Interviewee: Lydia Wirkus
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: February 17, 2016
Location: Anchorage, Alaska
Description: Lydia Wirkus is a school nutrition program reviewer in Alaska.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is February 17, 2016. I am here in Anchorage at the AKSNA state conference, and I’m here today talking with Lydia Wirkus. Welcome Lydia, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
JB: Could we begin by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born, where you grew up?
LW: I was born in Miami, Florida, grew up down there in way south Miami, kind of by the Everglades.
JB: I spent my thirty-ninth birthday day down there on South Beach. It was crazy.
LW: Well, that’s a long way from where I was. Miami Beach is real different from Miami.
JB: Did you go to elementary school in Miami?
LW: Elementary, junior, and senior high school in Miami, yes sir.
JB: Was there a school nutrition program?
LW: In elementary school I remember there being one. We never actually had enough money to buy school lunches, so we always brought our lunch. I don’t remember it in middle school and high school because I just brown-bagged it every day.
JB: OK. Well after high school, where did you go to school after that?
LW: I graduated from Florida State University in Tallahassee, with a degree in international affairs, and I also had a teaching certificate, so I taught for a couple of years in Miami.
JB: What did you teach?
LW: I taught special ed actually. And then I worked in an engineering firm for a year doing drafting, because one of my areas of specialty in international affairs was cartography. And then I earned my master’s degree in special ed and moved to Alaska, drove to Alaska.
JB: From Miami?
LW: From Miami, yeah, it was quite an adventure. Just decided one day, woke up and said, “I don’t think I want to live in Miami anymore. I guess I’ll just drive to Alaska.”
JB: How did you pick Alaska?
LW: Just because I thought it would be pretty cool.
LW: So I drove up here, worked for a few years teaching school again up here. Then I went back to the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, and that’s where I got my master’s degree in nutrition, and then moved back up here and started working in nutrition.
JB: So how did you get involved in child nutrition programs?
LW: By that time I was married, and friends of mine who were dietitians up here – I didn’t want to work full time – and they said, “Well, why don’t you check in with child nutrition programs at the state level, because they have a lot of contractors who do reviews and technical assistance and that kind of thing?” So I did and that’s when I started actually doing program reviewing. That was back in the late 70s, early 80s, and that’s when I was initially introduced to child nutrition programs up here with the state.
JB: And what was your first job title with the state?
LW: Program Reviewer. Contractor, I’m not a state employee. The state contracts out to us to do the program reviews.
JB: And that’s what you’re still doing?
LW: Well, yeah, with a long hiatus. So I did that for a few years, my kids were born, I carted them along with me to some of the villages. And then life kind of got in the way. Their dad moved out. I got a divorce. I had to support myself, and I couldn’t do it on a contract with the state, so I went back to teaching, taught for twenty years, retired. Oh I was going to make my living as an artist, and that didn’t work.
JB: What type of art?
LW: Stained glass. So I thought about it and it sounds kind of hokey to say, but it was a God thing, because I just kind of had this idea one day. I thought well, I wonder if the state still has program reviewers. And so I thought I guess I’ll just call them. And I did, and she’s like, yeah, we actually need a program reviewer. I’ll be in Anchorage in a couple of days. Can we have an interview? And I said yes. And so that was ten years ago. What year is this, 2016. That would have been in ’06. And so I started up again with program reviewing.
JB: You mentioned going out to villages. Tell me about that. What’s that like?
LW: Oh, always interesting. Always interesting. So for one thing, I don’t know how familiar you are with any of the villages. I’m sure Walter kind of filled you in a little bit.
JB: Just a little bit. I understand they’re pretty remote.
LW: Well, there’s no road access to most of them. The only way in and out of many villages is to fly, to snow machine, or drive on the frozen river in the wintertime, or go in by boat in the summer. But since program reviews have to be accomplished during the school year, preferably before March, which gives the schools time to work on corrective action, the primary access is to fly. And so to get to a village for example, I generally will fly from Anchorage to whatever the regional hub is. It might be Bethel in southwest Alaska in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. It might be Kotzebue or Nome. It might be Fairbanks. It might be, Dillingham is actually a regional hub. It might be over on King Salmon down on the Alaska Peninsula, down south of Lake Iliamna. So I can do that either on the jet or on the big Saab 340s, which is a twin-engine prop plane. So then once I get there I go over to the small air carriers that serve whichever village I’m going to. And so it’s get there, wait, see what the weather’s doing, and hope that the plane is flying. Depending on what village I’m going out to, they’re either a 206, which is a single engine airplane, front wheel, two back wheels. I think it carries eight. Sometimes there’ll be like maybe two people, and the whole rest of the plane full of freight. Fly out to the village, land on the strip –
JB: Which is snow and ice?
