Description: Kathy Talley spent twenty years teaching Home Economics in West Virginia. Since then she has served for nearly another twenty years in the Nutrition Education and Training position at the West Virginia Department of Education. She is proud that her state was the first in the nation to mandate the School Breakfast Program.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is July 22, 2008, and I am here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with Kathy Talley. Thank you, Kathy, for taking the time to be with me today and sharing your story.
Kathy Talley: You are welcome.
JB: Could we begin by you telling us about yourself, where you grew up?
KT: I grew up in southern West Virginia and spent my growing-up years and schooling in Kanawha Valley.
JB: Kanawha Valley?
KT: Kanawha Valley. It is an Indian name in an Indian area. Once I completed my undergraduate work I went to work for our Board of Education as a Home Economics teacher.
JB: Where did you study for your undergraduate?
KT: I studied at West Virginia State University. They had a fine Home Economics program there. Unfortunately, now it is gone as so many programs are. I went to work at a local high school. I was there for three years and moved then to a junior high school, where I spent 17 years working with that special population as a Home Economics teacher; fond memories of the things that we got into as students, the things the kids learned and the excitement that they had for some of the curriculum areas.
JB: What are your earliest recollections of child nutrition programs? Was there a lunch or breakfast program at your elementary school?
KT: Yes there was. In fact, I am old enough to appreciate when school lunch came to our elementary school. I remember our principal told us if we lived within a mile from school we had to walk home to lunch. Shortly after that, then it was available to everyone. Actually, I think he made up the rules. And so, everyone was able then to eat school lunch. One of the things that I distinctly remember was it seemed we had cold breaded tomatoes every day. I know that probably isn’t true, but that seemed to be a frequent menu item.
JB: What is a cold breaded tomato?
KT: Actually, I think it is leftover bread put in with canned tomatoes. And to this day, I don’t like cold breaded tomatoes.
JB: That’s understandable. Can you tell us how your educational background prepared you for a career in child nutrition?
KT: As I said, Home Economics was my undergraduate and then my master’s work is in Vocational Education…Vocational Home Economics with an emphasis on the vocational and adult education. Once I left the classroom, writing curriculum, teaching, activities, activity-oriented learning, that sort of thing, and moving into the Nutrition Education and Training position at our State Department of Education, it was just a matter of learning regulations and expectations and the inner workings of the child nutrition program.
JB: And how long have you been in that position?
KT: I have been there almost 20 years.
JB: Time flies, doesn’t it?
KT: Yes it does.
JB: Has there been a mentor or someone special who sort of guided you or influenced you in your career development path?
KT: I had several people that I would consider mentors and people who led the way. The very first Child Nutrition Director in West Virginia was Faith Gravenmeyer. While I never worked in her office when she was the Director, the precedence that she helped to establish in West Virginia, we were the first state in the country to mandate School Breakfast, we were a pilot for the Summer Food Service Program, just many things. We had nutrition standards in our state long before anyone else thought about them. West Virginia is considered a leader in child nutrition programs largely due to the groundwork she laid. And then it was carried on by various other directors and people out in the field. I’ve worked with wonderful directors, Kathy Youst in Berkley County, Laura Savio in Lonnagalia County, Kathy Laretta, my dear friend, in Harrison County, and she was closely affiliated with the School Nutrition Association. And so, I’ve had many wonderful friends and mentors over the years.
JB: It sounds like a very exciting and rewarding career.
KT: It has been.
JB: What are some of the major changes you have seen in the child nutrition profession over the years?
KT: Less emphasis, unfortunately, on training. That money disappeared. Team Nutrition took its place. Consequently, you had to beg, borrow, and steal Nutrition Ed money. So that was a big disappointment to me. But our state has, for the most part, has continued to support training efforts. Other changes, I’ve watched nutrition standards be emphasized more in the last few years and we can comfortably say in West Virginia that over fifteen years ago, we had a nutrition standards policy that no one else in the country could manage. As I said, we were leaders in child nutrition policies and programs and expectations and standards. I see more company-like processed foods, instead of actual school-made meals, but I also see a more educated food service staff. They are very dedicated. You just see that love for children with them and that still continues to be there despite many of the obstacles, cutbacks in labor, cutbacks in monies to purchase equipment, or even food products. They still continue with that solid core of caring and concern for the children.
JB: It seems like from talking to you that West Virginia has really been on the cutting edge in a lot of developments in child nutrition. What is it about West Virginia that you think that makes it, I don’t know if special is the word…
KT: Top notch.
JB: That’s a good one.
KT: I think we are top notch because, as I said, Faith Gravenmeyer did lay that groundwork and the expectation and her staff demonstrated that desire to train and to work with. Faith also was able to build rapport and collaboration with many state leaders. And she was viewed nationally and on the state level as a true visionary for child nutrition programs.
JB: She sounds like a remarkable lady.
KT: She was.
JB: What is your proudest moment or you feel like is your biggest contribution to the profession?
KT: Goodness. I’d like to think that I am a “Steady Eddie” when it comes to training and working with food service staff on the site level. And that I am there to help them overcome obstacles; to provide a listening ear and perhaps a problem solver. In one shining moment, I believe that there are lots of points of light.
JB: What is a typical day like for you in your current position or is there a typical day?
KT: Probably not a typical day, but some of the things that may occur in a day are to determine what are the needs of the various audiences. How can I meet those? What resources are out there that are new? I’ll take back a good many ideas from the SNA Conference here and from the Institute. I am happy to see so many new things at the Institute. And so, sharing that with everyone, making sure that information that I gain here will go out into audiences that can use the informational resources. Curriculum writing, problem solving, guidance on questions, everyday kinds of questions, “What do I do when…, How do I handle this? What does this mean in the policy?” West Virginia has just recently adopted a brand new rigorous nutrition standards policy. Many other states are looking to us as a template or a model for nutrition standards policy. And so we just completed the training model for site-level people to get the word out to them about what this policy means and what their role in it is.
JB: Again, on the cutting edge.
KT: We like to think so.
JB: Do any memorable stories come to mind as you think back over your career, any special director, manager, or child out there, or anything particularly vexing that happened?
KT: We, during these past years that I have spent at the Department of Education in this position, we have been able to establish a Child Nutrition Center, similar to the Institute, on a much smaller scale of course, at a local university and the Center then applied to the Department of Labor for the ability to grant Department of Labor degrees in Food Service Management. And my dear friend Carol Barnette was one of the first to take advantage of the degree and one of the first graduates from that program, and it was such a proud moment to see her, my other friend, Rosalee Wood, another young woman, take advantage of that, graduate and walk across the stage. So I would say that is really a proud moment for me.
JB: It sounds like one. Anything else you would like to add today?
KT: I truly love my work. I truly love the people who are on the front line. I just think there is a special place in Heaven for cooks and the people who work with them, their directors, they have such a challenging job. We are blessed in West Virginia to have such a core group of caring and concerned people for our children.
JB: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Kathy.
KT: You are welcome.