Interviewee: Karen Johnson
Interviewer: Beverly Lowe
Date: April 19, 2006
Description: Karen Johnson served as a child nutrition director in Arizona and as president of the American School Food Service Association.
Karen Johnson: Good morning.
BL: Good morning! So good to be in Yuma and the weather is just beautiful today.
KJ: Couldn’t be prettier.
BL: What I would like for you to do is tell us little about yourself and where you grew up.
KJ: Well, my father’s family moved out to Arizona in 1933. And that was from Kentucky. And he came out here as a child with his parents often to visit with his relatives. Well, as he grew older and became a father, he and my mother put the three kids in a car one summer and said, “We’re going to Arizona. Let’s go visit.” So we did. And my parents just fell in love with it and knew this is where they wanted to raise their family. So in 1955, in July, they threw us all in a car with a cat and a dog; it was a station wagon. I guess it was the Middle America scene and off we came to Arizona. And we settled here and I grew up here in Arizona. I really do feel it’s home. We came from Cincinnati, OH, and I just have memories of Arizona as my growing up. And we had his aunt and uncles who lived here, so we did have a sense of family. And now our own families have grown and my brother still lives in town. So this has been home forever. That’s how we got here.
BL: So you’ve been here a long time.
KJ: A long time! 1955 on. I was very small, very young. (laughs)
BL: So what is your earliest recollection of the child nutrition program or the school lunch program like they were called in those early days?
KJ: It was either second or third grade that I remember. I always ate in the cafeteria. My mother didn’t pack us a lunch because she needed to get off to work early. My dad was gone… so I always remember eating in the cafeteria. I remember the ladies very well. I can remember all their names. They were mostly my friends’ parents. They were my friends’ moms and they worked in the cafeteria. We didn’t have a breakfast program then so it was lunch. So they pretty much left home after their children left for school or about the same time. And of course, they were home early in the afternoon so it was an ideal job for… I think at that time, the mothers I knew were at least high school graduates or had some college. They did it as a part-time fun job. Money wasn’t the issue, it gave them extra and they could be home when their children were. So I remember very vividly that a lot of them were my friends’ moms. I can remember the fun they had in the cafeteria and I could hardly wait to work in there. That was going to be the highlight of my life when I got to work in the cafeteria. Of course my mother was a school secretary for thirty-eight years, so she had a wonderful relationship with the cafeteria ladies. Every once in a while she would say, “Look, the ladies were experimenting and they sent home some cake. They got some sauerkraut from the government. They’ve decided that they need to figure out how to use it and they made a chocolate cake and used sauerkraut in it.” Of course they thought it was coconut. They had no idea that it was sauerkraut. But I remember things like that so well. I remember the homemade rolls that we make today, the same recipe that’s very popular in our community. And so I remembered it as being a very happy place and a place to look forward to.
BL: Well I know you had a good lunchroom experience when you were a child. What made you jump into school nutrition or how did you get to where you are today?
