Interviewee: Lark Christian

Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce

Date: November 6, 2010

Location: Beau Rivage Hotel & Casino, Biloxi, Mississippi 

Description: Lark Christian has worked as a child care supervisor and statewide coordinator for child nutrition programs for the State of Mississippi. She is now the food service director for Jackson County, Mississippi. 

Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it’s November 6, 2010. I’m here in Biloxi at the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino with Lark Christian, who’s here for the Mississippi School Nutrition Association meeting. Welcome Lark and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

Lark Christian: Thank you.

JB: Could we begin today by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and grew up?

LC: OK. I was born in Mississippi and have lived here most of my life. I was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Both my parents are educators. My father was a school superintendent and my mother a second grade teacher. We have lived in several places throughout the state, but I grew up in Booneville. I graduated from Booneville High School and then my parents moved to Iuka, Mississippi, northeast Mississippi. I went to the W, got my degree from the W, and my husband was in the air force, so we did live overseas for two years in England, and then when he got out of the service we came back and settled in Mississippi on the Gulf Coast so that he could work in Mobile, but I would be allowed to live and work in Mississippi. We also lived in Jackson for a while and that’s when I began working for the State Department of Education in child nutrition program. So that was my first entrance into child nutrition.

JB: Before we get into that tell me where you went to school, elementary and high school.

LC: I went to Grenada, Lizzie Horn Elementary in Grenada, and my father was a high school coach and high school Drivers Ed teacher and DECA teacher. And then he took a job with Northeast Mississippi Junior College in Booneville, and we moved to Booneville and that’s where I went to high school.

JB: Was there a school lunch or breakfast program at the schools that you attended?

LC: Yes, absolutely.

JB: And did you participate?

LC: I did, absolutely. We had one meal and everybody had the same meal. It was served for you on the tray.

JB: It was lunch?

LC: It was lunch.

JB: Do you remember some of your favorite menu items?

LC: It was hamburger. Friday was always hamburger day; to get French fries and a hamburger – that was the big day.

JB: My Fridays were vegetable soup with half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and half a pimento and cheese. So after that where did you go to college?

LC: I first went to Northeast Mississippi Junior College there in Booneville, and I went there for two years and was in the band, in the Tiger Marching Band, and then I went to the W. It was a transfer scholarship with Home Economics Education.

JB: And that’s what you got your degree in?

LC: Yes it is.

JB: And did you do anything later? Did you pursue a master’s?

LC: I worked on my master’s at Southern, but did not finish it.

JB: What were you studying there?

LC: Nutrition and Dietetics.

JB: So what brought you into child nutrition? Did you have a mentor, or someone who guided you in that direction?

LC: Absolutely. Carolyn Hopkins, who was my teacher at Northeast Mississippi Junior College, got me transferred to the W, and then she went to work in Jackson at the child nutrition office, and when I graduated from college she recommended me for a job, so I worked at the Department of Education under Carolyn Hopkins. So she was my teacher and my supervisor, both.

JB: So, what was your first position there?

LC: I was a child care supervisor, so I would visit daycare centers and Head Starts to look and their menus and production books and free and reduced applications to make sure they were following all the guidelines.

JB: Do you feel like your education helped prepare you for your entrance into child nutrition?

LC: Absolutely. Both things worked together, the nutrition and the education. Really, there were several avenues I had – to go into teaching or to work for child nutrition, so my degree served me well that I could do many different things.

JB: So, walk me through your positions from where you started at the state agency to where you are now.

LC: OK. I was a child care supervisor first, with child care centers – children before they started school. Then I was promoted to a position for the school lunch program, and I would travel to school districts to help supervisors in the local districts set up. So the good thing about that was I got to see almost all the school districts in Mississippi. Some operated very well, and some needed assistance. I did that for a long time, and then my husband got a job offer and we moved to Jackson County, and that position happened to be open, and I have been there for eighteen years.

JB: What position is that?

LC: That is Food Service Director.

