Interviewee: Julia Williams
Date: January 26, 2012
Location: Birmingham, Alabama
Description: Julia Williams was a school nutrition manager in Alabama.
Linda Godfrey: Mrs. Williams first of all let me thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to do this interview. Would you start today by telling us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up?
Julia Williams: I grew up in Birmingham. There were seven of us, five girls and two boys.
LG: And where were you in that?
JW: I’m the oldest of all seven of us.
LG: Did you feel like you had to help raise some of your siblings?
JW: Not really, but when we grew up parents were stricter than they are now.
LG: Where in Birmingham did you go to school?
JW: I went to Lincoln Elementary, and I worked at Lincoln Elementary.
LG: Oh really?
JW: Yes I did. I worked at Lincoln for seventeen years before I got to be a manager.
LG: So you actually worked where you went to school?
JW: Yes. I went to school there first, and then after I went to Parker. I graduated from Parker, and then after that I went back. I worked at Lincoln. When I first went to Lincoln I started as a part-time worker.
LG: How did you get started in school food service?
JW: Back then you got hired by word of mouth, and my sister was already working in the school system. So the lady needed somebody and my sister told me and I went. And she asked me if I wanted to work there and I said yes. So I went at ten and I got off at one o’clock. I was running the dishwasher. So that’s how I got started there. And so I worked at Lincoln for sixteen years. Then after that I transferred to Glenn. I went to Glenn when it was a high school. And then after it closed they had opened up Kirby and I went over there as a worker. So then they opened Glenn back up as a middle school. When I went back to Glenn I was assistant manager. And then after that, how I ended up at Kirby, the manager was out sick, and so I ended up back at Kirby as an acting manager until I got the job as manager, and I got the job at Kirby in 1991. So that’s where I was until they closed it up.
LG: And then you came here?
JW: After they closed Kirby I came over here.
LG: Let’s go back to when you were a student in school in Birmingham. Was the school that you went to integrated, or was it a segregated school?
JW: When I went it wasn’t integrated. Whites went to one school and blacks went to another school. That’s the way it was.
LG: What about the ladies that worked in the cafeteria, in the food service? Do you remember anything about them or about the food?
JW: Well when I started working everything was scratch.
LG: Now, not when you were working, when you were a student, when you were eating there. Can you remember that far back?
JW: No, now that is too far back.
LG: Ok. Let’s talk about when you first started working and you were in the dish room. Can you remember anything about the food then or the people that you worked with?
JW: Well, the food was good. It was real good. I worked with good people. We acted more like a family than just lunchroom employees.
LG: What kind of food did you like to eat then?
JW: Well, I think that’s where I learned how to eat macaroni and cheese.
LG: Oh really? You didn’t learn that at home?
JW: No. I guess the way they fixed it I started eating in and I started liking it. And I started eating green beans and stuff like that.
LG: So are you trying to say that some of your good eating habits were developed because of working in school food service?
JW: It might have been.
LG: I’m not trying to put words in your mouth.
JW: Some foods you eat at home and some foods you eat at school. Sometimes it tastes better at school than it does at home. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is.
LG: That’s a compliment I think.
JW: I eat a lot of school food here, but I don’t cook it when I go home.
LG: Oh really? Can you give an example of something you would eat at school, because I image if you feel like that hopefully some of the children feel like that?
JW: I eat a hamburger and I eat a hotdog and I like to eat the pork chops, and the collard greens and macaroni and cheese and stuff like that.
LG: Ok. Let’s get back to when you first started working. Was the first school that you worked at integrated or was it still segregated?
JW: It was still segregated at Lincoln.
LG: Ok. Did your children go to school there?
JW: No, my kids went to Hill School.
LG: And how long were you working before we had integration, and what changes did you see?
JW: Well now, when I was working at Lincoln they weren’t integrated, and when I went to Parker it wasn’t. I think it started after I went to Glenn as a high school, but I’m not very sure.
LG: Did you experience a lot of changes? Were there any problems that you can remember?
JW: I never had any problems, really, I didn’t. I didn’t have any problems.
LG: What about the cooking?
JW: Back then we did more scratch cooking than we do now. When I was at Lincoln we had to make the hotdog buns, the hamburger buns, and the crusts for the pizzas. I didn’t even know they sold pizzas until we started that, and we had to make everything from scratch.
LG: Did you ever have to shuck corn?
JW: No I never shucked corn
LG: What about green beans? Did you ever have to snap green beans?
LG: What about lettuce and cabbage.
JW: We had to cut the lettuce up to make the salad, and we had to cut the cabbage.
LG: Did you have a machine to cut it up?
JW: No ma’am. We had to cut it by hand. You had to do everything by hand. We didn’t have all of these machines they have now.