KJ: (Laughs) I came to work for the school district when I had young children at home. And actually my mother had injured a vertebra in her back and had to have some surgery. And she said, “Oh, the principal just wants you to come up and answer the phone. It won’t be long. I’ll be back to work in three months.” And I didn’t really want to work; I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. So I said, “Well, it’s helping mom out so I’ll go.” It was just going to be for three months. And it ended up, of course, this is my thirty-second year in the school district. And I really went from there. There became another opening for a school secretary and it was like the cafeteria ladies. It was a perfect place to work, be home with the children, the summers were off and I thought, “My mother did it for so many years and has loved it, so why wouldn’t I?” So I became a school secretary. Well then several years later, my boss, my principal, became one of the associate superintendents in the district’s office. So he said, “You know what, I’m going to need a secretary and I’d like for you to come with me.” Well, I idolized this man. I just thought he was the cat’s meow. He was bright, he was kind, he knew family came first, and he was the perfect boss. So I said, “Sure, I’ll go down there to the district office, but I don’t like to work summers.” Well, I didn’t have a choice. If I was going to take the job, it was going to be a summer job also. My husband was a schoolteacher so he instantly became Mr. Mom. So I came down to district office and we were in charge of the curriculum and budget. And I loved all the budget working and the people but I missed those kids. I really missed those kids. Kids make schools and when you work in the district office, sometimes you lost the concept of what goes on at the school sites. So, a wonderful lady named Paula Barletta was the director of child nutrition and I had known Paula all my life. Paula was always having fun, taking trips, sharing stories. We just loved to listen to her stories about her conferences. So, Paula decided one day that she was going to retire and about this time my boss had just taken over the finance department and I was his assistant and we worked on the budget and salaries. And Paula said, “I guess when you come into child nutrition, we just know who needs to be the next person in line.” And I guess she saw something in me. And she said, “You know what, you need to come to work in my office and learn what’s going on because I’m going to retire someday.” I said, “Oh Paula, I don’t know a thing about what you do. I know you have a great time, but I could never leave my boss. He’s my best friend. I can’t leave him.” She said, “Yes you can.” I said, “No I can’t.” So we had this little disagreement. Well I did talk to my boss about it. He said, “You know what, I’m going to retire in a couple of years and you need to be where you’re going to be for a lot longer. I’m a lot older than you. You need to think about taking that job.” Well, I told you that he was a wise man and I trusted his judgment. So with a heavy heart I left him; okay, he was only one door down, but I left him. I guess we had a divorce; a friendly divorce and I went to work for Paula as her bookkeeper. Well, Paula said, “You need to learn this job. You need to get back in school. You need to go to workshops. You need to get in the dietary program. You need to do everything you can to be prepared for this job someday.” Oh, my head was spinning. I didn’t know how I could ever do a job as well as this woman had done a job. So I did, I went back and got into a dietary program in college, but my heart and my classes I always had taken were in education. So it inspired me to like a lot of things dealing with school food service. I went back to college and got my degree in Education. I did the Certified Dietary Manager’s Program because I didn’t know anything more than what I loved which was food, cooking, and the ladies in the cafeteria. My heart was won immediately in this new arena that I was working. I loved the ladies. I loved the conferences Paula was dragging me off to and it was just a world that I didn’t know existed out there. So, therefore, maybe I was led down the yellow brick path I suppose, but it has been the same everyday for me since I became involved in this job. And then when Paula did retire the district hired me as an interim only. They weren’t quite sure what they were going to do with the school food service. Well, I worked my tail off that first year to impress them and I guess I did a good job because they did offer me the job. And that’s been eighteen or nineteen years ago and here I am.
BL: Is the school district the same size now as it was then?
KJ: We’ve grown probably by two thousand students and several new schools. It didn’t happen in the first few years, so I had a few years to put my feet on the ground. And then I was able to get into the designing of the schools. Our district is great. They’re a very caring district and they do involve people in decision-makings that are in the department like when we involve the ladies of the cafeteria when we’re designing a new facility. And we’ve grown by new schools and we’ve had outside schools ask for our services in designing their kitchens, so it’s been a special opportunity for all of us.
BL: I’m picking up that Paula Barletta was your mentor?
KJ: (Laughs) I would like to say that I have a ton of mentors, and perhaps I do, but Paula is special, she is number one. She has just inspired me. She has an anything goes attitude. No problem. I can do it. That’s a cinch. Sure I’ll do it for you. She always has a positive outlook and always looking forward to change. I think it keeps her on her toes. She’s changed many times over the years and shown me that with smiles and good attitude you can achieve more. She certainly knows how to butter up the right people, whether that means a small package of cookies on their desk or not. She really is an inspiration and very high in my book of standards.
BL: Are there others who you would consider a mentor or a leader that you would like to emulate, or did?
KJ: Yes, I think we had some state leaders and some of the past presidents in the association in Arizona. I really didn’t know why they did the things they did when I was green. I learned later how many of them kept us so on track and always referred to bylaws and always referred to the policies and procedures when we were young and just learning from them. I find myself doing this today with the new kids on the block. They have those same passions that I did, but I always find myself reminding them that we have bylaws for a reason, because bylaws keep us straight in the association and that’s how we grow. They are changeable and we learn why maybe we should change them. But I have people in Arizona like Lois Sear and Dottie Angleston, who I would refer to, and say “Dottie and Lois always put us in our place.” But it’s a reason why they did that and they became bigger than life in my book to this day, and I certainly appreciate them. And on the national scene, Shirley Watkins was the first president I was able to observe in office. And I thought, “Wow! If I could ever talk to this lady, learn from her in a sense.” I was so in awe of her and still to this day remember what a presence she was on the stage. And now others that have come since Shirley, that I have become acquainted with, I’ve learned they have those same passions and feelings that we all do.