LW: Oh yeah, of course – get out of the airplane, hope that someone will come and pick me up, either in a truck or on a snow machine or on a four-wheeler, snowmobile I think you guys call them down in the States. Or a four-wheeler, the little ATVs you know?
LW: – and then ride a little bit more further to the school. So that’s just kind of getting there.
JB: And then once you get there – if you get there – what do you do?
LW: Once you get there it’s pretty much the same kind of activity as in any other school where I do a review. I meet up with whoever is the administrator for school food service. A lot of the villages don’t have enough personnel. They don’t have big enough districts to have an actual food service manager or food service director for the district. And so in some places the business manager, the business office takes care of part of that. The school secretaries might take care of part of it. Whoever that district decided is going to do it. So it’s kind of coordinating all these parts and pieces to figure out who I need to get all the information from to do the review. Some of the districts have, like Walter I’m sure explained how large his district is, and how long it takes.
JB: Twenty-three thousand square miles.
LW: Yeah. A lot of them out there are that way. There is the regional hub, for example, Bethel, down on the Kuskokwim River, and there are all these schools that are way far flung, for example, with Lower Kuskokwim School District, and some of the schools may have 450 kids in them; some of the schools may have 20. It’s the same with for example Lower Yukon, same thing. Their hub in Mountain Village, and then there are all these schools that are all the way up and down the river, all the way out to the coast, down south of where the Yukon River comes out almost to where the Kuskokwim Delta is. And so in order to accomplish a review I generally try to work with the school district people, because they’re the ones who know the carriers, they know the best way to get to the villages that are out far flung. And so I would try to get some of the paperwork part of the review done, the administrative portion, and then someone from the school district administrative office, I always ask them to accompany me to the schools just because it’s polite, it’s courteous to the school staff. It provides me with a little bit more entre. And I feel better having a representative of the district with me because it just kind of makes it go a little smoother I think. But I think it’s a courtesy to the schools, instead of just you know, ‘Here’s this person from the state coming in.’ And when we go to the schools now that we have to review breakfast, and we have to review lunch, and we try to review the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program if it’s possible, and then the Afterschool Snack Program if that particular school provides that service, so 99 times out of a hundred it’s going to require an overnight stay at the school. So I always carry my sleeping bag, and my sleeping cot, and my dinner, because most of the villages don’t have accommodations for tourists or others. And so generally anyone who comes to stay, like sometimes there might be contractors, or people who are out there to work on the water system, or the diesel generator, whatever, people end up staying at the school or the community center, depending on how big the village is. So, we get in a smaller airplane, sometimes a four-seater, sometimes a six-seater, to fly out to wherever the schools are, and we’ll get there and I’ll try not to talk to the cook until lunch is done, try to observe the lunch service, do that portion of the review, visit with the cook, go through the kitchen, talk to the kids, find out whoever’s handling the school food service program at that particular school. And then I try to – one time I was fortunate in a school that they were doing one of their cultural lessons and so I got to participate, actually ended up helping, assisting the instructor. The kids were making kuspuks, which is the traditional Yupik and Inupiat woman’s dress. It’s got the hood and the very distinctive pockets –
JB: Is there a fur headdress?
LW: You can have fur. The kids weren’t making fur. And it comes down to about mid-thigh, and the girls make a little skirt attached, and the guys just make like a snow shirt. But they were making those as part of their cultural lesson, so because I know how to sew I got to help the kids with making those kuspuks. It was really fun.
JB: That’s wonderful.
LW: Yeah, it was awesome. And so then the school empties out and I set up my cot.
JB: So how often do you review a particular school?
LW: The federal guidelines were every five years, then they went to every three years, and I think with the reauthorization I heard they were looking at every five years again. So it kind of just depends. It’s been every five years in the past, but for the last couple of years I think it’s been a three-year rotation.
JB: How many reviews do you average a year?
LW: I think last year I was scheduled for six districts. Some of the districts I have to visit two or three schools. Some of the districts are single-school districts. There’s a whole long history of the state of Alaska on why we have single-school districts out in some of the more remote areas.
JB: Tell me about it.
LW: Oh golly, this goes all the way back to the pipeline days and settling the native land claims. And also back when I first moved up here and was teaching there was what was called the Alaska Unorganized School Districts. And then over the years that morphed into Regional School Districts, and schools within these regions were allowed to decide if they wanted to join as part of the Regional School District, or did they want to be a self-standing, self-sufficient school district within that region. So a lot of the schools chose to become independent school districts even though they’re within one of the bigger regions. So for example there are a couple of different smaller districts that have one school or three schools within the big region that encompasses the Yukon-Lower Kuskokwim School District. And it’s the same with the schools along the Yukon River. Some of them chose to be their own school district, as opposed to joining the bigger regional school area. So they have to be reviewed as well if they have a school food service program. And so some of them are one-school districts and some of them are twenty-school districts, it just kind of depends.
