Interviewee: Mary Alexiou
Interviewer: Linda Godfrey
Date: April 23, 2010
Location: Hoover, AL
Description: Mary Alexiou, a native Alabamian, recently retired as the Director of Child Nutrition Programs for Vestavia City Schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Jacksonville State University and a master’s degree from University of Alabama, Birmingham. Prior to going into child nutrition she worked first as a consultant for various hospitals and nursing homes and then at the Guntersville Hospital. She has also been a very active member of the School Nutrition Association.
Linda Godfrey: This is Friday, April 23, 2010, and we are at the Hoover City Board of Education, and I am interviewing Mary Alexiou. Mary, would you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up and some of your background?
Mary Alexiou: Well I was born and reared in Alabama and been here for all of my life, except for two years when we lived in Florida when I was an infant. I was born in Aniston and loved in Arab. I have lived here all my life and love it.
LG: How could you not love Alabama?
LG: What’s your earliest recollection of a child nutrition program? Do you have any memories that you’d like to share with us?
MA: Well, my recollections are when I was in school, and this is really dating myself, lunches were a quarter back then. We didn’t have a breakfast program. I was mainly a brown-bagger, just because my mom packed the lunches and we took them to school. I thought it was a treat to get to eat in the cafeteria at school, and I loved Hamburger Day and peanut butter cookies. That was one of my favorite things. But I did, I really enjoyed the meals at school.
LG: And you say you liked hamburgers. Did you have lettuce and tomato or anything like that on them – or pickles? Do you remember any of that?
MA: You know, I do not remember that but I don’t think we did probably just had mustard and ketchup. We had the baked beans with it and I enjoyed that too.
LG: OK. How did you become involved in the child nutrition profession? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
MA: It’s kind of funny I guess, or odd. I started out in clinicals, and then when my husband and I moved to the Birmingham area he was in education and so there was an opening at one of the schools for a food service manager and I thought ‘Well, you know, I’ll just apply there’ and so did, and I got the position and I thought ‘Well, I will just, you know, stay in here until I get back in clincals, and once we get settled down, I can then go from there and go to a hospital or nursing home or whatever like I used to do’, but then I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the hours and just stayed in child nutrition.
LG: Kind of gets in your blood doesn’t it?
MA: It does.
LG: It really does get into your blood. Tell us about your educational background. Where did you go to school?
MA: I graduated from Arab High School and did my undergraduate work at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, and then I did my master’s work in Food, Nutrition, and Allied Health at University of Alabama in Birmingham.
LG: OK. Do you think anything in your educational background prepared you for work in school nutrition or child nutrition programs?
MA: You know, very little, other than knowing the nutrition element of it, which I think that has helped a great deal in knowing how to feed children, and knowing how to feed them in healthy ways and giving them food that is healthy for them. But, other than that it was kind of like OJT, on-the-job training.
LG: OK. Was there someone, a mentor, who influenced or directed you in your profession?
MA: I had two actually. My first director, which was Pat Bolger, who has now passed away; Pat pushed me into doing a lot of things. And then the other one that I had was named Linda Godfrey, who is sitting right here. She was my second director and she also was another good leader and somebody I learned from a great deal.
LG: I will have to say that Pat was the type person that made you think outside the box constantly; status quo was never acceptable.
MA: She was always changing, always going for the new things and pushing you a little bit farther, a little bit beyond your comfort zone.
LG: Right, right. And that’s where you’ve grown I think so much. Tell us about the positions that you’ve held. You said you worked in clinical; where, and what did you do?
MA: I worked as a consultant, actually with another lady and we worked with nursing homes and hospitals. Mainly I was in the north part of Alabama, and she worked north and south Alabama. And then after I stopped working with her I went full-time in a hospital, Gunnersville Hospital. That hospital is no longer there; it’s been torn down. But I worked in Guntersville Hospital and then left there and then went into school nutrition.
LG: And what positions have you held in school nutrition?
MA: Well, I started out as a child nutrition program manager, and then I went to what we called the area manager at that time in Shelby County Schools, which is a supervisory level, and then now I’m the director of child nutrition programs at Vestavia City Schools.
LG: OK. What about the size school where you started?
MA: The size of the school where I started, it was Thompson Middle School in Alabaster, I think we had about 800 students there at that time. I left there and went to the Thompson High School/Elementary School. There was one kitchen in between those two schools and there were 1,600 students. We served elementary on one side and high school on the other, then also satellited food out to Linda Nolan Learning Center at that time, which was a special needs school for children. That was really exciting. Of course, being from the clinical background that was always exciting for me to work with the students at Linda Nolan Learning Center. As an area manager I was over nine schools and also did a lot of the software support with our software that we used at that time, with all the schools in Shelby County. People would call me and I would try to help them out, until my director finally realized that it was getting to be a little bit too much.