BL: I know you served as President for the School Nutrition Association and I am sure you saw things across the United States in other child nutrition programs. Where do you think Arizona is unique from other states? I’m sure you’ve got some ideas on that.
KJ: (Laughs) It was so fun. As I visited states as a national president, I always came home and shared those stories. Whether it be in our office or in a manager’s meeting, I tried to take people on my travels. It was so funny because other than food preferences, I found the cafeteria personnel to be the same as home. I finally had challenges like we do whether it was staff or faculty or other students. And the gals would sit there and look at me and say, “Wow! That’s just like home! We think that same thing!” And I did find that we’re so alike in so many ways. Our student population may be a little bit different or the challenges…you know there were rural schools like we were that it took three hours for a distributor to drive product to us. There were those same rural schools in other towns because everybody just didn’t live in a big fancy town. We all had our challenges. I’d like to think that we were totally unique and that we were totally the best; I really found out after traveling was that we were so much alike in so many ways. We had all probably had our challenges when we went home at night but we did what we did because we had a certain passion for it. So, in a lot of ways we are all the same.
BL: If you were to share some experiences with us as President of the School Nutrition Association what would they be?
KJ: I thought that meeting the members was the most important part for me when they would come up to you and say, “Thank you for what you do. Thank you for writing that article in the magazine; it really touched me.” I just never realized that being a national president, you would touch individuals so much and that your heart would be so taken that they made you certainly feel like a queen for the day. We’re not used to being waited on. I didn’t want to be any different than other people. And I do remember from our own experience in Arizona, Penny McConnell came to visit us, and we were trying to find out what we could get her like a gift and what could we do for her. I realized that people do want to make you feel special when you went to the conferences. They touched you with their letters. They touched you with their e-mails. They touched you with their small gifts; and sharing recipes across the country and just being able to share stories whether they were home or on the road. I just can’t replace that experience. I wouldn’t trade what I did for a million dollars and I truly mean that. It is high energy. It consumes your life but I wouldn’t trade the experience. It was just so powerful that I don’t think I will ever be able to replace that.
BL: Those are some good experiences and the people at the grass roots really appreciate your attitude.
BL: There hafe been some changes in child nutrition through the years. You said you’ve been here over thirty something years. Can you think of anything you would like to bring to the forefront that’s been a good change, or something that you wish hadn’t changed, or something that needs to be changed?
KJ: I find that for years, even just our local media that would come out, we would often see them just in August. And they would want know about school lunch verses what was packed at home by mom, then they would be gone. We may never hear another word from our local media until National School Lunch Week. We would invite the parents to come and get a little exposure for that. Well that’s changed. We often get calls weekly; every few weeks from the media when something is going on. Media has certainly put a spotlight on school lunch. Now whether that be negative or positive, it’s more media exposure than we ever had. And I think we can take some of those experiences that may be negative and turn them into a positive. And we are educating people more all the time. People seem to want to get involved whether we have committees or programs; people want to know what they can do to help. And I don’t think it’s all negative. What would I want to change? Definitely, if I had that magic wand, I would want a universal feeding program for all children so that they could have the opportunity to eat at schools at no cost. I think we keep these children on campus for close to eight hours and some kids come in at six in the morning and don’t leave until six in the evening with the daycare activities we have. There’s always an issue with the children without money or without the tickets that they’ve lost. It’s such a mind-boggling challenge for all parents. Even parents that are affluent sometimes forget to give their child money for lunch. It just would be wonderful with a magic wand to see children eat at no cost. I think that’s extremely important in the district. So, those are some of the things I would change. We still find that students like home cooked meals. They do love the smell of the cafeteria. They take milk with their meals. So there are things that haven’t changed, but I think our students are a little more sophisticated and a little more demanding and they do keep us on our toes. We probably communicate more than we’ve ever done before. And we’re doing more with choices and fresh fruit and vegetable bars and just that education piece because we’re always trying to get our messages out. I would love to see more curriculum and state standards adopted for nutrition. And I think that will happen. I think because of the wellness policies we’re going to see those changes. And I think those changes are good. I think educating those students at a young age is important. I believe that we’re more out there than we have ever been before and I think it’s about time.