JB: Are there particular problems you encounter with reviews? Is there a theme or different problems?
LW: The areas of difficulty I think for the rural schools – of course the first issue is getting the food to the school. Once the river opens up a lot of the school districts place large orders that are then brought in by barge in the fall, and then they are stored in the warehouse until they can be dispersed to the schools. But once the river freezes up the barge can’t come in anymore and so everything has to be brought in by plane. So if it’s really cold outside and the district has ordered fresh foods or fresh vegetables and there’s no one to meet the plane, the plane doesn’t sit and wait for somebody to come and pick up the fruit, because they’re on a pretty serious schedule. So the stuff gets offloaded and set down there on the tarmac, which is covered by snow or ice or gravel. And if no one’s there because something happened back at the school, they couldn’t get the truck out or whatever, then the produce or the food or whatever is exposed to freezing temperatures. So that’s the reason that most of the schools out in the more hard to access places generally don’t have fresh fruits, fresh vegetables on the school menu. Some of them do. For some I think it’s a priority. Some of them, they don’t have the money to make that a priority. A lot of them qualify for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and so they are able to provide the kids with fresh fruits and vegetables some places once a month, some places once a quarter, some places once a semester. And some places that are more accessible get it more often. A lot of times I’ve tried to go out and review the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program while I’m on site working with the other food service programs, and it’s like, “Well, the plane didn’t come in and we don’t have any fresh fruits or vegetables.” Or I’ll talk to a cook and say, “So, this is what you had planned for today, but this is what you served. How come?” “Well, the plane didn’t come in and I didn’t have this, this, and this. So we had to make do with this, this, and this.” Frequently it’s, “Well, the plane didn’t come in.” And I know how that is, because I’m on that plane. Or I might have waited two days in Bethel, or in Nome, or in Fairbanks, Anchorage.
JB: Any close calls doing all of this?
LW: As far as in the airplanes?
LW: No, not really. There are a couple of carriers around the state that I choose not to fly with, because I don’t feel comfortable, but I’ve never really had a ‘problem.’ Especially when the weather’s really bad you kind of take a deep breath and – I was on a plane a few years ago with a couple of school district people, and we were out in a more remote area, and all three of us were like [grips her seat very hard] because the wind was SO BAD. It was so scary. And even she was scared and she was grown up in that area. But you know, those guys that fly those airplanes, it’s their job, it’s their livelihoods, but it’s also their lives. If something happens they’re going to be as badly injured or whatever as I am, so they’re not going to take chances like that. And the carriers I have flown where there are pilots who take chances, I just won’t ever fly with them again.
JB: Smart move.
LW: Yeah, and it means I have to figure out either a different carrier or a different way to get out there, but –
JB: Do you feel that your educational background helped prepare you for what you’re doing now.
LW: Well I think so. I think actually twenty-five years of teaching school probably helped a lot. I taught high school, and high school kids, I mean one day they’re grownups and next day they’re just nutty little kids so – and I like to teach. I like to think, I hope that I do a good job. That’s probably my favorite part of reviewing, is working with the cooks, presenting workshops and trainings, that’s the part I actually like the best.
JB: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the programs over the years?
LW: The first workshop I ever had to teach, back in the late 70s, early 80s, was in Bethel, and it was a group of cooks who had come into Bethel for a cooks training. And I had my agenda and my notes and my handouts and my games and all of that cool stuff, and I get a phone call the morning of the training, and the woman who was in charge of it says, “Well it’s going to be a little different than we thought because the woman who is our translator is sick.” And I said, “Translator?” Well, most of the cooks, their native language was Yupik. And some of them were not as fluent in English as I was expecting. And so without the woman to provide some interpretations, some translation of some of the different principles and some of the different regulations, I got in there that morning and it was like, “OK, I seriously need to fall back and punt on this one.” And I knew just from experience of living up here, and commercial fishing, and staying in some of the different fishing areas that I’ve stayed in that it’s kind of a different mindset with the Yupik and the westerners. And so we tend to want instant responses. We tend to talk fast and not listen as well as we should. And so I realized that what I needed to do was to present something and then walk out of the room and let the ladies talk about it in their language and make sure they understood it, and then I could come back, because they felt rude, that it was rude to talk not in English in front of me. And so I left, and then I would come back and ask for questions. A couple of women there were quite fluent in English and so they would bring up the questions that the rest of the women had. So it was just a whole really different kind of give and take. And I learned a HUGE amount at that workshop, a HUGE amount, and I hope they did too. So that was kind of my first experience at presenting a workshop in a school district that wasn’t a road system school district. These days on the whole I think there’s the same kind of give and take I think, but it’s different in that most of the cooks now are not necessarily younger, but they’re not necessarily the elders in the village either. So they’re more bilingual, they speak Yupik, but they also speak English. They speak Inupiat, but they also speak English. And so it’s a different kind of a dynamic. But I try to still say stuff and then shut up. It’s hard for me to do. I’ve learned a lot. It’s hard for any of us to do. We tend to want instant response and you don’t get it. So that’s been a big difference in the program. The food access and the transportation costs, they’re all the same. The airports have all been upgraded, but it’s still the same issues. There are still no roads to these places. There are still a lot of areas that have a diesel generator that provides the electricity for the village. And the schools frequently have their own generators, so that if one goes down then the other is available. The schools are still a big part of the community. The gym is generally open after school for basketball or whatever. The schools are kind of the community center.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the field?