LG: Now what about in Vestavia?
MA: It’s a small school system. We now have eight schools, seven kitchens, because two schools share one kitchen. Our Liberty Park School, we have an elementary school on one side and a middle school on the other side, and that just has recently been built. It’s a small school system. It’s like family there and I have just really enjoyed working at Vestavia City Schools. It’s kind of the ‘one man show’ though. As a director I kind of do it all. I have an administrative assistant that I have half of her, so she works for another director also. I do a lot of my own things. I do the free and reduced meal applications, which is not a great deal because we’re only seven percent free and reduced. We were three percent free and reduced when I first came there in 2001, and now were up to seven percent, so that shows you a little bit about the economy.
LG: So it has grown; and what’s your enrollment?
MA: Our enrollment is about 7,000. We have one large high school. We now have two middle schools, so that helps. When they built our Liberty Park Middle School it certainly helped our previous middle school.
LG: So you’ve been involved in building new schools and designing kitchens?
MA: Well actually, that one was already on the book when I was there, but I have been involved in that, yes, both in Shelby County and where I am now.
LG: Is there anything that you would like to talk about with our state child nutrition program in Alabama?
MA: I think it’s number one in the nation frankly, and they have won awards and been noted for that. I think one of the outstanding things with our state program is that they instituted the statewide procurement, which means that we don’t have to go through the big bid process of weeding out a lot of different products, even though we do have input with that. I just think it was a very good thing for Perry Fulton, who is our director, I think he was the main one that got that going. It just has really been helpful I think for the whole state.
LG: What about the training that’s provided from the state department?
MA: Oh, it’s excellent, yes, and now since June Barrett has been with the state department I can see a difference with the training. It’s much more targeted for us. It’s very interesting when we go to the state meetings, and there’s a lot of it. We have a lot more things that we can access off the website, which we didn’t have before. I think that we had to call about [these things before], and different regulations that we are able to go to on the website and say, “Oh, it’s here” and we don’t have to call and bother somebody or wait for somebody to get back to us and answer [a question]. The information’s readily available and they’re very, very helpful.
LG: That’s not true in some states, I understand, that you feel that relationship with the state department.
MA: And that’s sad that that doesn’t occur because – I do remember when I first started in child nutrition that when the auditors would come out it would seem like the ‘Gestapo’ so to speak, but now that is not the case. I feel like they’re here to help us. I think they come across in that way when they do come out and I look at it in that manner. They’re here to help us, not to hinder, and we can ask questions of our auditors as well as state CNP staff.
LG: So you feel like this is a good communication?
MA: I do.
LG: Good. Can you tell us what you think a typical day for you might be?
MA: I don’t think we have typical days. I just know that with each day that comes in there’s a challenge. And there may be some days that are a little bit slower, but most days you come in and say, “OK. What exciting thing is going to happen this day, or what piece of equipment might break?”, or whatever, but we have a wonderful maintenance staff where we are in Vestavia and they support us well in that aspect. And then dealing with personnel is always exciting and different, or should I say challenging at times. Like I said, I don’t know if there is a typical day.
LG: What would you say are maybe the biggest challenges that you face, or do you have one that you might identify?
MA: Just to make sure that we have a good educated and trained staff; I try to make sure that our staff knows about what’s in the news and what the recalls are, just keeping them informed with what’s going on with like say even reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program, National School Breakfast Program. I want them informed, and it is a challenge with communication to make sure that everybody knows what’s going on because if you are in a facility and you’re not privy readily to the information – we tend to forget that everybody’s lot looking at that every single day, every single moment when you bring up your computer, and I have things that come up on my computer that I look at every day and try to keep in touch, or try to keep informed as to what’s going on, and then I try to relay that to those that I supervise.
LG: Tell us a little bit about your involvement with the – it used to be the American School Food Service Association – now the School Nutrition Association.
MA: And I’m so glad they changed that name, I like that, to the School Nutrition Association, because that’s what we are all about. We’re about nutrition, nutrition for children. We tend to forget that even in working in the cafeterias sometimes we want to please the adults more than work with the children, and that’s something that has to be done too, but with the School Nutrition Association I started oh, long, long ago, probably 1984. I came in as a member, then started almost immediately as the Certification Chair for the state of Alabama, worked with that for several years, was the Membership Chair for one year, then came in and was the President-Elect, because at that time we didn’t have a Vice-President, we had a President-Elect; and became President-Elect and then President and Past-President. I have been nominating chairs now – I stopped with the board for a few years because I felt like as I was getting older, that they needed to bring newer, younger people in that would be able to learn, and that those of us who had been in the association for a while could be the historians or the people that would help mentor those new people coming in. And then I got back into it as the Nominating Chair because I knew everybody.