JB: So you were doing a lot of training in your earlier position?

LC: Yes.

JB: And do you do a lot of training now?

LC: Still do – absolutely.

JB: What’s a typical day like for you now, or is there?

LC: A lot of it is paperwork. I am behind a desk a lot of the time. I wish I wasn’t. I wish that I could go out to my schools more often, but we have an enrollment of 9,000, so a lot of mine is administrative now.

JB: What’s your participation of those 9,000?

LC: Maybe 6,500 for lunch. Not that many for breakfast, but our lunch is pretty good.

JB: That’s still quite a few meals a day. So what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced over your career?

LC: Budget has been huge. It’s totally my responsibility to make sure that we are self-sustaining, that we don’t need any money from the school district, and they expect that from us. They expect not to have to worry about child nutrition, and so that’s a constant worry to be sure that at the end of the year your budget is going to be healthy and that you can buy the equipment that you need and to implement all the new guidelines that they continue to give us.

JB: How hard is that and what are some of the things that you have done to accomplish it?

LC: Sharing with those food service directors that are around you, that are here on the coast is wonderful because somebody may be doing something that I had not thought about or that had a success that they can share with me, so sharing with the others, and coming to conferences like this is a big way to do that.

JB: What are some of the biggest changes you’re seen in child nutrition over the years?

LC: The dietary guidelines, doing nutritional analysis – that was all brand new to me. That was something that I had to learn. I’d had basic nutrition, but because I’m not a dietitian I really had to learn a lot about nutrition so that I could make sure that we were meeting the requirements and getting the right combinations of food. But it’s been fun. I enjoy what I do. It’s been interesting to learn.

JB: How did you get the nutrition training? Where did you turn to for resources?

LC: Computer software, because you can look and a lot of things are already done for you; going to workshops; going to training, is basically where I’ve gotten it from.

JB: I understand another one of your big challenges during this career was Katrina. Can you tell me about that?

LC: We’ve had several different devastating things to happen in our school district. One of the biggest jobs with doing our jobs is crisis management. And of course this was the biggest challenge that I had ever had, absolutely. We lost two schools completely. They were on the Back Bay, which had never flooded before. They weren’t directly on the water. They were just close to a back bay, and the water went completely over the buildings. Some of my kitchen tables were caught in the rafters in the roof. Some of them were down the road. Our biggest challenge was finding a place for those children to go that were in both those buildings and being able to feed them. And really, they wanted us to start feeding even before school started – to be a place where people could come. We did have schools that were saved, so we were able to just move to those facilities and cook for additional people. We would have an a.m. staff and then a p.m. staff and they even staggered school that way. The buses went that way. We’d have certain children come in – the high school would come in in the morning, they would leave at noon and then the elementary children would come in, and so the buses would run four times a day to pick up those students and then take them home, and then we fed breakfast and lunch and then we fed lunch and another breakfast meal late in the afternoon.

JB: Wow. How long after the storm did you start?

LC: October 3rd was our first day back, and that was my birthday.

JB: So just over a month, six weeks maybe?

LC: Yes.

JB: You said you lost two schools completely. How many schools did you have?

LC: We had fourteen at the time.

JB: And I’m sure some of those had severe damage.

LC: They did. We have three attendance centers – St. Martin, which is above Ocean Springs, and so those schools sustained the most damage. Then in Van Cleave we had some damage. And then East Central, pretty much everything was good. In fact East Central could have gone back to school weeks earlier than the other two attendance centers, but we made the decision to stay together as a district, and nobody would go back to school until everybody could. So East Central was able to give us some resources and maintenance to get the other schools up and going so that we all stayed together.

JB: What was the response? Did the community pull together? Did you have a lot of help?

