Interviewee: Lynn Parker
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: April 1, 2008
Description: Lynn Parker recently retired from Food Research and Action Center [FRAC], after thirty years of dedicated service to improving the nutrition of the nation’s children. She has now moved to the Institute of Medicine, where she is heading up a standing committee on childhood obesity prevention.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is April 1st, 2008, and I’m here in Washington, D.C., with Lynn Parker. Thank you so much Lynn for taking the time to share your story with me today.
Lynn Parker: Sure.
JB: Could we begin today with you telling me a little bit about yourself; where you grew up and things like that?
LP: Sure, I grew up in Pittsburg, PA, an hour outside of Pittsburg, PA. I think that was where my love of the school lunch program began, because I had to come home for lunch. When I was in first grade I would walk home for lunch; my mother would make me lunch every day. And then one day my mother wasn’t going to be there and I was going to have to buy my lunch at school. And I was scared because I had never done that before. I went into the cafeteria and I think I was in tears and the ladies behind the counter were so nice to me and the food tasted so good and the smells in the cafeteria were so wonderful and I was hooked on the cafeteria after that.
JB: So you were hooked on school lunch.
LP: I was hooked on school lunch and it just tasted so good to me and it was food I had never had before. There were celebrations at the holidays and I happened to be a child who loved to eat. So it was a love from there on, a love affair with the school lunch food.
JB: What were some of your favorite food items in those school lunches?
LP: Oh, let’s see. What I remember most is Thanksgiving dinner. We had the mushy peas and the mashed potatoes with the gravy and the turkey and the cranberry sauce and that little tiny slice of pumpkin pie. It all tasted so wonderful to me.
JB: Now did they do dressing like we do in the South?
LP: Yes, yes they do.
JB: That’s my favorite item at Thanksgiving.
LP: Anyway I grew up in Pittsburg and I went on to study anthropology and was very interested in sort of how people interacted and the whole issue of culture. And I got interested in food because of that, and then realized what I was really interested in was nutrition, because I had spent some time in South America and Mexico and Columbia and got very interested in the whole issue of nutrition and hunger.
JB: I see. So where did you study?
LP: I was at the University of Michigan and Cornell University. And then I worked as a nutrition educator for a while. And then I began to realize that among the people I was working with, who were mostly low-income people in the state of New York, people needed more than education, they needed food. It wasn’t enough to talk to people about the best thing to eat or how to buy it or how to prepare it. People really needed to gain access to resources so they could have enough food. So that’s when I went to the Food Research and Action Center, FRAC, to be their nutritionist, the first nutritionist they had ever had. They were mostly lawyers and some community workers, but I was the first nutritionist to be part of their work. And that was, I was there for 30 years.
JB: I understand you recently retired from there after 30 years.
JB: That’s amazing, what a career. And how did your educational background prepare you for these positions you’ve held?
LP: Well, I think that the nutrition education at Cornell was a very broad one. There was a lot of information and experience to draw on as I pursued my career. I think I learned a lot about communities through my work in South America and through the anthropology; just gained a lot of insight into how food is more than nutrients. It plays a central role in how people feel about themselves and about how they interact in the community, and the food and the way it is handled and whether you have enough or not and how it is presented to you is very meaningful in a very personal way. So all of those pieces sort of fit together to help me to do my work at FRAC.
JB: Was there anyone in particular, a mentor perhaps, who sort of helped guide you as you developed your career?
LP: Well, I think the person who had the most impact when I started my work at FRAC was a man by the name of Ron Pollock, who actually started the organization FRAC, and I think that because he kept his eye on the prize, which was the children and the families who benefited from the nutrition programs. What he sort of taught us, meaning those who worked for him, through our work with him, that the most important thing was that children and families were suffering because they didn’t have sufficient food to be secure and to grow normally to develop and to be happy families. And our role was to ensure those folks got enough food; they gained access to a nutritionally adequate diet, and with dignity too. That it wasn’t enough to just get food; it wasn’t enough for programs to be filling stations. They had to be both nutritional foods, healthful foods, and people had to feel welcome and feel a sense of dignity in the way that food was presented to them. Although it is important to be concerned about how local agencies and how state agencies operate and how schools have various pressures on them, that the ultimate goal is to think about the children and the families who are benefitting from the programs.