LW: Oh my goodness. Let me think about that a sec. The field did you say?
JB: Yes, to child nutrition in Alaska.
LW: I hope that it’s been the knowledge that I hope that I have been able to impart to people. But also – I hope this doesn’t sound too much like patting myself on the head – but what I try to do everywhere I go is really stress to the cooks how critical they are to the program. And I always try to make sure in my exit conferences that the superintendent recognizes, or at least that I say to the superintendent, how critical the cooks are. And so I hope that maybe that support, positive reinforcement for cooks has really helped them recognize that what they do is important. I remember one time I went into a school and I asked the cook, because I always ask the cook, the first thing I do is talk to the cook, and I try to do a little chit-chatty kind of stuff with them, because it’s polite, and it provides more credibility on my part if I visit with them before walking in and saying, “Show me your refrigerator.” So I walked in and I said, “So, how’s it going?” She was pretty new, and she’s like, “Fine.” “OK. What’s going on? I hear you’re new.” So I was kind of trying to draw her out a little bit, and finally she burst into tears. And I thought ‘Oh my gosh, she’s really scared of me’ because a lot of times they’re really nervous that ‘the inspector’ is coming. And it turned out – we talked for quite a while – it turned out that she was having some issues with the new principal, whose spouse was coming into the kitchen and borrowing equipment, because they had not shipped their own cooking equipment out. And so she was having issues with that because it wasn’t brought back, and she had to go and knock on the door in the morning to get the cooking equipment to prepare breakfast. So we talked quite a bit about it, and I told her that would seriously change. And when I got back to the district level I spoke with the food service director and said, “This has to change.” I hope that I empowered that cook to feel like the kitchen was her domain, and she didn’t have to put up with that kind of thing. And in another really large district, after the whole review was over, I went into where all the cooks were gathered and I told them, “Thank you so much.” That I really appreciated everything that they had done for the kids throughout the entire district, and the food service director said to me, “You’re the first person that’s EVER gone in and thanked the cooks.” So that’s kind of what I feel is a really critical component, especially these cooks who live out there in the more remote areas, and they’re kind of existing in their own world. And I don’t want them to feel that they’re totally cut off from support, so I always give people my personal phone number, my personal email. I say, “Call me. I don’t care; I want to talk to you. I’ll answer your questions if I can, and if I can’t I’ll find an answer.” So I hope that that’s really been an integral part of what I have been able to impart to everybody involved, is that the cooks are really kind of your critical component here.
JB: What advice would you give someone that was considering child nutrition as a profession today?
LW: To be prepared for the unexpected. That’s what I would say, whether it was in Anchorage or Kwethluk, or in Nuiqsut, I’d say, “Just be prepared for it to never be what you think it’s going to be.” But I would encourage people. I always encourage people to study nutrition and dietetics, and I mean these are our kids. I did do one of the NFSMI trainings –
JB: ICN now.
LW: I know. Sorry. It’s a little mind shift there.
JB: It’s OK. We’re still getting used to it.
LW: – and we were talking in the training about working in our various school districts, and it’s so far out of the realm of people’s awareness and comprehension that a lot of times it’s very difficult for people to get a concept of what we do. And when I was flying out to an area just two weeks ago I thought to myself no one has a clue how different it is up here until you actually are here and looking at it and experiencing it. We’ve had USDA people up here and it’s like I don’t think they ever register because it’s so far out of their reality. Other program reviewers drive here and drive there and drive here. I just think that it’s so far out of people’s scope of imagination even, what we contend with up here, that I’m really quite impressed with almost all of the places that I visit. And they’re like, “How do you guys do this?” And they do a really good job.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add?
LW: Oh, I have lots I’d like to add, but I guess we’ll probably not. My kids are grown and gone and they still say, “Mom, get off your soapbox.”
JB: Well, thank you so much for talking to me.
LW: My pleasure.