LC: We really did. Red Cross was there from the very beginning in the shelters. They fed them directly after the storm. Even in the areas where we didn’t have tremendous damage they were still without water, without electricity for two weeks, so the Red Cross was there. I had left the area, so I was at Iuka at my parent’s house with my family, but my assistant Jennifer Strickler was able to get back to Hurley. Her husband was a firefighter, so he was not allowed to leave. He’s a Biloxi firefighter so he was in the middle of everything that was going on. So she was able to get a maintenance truck – because nobody had gasoline – but the maintenance truck had gasoline in it, so she was able to drive that truck from Hurley to Van Cleave to St. Martin to let them know [to] get up to the schools, open up, let them have any food. We gave ice cream away when we very first got there, and unbelievably, it was still frozen. So that was one of the biggest treats we were able to GIVE those kids and people who had been in those shelters for three days, was ice cream. And basically we just opened our shelves, our freezers, coolers, and gave Red Cross anything that they needed.

JB: Because it would spoil.

LC: It was going to spoil anyway, absolutely. And some things already had. But it was amazing, those freezers, as long as that door was closed, they stayed pretty well, but we gave everything that they needed.

JB: What about you personally – your home?

LC: We evacuated to Iuka and then my husband and my sister’s husband were able to come back together in a truck, and my sister’s home was gone – they lived in Diamondhead – and my house had a tree on it – so we knew that we would have to stay with my parents until we could at least get our house ready for both families to come back to, and so we would drive from Iuka to around Meridian and meet them and give them water and gas that my dad filled up in these huge containers in the back of the truck, because water and gas were so hard to get to. They would take their cell phones and go to the highest point on a bridge and be able to contact us and say meet me on this certain day with water and gasoline, and so we would drive the distance of half the state and meet them so that they could continue to work on our house to get in the shape so that we could come back.

JB: And what about your employees, what were their conditions?

LC: We had some damage with the employees. We had a few that lost everything, absolutely, but it wasn’t a huge number that lost everything. A lot if my employees did not have insurance, so we did whatever we could to help them. Do did have some employees that were allowed to bring their FEMA trailers or travel trailers onto school property and hook directly into our water and our electricity, because they had nothing. So we had several that lived on school property in their RVs, and our superintendent was wonderful about that. In fact that was his idea – let them come here where we can get water and electricity first.

JB: How long did they have to do that?

LC: Some of them were there maybe three or four weeks – it was weeks – until they could get water and electricity established. Being out in the county, we were some of the last ones to get electricity. And if you lived far out, it was a long time.

JB: What would you consider your biggest accomplishment, or your proudest moment of your career?

LC: That we were able to feed hot food the first day that the kids came back. And my superintendent said to me – that was the one thing he asked me to do. When we were able to hold our first meeting – cell phones – sometimes your cell phone would work, sometimes it wouldn’t – but he was able to get as many administrators [as he could] and say we are going to meet on this certain day at the county office. We all came in – nobody had done their hair, nobody had makeup, because we just had to show up like we were, and we just developed a plan. And he said, “When can you have food? When can you be ready?” And I said, “We could do sack lunches. We could do this – “and he said, “I really, really need for them to have a hot meal the first day.” And I just said, “Ok.” I didn’t know how we were going to do it, but I knew that that was important. It was simple, but it was something that was hot.

JB: How did you do it?

LC: We developed menus. We were in construction on two cafeterias already, and we were having to transport food, so those menus were already simplified, like a cheeseburger with chips, so we were able to find some hot component, hot entrée, and then maybe have other cold items to go with that. But for some of those people, that was the first hot food that they had. And breakfast too – rather than having cereal we had a sausage and biscuit. And most of the things were items that you could wrap and carry. One of the other things that I did is called Jackson – a car dealership – and said, “I need two vans”, because I knew I was going to have to transport food. And so that was one of the first things I did after the storm, get two vans brought to me so that we could begin to carry food – use our working kitchens and then take food to the other kitchens.

JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?

LC: The nutrition training is very important now, because a large part of the job is planning nutritious meals, and in the future I just see there will be more and more requirements on nutrition. You have to be ready for crisis management. You have to be able to think on your feet. I think the more exposure you get to some of the different jobs that are out there – volunteering, summer jobs – would be very important.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add?