LG: What about meat? Did you ever get whole chickens in that you had to cut up?
JW: No, we didn’t ever get whole chickens. Chicken always came cut up.
LG: Was it fresh or frozen?
LG: Ok, because I can remember when we got chicken in on ice and it was fresh.
JW: Yes, I can remember that. We had a lot more vendors then and you could get it from just about who you wanted to get it from.
LG: But you still got it in and you didn’t have to cut it up?
JW: No, we didn’t have to cut it up.
LG: If you had to say that somebody’s helped you, was a mentor to you, who would you say?
JW: When I went to Lincoln Virginia Jackson was my mentor. I learned a lot from her.
LG: And what position did she have?
JW: She was the manager and I was just still the worker. She taught me how to season food. She used to buy seasoning and she said you’ve got to season your food in order for it to taste good. I learned that from her. And I had another mentor when I was at Glenn, Edwina Williams. Both of them are dead now though. She taught me how to make biscuits, because I didn’t know how to do that either.
LG: So how did you make biscuits? Did you make them from scratch or did you have a mix?
JW: Made them from scratch. She taught me how to make them from scratch because I didn’t know how to make a biscuit.
LG: What kind of fat did you use?
JW: I believe it was shortening, I don’t think it was lard. It used to come in three-pound cans.
LG: Have you ever used lard in cooking?
JW: Not since I’ve been working at school I haven’t. I use it at home, but you can’t find lard.
LG: So you graduated from high school, and is that when you started working?
JW: I didn’t start right then. I worked, but it wasn’t at the school right then. I started at the school in ’64 or ’65.
LG: Have you seen changes in the Birmingham area since that time?
JW: There have been a lot of changes. The food has changed.
LG: In what way?
JW: Most of the stuff you get now is already prepared, it’s pre-cooked, it’s already in the can and you don’t have to do all that stuff anymore.
LG: What is your reaction when an employee tells you, because you’re a manager now, when they tell you how hard it is and how much they have to do?
JW: I tell them it’s not hard, but it’s not hard. When I started it was hard. I tell them they’ve got it made because almost everything comes frozen; it’s already pre-cooked, like the sausages and things like that. Everything is pre-cooked, so all you have to do is put it in the steamer and it’s ready. So they don’t have a hard time, they really don’t.
LG: What kinds of things do you think might be unique about Alabama when it comes to child nutrition?
JW: I feel like the workers in the kitchen need more training than they do have, because some of them think they know what they are doing, but they don’t.
LG: Ok. What type of training?
JW: They need all of it. How to serve, portion size – I tell them, but like when we go to the meetings and come back and tell them what was said they don’t want to believe us. They think we’re making it up.
LG: Do the people that work in the kitchen go to meetings?
JW: They go to meetings in the summer months, but we had suggested one time that when they have the managers meetings they need to have the employees there so they can hear the same thing that we hear and then they will know what’s going on and they won’t think we’re making it up.
LG: How many of your people are Serve-Safe certified?
JW: All of us.
LG: Everybody’s taken the class?
JW: Everybody’s taken the class and I have to take mine again. Mine expires in July. I thought I’d have been at home by then.
LG: And tell us why you’re not.
JW: Well, I don’t know. Really there’s nothing to do at home to me. And I’m not going to stay home and keep grandkids.
LG: Because – how long have you worked now?
JW: I say forty-two years.
LG: Forty-two years, so the adjustment after forty-two years, of staying at home would be a major adjustment would it not?
JW: Yes it would. And I know I would get bored, because I get bored from June and July.
LG: So do you enjoy what you do?
JW: I do. That’s why I do it. I like what I do. Because I figure I didn’t like it I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t have stayed here this long.
LG: Tell us about working with children. How do you feel about that, because you have worked with all ages?
JW: I like them. I have worked with elementary, I have worked with high school, I have worked with middle school, and now I’m back with elementary again.
LG: When it comes to food what would you say about the way that students eat, and how has that changed over the years, or has it?
JW: To me it hasn’t changed. They say now that stuff we cook makes kids fat, but to me it’s not enough to make them fat. Now that’s my opinion, because the service they get, that’s not enough. And when I was going [to school] and my kids were going, you went to the gym and changed out and you got exercise. But these kids don’t spend time in the gym like we did, and I believe that’s got a lot to do with it too. I believe if they got more exercise they wouldn’t be obese like they are. Now that’s just my opinion.
LG: Well, that’s what we’re here for is to find out what your opinion is. If I had to ask you what your typical day was like, you come in in the morning and what do you do all day? What’s your typical day like? That’s a loaded question in child nutrition I know.
JW: My typical day when I come in, I’ll be the first one here in the lunchroom.