JB: He sounds like a very special man.
LP: Yes, yes he is.
JB: Tell me about your time at FRAC. What were some of the highlights of those thirty years?
LP: Well, I think one of the big highlights was in, and it was a lowlight and a highlight at the same time, was in the late 1970’s, early 1980s, when the administration at that time wanted to cut back on the funding of the nutrition programs. And it was part of a broad cutting back of programs across the board for low-income families and for children’s services. And it seemed to be a relentless push towards the goal of cutting back the programs, and a quite successful one. And then they got to the lunch program and the head of the OMB at the time, David Stockman, decided that he wanted to cut back on the funding for the school lunch program, which is not exactly, has never been, an overfunded program. And he was going to go about it, and the way he instructed the Department of Agriculture to go about it was to figure out a way to cut back on the actual service of food in the school lunch program so that school foodservice operators could serve less food for less money. Interestingly enough, I was lucky enough to get on one of the committees who were looking at this issue. I was trying to push for the idea that we shouldn’t think about reducing the amount of food we give kids. We should be trying to think of ways we can save money in operations so that we could continue to maintain the quality of the food and the amount of food. If the cutbacks were going to be inevitable, and of course my organization was not willing to accept and would try to fight against, but if they were ultimately inevitable, we should be focusing on trying to cut back on costs that wouldn’t directly affect the nutrition or quantity of food the children were getting. But it was clear to me that the deck was sort of already cut and the general sense was we are going to have to cut back on food in quantity and quality. And there were proposals to cut back on the percentage of recommended dietary allowances the school lunches and breakfast programs would provide. And there were ideas about crediting ketchup as a vegetable, and for those people who remember that time, and many people do, a set of regulations ultimately came out of the administration the Department of Agriculture proposed to the public for public comment in which the amount of food was reduced, in other words, less fruits and vegetables, less milk, less protein and so forth and that there would be things like counting cookies as bread, so you wouldn’t have to have as much bread, or ketchup counting as a vegetable, or relish counting as a vegetable. And that’s how desperate times were to reduce the cost of the School Lunch Program. Well, there were people within that committee of the Department of Agriculture who were, including myself, who didn’t believe this should happen. As a committee we wrote a statement that the recommendations had no nutritional basis; they were being done for economic reasons. When the regulations came out FRAC and a number of other organizations worked very hard to get the word out what the inevitable consequences of such regulations would be, which is an inadequate lunch program, based on the nutritional needs of kids. Those are things you can never turn around once they get going, and people across the country, when they heard this, were very upset. And we know this because there were thousands of comments that came into the Department of Agriculture about this set of regulations. More than the Department had ever seen before. I went up to the USDA to look at the comments, they are open once they are catalogued, and it was obvious that people had torn pages out of tablets and just written in hand about how they felt about the lunch program and had put it in an envelope and sent it off with a hand-written envelope. Clearly, everyday people were sitting in their kitchens writing notes about how upset they were about this change. It really shocked the administration, the Department of Agriculture. It certainly shocked the President and his Secretary of Agriculture. At a cabinet meeting they decided they were going to withdraw the regulations. That event has ultimately not only stopped the changes in the regulations, but it helped protect the program in many ways ever since because people saw this was a sacred cow, that this was a program that had touched every person in this country since 1946 and before, and people saw it as a very important program and nutrition as very important program and fruit and vegetables and milk and all these things were important to kids and they were darned if they were going to let this happen. When we were working against these regulations we knew that they didn’t make sense and it would be a terrible thing if they became the regulations of the School Lunch Program. But we ourselves had no idea what kind of response was going to come from people. Before the regulations were withdrawn some of the senators, Senator Leahy and others, did a lunch on Capitol Hill using the Lunch Program as it would be with the reduced quantities, and they had little cups of ketchup as their vegetable and less bread and significantly less protein and less fruits and vegetables and they were trying to show the media and have some fun at the same time and show the real significance of this. I remember one of the reporters from Good Morning America looked at the hamburger on the bun and said, “Some of my cavities are bigger than that.” It really became a cause célèbre. Doonesbury, Gary Trudeau did a series of comic strips on it and couldn’t even get them into the paper in time because the regs were withdrawn so quickly, but he put out a series of cartoons based on this and there were a number of cartoons in papers based on this issue. It just captured everyone’s imagination, and I think it was a chink in the armor of the administration too, to say watch what’s going on here because some of cutbacks do have potentially devastating consequences and we’ve got to watch out for what’s going on in the government and make