BL: What about the fruit and vegetable consumptions? I know this morning Paula took me out to where the strawberries grow locally and we had the opportunity to talk to the gentleman there. That stimulated me to ask you a question about fruit and vegetables. I know there’s an outreach there.
KJ: Yes. We incorporated some fruit and vegetable bars several years ago and started letting the students serve themselves as much as they wanted. And we found what a pleasant experience that was and how we have less plate waste; and how we were exposing children to more fruits and vegetables than they ever had. It gave us an opportunity to go into a classroom and talk about that. We partner with our county health department and we do lessons with fruits and vegetables and we try to bring things in that most parents may or may not buy at the grocery store. We were to work with the food bank in some gleaming programs to give some leftover produce out to our schools where students were in need, that after school, once a week, they were taking home bags of fruits and vegetables that came from the farmers and sending home nutrition lessons with them. So, I think it is a turnabout. I probably didn’t know much about fruits and vegetables when I was in elementary school. My mom would fix a salad; a lot of vegetables were in a can. There were vegetables in the grocery store, but not what we see today. So, I think exposing students to this fruit and vegetable bar concept is just phenomenal. They’re saying, “Look! I’m eating my kiwi. Look at the strawberries and the grapes I’ve gotten today!” And I think there’s a demand for it in the market and the public is turning that way. So, I think it has just been an awesome experience for the children.
BL: And a memorable one too.
KJ: Oh, yes.
BL: Tell me a little bit about you as a child nutrition professional. If you could select something that you would like to be remembered for… now I know you were a outgoing president; very vocal, very visible, and very personal. What would you like to be remembered for as a child nutrition professional?
KJ: The members of our association were extremely important to me. I didn’t care what job they had in the district. I just cared that they cared for the children and I think that’s what all of us do. So, I would hope that if a member sees me somewhere, they wouldn’t hesitate to come up to me or think, “Oh, that’s Karen. She’s a member just like us.” That was important to me to know that I would walk in any kitchen and wash a dish or I’d wipe a table or I’d stir a pot. I always wanted to be a person who cared about people and I thought feelings were important. I know our staff of ninety. I can tell you every one of them and about their families and about their kids and a situation that they may be in. I always just wanted to have that open door policy. And that’s how I felt as President, anybody could call me with anything and I felt that I wanted to be a good listener. So, I just want to be, “Hey, that’s that lady who worked in school lunch.” And it doesn’t matter if it was a fancy title or anything that went with it. I felt that I worked hard, raised children, and went back to school, and there may have been some obstacles along my life weren’t great and I didn’t have those opportunities but I always knew they were important and you can always continue working on it and it’s never, never, never too late. And once you do grab on to that education, and this doesn’t even matter if you’re just looking forward to finishing your GED, it’s yours and nobody can never ever take that away from you. So I just wanted to say you can always follow your dreams. You may not get there at age twenty-eight. You may not get there at age forty-eight, but maybe when you’re fifty-three those dreams will come true. So, it’s never too late to follow those dreams and how important education is.
BL: Wonderful. I’d like to know if you have any little stories you’d like to share, memorable stories. Maybe classroom experience with children or maybe something personal that happened to one of your employees. So, this is your time to tell those nice little stories about them.
