Interviewee: Katie Johnson
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: August 18, 2011
Description: Katie Johnson is a child nutrition manager in Georgia.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is August 18, 2011. I’m here in Griffin, Georgia, with Ms. Katie Johnson. Welcome Katie, and could we begin today by you telling me a little bit about yourself and where you grew up.
JB: So this is the only place you’ve lived all your life?
KJ: Yes, all my life.
JB: You don’t have to answer this one, but do you mind if I ask how old you are?
KJ: I just turned 77 on my birthday, Wednesday.
JB: Well my goodness, I would have never believed it. When someone told me that you worked for 54 years I thought ‘She must have been a child when she started’.
KJ: I was in my twenties when I started. My certificate says 52 years, but I subbed two years before I got hired. I worked in a lady’s place that was sick, and she died, so the supervisor said that since I worked those two years I had the job.
JB: So you said you turned 77 last Wednesday?
KJ: This past Wednesday.
JB: Oh, well happy birthday! So you were born and raised in Griffin. You went to school I take it in Griffin.
JB: Was there a school lunch or breakfast program when you were in school?
KJ: We had a lunchroom but we didn’t have a breakfast program. I was one of the first ones to start a breakfast program in Griffin, Spalding County, in the high school.
JB: Ok. We’ll get to that in a minute, but tell me first about your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs when you were in elementary school.
KJ: Well, when I first started I was young and little, and the kids used to tell me their business because they were larger than I was. And it the kitchen there was pots when we started out – great big old pots.
JB: Before that though, when you were a kid eating lunch, tell me about that first. What do you remember about that?
KJ: When I was eating lunch we had one lunch. You had a bread and a meat and a fruit, and usually a dessert, and that was it.
JB: No choices?
KJ: No choices. You didn’t have any choices. It’s so funny now that the kids now have everything.
JB: What were some of your favorite menu items when you were a kid that they served? Was there anything special?
KJ: Hot dogs and hamburgers. [Laughing]
JB: So you were just like every other kid, huh?
KJ: Every other kid.
JB: Any special memories of any of the ladies that worked in the lunchroom when you were at school?
KJ: I don’t remember too many of them because they weren’t as nice as we were, but I have about three or four ladies that I remember that were real nice. Lord, they’ve gone on to Glory now.
JB: I’m sure they loved the children.
KJ: Yes, they did.
JB: How far did you go in school in Griffin?
KJ: I went to the tenth grade in Griffin, and then I went to Griffin Tech, because I got married at an early age, and I went to Griffin Tech after my kids got grown.
JB: What did you study there?
JB: Ok. So you got your GED at Griffin Tech, and was that before or after you went to work in the cafeteria?
KJ: That was after I got in the cafeteria. I went to school in the afternoons.
JB: Married with children, working full-time, and going to school?
KJ: Yes. That was a JOB – it really was.
JB: I bet it was. So tell me how you started – you said a lady was ill.
KJ: I had some family members that worked in the school system, and they liked it because they had in like twenty and twenty-five years. So they asked me if I wanted to work and I said yes.
JB: Were they in the cafeteria?
KJ: They were in the cafeteria, but they weren’t in the one that I started in. And that’s how I got started, but I didn’t realize I was going to stay as long. After I had kids, and coming to the school working in the cafeteria, I would be off when they were off and be home with them in the afternoons, so that’s why I stayed. The mills were 4 and 5 o’clock getting off, and I didn’t do that.
JB: What kind of mills were they?
KJ: Cotton mills in Griffin. They were known for cotton mills.
JB: That’s interesting.
KJ: Yes, but I didn’t ever work in the mills. I didn’t work any place except the school system.
JB: Well, sounds like with 54 years you didn’t need to work anywhere else.
KJ: I couldn’t.
JB: Tell me about how you got started, what it was like.
KJ: When I first got started it was the big pots, like when I was going to school. They had these great big pots. You cooked on the stove – and it was just interesting. The pots were larger than I was. I used to have to stand on a stool to stir the pots. Later on we got a steamer. We had to cook homemade rolls. That was Griffin’s specialty, homemade rolls. We had to fry chicken on top of the stove – everything you had to cook on top of the stove, except those big pretty rolls.