sure that the consequences are ones that we want. In this case it was clearly one that people didn’t want. Unfortunately, the School Lunch Program was still cut. Not to the extent it would have been, but it was still cut back in 1981, and a number of other public assistance programs were cut as well, and as a result, the Lunch Program has been somewhat crippled I think, because of that cutback ever since, because that although the Lunch Program gets a cost of living increase every year, because of that money that was cut in 1981, has never been restored and as time has gone on and pressures on the Lunch Program have increased over time, it has made it more difficult for the local food service operators to figure out how to make ends meet in the School Lunch Program. I think that the first effort to cut it back really did have an impact on the future on scaring away future administrations from cutting the School Lunch Program back anymore than they had done that year.
JB: So you all made it at least not as bad as it could have done.
LP: That’s right. Now thinking today, 27 years later, we know that more than ever we are seeing that children don’t get enough fruits and vegetables, there’s a concern about kids not getting enough calcium in their diet, and we also know that the School Lunch Program makes an enormous difference in that area, that kids who have the School Lunch Program are eating more fruits and vegetables because it’s required as part of the meal, and they are drinking more milk because it is part of the meal, and getting more calcium. So one can only imagine what it would have been like if they had been able to cut back on those products in the School Lunch Program. It would have meant that kids would have been even less well nourished because of the cut back of those foods.
JB: What was it typical day-to-day workday for you at FRAC?
LP: Depending on what was going on at that time, when child nutrition programs were being reauthorized, which happens every four years, we would be working to first think about the best changes that could happen to the child nutrition programs. Reauthorization means that the Congress every few years looks at all the child nutrition programs and thinks about what should change, or what should be cut, what should be increased, what additions, what new governing regulations should be developed. So we would spend a lot of time working with people across the country learning what was going right, what was going wrong with the programs, and thinking about what changes could be made during that open time period when Congress was looking at all this. And we at FRAC didn’t just work in a little ivory tower in Washington, nor did we just talk to our anti-hunger friends across the country. We also worked with numerous organizations and industries to figure all of this out, because in fact in some ways School Lunch and Breakfast, and all of the nutrition programs have an incredible array of stakeholders. There’s the education community, the principals and teachers, who have a stake in kids being well-nourished and getting food during the day so they can concentrate. There are the senior groups who are very interested in it, from the perspective of the grandparents and the people passing on reins to the next generation. The industries who very much saw the connection between nutrition and learning and wanted to make sure the young generation was well-nourished so they could learn to read and write and be productive and educated workers. And then there were the industries like the chicken folks and milk folks and the fruit and vegetable folks and the people who farmed all these products, who saw the programs were an incredible market for their products. So they were both selling the products and making a profit but also doing good, in that they were ensuring that kids had access to nutritional meals. So all of those people and organizations, and the School Nutrition Association, which is a major organization within all of this with an enormous stake, all of those folks were working together on the child nutrition reauthorization, and in fact we formed a group called the Child Nutrition Forum, which was made up of all of these stakeholders and the School Nutrition Association, which was then the American School Food Service Association, and FRAC, are co-chairs of this Child Nutrition Forum. It is an opportunity whenever the child nutrition programs are up for authorization to talk about all the issues involved and try to work together on key issues, because when you have lots of people working together on some common issues you get a lot further in Congress than if you are all doing disparate things. So that working with those groups, planning proposals for Congress, educating members about what the consequences would be of positive or negative changes, was a big part of my work and all of our work when the reauthorization was going on. Often after reauthorizations are finished, there are regulations that have to be written to put those changes in effect. We would be very involved in those, talking to the Department of Agriculture, talking to people around the country, talking to some of the members of the Forum, talking about what are the best ways to write the regulations to make them have the best impact across the country. We also did research on issues around hunger among children. FRAC was the first organization to develop a methodology for measuring hunger at the household level and it was called the Community Childhood Hunger Identification Project. People had said there was no way to identify hunger. You could identify under-nutrition by testing blood and measuring children’s heights and weights, but how could you measure such a subjective phenomenon as hunger? We were able to develop a series of questions for households with children, and do a national survey, and in fact as a result of what we did and some legislation that was passed, to have a better national nutrition monitoring system. The government picked up on many of our ideas and used our methodology as a base for developing a