LG: So you open up?
JW: I open up and I turn everything on in there. Then I see what’s on the menu – I’ll know the day before though. Then I start getting breakfast ready until my assistant comes. When she comes she will take over breakfast. After she comes I might start on lunch until the others get there. Then she’ll go on the line for breakfast and I’ll go out there for lunch and vice versa. Sometimes I’ll be doing paperwork.
LG: And then what about at the end of the day?
JW: Ok, at the end of the day both of us go into the office and we’ll get the money and the paperwork done, and then I’ll go out there and see that the [other employees] are doing what they’re supposed to be doing to put the food away – labeling and stuff like that.
LG: Do you ever talk to any of the children during the mealtime?
JW: Yes, sometimes I do when I’m out there, but after I had been with the middle school children so long it was kind of an adjustment to get with the kindergarten because it had been a long time since I had been with the elementary kids. Leaving a middle school and coming back to an elementary school is a big change.
LG: Do the children talk to you?
JW: Yes, they talk to me, but like I said, my assistant is out there on the line most of the time, and when I go out there they’ll go around me and go to her.
LG: They’re accustomed to her.
JW: Yes. She knows them better than I do because she’s been around them. When I was at the other school I knew all of my kids. I knew who paid, who was reduced, and who was free.
LG: What’s the biggest challenge that you face in child nutrition? How do you feel about changes and adapting and that type of thing?
JW: Well, sometimes changes are alright, and sometimes you just have to get used to the change. I don’t have a problem with it. I might gripe about it but I’ll go on and do it.
LG: Ok. What about technology, using the computer, because now you have to place your grocery orders on the computer, and that type of thing.
JW: Now I like that.
LG: What do you like about that?
JW: You can put everything on the computer. It used to be when you did inventory you had to do all that writing on paper. And invoices, when you had all those vendors, you had to have five or six sheets of paper will all the vendors on different sheets of paper. Now all you have to do is put them on one, and that’s much better. It’s better with the computer, but I was kind of afraid of it when I first got it, but it’s gotten alright now.
LG: Did you receive training on the computer?
JW: Yes, we had training. They trained us on the computer.
LG: Think back when you were in school if somebody had said that you would be using computers the way you are today, how would you have felt about that?
JW: I would have said, “No, it’s not going to happen.”
LG: When you think about child nutrition and what you have done for child nutrition what would you say you feel the best about, the most significant thing that you’ve given to this?
JW: To me, they appreciate the food I cook. And they will come back and some of them will tell you the food was good and I like that. And ‘What did you put in it?’ Sometimes we’ll change up and do something with it with seasonings and things like that. And they’ll say, “What did you do?” And I’ll tell them, “It’s a secret.” And then I have a lot of kids now, since I’ve been here, and really it’s amazing, I’ll cook vegetables and they’ll come back and ask for more. I find most kids don’t eat vegetables, and if they come back and want vegetables, peas or greens or whatever, I give it to them, because like I say, some of them might not eat when they go home.
LG: Do you ever find in working with the children they they’re hungrier on Monday than they were on Friday?
JW: Yes. Sometimes they come in there, and really I think it’s the stuff you cook. You might have cereal and yogurt and juice and milk, and you might not have too many that day. But the next day you can have biscuit, grits, and meat, and sometimes the line will be down the hall, so that’s the difference. So when you have meat – look out – just have enough. Now, they love meat.
LG: When you say meat can you give us an example?
JW: Like sausage – we have the link sausage and the round sausage patty. They like that. They like pancakes and sausage, and they like pancakes on a stick – they call them pigs in a blanket, but they’re pancakes on a stick – they like that, and they like syrup and things like that. Anything with meat on it they love it. And then sometimes, if I have leftovers, grits or something like that, I’ll make a grit casserole and they like that. I put cheese and eggs on it and they like stuff like that.
LG: How did you learn to do all these things?
JW: I learned it from the lady I told you about at Lincoln. She used to teach me about all that stuff. She said, “You don’t throw away anything.” In other words she didn’t allow you to throw away anything. If we got in sugar and emptied the bag she would tell you to tear the bag open and get every bit of the sugar out. And she was just like that, and I learned from her. She didn’t want to hear any salt rattling in the box. She said, “You bought it. You get it out.”
LG: What about young people today? If you had somebody that came to you and said, “I’m interested in working in school food service, in child nutrition”, what would you say to them? What would your advice be to them?
JW: I would tell them that if that’s what they wanted to do then anything I could do to help them I would.
LG: If you have a new employee and it’s a young person what do you do to help guide them so they’ll improve and be better?
JW: You have to work with them, because some of them when they come, they’ll say they know how to do it but they don’t. And you’ve got to work with them and show them the way to do it. Now that’s what I would do.