LG: Do you mind discussing a little bit about the community you work in, in Vestavia, and maybe working with the parents and the principals and that type of thing? I think that might be a challenge at times, or an opportunity.
MA: Right. Well, working with parents and principals sometimes can be a challenge. In Vestavia it’s a higher socio-economic area and we have a lot of attorneys, that could be good or bad, a lot of educated people that work with us. I really haven’t had a lot of problems working with the parents and with the principals. They are cooperative. They understand that we have certain regulations that we have to adhere to, as far as the principals and schools do, and I’ve just had a really good working relationship with anybody that calls. Parents, if they don’t understand when they first are talking to me and I explain to them, they are usually very good to say, “Well oh, I didn’t know that”, and it has been a learning experience for them and they have always been very nice and cordial to me.
LG: So you feel like you have support from the administration and the community in your school system?
MA: I do.
LG: What changes have you seen in child nutrition over the years? I know that’s a pretty loaded question and you’ve seen a lot of different things.
MA: A lot, a lot. Of course from the quarter lunches that I had at school, we started serving breakfast, we always served lunch, thus the term ‘lunchroom’. I tried to get away from that term because that’s not all we do anymore. I like the term cafeteria, or child nutrition program, but I think maybe forever it will be ‘lunchroom.’
MA: I have seen it go from the children’s plates being served to Offer vs. Serve, or where they would have the opportunity to serve themselves. And now that pendulum is swinging back again because of sanitation issues and over-abundance of food, that children would get maybe too much. The portion sizes – we are going back to serving children or doing like a semi self-serve, where the entrees and some of the other foods are served and then the children are allowed to pick up fruits and vegetables, which are not always their favorites, because they haven’t been trained to make that their favorites. I think we should start – and this is getting away from that question – start with elementary school level, and a bigger thing too is training parents and adults to accept those foods and let them know that it’s not bad for children not to have cake every time they eat, or ice cream or whatever. But I have seen those changes; I’ve seen the changes from desserts at every meal to going more to fruits, and raw vegetables, whole grains, and these are good. And it’s going to take a while for the mentality of the United States, all the people, the adults, to come over and know, and I think that’s happening now. We have Jamie Oliver, our revolutionary chef, that’s come over from England, and at first I was very upset with that man.
LG: I think a lot of us were.
MA: But you know, it has brought some things to light, and I think in the long run, even though he’s a sensationalist with that particular program – they’re trying to make people watch it – it has opened up and gotten a lot of publicity for the child nutrition program, some of it we don’t want, but it has brought that to light, and hopefully Congress and other people might say, “They do need more funds. They can’t do this on the budget that we’re giving them to do it on.” All those fruits and vegetables, and training that has to take place does cost, and it costs more money than what we’re getting now.
LG: What about the Wellness Program?
MA: Well, the wellness – I think that was a good thing. We protested, oh my goodness, and change is always something we tend to not want, but when the wellness came about that was a revolutionary year. I believe that was 2005 if I’m correct. We went through a lot of changes with wellness, and it wasn’t just for child nutrition. The school at first thought it was just child nutrition and then they realized it’s exercise too, and some other things that are involved within the school itself, and all of it’s good for children. The wellness is just a really good thing. And the vending machines – I think that was a big thing with schools – the vending machines were attacked, and what we were serving in the vending. Some of the schools were using that as great revenue sources. I don’t know with the healthier vending that it has really cut into their budgets, it may have. I still use some vending in our schools, but we make sure that we have the healthier services in that, and it’s still a big revenue source for us. Now that may stop entirely with new regulations that are possibly coming out, but it may or may not, we’ll have to see.
LG: Yes, we don’t know what reauthorization has. What about – you mentioned food safety – do you want to say something HASSP and that type thing?
MA: That’s been another big change that has occurred. Food safety has jumped to another level with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points and the different courses that are taught with that. And Serve Safe; we’ve had Serving it Safe and then Serve Safe, which was a little confusing to some people, but the fact that people like yourself get out and train our employees in the use of HASSP regulations, and that was another thing that was greatly protested for those of us who [thought] ‘We have to do another think without increased funds’, but those are some things that I can see it’s been a good thing. We have to focus on those temperatures of food, how long we’re holding them, the fact that they were potentially hazardous if the food was out of temperature. We’re taking more temps, recording it, and there are a lot of instruments out there that are being sold that will help with that. Hopefully we’ll get some of those in that so that there won’t be a lot of paper trails and more of the computer issue, use of the computers with that.
LG: Technology has just kind of stepped up to the plate hasn’t it?
