selected by The National Food Service Management Institute back in 2004 as one of the systems with the highest employee retention at the time. And I believe that we had retained 90% or our employees over a five-year period. And when I left in 2010 it was still about the same rate, so we’ve retained our employees.

AH: What do you attribute that to Joan?

JW: I attribute it to building relationships with people and being real with them and listening to their needs and making it a program that they are proud of. I’ve always felt like that if you take care of your staff they will take care of the students. And so you’ve first of all got to empower your staff to be able to make decisions and feel proud, and appreciate, and appreciate, and appreciate your people. I started an Employee Recognition Banquet my first year as director, and we went to the local Western Steer restaurant. I invited principals to come and to pay for their employees’ meal, and they all did. It established a tradition that every year the principals come, they pay for their employees’ meals, they bring their assistant-principals. It is the biggest affair within Carroll County that every principal comes – superintendent most of the time has come – some of the central office people. We do a Friend of Child Nutrition Program, that someone that’s not a school nutrition employee, but the staff selects someone at their schools that’s befriended them –

AH: That’s great.

JW: – and invite them to the banquet. We have entertainment. We give out door-prizes. We even started a few years ago finding the best talent within our staff. We had a manager named Linda Whitlock who is our local comedian and tells jokes. Everyone looks forward to hearing her jokes. We’ve done people singing. They get recognized for everything, from five year, ten year service awards, the most years in school nutrition, those who are retiring we make a big deal, perfect attendance, completing O1E, completing MIT, manager-in-training class. I just try to find different ways to recognize them. And I was out in the schools as much as possible when I was a director, so they know me and I know about them, I know about their children and what’s going on in their lives – and just try to show that I care. So I just think that I was able to work and train managers who were able to do that in their schools and it just carried on, and so it’s not me, it’s just the fact that we built a culture together of caring for one another and making people feel important and giving them skills. The Association is a big help, and for those of y’all who may be watching this video in years to come, if you don’t support the School Nutrition Association then you’re missing a big link.

AH: And you’ve had roles at both the state level and the national level.

JW: Yes. I was state president of Georgia School Nutrition in 2005-06. I’m proud that I was able to work with Annette with doing the first history DVD because I very much love history, to see what we’ve done in Georgia. Then I was elected to Southeast Regional Director on the School Nutrition Board and I served there from 2007 to 2009 and was Chair of the Regional Directors during my last term, and I’m very proud of working on the national level and seeing the bigger picture with that as well. I was earned the Outstanding Director of the Year Award in 2003, the Josephine Martin Award of Excellence, and that’s something that I treasure.

AH: You also earned numerous Best Practice Awards from the regional USDA office for your program.

JW: Right. That was something that I was very proud of. I guess that’s another accomplishment that I felt very good about. When ________ passed our Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax ______ in Carroll County a few years ago I realized that all the high schools were included to be renovated with all their cafeterias completely torn down and built over, and I decided that I didn’t want to build them back the same way they were in the ’70s and I wanted to do something different. And I realized that students were going to food courts in their spare time and on the weekends for food, and they’re used to upscale, attractive environments. So I wanted to have food court atmospheres in my high schools. My board liked the idea, but they said, “It’s going to cost more money and we can’t fund you any more than what we would if we were going to build it normally. If you can provide the money then you can do it.” Well, my challenge hat came on and I decided to go out into the community and develop partners in school nutrition and I made up a plan of giving. There was a Gold, Silver, and Bronze. The Gold Level was $10,000 or more. If you gave me $10,000 you got your name on a plaque and you got some recognition.

AH: And I’ve seen those plaques in your beautiful cafeteria.

JW: Yes. And then it was $5,000 Silver and $1,000 Bronze. And I went to the bank that had our centralization account of all our schools, and he knew how much money we had in our account, and he gave me $30,000 – $10,000 for three of the schools to do that. I contacted alumni in the schools. I found out businesses and I made calls and I went out and drummed up business and support. We didn’t get all to pay for it but we used school nutrition funds to be able to pay for it.

AH: How much did you solicit from all of your partners – do you remember?

JW: Our total for five schools – it was probably $70,000 – $80,000 total. I had one alumni to give me $10,000 because he loved that school and the program there. And then I had another alumni give me $5,000 in honor of his manager, Evelyn Butler, when he was a student in that school.

AH: How about that?

JW: And so what we did is we have attractive food courts that line the cafeteria walls. We have beautiful décor.

AH: They’re very practical also.

JW: They’re very practical and we have signage. And so we didn’t go elaborate, but it is upscale. We were able to make different color tile on the floor. Simple things like that – ceiling art – there are a lot of different ways you could do it – and I won the Best Practices Award for increasing lunch participation in my five high schools because of that innovative practice in 2006, and participation increased in every one of the schools. My lunch participation is probably 70% to 80% in high school and the total system-wide was 84% for total elementary, middle, and high. The highest participation at lunch is in the middle schools and it’s around 93%.

AH: You probably have one of the highest, if not the highest levels of participation in the State of Georgia, and one thing we failed to state is Carroll County is rural and that it’s about fifty miles west of Atlanta. However, it’s a college town also –

JW: Right.