LC: I love what I do, I really, really do. I don’t know that I would have lasted if I didn’t actually, actually love it.

JB: Thank you for your time.

LC: You’re welcome.

The following are Lark Christian’s recollections of Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Monday, August 29, 2005. This is the story of how the Food Service Department of Jackson County School District was impacted by the hurricane and how the staff responded to the devastation all around them. Jackson County School District has fourteen cafeterias and approximately 9,000 children enrolled in school.

On Friday, Aug 26, 2005 we left school not knowing that the hurricane would impact the Mississippi Gulf Coast. By late Friday afternoon we were told that school would be cancelled for Monday and Tuesday and to be on standby for further instructions. Most managers secured their schools over the weekend, including taking paperwork and back up information with them. Red Cross began to set up shelters in our three high schools. Sunday morning we were notified to return to the County Office and secure the building. At this point we all knew that a major storm was headed our way, possibly a category 5 hurricane. Everyone began to make their decision to leave or stay. I left Sunday evening to stay in Jackson and then on to Iuka, MS. Our Food Service Coordinator, Jennifer Strickler left to stay with family in Florida. The rest of our County Office staff, Janine Jackson, Gale Tinsley and Wanda Humphry, stayed in their homes. Looking back we were very fortunate to be in so many different places after the storm because communication was so limited. The first person I talked to after the storm was Jennifer in Florida. Next I was able to talk with a few of the managers who were still in Jackson County. I could place a call to them but they couldn’t call me. Slowly over the next week we were able to locate all managers in some form or another. This was the beginning of our recovery effort that would take more than a year. None of us could have ever predicted the choices and decisions we would need to make. I do know that I have never been more proud of our Food Service Department than during those days.

By Tuesday we knew that we had lost two schools completely in St. Martin and that all schools were damaged. Jennifer, who’s husband is a firefighter for the City of Biloxi, was able to return to her home in a few days. She returned with her 3year old daughter and a truck loaded with supplies that would be needed for living without electricity and water. Our Superintendent, Rucks Robinson, was able to get to her house and ask her to have all schools opened so that any food or supplies could be given to the two remaining shelters. The shelter at St. Martin High lost its roof during the storm and everyone had to be evacuated to other shelters. Because gas was so limited, Jennifer was given a school district truck to drive where she felt safe. Everywhere in Vancleave and Hurley that she went she gave the message to give all food and supplies to the shelters. One of the first things we gave away was ice cream. Unbelievable it was still frozen. What a treat! The shelters were hot and overcrowded with limited restroom facilities. Much joy was taken from meal time. To have someone preparing a hot, nutritious meal for them was a blessing. Any frozen or chilled food that could not be immediately used had to be left to spoil. We would come back weeks later to clean up the mess. It was much more important at that moment to feed our community.

It would be two weeks before I was able to return as I had a tree through my kitchen. My children were enrolled in the Iuka Public School District and Sharon Ledbetter, Food Service Director, offered me the use of all her resources. From my parents’ home in Iuka I was able to organize and plan for what lay ahead. Our first administrative meeting was held in Vancleave. This was the first day we had electricity in the County Office. Many staff showed up with unusual hair dos. With no running water, no curling irons, blow dryers or electric rollers they really didn’t look like themselves. It was amazing the number of staff that attended the meeting. So many put their personal situation aside to worry about students and schools. One of the first things our superintendent told us was to take care of our personal situations first. Make sure we had a place to stay and make repairs that we could because he needed us to be ready for the challenge that lay ahead. We predicted reopening school would be monumental and it was. I was asked what food could be served and replied we would try to do a sandwich menu for the first week. My superintendent told me if there was any way possible he wanted hot meals served the first day of school, which turned out to be October 3. So many students and staff had lost so much he felt it was imperative that we feed them hot food. I didn’t know how we were going to do it but I knew we would. My superintendent inspired me to do what I thought would be impossible but on our first day back we served hot sandwiches.

