Interviewee: Martha S. Walker

Interviewer: Melba Hollingsworth

Date: January 27, 2009

Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

Description: Martha S. Walker served as a child nutrition program manager in Louisiana.

Melba Hollingsworth: It is January 27, 2009, and I am here at the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board with Martha Walker. Martha, would you like to tell me a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?

Martha S. Walker: Ok. I was born and raised in New Orleans until around middle school age, and then my parents decided they wanted to move to Gonzales. So we moved to Gonzales and I attended Midland High School and graduated from East Ascension High School in 1970.

MH: And where did you go to school from that point?

MW: Ok, from then on I attended Southern University. That’s where I obtained my undergraduate degree in Food and Nutrition. Senior year I got married and about five years after I was married I had my first child, instead of going on to graduate school. And the light came on and I went to graduate school and obtained my master’s degree in Vocational Education. We have two children, Brandon and Nigel. They’re grown and on their own now. And I miss my babies, but that’s what they’re supposed to do.

MH: Your master’s degree was from Southern too?

MW: Yes. Both my undergraduate and master’s were at Southern University.

MH: Is that in Baker?

MW: In Scotlandville.

MH: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs, and was there a lunch or breakfast program at your school?

MW: When I was in elementary school in New Orleans, that’s my earliest recollection of child nutrition. There was a breakfast and lunch program there. For breakfast we didn’t have the type breakfast we have now in school. It was mostly toast and maybe some cereal; not the things that we have now. And that was my earliest recollection of child nutrition.

MH: Did you participate?

MW: Oh, yes, every day.

MH: What were some of your favorite menu items?

MW: At that time we had meatballs and spaghetti. I loved meatballs and spaghetti – and the rolls, the yeast rolls that we had. The grilled cheese sandwiches were to kill for. And I loved the red beans and rice. And we actually had beef stew.

MH: Really?

MW: Um-hum. We actually had beef stew at that time. And it was really good, really, really, good.MH: Did you eat red beans and rice on Mondays?

MW: That was a typical thing everywhere in the world it seemed like back in those days – everybody – even at home you had red beans and rice on Mondays, in New Orleans anyway.

MH: How did you become involved in the child nutrition profession?

MW: In high school my high school counselor approached me and some other students about college and had it not been for her approaching me I don’t think I would have been able to attend college, because I came from a very large family. My mom and dad had eight of us, four boys and four girls, and they did not make a lot of money. Now I’m glad that I did listen to my parents when they said study, study, study. Because of my studies and my grades I was able to attend college on scholarship, and I knew that if I did not go to class that my scholarship would end and who knows what would have happened. I am glad I listened to my parents and that’s how I obtained my education. I’m glad I did.

MH: Was there someone, a mentor, who was influential in directing you to the child nutrition field?

MW: Yes, Mrs. Gail Johnson. I remember after graduating from undergraduate school Mrs. Johnson and I worked together – and we did not know each other. I think she had just arrived in Baton Rouge from Hershey, Pennsylvania, where she worked at Hershey Medical Center. And when she arrived here she worked at Community Advancement, and that’s where I worked. Shortly afterwards she left and I guess she thought about me, and she called and told me that there were some openings in school food service. To be completely honest I didn’t think that I would be able to qualify to work in school food service. I just didn’t think I would get it. And so she sent for me a second time and I went and I took the test and I passed it. And here I am twenty-five years later.

MH: Tell me a little bit about the positions you’ve held.