JB: That was all you baked?
KJ: Yes – rolls and meatloaf and collard greens and things. They didn’t come too much in cans like they do now. They had this Cotton Brothers food place. I guess they went to the farmers market and got all of that kind of stuff.
JB: Were they a wholesaler?
KJ: Yes. They’re still in business now.
JB: Cotton Brothers?
KJ: Cotton Brothers, yes.
JB: So you worked two years temporarily and then they hired you permanently and you worked another fifty-two years?
JB: What were some of the biggest changes you saw over the years in the profession?
KJ: Going to the computer.
JB: I think number one is the rolls and number two is the computer that most people mention. Tell me about that.
KJ: When they said computer it scared me to death, but I used to get one of the younger ladies that was kind of more advanced in computers. I used to call her after school. We had training but I didn’t comprehend as much in the training as I did with the young lady that was showing me one-on-one.
JB: You must be like me; you have to do it to learn it.
KJ: Yes. Her name is Laverne. In the afternoons she would already be home and I would call and say, “Laverne, I put my inventory in and I can’t get it up.” “Did you do so and so and so and so?” And I’d say, “Yes, I did that.” Sometimes I think I was a little nervous of it. But she used to come over and say, “This is what you didn’t do.” So I remembered not to do that anymore. So that’s how I learned that.
JB: So you were a manager by then?
KJ: I got to be manager after I worked 18 or 20 years, but I had to take classes.
JB: Tell me about the training program. Was it local or was it state?
KJ: The majority of them were local, but then if they had a class in whatever county that was close by, where you could get home before night, we used to go take those classes. You had to take the basic training, and food preparation, and a lot of other classes, so I took them all. And then we had to take a class at the University of Georgia. I went over there and stayed a week. They did all their managers like that.
JB: That’s in Athens?
KJ: Yes. You have to take training. I got training and training. I got certified.
JB: I understand Georgia was really big in training; the State Department of Education really supported the school lunch program.
KJ: Yes, they really did.
JB: Do you remember any of the teachers/trainers you had?
KJ: I remember Sarah Johnstone. She used to teach classes; and Ms. Elizabeth Buice, Eugenia Seay. They were from the State Department of Education. It was really nice, and I remember when Ms. Sarah Johnstone would say, “Whatever you do,” – I was the assistant before I got to be manager – “whenever they let you go and take classes you go on and take them.” – because the managers got paid, the assistant didn’t – but I kept on going and they finally started paying me later on.
JB: Did you find that the classes really helped you to do your job?
KJ: Oh yes, Lord yes. It was really nice and I enjoyed it. You’d be sitting in school trying to get the right answers and it was fun and sad, and ooh I’d be sweating trying to pass those tests.
JB: Did they do it in the summer while the school was out?
KJ: Yes, they did it in the summer, and also sometimes in the afternoons so many times a week after work. The first ones I went to in the afternoons in the county. We had to go across town to other schools, where they had rooms to give classes.
JB: Did you have a mentor or anyone who helped you along as you took all the classes?
KJ: I would ask some of the teachers at the school if I needed help, because they were nice to me.
JB: The school where you were working?
KJ: Yes. One of the teachers, Essie Stringer – she is retired now – was a math teacher for years and years, and I would go to her house and she would help me go through my training.
JB: That was nice of her.
KJ: Everybody was nice and said, “Katie, if you need anything I’ll help you.” And my principal that I just retired under helped me out a lot too.
JB: So she was a supporter of the school lunch program.
KJ: Yes she surely was.
JB: What time did your day start?
KJ: Six o’clock in the morning until two in the afternoon, but I always stayed later. If they were having anything at the school I would always stay and help them out – any program that they had where they had to use the kitchen, I’d always stay and monitor my own kitchen.
JB: You didn’t want anybody else in your business, huh?
