Interviewee: Margaret New
Interviewer: Linda Godfrey
Date: January 27, 2012
Description: Margaret New is the bookkeeper for child nutrition in Alabama.
Linda Godfrey: I am talking now with Margaret New, who is the bookkeeper for child nutrition with the Bessemer City School System. Will you tell me a little bit about yourself, your background and where you went to school?
Margaret New: I went through the county system because we lived outside the Bessemer city limits when I was growing up. But my first school was Greenwood Elementary, which is now part of the Bessemer City Schools. So that was my first school all the way up to ninth grade, and then I went to McAdory. So I graduated from McAdory. I have a sister that finished at McAdory, and she was in one of those first classes of integration before she finished in ’64 or ’65.
LG: So she’s a younger sister?
MN: She’s younger than I am, because I finished in ’61.
LG: Ok. So you went to school when it was segregated.
MN: Right. And then I worked and got married and had my first child. And then when Dan came out on strike I was hunting a job, and I took a part-time, and it worked into a full-time, and then I had my second son and I started working at the school, helping out with the PTA and got to know the principal there. And he was over a federal program, and that secretary was having to leave in the middle of the school year because she had gotten hurt. And he asked would I come fill in. And I did. It was over at Arlington and they liked what I was doing well enough that when the school started the next school year, and this was 1974, they approached me and asked would I be willing to be a secretary over at Dunbar, which at that time was predominately black. So I was the first white secretary to a black principal in the Bessemer City School System.
MN: And it was a challenge, and I’ve always looked at things as a challenge. I know Mr. Morgan would say, “Everybody wants to know why I have a white secretary. I like it that way. It works out fine.” But the children thought it was neat to go to the office and see Ms. New. They always found reasons. But I think that’s because I tried to treat everybody with respect, and that was unique and different to their experiences. And I’m still having ‘my kids, my babies’, and their children and grandchildren, but they’ll remember me. It was a very interesting experience for me, and then they moved us from Dunbar over to Abrams, and then you started with child nutrition and Dr. Webster asked me to apply when you needed a secretary. So I came into child nutrition in 1988. And I still feel to this day that the Lord put me there, and I’ve tried to do a good job. But I’ve watched a lot of changes through the years. You were able to increase to increase our breakfast programs all the way up to the high school, and I think if I remember right it was just the elementary when we first started together.
MN: So we added the middle school and the high school. And I know it is a beneficial program and it has helped a lot of children because we do know that there are some that wouldn’t get meals without that breakfast and that lunch. And we’ve worked through the summer programs. After Mrs. Snow got here she added the Seamless Program, because that was a new program. So we’re able to provide hot lunches and cold meals, and those go out to the community, to the churches and community centers and all during the summer months when there’s no school. So in that respect I think we’re growing and I hope that we’ll continue to grow as we go through all the changes that have come about. The nutritional standards have changed and we’re fixing to change again, and we work hard to meet those. Some people are slow for change, especially our children. They want to eat what they’ve always eaten. But with our people working with them they’re getting there. As they were talking about adding the whole wheat grains and those kinds of things, and it’s so amazing how many managers come in and they’re excited because the kids ate. ‘I didn’t think they were going to accept it, but they did.’
LG: Ok. Let’s think back about when you were in school. Did you eat in the cafeteria?
MN: Oh yes.
LG: Did you have a favorite meal Margaret?
MN: Well, I can’t say that I actually had a favorite meal, but the one thing that I remember most when I was in elementary school at Greenwood is you know we got commodities. One day we had a total meal of nothing but commodity items.
LG: Oh really?
MN: It was rice. They had received the flour so we had rolls. We had chicken and we had green beans. And I can’t remember exactly what – I think she did the little peanut butter balls for our desserts, and so everything was a commodity item.
LG: And did you eat that?
MN: Oh we ate it all. We loved it. We loved the little peanut butter balls. That was our favorite.
LG: I had forgotten about those. I remember those too now that you’re saying that. So you worked in a predominately black school even though we were integrated at that time?
MN: When I first went over there with Mr. Morgan there was one white family.
MN: After we went over to Abrams we may have had one or two more, but it was still predominately black.
LG: In the cafeteria, in the child nutrition program were the employees white or were they black?
MN: They were all black at Dunbar, and at first I think they were all black at Abrams, but I think we finally had – no, we may not have. I don’t remember any. I’ll have to take that back – I don’t think we ever had a white.
LG: Did you see a difference in the way the white students were treated as opposed to the black students?
MN: No. The students accepted each other. And for the majority they even accepted, at Dunbar they accepted the white teachers. And like I say they always wanted to come see Mrs. New every time they got a – because Mrs. New had the Band-Aids you know, and I sewed the buttons on the coats and those kinds of things. We had the black and white teachers both at Dunbar and Abrams, so at that point is was – so I would say it was actually the middle school before they really got where it was kind of half and half black and white.
LG: When you think about working in child nutrition even though you’ve been at the central office you’ve still been involved in things at the school. Can you tell us a little bit about free and reduced applications and verification and that type of thing?
MN: That’s a very big part of us because we are in a low-income area.
LG: What percent of the – ?