MW: Ok. When I first came in in 1986 I came in as a production manager at Glen Oaks Middle School here in Baton Rouge, and I worked as a production manager for about a year, and after that I kind of floated around to different schools where they needed a manager for one reason or another, a manager out sick or on leave or whatever. And I did that for about two years, and then Prescott Middle School became available; that manager was retiring. And I was sent to Prescott at the end of the semester to work with Mrs. Norma Furr. She was a manager there. And I worked with her from April to May to learn the routine, and I worked there at Prescott for five years as the cafeteria manager and I loved it. My first year was turmoil. The kids were a handful but we got to be good friends. They knew what I expected of them and I knew what to expect from them. The principal and I got to be good friends. I kept her abreast of everything that was going on in the cafeteria and she was a very, very good principal to work for and with. So after being there for five years, Mrs. Mary Eleanor Cole was the director of school food service at that time, she called me, she sent for me, and said that she wanted to meet with me in her office, and was I nervous, because I said to myself, “Oh my God, some child has gone home, and not told the truth to their mamas.” So I was really scared. And I left Prescott and I went over to the food service office, and Mrs. Wroten, who was a school food service supervisor there, she saw me when I walked in the door, and she said, “Calm down. You’re not in trouble”, which was a great relief, and Mrs. Cole called me to her office, and she said, “Martha, I have something I want you to do.” And I said, “Yes, ma’am.” It was November; almost time to leave for Thanksgiving. She said, “When we get back from Thanksgiving Break you will be working in this office and someone else will manage Prescott.” Well, I didn’t want to do that. And so I said, “Well Mrs. Cole, what do you want me to do?” And she told me that she wanted me to take on the task of Training Coordinator. Well I had no idea what that was about, so I said, “Well, can I do it at Prescott?” She said, “No.” My feelings were hurt. I did not want to leave Prescott because I loved my staff. It was like a second family. So I said, “Yes, ma’am.” So I went back to Prescott and they knew something was wrong and I told them that that was it, after Thanksgiving break I had to report to the food service office to work. They cried and I cried. So we got through lunch and after that we met and they said, “Well what happened.” I said, “You’re going to get another manager, but she’s going to be fine.” And so the entire staff said, “We quit.” “No, you can’t quit. You have to work and I have to work so we’re going to do it this job.” And when I first came in to the office Dr. Nadine Mann was so, so helpful. I just was honest with her. She’s such a nice person. You can be completely upfront with her. I said, “Dr. Mann, I have no idea what’s expected of me.” She said, “We’ll show you.” So they did – Dr. Mann, Mrs. Wroten, Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Cole, and even Mrs. Dixon – they worked together to show me what they wanted me to do. And from then on I was hired as a training coordinator. At that time my job was to train all of our incoming managers to pass a state-required phase one and two state examination. And it has been a job, but the majority of them have passed. I kind of like take them under my wings and guide them on and I really love my job. And I’m glad that I was asked to do this job, even though I was afraid at first, but I enjoy it. Someone helped me in life and it gives me an opportunity to help another person, and I like my job, I really do.

MH: Rewarding, huh?

MW: Yes, yes. I look forward to retirement, but I’m going to miss my job.

MH: So do you think your educational background helped to prepare you for your career?

MW: Oh, yes, very much.

MH: In what way?

MW: Well, the things that I learned in undergraduate school helped me a lot with my job, but it was the things that I learned in graduate school that really build upon what I learned in undergraduate school. One of my major professors, Dr. Barbara Carpenter, told me – we were to do a hypothetical training program, and I did one in relation to high school children for children who were having problems.

MH: Special needs?

MW: Yes. And what I wanted to do in my fantasy land was to – they attend classes in the morning, and then around ten o’clock they would report to the cafeteria to work as a food service employee, and they would actually get paid. And the only way they could become permanent food service employees was to graduate from high school and they would actually be hired. And a couple of them were very interested in this. And this was so real to me until I could still visualize what was going on. And Dr. Carpenter told me, she said, “You know what?” She said, “You’re not going to have trouble getting a job after this” she said, “because you have a vivid imagination.” And I put this scenario to Dr. Mann shortly after I came aboard in the program, and she said, “Martha, if we had the money we really would think about doing that, but – “. It was kind of real to me, and I really wish – I haven’t given up on it, I really haven’t, but that’s how it happened.

MH: So is there anything unique about Louisiana with regard to child nutrition programs that you see out there?

MW: Well, in this area of south Louisiana we have a lot of children that come from single-parent homes and sometimes from what I understand, the meals that they eat here in schools are sometimes the meals that they get – one of them anyway – and that’s the basic thing that I get in relation to school food service and this area of south Louisiana.

MH: So that’s the only meal they get, practically?

MW: A lot of them. And then for the Summer Feeding Program even my children were involved with this when I worked during the summer. School food service actually helped my food cost in my home, because me children could go to the nearest school to get lunch and breakfast. Even though we had food at home and even though they probably didn’t go, nine times out of ten they didn’t go for breakfast because they wanted to sleep in late, but lunchtime they went to the school to have lunch. And so that saved me from having to prepare something the day before so they could have something for lunch the next day. So school food service has been a great program for all parents really – I just shouldn’t say single home – for all parents, because in the summertime any child eighteen years and younger, Summer Feeding is there. So that helps the parent, the child, and school food service.

MH: That’s great. So what was a typical day like in your career? Can you remember?