KJ: I think what it was – like if my ladies – the ladies that I had there had a lot of years. They were SET in their ways. They would always keep everything in line, and if it was out of line, “Where’s my fork? Where’s my this, and where’s my that?” That’s why I stayed, and I enjoyed staying. I just always wanted to be a part of the whole school, and that’s how I got along with them.
JB: So you got there at six – what was the first thing you’d do?
KJ: Unlock everything, turn on the lights and get the ovens and things on.
JB: Because you were serving breakfast by then, right?
JB: Tell me about how you started the breakfast program.
KJ: Our director said he was going to start the breakfast program at two schools first. I was at Spalding Junior School and the other school was Griffin High School – that was from the ninth to the twelfth. Years later they took the ninth grade from the high school and had just a ninth grade building and I was at the ninth grade building. So we started the breakfast program and in the beginning we just had like a muffin and juice, and we had certain days to have grits and eggs and toast, and pancakes, homemade pancakes.
JB: A very Southern breakfast.
KJ: It surely was, and it was really nice.
JB: What was your participation like? Was it popular?
KJ: At the junior high it was popular, but I didn’t serve that many. I served about two hundred for breakfast.
JB: Out of how many?
KJ: About six hundred. When the buses came they put the kids in the gym and they would be playing basketball and didn’t want to stop and eat – but if I made sausage and biscuits and put them in a wrapper like the restaurants, the participation jumped sky-high. Later at the elementary school I served 340-350 for breakfast. Now that’s some breakfast! We’d be having breakfast lines like lunch lines.
JB: So I guess once you got through with breakfast you had to immediately start getting ready for lunch.
KJ: For breakfast we had just two employees working. One was serving and one would be the cashier, and I would be the backup. If we needed anything I would be the backup. That was kind of rough, because if the grocery trucks came in you would have to stop and do the groceries and they would have to keep on going serving. But it was alright. My best part of what I loved so was those little kids when I got to go to the elementary school. They were so tiny. Lord, it was so sweet though.
JB: You were at the junior high first. How long were you there?
KJ: I was there over thirty years because after they moved the ninth grade to the high school that threw me out and I had to go to the elementary school. I was scared to death.
JB: But it was a blessing in disguise.
KJ: Yes it was, but I had never worked with little teeny weenie babies, but that was my heart.
JB: So you were scared?
KJ: Yes. I was scared to death. And the first day I got there here they came, hugging all around me, and they just made me feel so – little bitty little tiny tots. And every time they got something new they said, “Tell Miss Katie to come look at my shoes.” If I was in the back I would have to go and look at the shoes or whatever they got, and they just made me feel so welcome, and I just fell in love with them.
JB: It’s almost like a family.
KJ: That’s the truth, almost like a family. But by that time, when I got to the elementary, all of my kids had gotten grown. I’m a grandmamma, a great-grandmamma.
JB: How many children do you have?
KJ: I have four – and six grandchildren, and I’ve got three great-grands.
JB: My goodness.
KJ: They’re six and one just turned three.
JB: What are their names?
KJ: Shayla is the little girl, and I have one named Bryson and Markel.
JB: Your eyes light up when you talk about them. So you got through breakfast and then you had to start lunch, right?
KJ: Yes, Lord, right on lunch now. And see now –
JB: How many people were working there?
KJ: I had six, but all of them didn’t come in at the same time. As time progressed and lunches got a little different, like salads – they can order salads – you have to work a little harder with a salad. The kids would start out eating them and then just pick the meat off of it or whatever and they didn’t eat the rest of it, but as time progressed – they eat them better now. Even the little bitty kids eat salad.
JB: Tastes change.
KJ: Yes. It really does.
JB: I think they would eat healthier if we started them younger. So you got lunch going – that was what, some people cooked and then others came in later and served?
KJ: I had one that came in and started the dishwasher up for lunch. So what she does when she comes in at ten – we start serving lunch at 10:10, so she comes in and preps breakfast for the next day and then gets her machine set up so she will be ready to start when the first class finishes eating and brings their dishes to the window she’ll be ready to start then.
JB: So all the breakfast was disposable?