LG: Have you seen that change over the years, about training people to do their job?
JW: Yes. Sometimes now I tell them, I show them the way I want it, because some of them before I came, that manager had them to do it one way, but I didn’t like it that way so I changed and had them to do it the way I like for it to be done.
LG: If you had to think back about all the children that you have worked with, I’m sure that there have been some instances where you’ve done something really special for certain children – sometimes you just have that special child that you remember in your life. Can you remember anything like that, like when you go to the grocery store or go shopping?
JW: Oh yes. I meet them all the time, and really, I have forgotten some of them.
LG: Have they forgotten you?
JW: No. Because one came up one day and said, “Ooh, there’s my favorite lunchroom lady.” I didn’t want to ask him who he was, because I didn’t know, but I knew his face, but I didn’t know who he was. And then sometimes I remember them and I say, “What school did you go to?” And he’ll say, “I went to Kirby”, or either “I went to Glenn”, and then it’ll come back to me. I know the face but I can’t remember all those names. And there are some kids from when I was at Kirby that have kids that go to school over here now, and they still remember me, but I don’t remember them.
LG: Every once in a while when we go to meetings we’ll hear somebody who has been very successful in life, and they’ll talk about their experience in school food service. Do you have any of those?
JW: Yes. And I try to be nice. Sometimes you have to fuss at them and get on them about different stuff like that, but otherwise they’re good kids and stuff like that.
LG: Can you name anybody that is doing really well in life now, that you made sure that they ate when they were in school?
JW: Yes, because you know what I do sometimes here. They’ll have food on their plate and I’ll say, “Why didn’t you eat that?” and they’ll say, “I don’t like that.” I say, “Why?” Like one didn’t like the green beans and I said, “Why?” And they couldn’t tell me and I said, “Well, go eat them and see. Just take a little bit.” And so she did, she ate them. And I said, “Did you like them?” She said, “Yes.” When I came back she had eaten all of them. I tell them, “You’ve got to try it. Don’t say you don’t like it until you’ve tried it.” And that’s the way I do a lot of them.
LG: Tell us about summer feeding.
JW: Oh, summer feeding. The only problem is when you have to get up and be there at five o’clock in the morning.
LG: But what about feeding those children?
JW: It’s a lot of fun working on the summer feeding program. You learn a lot of people. Because when I first started I had never seen that much bread and meat in my life. It looked like you had a whole wall, and when you think you’re through, here they come with another whole wall of bread out. But it was fun.
LG: How do you feel about children that might not get anything to eat if it wasn’t for child nutrition programs?
JW: There are some kids here that I don’t think they eat again until they come back to school. We have one in here now that takes a lot of medicine and who has to eat more food, so we give it to him when he comes back. And then sometimes at the end of the day when the fifth graders come, they want more, and I give it to them, like a hotdog or a piece of pizza or something like that.
LG: When you first started was that the attitude? If a child was really hungry then they got that food?
JW: Yes. I give it to them; because you can’t do anything else with it, so why not let the kids eat it?
LG: Anything else you want to tell us about your career in child nutrition and the way you feel about things?
JW: Like I said, I like what I do. I guess that’s the reason I’ve been working so long.
LG: When you do retire, at the end of your life, and we all need to think about that, what would you want people to say about you and what you have done for them over the years?
JW: I hope they will say that I was a nice person. I can get along with just about anybody.
LG: How many people have you trained over the years in child nutrition, and are any of those people managers now?
JW: There are two that I know of that I worked with. The one at Brown School, I worked with her. She used to be on the supply list and she worked with me when I was at Kirby. And when the school became available she didn’t want the school. She said, “I don’t want to be a manager.” I said, “Yes you do. Look, you’ve got two small kids. You need to go be a manager so you can take care of your kids.” And then Donna Drake – she’s at Jones Valley. She used to work with me. She used to be the cashier. So now she’s a manager.
LG: And how does that make you feel?
JW: It makes me feel good that I’ve worked around some people and now they’ve gotten to be managers. I tell them, “Go for it. If you don’t like it don’t do it.” Because when I first started working I thought it was the worst thing. It looked like nothing was going right, and I wasn’t making any money – I stayed in the red. And Mrs. Hall, she was my manager then, and she talked to me and told me what to do, and that’s what I started doing. When I went to Kirby they were in the red and I got the school out of the red in a year’s time by listening to Mrs. Hall and doing what she told me to do.
LG: What are your serving hours? When do you serve breakfast?
JW: We start at seven o’clock and finish about 7:45.
LG: And what about lunch?
JW: We start at ten and we are through by 12:30.
LG: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you doing this.