MW: When I was a cafeteria manager the typical day was making sure that everything was prepared on time and that the meals were served on time and we got everything cleaned up and my staff can leave on time. It was important to me, and they knew this, that you are to report to work as scheduled. It you couldn’t let me know ahead of time so I can try and get a sub in. But that was the main thing then, to get the meals out on time, get them served on time, get everything cleaned up, and everybody leave on time. Here in the school food service office with the position as Training Coordinator a typical day is when classes are in session it’s to make sure that I have everything ready for my students when they walk in the class, everything is on the table. As a matter of fact I set up the day before. If I have class today, when class is over with, I set up for the next class the day before. When they come in everything is laid out for them. We’re ready to go. And on non-class days I spend that time grading papers and preparing for the next class. And a lot of times I have one-on-one sessions for my students that are struggling. And I tell them in our orientation session, “If you don’t understand something that I’m saying to you and you just cannot get it, and I can’t clarify and get you to understand in class, then we can meet after class. I have a key to the building and a pass code, so I can stay here as long as you can.” I’ve actually met students in the library, the public library on Saturday mornings. I’ve had a student to come to my home. She didn’t live too far from me. She was having problems big time understanding the Food Buying Guide. And sometimes I’ll go to the school at a time that’s not really, really busy on a day where the menu is not really hectic. And I just do what I have to do to try and get my students to understand what they need to know. And it’s worked out.

MH: What were some of your biggest challenges you faced?

MW: Biggest challenge as a manager was first day of school – hamburgers. Twenty-something years ago and I’ll never forget this. I tell this story to every new class that I have to let them know that you can make a mistake, but when you make a mistake own up to it, fess up to it, correct it and keep going. I asked the principal how many students we were expecting and she told me a thousand. So I had my head cook to prepare a thousand hamburger patties from scratch. And sure as shooting nobody told me the kids don’t come to school on the first day of school. My kids did because I made sure they got out there, but I thought everybody did the same thing, every mother, but they don’t. So, after lunch, we had over two hundred hamburger patties left. I said, “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” Ok, so I didn’t ask my head cook to store these patties. I counted them, I stored them in the freezer, I kept a record of the count. The next time we had hamburger patties on the menu I did not ask her to go get the leftover hamburger patties. I went and got them. I told her, I said “Look, these are two hundred hamburger patties. I want them used first”, and then wrote on the production schedule how many new hamburger patties I wanted her to make up. I will never forget that. I’m looking at two hundred hamburger patties. That never happened again!

MH: And she made them from scratch?

MW: Scratch, at that time we had a lot of commodity pork and beef so we didn’t buy them, we made them from scratch. And I got out there and helped her to make them too. As a training coordinator my most memorable event was I was scheduled to take a class to Plaquemine to one of the high schools over there for something, I really don’t remember what, but anyway we were going to take the ferry, so being the person that I am, I had about six students, I said, “Well, it doesn’t make sense for all of us to drive over there.” I had a van so I told my husband, “I’m going to take the van to work tomorrow. Me and my students are going to go over there.” He said, “Ok.” So when I realized that we had to go across on that ferry I got kind of nervous, but I didn’t want to back down, so the day before I took the van and my two children and we got on the ferry to Plaquemine. And this man knew that I didn’t know what I was doing, so he said, “Come on, come up.” I said, “I’m scared” because I could see myself going in the water. I did a dry run the day before, so the next day when the students – I met them at the office and we all got in the van and we went over there and I just drove on across the ferry like I knew what I was doing. I was alright. THAT was the most memorable event. I will never forget that. But we made it. We made our trip and we got back.

MH: What changes have you seen in the child nutrition program over the years?

MW: One is Offer vs. Serve, and that’s a good change. It saves us money and the children get to decide what they want to eat and what they don’t want to eat, and they know that they have to choose three of the four items at breakfast or three of the five items at lunch, and we feel that it’s a good thing. If the child chooses the food items they will eat, versus we put it on the plate for instance, and they don’t like it, they don’t want it, they won’t eat it. And my little boy came home one day in elementary school, he said, “Mama, you gonna get some of those little carrots like my cafeteria lady?” I said, “Carrots? Brandon asking me for carrots?” He said, “Yea.” So I called the school and I asked Mrs. Jackson, I said, “What kind of carrots did y’all serve?” She said, “Oh, we had baby whole carrots.” I said, “My son liked them.” She said, “Yea, ’cause we had ranch dressing.” So I started buying him ranch dressing and even invested in the little soufflé cups and I would pour it in there, and when we had fresh carrots at home he would eat them up. I said, “I’ve got to get the carrots in the boy however I can.” But I think that Offer vs. Serve is a good thing for the children. It’s teaching them to select food items and to eat what they choose.

MH: What do you feel has been your most significant contribution to the field?