KJ: Yes, we had disposable breakfast because we didn’t have but two – nobody running the dishwasher – so we had to do disposable dishes, but it turned out nicely.
JB: So you get lunch served and then?
KJ: Clean up time – and then it would be time to go home by the time you got cleaned up.
JB: But you had to stay and do all your reports and paperwork.
KJ: Yes, Lord, but I had a cashier and she did her reports. Now we do all the reports on the computer.
JB: Did you ever get to where you liked the computer?
KJ: Yes, I got to where I could do a little something on it. I didn’t dislike it in the first place; I just didn’t know what to do.
JB: A little intimidated by it?
KJ: Yes, but I got to where I could do it. I’d wait until everybody left and I’d sit there and do it. I’d be late going home but I got to where I could do it better.
JB: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced over your career? Were there any big problems you had to deal with?
KJ: Well my only problem was the computer – getting used to it. I was just nervous. I did get used to it. Another big problem was sometimes your help. You can’t get good help sometimes. But I had a group that I really did enjoy and they enjoyed me.
JB: And you spent a lot of years together – not much turnover.
KJ: And when somebody had to be out everybody would do their work and then get together and do the other person’s work that was out. That turned out really well. I didn’t have to have subs until later on in years when we started with the salads and things and I had to have some help.
JB: Any other big changes other than the salads. Did you not go to more prepared food or did you always do scratch cooking?
KJ: We have gone to pre-cooked items now. After we started making pizzas they started buying pizzas. It was a little challenge to my ladies because after other schools started buying pizzas we kept making them and one of my ladies said, “Miss Katie, I don’t think you’re doing us fair.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Everybody else is buying pizzas.” I wasn’t thinking about what everybody else was doing. All I was doing was trying to get the kids to eat the good old homemade pizzas.
JB: So they thought it wasn’t fair to do more work?
KJ: Yes. But anyway I started buying the pizzas and the kids started liking them. But there was a little turnover for them because they were used to pizzas and homemade rolls. They don’t cook homemade rolls like they used to.
JB: They don’t do the bread anymore?
KJ: Some of the schools do, but some of the help messes and they don’t do them as good as like years ago. But they’ve got to learn this year because they’re going back to making wheat rolls.
JB: Oh, well good for them. Whole wheat rolls from scratch?
KJ: Yes, whole wheat rolls from scratch.
JB: Over fifty-four years – you started before integration probably then?
KJ: Yes. My daughter was one of the first to go to integrated schools, but I never worked in the black schools. I always worked in the white schools.
JB: Oh really.
KJ: Yes. I mean until they integrated. I surely did. And my kids – I’d leave work and go pick them up.
JB: At different schools?
KJ: Yes. I said, “Lordy Mercy, well things are different now. Thank you Jesus.” – because I don’t have to go flying to that school to pick up that one, and that one, and that one.
JB: So was it a pretty smooth transition in Griffin with integration?
KJ: As far as I know it was, because my daughter was at the school that I was at and I didn’t have a bit of problem; she didn’t either.
JB: What about your children? How did they feel about Mama working in the cafeteria? Was that a good thing?
KJ: It didn’t bother them at all – except my grandson when he started. He always liked to buy people’s lunches, especially little girls’. And I used to pay for his lunch and the cashier would say, “Miss Katie, you’ve got to give Shamal some extra money.” I’d say, “My Lord, I just put twenty dollars on his account. What?” She’d say, “I’m not supposed to tell you, but he buys some little girl a lunch.” I said, “Well I’ll just deal with that when I get home. I’ll act like I don’t know it until I deal with it.”
JB: His name was Jamal?
KJ: His name was Shamal. He was my first grandbaby. But he loved it because every day, “Grandmamma, will you run home? I forgot my book bag, I forgot this, I forgot that.” And then when he got over to the high school he would call. “Grandmamma can you run home and pick this up? I forgot this. I forgot that.” He was the world’s worst; stayed in the cafeteria more than he stayed in the classroom it seemed like to me. “I need this, or can you sign this?, and can you do that?” He got out of there after one year – it was just one year for the ninth grade. I said, “I guess I can stand it for one year, but honey I can’t stand it for six months with you.” But he loved it; I’ve still got him now. He’s the one that’s got two little kids.