national methodology for measuring food insecurity, what they call it, which is basically an inability to be sure you will get the food you need to be healthy and grow and develop normally. And that measure of food insecurity is now done on an annual basis through the census, the current population survey that is done by the census every year. So we now have a measure and when people say 35 million people are living in food insecure households, that’s from that national survey. It is a way of measuring what is happening in terms of the food security of American families and it’s also a way bringing up to visibility problems in this country that some people are having because of their inability to gather enough resources to get enough food. And I think that measure and that visibility of the issue has helped to also continue to convince Congress people and state legislators and mayors that the programs like School Lunch and School Breakfast and Summer Food and the Child and Adult Care Food Program are important programs to continue to provide kids with good nutrition and to ensure that at least in this institutional setting they are in of school or child care or summer programs, that they will have access to nutritionally adequate meals.
JB: What are some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen over the years in nutrition?
LP: Well, let’s see, that’s a good question. Unfortunately, one of the changes we are seeing is the increase in obesity among adults and children. And in spite of all the research, people are still discussing what has caused that increase. It looks like one of those cartoons we watch where when the sheriff asks, “Where did he go?” the guy goes, “He went that away,” (pointing in opposite directions), because in fact there are many different reasons why. There’s sort of a perfect storm I guess. So far, part of it is the lack of fruits and vegetables, some of it is the sedentary living style and kids watching TV and doing games, and driving more and walking less, and not having enough time to be physically active. There are other things as well, but that’s one of the things we’ve seen. On the other hand, we’ve seen a real change in under-nutrition in this country. In fact, we don’t see the kind of almost famine-like symptoms that we saw in kids in the late 60s, when the United States sort of discovered hunger again, and saw that in the Southeast, and Appalachia, and in the Southwest there were many kids who were severely undernourished. We’re not seeing that anymore and we’re not seeing the kind of stunting and wasting of kids that we saw then. So the nutrition programs have made an enormous difference in children’s lives in that way. The culture has changed however, to make it harder for some kids to maintain the right energy balance to both grow and develop and yet maintain a normal weight. So that’s one of our challenges now, to figure out how to deal with that problem. Another thing we’ve seen is that the nutrition programs had the local support in the early years that I started working. The combination of the federal reimbursement and the local tax base would pay for the fringe benefits of the workers and the director’s salary often, and the cleaning of the cafeteria and the lights and the heat, so that the food could be purchased with the federal reimbursement and costs would work out, and the schools saw lunch as an integral part of their program and not as a business necessarily, and because of pressures on school systems and concerns about reducing property taxes and many different issues, school lunch programs are now being asked to pay for so much more of the cost of the program, including those heating costs, and the cleaning, and the fringes. So the economic pressures on the program are much greater now than they have ever been before. Our food culture is different than it was when I went to school, and as a result we are depending on much less on-site preparation of food and much more purchasing food from outside. So that can have negative impacts on the kids and the choices that are available to them. We’ve also learned a lot more about health and nutrition, and we know that providing high levels of fat to kids in their diet is not a good idea, and high levels of sodium, and so there’s a great challenge for schools to figure out how to reduce fat and sodium, and at the same time continue to attract children when they’re competing with external sources of food that taste good to kids, and they’ve been well marketed. So those are challenges that have sort of developed, and of course the whole issue of vending machines and other products that are being sold to kids in competition with the school lunch and breakfast programs has become a greater challenge now more than ever before. We are seeing people trying to deal with that challenge through federal, state, and local legislations, but that’s an enormous change over time as well. I think one thing that has changed too is I think there was a period of time there where people weren’t paying as much attention to the importance of nutrition for kids and certainly I think that’s a big topic of importance today. People are much more aware how important nutrition is to kids’ development and growth and to their ability to learn and to their future health. I think that the awareness is increasing and the actions in that regard are increasing. So, one hopes that that will have an impact on support for School Lunch and Breakfast and the other nutrition programs, and support for making them have as positive an impact on children as possible. I think school lunch and breakfast programs and child nutrition are part of the solution to the problem more than they are part of the problem. I think they can be even a more part of the solution as we work to improve the overall quality of the meals and think about ways to bring more on-site preparation back so that kids can smell the food and taste the food. We just have to bring technology and advocacy and resources to bear, to make the programs play the full role they can play in improving kids’ health.