AH: – with West Georgia College there, so you do have a unique situation, being able to reach your children and their expectations, again because it being a college town it makes it a little bit different.

JW: And I think too that we have great support from our central office, and our superintendent and our assistant superintendent, and our board, and then our principals. Again, you’ve got to build those relationships with the principals to let them know what you’re doing. When they come to the banquet and they see how well their employees are recognized and what quality programs we have they’re not quite so lenient to then give in to all the different fundraisers and they really do try to support the school lunch program.

AH: Did you have to deal with competitive food sales and issues of that sort?

JW: We still have that, yes. That’s still a challenge.

AH: But you still have that high level of participation.

JW: Right.

AH: Because your programs are desirable.

JW: Right. We do a lot of choices. We try to appeal to the students. One of the things we did back in the mid-90s with the Lunchables that were so popular in the grocery store, we did our own called the Munchables, and we made our own little ham and cheese rollup and a cookie and fruits and veggies in a clear plastic tray. And we still do variations of that today and they’re still very popular with the kids. We have a pretzel and cheese Munchable with a little pretzel with a cheese cup and it’s gotten to be so popular in some schools they put it on the regular line, because they can’t handle all the plates. We did have salad bars, and then eventually we took the salad bars out pretty much because of health reasons, and we now have the beautiful pre-plated salads. So we did a Southwestern Charbroiled Chicken Salad and different Asian salads and different kinds of things like that.

AH: I want to commend you for the student participation. That’s always been such a focus in Georgia, and one of the things now that I think the schools are faced with with the new reauthorization bill is increasing sale prices for paying students to the same amount that they get to cover their costs, and one of the things that I think is unique in Georgia, which should influence it somehow, I don’t know how, is state money that y’all have been getting over the years is specifically targeted to keep the sale price low to paying children, so that paying children would stay in the program, and that it wouldn’t become a welfare program sitting in the middle of the day with all of the free and reduced. But y’all have lost a lot of state money this year. You’ve left the county, but you know that they have lost a lot of state money this year also. Tell me, looking back, you’ve talked about you really enjoyed challenges, and starting with nothing, can you think of some other things that you even felt overwhelmed in trying to accomplish?

JW: There are so many hats that a director has to wear. Early on, in 1983 going forward, I was able to be out in the schools a lot more. But I found that as you add more people to your central office staff, as you know, with more hats being required of us as directors, it took away time from being in the schools as much, and I think that was an overwhelming task. I think all of us as a director are just multi-taskers, and that’s just a lot of hats to wear. That’s challenging and that’s positive, but sometimes you feel like you’re spinning your wheels and getting overwhelmed with everything.

AH: There are not enough resources to accomplish all the things that you want to.

JW: Of course not, and I guess for new directors, I’ve told Bridgette, who replaced me, I said, “You’re never going to get it all done.” So you just have to prioritize and every day work toward it.

AH: You were lucky that you were able to bring her in and that she can understand your working philosophy, and hopefully she likes working with tasks that never get done.

JW: Yes. She was a food assistant twenty-something years ago in the kitchen, and then promoted to being a manager, and then did a great job and applied to be our first supervising manager in 2000 and got the job, and been with me for ten years and worked with me, and every year I would give her more duties and things for her to do so that she could get an experience. And then she came to me after about three years and she said, “I want to be a director one day.” I said, “Great. I’ll help you do that.” And she had to go back to college and get her degree – her first degree – and graduated in 2010 and got my position, so we’re very blessed, I’m very blessed that that worked out so well, and it’s been a seamless transition too.

AH: Well, we’ve covered a lot of territory, but how would you entice a new person – I know that you’ve retired and a lot of the directors that came in under the Supervisory Assistance Incentive Program under the Georgia Department of Education are about to retire and there are going to be a lot of vacancies in the state, which is problematic and concerns a lot of us – if you were trying to recruit a food service director for another district, or to come into the state, what would you tell them Joan?

JW: I would tell them that it was the best career that they will ever have. It’s very challenging. If they like challenges, if they like working with people you couldn’t have chosen a better career. The support you get from your peers, I think, is just not comparable to any other profession, because you can come to any conference, and call any director within the state with a problem that you’ve got, and they’ll be able to help you, or just listen to you. And I just think the camaraderie, the professionalism – Georgia is a premier child nutrition program state – that you have, it’s just not comparable. It would be something very rewarding. I would recommend the career again. I left it still loving it. I loved going to work every day. I loved what I did, loved people, so I think if you come in with first of all a love for other people, and a love for helping people to become better, and also not be tied down to the bottom line – that’s important – but you’ve got to build your people first in order to improve the bottom line. If you go about it backwards you’re not going to improve your bottom line, and you’re going to constantly be replacing your people. And I think sometimes new people come into the program with too much of a hardness approach and they forget that you first have to do it with people skills first and then that will take care. I left my program in great financial shape and it’s because of people.

AH: I’m sure that they appreciated you as much as you appreciated the people in Carroll County. Thank you for the interview Joan.

JW: Thank you.