Our school board and Superintendent also made arrangements for FEMA trailers to be put on 16th Section Land for up to three years and any school employee was allowed to put a FEMA trailer on school campus for immediate hookup to utilities.

Vancleave High School

Vancleave High School was a shelter and was packed the night of the storm. After the storm people remained in the shelter for up to two weeks. The kitchen stayed open 24 hours a day providing coffee, beverages, and snacks in addition to three meals daily. Vancleave High School employees had little damage to their homes so they helped at the shelter and went out into the community helping in any way they could. The Red Cross did a wonderful job, not only taking care of people, but also taking care of our facilities.

St. Martin Elementary School
I would never have dreamed that when I left my kitchen for the third time the weekend before Katrina, that it would be totally destroyed. Actually my staff and I were already in a fix. The day before school started we had had a gas leak.

We started the year off transporting food from another kitchen. Friday, August 26 was the first time we actually cooked in our kitchen. I was so excited the gas had been restored. I even sent an e-mail to the teachers and students letting them know that on Monday, August 29, 2005, we would have hamburgers, pizza, and French fries for lunch. Little did I know what lay ahead. Before I left on Friday, I put away a few things just as a precaution. Possibly we might not be back to school until Tuesday.

On Saturday morning the weather reports were not good. I called one of my staff members to help me move some food items to the freezer and put away some supplies. We thought we were good to go. Later that afternoon I was a little uneasy, so I went back to the school and put more things in a safer place. I also packed up some of my files and took them with me. On Sunday I was really worried so I went back and put up whatever I could and stuffed my new warmer with all my recipe books, new utensils, and whatever fit on the top shelf, and closed the door thinking everything was safe.

When the storm subsided that afternoon, my cousin brought me down to the school. It was unbelievable! I was shocked! It was the most horrible sight to see the destruction that was done. The whole campus was totally destroyed. My kitchen looked like a weed eater was turned on in it. My old serve lines were outside of the dining room door. All the equipment was either on the floor or hanging from its side. It was very depressing to see the school to be totally gone!!

We started back to school on October 3rd. My staff and I had to share the Jr. High School Kitchen with the Jr. High and St. Martin North Elementary. Three schools serving from one kitchen! It was a challenge and very hard at first until we developed a new routine. I delivered breakfast out of my car until I was set up in a trailer. We are very happy to have a place to call our own. It is a challenge everyday and to use the phrase of our Asst. Superintendent…
“PRESS ON”………..

Leta Robbins, Manager, St. Martin Upper Elementary
Once we were back in school, the Food Service Department spearheaded a project to give every school employee that had lost due to the storm a “Thanksgiving Stocking”. This was a huge Christmas stocking filled with all kinds of treats. Janine Jackson, Food Service Secretary, solicited donations from many different sources. Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Dominos, were just some of the contributors. The stockings were delivered the day before we got out of school for the Thanksgiving Holidays. The staff not only appreciated the goodies in the stockings but the gesture of caring behind the gift.

In November, our school district was contacted by the The Methodist Church of Mississippi. They wanted to provide Christmas presents to the children in our school district who had lost so much. Jennifer Strickler contacted the Methodist Church regarding our Food Service staff’s children who had great losses. They immediately responded back wanting personal information so they could help. Jennifer gathered wish lists from the children of each family. Twenty wish lists were sent to The Methodist Church of Mississippi. Within hours, Becky Trask, who is the Children’s Advocate for the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, contacted Jennifer to say that these children were being adopted by families all over the United States. Within a few days every child was adopted. A date and time were arranged for the Christmas gifts to be delivered. These gifts ranged from gameboys, clothes, gift cards, DVDs, bikes, make-up, jewelry, and even a computer. The Methodist Churches really came through for these parents and children. When the gifts arrived not only did they have everything on each child’s list, they also sent gifts for the parents. What would have been a depressing Holiday Season was turned into a joyous one.