JB: What’s been the high water mark, your proudest moment of your career?
LP: I have to think about that. I don’t know.
JB: Well it sounds like there have been a lot.
LP: I know, well I’m just trying to think. I guess I think it has to do with the hunger surveillance project because it has been sustained. There is a sustained measurement of food insecurity now in this country and it hasn’t lost its meaning and when it comes out people pay attention to it and they use the numbers and it is a constant reminder that we can’t stop paying attention to people who don’t have enough food and don’t have enough nutrition. I think the fact that FRAC played the role of R & D (research and development) for the government and nudged people along to see that this was an issue that had enormous impact on kids and families. We are seeing now that food insecurity has impacts on kids’ ability to read and their math scores and even psychological issues around depression for parents. It’s obvious to anybody who thinks about it that if a mother can’t feed her kids she’s going to be pretty upset. It’s going to affect her interactions with the larger community as well as with her children, but now we have data to show that that’s the case. So I think that it helps to push the envelope and continue to keep people aware that we can’t stop thinking about those issues, and we have to figure out ways to solve the problems, and that hunger is really about poverty. That those people who don’t have resources have difficulty with their food budgets and they’ll often scrimp on food so they can pay their rent and pay for childcare or pay for healthcare and that shouldn’t be happening in this great, affluent country of ours. That shouldn’t happen. The fact that people saw that that shouldn’t happen in 1946, and even before that during the Depression, to continue to make people aware that that’s the wrong way to go and that we should continue to work hard, that eternal vigilance and that eternal work needs to continue to happen to make sure kids are well-nourished and that families have sufficient resources to get enough food.
JB: Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing today.
LP: Well, now I’ve moved to the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies, and here I’m heading up what we’re calling a standing committee on childhood obesity prevention. That committee, it’s called standing, not because we’re going to stand up around a table although we probably should to avoid obesity, it means that the committee itself will be around for a few years and will be acting as a focal point for discussion about childhood obesity prevention, and in particular will be thinking about what are the big public health topics in childhood obesity prevention that people haven’t really focused on yet; they haven’t looked through all the evidence, they haven’t synthesized it yet, topics where a good evidence-based synthesis of information into some kind of report that policy makers can read with some recommendations. What are those topic areas? What are the areas where we should be putting our effort? So that committee will be developing a series of those reports over the next four years and will be trying to get the word out to policy makers and others about some key issues.
JB: Sounds like a great project.
LP: It’s very exciting and it very much fits in with the work that I’ve done up to this point. Some people are saying that in some cases obesity and hunger are actually showing up in the same families and same individuals, and people are trying to understand why that is going on in the current culture. So that will be a piece of what we look at. Unfortunately, the disparities in obesity and in hunger are very similar. We’re seeing that there is a high level of obesity among poorer families and among some of the ethnic minorities in this country, so those are issues that are of great importance as well.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add.
LP: Let’s see. I often tell people that I’m very proud that our country has put resources into these programs. I think they are terribly important programs and that I’m glad that we see them as important and it is important to maintain them. I think there are a lot of things we should be doing that we are not, but I think this is one area where we have realized the importance and have really put our resources into the right place.
JB: Well thanks for talking with me today and keep up the good work.
LP: Thank you.