MA: My goodness yes. And now when our computers go down we’re at a standstill.
LG: If you had to identify maybe your most important contribution to the field, or your most special contribution to the field of child nutrition, what do you think it might be?
MA: Probably the mentoring and training of the new people that are coming into child nutrition. That and then teaching elementary school students; when I go in and do classes with them and work [with] the Food Guide Pyramid, or manners, we’ve done manners and tastings.
LG: Do you want to talk about that because you’ve kind of done a lot of that I think.
MA: I always loved [working with students]; of course my favorite is elementary school. The little children are always so open and want to learn, and they go home and they tell their parents, “Mrs. Alexiou told me not to eat any macaroni & cheese anymore.” I would talk to them about fat and I would take test tubes with the different fats, and show sugars that are in carbonated beverages and what a difference it is. I would bring in sugar and then have them take a teaspoon – I would get some volunteers and have them come up – and I would say, “Guess how many teaspoons of sugar is in that cola”, and of course that would say three or four; and they would start measuring that out and they were very surprised at how much was actually in there. I think it helped them and they would go home and tell their parents about that, and so then their parents would look into it, and so they were instructed also, by their children. It was a lot of fun to get in and work with the children and see the difference maybe even when they would come into the cafeteria line and make their choices. It would be a big difference, so education does help.
LG: Do you have a special story to tell about maybe a child or employee? I know that you’ve done so much for so many people.
MA: I’ll always remember this little fellow that after I had been in the first grade class and taught the Food Guide Pyramid; then I was out at the ballpark after that and this little boy comes up, and he was just so excited to see me, but he couldn’t remember my name and he ran to his mother and he said, “Mom, Mom, Mom, it’s that cooker woman.” I can’t remember his name, but I can remember that little boy now, and he was so cute. I also remember speaking to parent groups before school would start, just talking to them about the child nutrition program, and I don’t know if you remember the Lunchroom Lady song, but the year that came out I was speaking to them and I would get up and I would say, “I’m the Lunchroom Lady”, and they would all chuckle. That was a good thing too I think, being able to talk to parents before, the kindergarteners especially, would talk to them and let them know what the children could get, and what we deemed as a reimbursable meal. Parents don’t know what a reimbursable meal is. We had to say a ‘meal deal’ or something like that; “This is what you can get with the amount of money that you’re paying. There are a-la-carte foods available if your child still wants more food, or they want a special thing like a 100% fruit juice slush, or a different beverage.” Not all children, unfortunately, drink milk, so you’d have to offer another type beverage, and that would have to be a-la-carte, because that’s not part of the National School Lunch Program.
LG: Right. What about fryers? You’ve kind of been a pioneer in that.
MA: Yes. We stopped using fryers in some of our schools. We still occasionally use fryers in our high school because we haven’t purchased the new equipment to take the place of those fryers yet. In high schools and middle schools the children are coming through much faster, and there are more of them, so we have to look at that. And we still do some frying in our high school; just a little. We went from frying french fries every single day and offering that to maybe once a week, or now even less than that, and our high school is our only school that still fries french fries. We have done away with fryers in many of our schools, and years back, even when I first started, we pretty much tried to get away from a lot of frying and [using] certainly more whole grains and fruits and vegetables. And that was a big resistance. She’s no longer with us, but when I first told one of our high school managers that we would no longer have desserts I thought she was going to pass out. That was her big specialty. She enjoyed giving children and faculty members sweets and things they enjoyed. And that’s one thing I know that child nutrition people do, they really like to please and to know that their food is accepted well. They like to serve good food. They’re very enthusiastic about learning too. They want to learn and I appreciate that in them.
LG: Very passionate; I think if we had to use a word for child nutrition it would be [passionate].
MA: That is true. That’s a wonderful word.
LG: What about someone who’s coming into the field? We are seeing more interest with young people in coming into the profession of child nutrition. What advice would you give them?
MA: That child nutrition is never status quo. Be ready for change. I don’t know that there’s ever, like I said before, there’s not a typical day. Just know that if you’re dealing with education and children and food that there’s always change going to occur, so be ready to roll with the change, and for the good we hope.
LG: Is there anything else that you’d like to add.
MA: Just that I love, I’ve always enjoyed child nutrition, and I enjoyed the clinical portion when I worked in hospitals and nursing homes, but I love working with the children. When I came into the central office as a director, that’s the one thing that I missed the most, is the direct contact with students. I just really have enjoyed working with the child nutrition program. In the Vestavia schools where I work now, [it’s] probably the best job that I’ve ever had, and it’s wonderful; and I’m retiring this year – bittersweet.
LG: Well, you’ve certainly done an excellent job at Vestavia. I think they appreciate everything that you’ve done there.
MA: Thank you.