JB: Any memorable stories, special children or ladies you worked with as you think back over your career?
KJ: Yes. I loved all of them, and even though we worked together every day, on a Saturday we’ll go and eat breakfast together.
JB: You and the ladies you worked with?
JB: That’s nice.
KJ: We were like home, like a family. When one hurt the other hurt. When one needed some money to finish paying the light bill we’d go together and give three or four dollars to kind of help out. And it was like that until they moved the ninth grade to the high school. Then everybody had to scatter, and I couldn’t take but one with me, and the other went over to Atkinson Elementary and I went over to Anne Street, and I took one of the ladies with me. And my brother died that year, and she was going to take over the kitchen for me until I got back, and I didn’t know when I left she got sick. And when I got back, she came back to work. And then about six months after that she got sick again, and she went into a coma, and she stayed in a coma for two years before she died. And that just was a toll on everybody, just looking at her lying there. I think about her now. God knows best.
JB: Like a member of your family.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the child nutrition program?
KJ: Well, mine is I just think I had something to do with some of these little kids that have grown up and made doctors, and lawyers, and nurses – because my daughter is one of the nurses. Her little friend made a doctor. And congressmen – and I just feel like some of that food helped them – and being nice to them at school.
KJ: That’s really nice. And they come to see me now whenever they can, and call to see how I’m doing – and I just think I played a big part in it.
JB: In making their lives better.
JB: Well, you retired this year, and I understand the School Nutrition Association honored you at their Annual National Conference in Nashville.
KJ: Yes, they sure did.
JB: Tell me about that.
KJ: Well, that was so funny. It was really great, but you talk about nervous, I said, “Good night, all those people there.” I didn’t realize it was going to be like that. But I just enjoyed that.
JB: I heard it was a big crowd this year, over 8,000 people.
KJ: Yes. And then they had that Jackson man, the country singer. We went to the Grand Ole Opry and he performed for us. That was really nice. That was my first time ever going to Nashville, Tennessee, and my first time at the Grand Ole Opry. We were playing like we were Cher – “Oh, it’s so beautiful!”
JB: You were playing like you were who?
KJ: Cher, like Sonny & Cher. How she used to get when she saw something pretty, like chandeliers, she would say, “Oh, they’re so pretty!” Oh, that was beautiful though.
JB: So you had a good trip?
KJ: It was; it was beautiful. Four of us went up – four women went up.
JB: All from this area?
KJ: Yes. I didn’t want to go by myself. I said, “I can’t go by myself.”, so one of my supervisors sent somebody with me – Laverne, and Reba, and Margie.
JB: So y’all had a good ‘girls’ time.
KJ: Yes, Lord, it was really good. And my director now, Ramsaier, she’s beautiful.
JB: What’s her name?
KJ: Mary Ramsaier – but she’s real nice.
JB: Really supportive?
KJ: Yes, really supportive – buying shirts and shoes. That’s one thing we never got years ago. She’s gotten to where she buys t-shirts and –
JB: Because you had to supply your own uniforms before?
KJ: Yes. She buys t-shirts – and she’s really supportive, and I love her to death. She’s really a sweet person. I’m lovable too so – [laughter]
JB: What advice would you give someone today who was considering going into child nutrition as a profession?
KJ: Well, that’s the best thing they can do, really, because there are so many kids that really need to get a good meal a day. And there is some obesity and I think [a good meal] would help that. [School nutrition] is one good field that I believe anybody would love if they put their mind to it. I really like it – I love it. And I love all the days you would be off for the holidays, off for Christmas and Thanksgiving, because I love being off sometimes. Some of these jobs don’t have but a week.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add today?
KJ: Well, I’m just happy to be retired, but I did not know that I stayed that long, and my body had let me know that I do need to rest.
JB: It was time, huh?
KJ: Yes it was time.
JB: Well Katie, thank you so much for talking with me today.
KJ: I enjoyed it really. Thank you very much.