MN: Right now we’re at like eighty-seven percent system-wide. It will break down a little different in the different schools. And we do the verification once a year where we ask the parents to verify the information on their application. And there are still parents that don’t understand, and they won’t respond until we cut the meals off, and then all of a sudden they bring their paperwork in. We’ve tried every method we can to explain the procedure so that more will respond, but some years are better than others. Now that we’re on Direct Cert we don’t have to verify as many as we used to. That has helped.
LG: Do you remember the – I know you do – the change from it being done at the individual schools as opposed to centralized? That’s one of the changes you were involved in.
MN: Yes it was. It really helped having one person oversee the applications because you didn’t have as much problems, because everybody interprets different. And I was also here when we started using computers in the cafeterias.
LG: Do you want to talk about that?
MN: It was a challenge for all of us. And it’s funny that some of our people that started are still looking at the computers as challenges. But we’re working with them and it has improved – our bookkeeping, our getting the children through [the line] and making our claims, because we have more accurate records and that kind of thing.
LG: So you really were a part of the implementation with technology.
MN: I went out I think to almost every school. We had in-depth training at first, but then I had to do the follow-up. And when we first started I had the same thing on my computer in the central office, and when they would run into problems they would call me and we would talk each other through those problems, even if it was a jammed printer, or not knowing how to get from one point in the program to another point. And we still have that sometimes, even in our more sophisticated program that we have today and Jennifer has to do the same thing basically with our managers when they run into snags.
LG: I can remember you teaching people how to use their email, so you really did a lot of training one-on-one.
MN: Right. We talked them through.
LG: You have made the comment that you felt like you were meant to be in child nutrition. When you look back at what you’ve done would you have done anything differently?
MN: I don’t think so. Like I say, I started volunteering when the children were small, and I’m like Ima Jean, it was an ideal job because when they were out I was out with them. And then it just evolved on into full-time work and I moved on up to the child nutrition. I love working with numbers so the bookkeeping part of it was I guess – because I had gone to business school and done bookkeeping type things in my business work so this was kind of a combination of both. I was with the children, but yet I was working with numbers.
LG: What about the child nutrition program in Alabama? Do you want to say anything about that?
MN: I have to agree with Mrs. Blake. I think it is one of the best run programs as far as being supportive of the local schools, being there and giving us the training that we need. And I’ve always felt that Bessemer City has been one step ahead of everybody else when we go and listen to everybody else talk about their situations. And I’m proud of that fact. I was proud of that fact when I was a school secretary and we’d go to our association meetings. I’ve very proud of the state of Alabama for what they have accomplished and are still working towards.
LG: Do you feel comfortable if you have a problem, talking to the state department?
MN: We talk to them on a regular basis sometimes when we’re trying to get through different situations, and we always look forward to our meetings when they come. We’re getting ready for a review, and we’re not looking at it as anything out of the ordinary. We’re just going to welcome them here and let them look at our setup, because we feel like we’ve got it set up the way it needs to be. If not, they’ll tell us and we’ll change it, improve it.
LG: Ok. When you go to the schools and you watch what’s going on in the schools in child nutrition programs how do you see things have changed as far as the interaction with the students, or have they?
MN: Well, there’s always been a camaraderie between cafeteria workers and the students, and especially after we got the breakfast program set up, because we see them first before they actually go to the classroom. And we encourage our people to talk to the students, smile at the students, and give them that assurance that they need. And they look forward to that and to me it has improved. That is still part of our yearly training is how you interact with the students.
LG: Ok. If somebody came to you and said, “I’m really interested in working in the school nutrition program in child nutrition”, what would your reaction be to that person?
MN: I would say, “Great. Have you ever worked in food service anywhere else?” If they say, “Yes” then we say “Great. Then you know how hard it is, because it is very challenging and we want you to be upfront and understand that before you go in, but it will be very rewarding.” So we’re always looking for substitutes and we’ll go through the little spiel all the way through and walk them through the process. And then if they prove that they are very good workers they’re always the first to be considered when openings come about.
LG: Anything else you want to add?
MN: Like I say, I’m still happy working and I keep telling everybody ‘one more year, one more year’.
LG: You have so much to contribute. Is this system a predominately black school system or a predominately white school system? Has that changed? Have the dynamics changed over the years?
MN: It has, but we stay predominately black.
LG: Do you know what percentage it is?
MN: No, I don’t. I don’t have to work with the attendance part of it, so I’d be afraid to quote any numbers.
LG: But there’s no discrimination when it comes to cafeterias?
MN: No. We have some Mexicans. We’ve had some Chinese. We’ve had some Orientals, and Indians, and we may still have. Like I say I’m just not sure of the numbers.
LG: Ok. The computer that has been implemented prevents that over identification, or does it?
MN: It will keep up with it if they indicate on their applications their race and economic background.
LG: But if I’m a cashier I wouldn’t know that type of thing?
MN: No. Only – point of service all it pulls up is that child’s account and tells you whether you need to make sure they pay you some money, or just make sure their meal is entered.
LG: Different from the different colored tickets that used to be issued, right?
LG: Anything else?
MN: I guess that’s it.
LG: Ok. Thank you. Thank you for coordinating things too.