KJ: Well, I think I have a story that has a wonderful ending. It’s a very sad story, but I know these things happen across the United States. So, I’m sure when I share this story and if somebody’s listening they’re gonna say, “It happened in my district too.” And I know it did. In a cafeteria in one of our schools there is a baker at that school, and she told me this story one day and it could set you in tears if you didn’t know that it had a great ending and I want to tell you that up front. She had a little family there and a boy that had been a witness when his father killed his mother in front of the little children, actually he had beat the mother and she died later on. Well, the children were then raised by their grandparents and this little boy was just kind of a sad soul, you could just see it around him, he’d come through that line and the baker would try to get him to eat lunch every day. He’d just say, “I’m not very hungry” and she would say, “Well honey, you got to eat like we all do.” Well this went on for a while, and then she asked him one day, “Tell me what you like to eat; what’s your favorite thing?” He said, “You know what, I like a bean burrito from Del Taco and a chocolate shake.” Well of course we didn’t have those readily available in the back room, but it was very important to this young man that he had that particular burrito and a chocolate shake. Fruits and vegetables would have been nice, but he needed to eat and he needed some love. So, the baker would take a little break about ten o’clock every morning and she’ll run over to Del Taco and pick him up this bean burrito and chocolate shake. She would come back and he would come through the line and she’d say, “I got something for you.” Oh, his eyes would light up. So, she knew she was getting calories into him because he was a very thin boy. So weeks later she was busy and here comes this little boy down the line and she looked at him and it dawned on her, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t get away. It was a busy day and I didn’t get what he wanted.” And so he looked at her and he said, “That’s ok. I like school lunch and I can eat this today.” And it was just wonderful! And she said, “Good! He’s going to eat school lunch today!” So then, that trip daily for the last several weeks became weekly, and finally she weaned him off the fast food burrito and the chocolate shake. And from then on that little boy flourished and he began to eat school lunch every day. And he just needed a caring hand, from one of the cafeteria ladies. And he needed a little love and he needed some attention. He’s gone on. He’s probably a junior now in high school and those kids are doing just fine with Grandma and Grandpa, but it took a special lady, a special cafeteria lady, to recognize that her little boy wasn’t eating, and whatever it took to get him to eat she was going to do. And she went that extra mile like I know hundreds of ladies do every day. So I’m very proud of her. She still works very hard for us. And she’s still on the outlook for a kid who may need that special attention.
BL: You’re right. That’s a Wow! story. Any other stories you would like to share?
KJ: Probably many. We have ladies that recognize those students on Friday that may not have that meal for the weekend. I know they might pack them a sandwich and I know they pack it from the goodness of their own heart. We’ve all seen cafeteria personnel pull that dollar out of their pocket and pay for that child’s lunch. That’s why I loved it when SNA put the book together of memories, Feeding Body & Soul, and I hope they do another one soon, because it just reminds us every day that what we do is absolutely so important for our children. And it is a service that we provide, but it is also a love we provide for these children too.
BL: Is there anything else you would like to share? Any technology stories or any other funny or heart warming things you would like to share with us?
KJ: I’m sure there are a million stories and I can’t risk going into them because the microphone is going out! I hope somebody is watching these tapes some day that is teetering if they should go into food service. I wouldn’t hesitate to tell any who wants to jump in with both feet that it is one of the most rewarding and one of the most fun jobs. Sure we have our challenges, but I’ve never gone home ever a night thinking I wish I had another job. Challenges keep us going and they’re just little hurdles that we hop over and do them with a great appreciation for the ultimate and that is what our child receives. And I do want to say that when meeting a lot of people, whether they be at a superintendents conference or whether you go and talk to a Senator or Congressman, and you know, most of them can remember the name of somebody who worked in the cafeteria. They may not remember a principal’s name or a teacher’s name but it’s odd that they do remember the name of a cafeteria lady or best yet their mother, great-aunt, or cousin worked in school food service. And I’m just always amazed that someone knew someone in school food service and it was an important part of their lives. So, I’ll end on that note; knowing how important it is for children in this country to participate in our school meal programs.
BL: And that includes breakfast, lunch…
KJ: Breakfast, lunch, those after-school snacks, because children across the board of economics do need to be fed. And sometimes there is not food at home because someone forgot or someone just couldn’t afford it.
BL: Karen, you’ve given us a lot of insight today and I do appreciate your time.
KJ: Well, I’m pleased and it is just my honor to be a part of the history of these programs. So, thank you for coming to Yuma, Arizona!
BL: Thank you very much!