MW: Well, as far as my students are concerned, a lot of them have told me that they like the way that I share my triumphs as well as my screw-ups with them. So – the hamburger patty’s my screw up – so that will let them know that you’re going to have some good days and you’re going to have some bad days, but always, always learn from your past mistakes and look forward. I’ve had several people tell me that, and I think that’s one legacy I can leave with the training program here. If you make a mistake don’t try to wiggle out of it. You’re human. And Dr. Mann can tell you whenever I realize that I’ve totally screwed up I’ll either call her and say, “Can I see you for a minute?” and she’ll say either “Yes” or “No “or “Not right now” and I will say, “I just messed up” and I’ll tell her what I did and what I plan to do to straighten it out and she’ll say, “Ok.” But I don’t ever try to lie my way out, because if you do, just like I tell my children, if you lie you’ve got to think of another lie and another one and another one. Tell the truth, admit that you messed up, get some help if you need it, and keep going, and that’s my philosophy.

MH: Do you have any more memorable stories that come to mind?

MW: One more.

MH: Alright.

MW: When I asked Dr. Mann – we had a group of like ten students that were scheduled to participate in the state testing in Covington – and I asked Dr. Mann if I could go with them for moral support. And she told me, “No.” She said, “You’ve got to stop babying those people. They are grown folks and you cannot go to Covington.” That was a memorable event. So the last day of class before they left I just gave them a little pep talk and told them that I couldn’t go with them but I wished them well. And when they got there – to leave in time so they won’t have to rush – and when they got there to just sit in their cars and talk to a special person, and I think they knew who that person was, and I’m sure they would do well. That stuck with me too. They still didn’t all make it, but –

MH: You tried didn’t you?

MW: Yes.

MH: What advice would you give someone who was thinking about entering the child nutrition program today?

MW: I would say that you’re choosing a very good career. There are many, many people who retire from school food service and that they could tell them the program is a good program to work with. You work 180 days a school year. You have holidays off. Some people even choose other jobs after work if they choose to do so. They don’t have to. And I don’t know of any other company that you could work for that has that many holidays off. I really don’t. And it’s an excellent place to work for if you’re a mother who really doesn’t have to work, or who’s retired and just wants to get away from the house a couple of days a week. You ought to even volunteer. Excellent.

MH: Anything else you want to add?

MW: I am enjoying my tenure. I’m looking forward to retirement, but I’m not. I’m looking forward to sleeping as late as I want on rainy days and cold days, and still have a paycheck in the bank. But I’m going to miss everybody. I don’t want to say goodbye. And I told them, I don’t want a retirement party, forget it, I don’t want any of that. When it’s time to leave at 4:30 that particular day I’m going to take those keys and put in Dr. Mann’s hand. I’m going to say, “I’m not going to say goodbye.” I’m going to say, “See y’all later.” And that’s it. I don’t want all that, because I might just boohoo like a little baby. I’m going to miss school food service because this is where I know, this is what I love. And it may seem weird to hear someone say, “I love my job” but I do. I enjoy what I do. I really do. I really do. And I became very computer literate working with school food service. I remember I was one of the six schools – one more thing – I was one of the six schools that was chosen as a pilot school for the computers when we first got the six computers. And one day Mrs. Cole, who was our former director, she was visiting the six sites to see how we were doing. So she got to Prescott and she said, “Well Miss Martha how are things going?” I did not want that computer. I did not want it. I was used to writing everything. But she said, “Is there anything I can do for you?” I said, “Yes ma’am.” She said, “What’s that?” I said, “Please tell them to come pick this computer up.” She said, “No ma’am.” She said, “You can do this.” I said, “Mrs. Cole, I don’t want this. I don’t understand this computer.” And she said, “Tell me why Martha.” So I said – this is what happened. IBM sent a lot of help, a lot of tech support, but they did say this, a young lady said this, “When you enter the food item you pull them out the same way.” And I know she said this. Well, I had an incident with some cheese. I entered it in in pounds and tried to pull it out in cases. It took me half the day to get the cheese straight. That’s when I decided I don’t want this thing. I just want to write down six cases of cheese and let it rip. So that was one of the things that I didn’t like. I did not want computer, but I am so glad now that we have them, and if they try to take my computer I think I will lay across the door. I love it, I love my computer. I do. But I didn’t want it at first though. So I’m glad that we have them, I really am.

MH: Well Martha, I do need to add that we are special buddies, aren’t we?

MW: Oh yes. We borrowed from each other when you were a manager at Istrouma. I was always borrowing – new manager now – I was always borrowing cases of paper towels or something, and Melba always said, “Ok, Martha.” And she had a technician, Lionel, and Lionel knew when I entered the back door I needed some paper towels. And I had to find a way of keeping my kids from picking up too many paper towels or pulling too many paper towels, so I would have to be always borrowing, but she never told me to go back where you come from. She always said, “Ok, Martha. How many cases do you need?” until I got this thing down pat.

MH: Lionel was always there ready to load –

MW: – load it in the trunk of the car every time.

MH: He was going to treat you special. Thank you. We appreciate you taking the time to do this.

MW: Ok.