Interviewee: Mary Carter

Interviewer: Melba Hollingsworth

Date: January 27, 2009

Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Description: Mary Carter, a Louisiana native, has served as a school foodservice manager and supervisor for Louisiana schools.

Melba Hollingsworth: This is January 27, 2009, and I’m here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the East Baton Rouge School Food Service, and I’m here with Mary Carter. Mary Carter, would you tell me a little bit about yourself like where you grew up?

Mary Carter: My name is Mary Carter, and I grew up in Hammond, Louisiana. I spent most of my time in Hammond until I went off to college. I have two children, a girl and a boy, and one granddaughter.

MH: Well tell me about the school, where you went to Grambling State. Is that in Louisiana?

MC: Grambling, Louisiana. I have an undergrad of Institutional Management from Grambling College. It was Grambling College back then. I did my internship at Charity Hospital as a dietician. I worked at Charity after my internship for six months and I transferred to Southeast Hospital in Mandeville and I worked there four and a half years as a therapeutic dietician. After that, I went to Lallie Kemp Hospital as a therapeutic dietician until 1980, and I came to East Baton Rouge Parish and started working for school food service.

MH: So you had all that background before you even went to Istrouma High School.

MC: I started out at Belaire for two years as an assistant manager. Even with all that you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. And I came to Istrouma and I stayed at Istrouma for twenty-five years. And I left Istrouma for three years and went to Robert E. Lee and I ran the multi-unit schools, and a year and a half ago I became an area supervisor.

MH: Wow! So it’s been how many years now?

MC: Thirty-three going on thirty-four.

MH: Thirty-four years you’ve been in the child nutrition program. So what I was going to say was- – .

MC: All my career has been child nutrition.

MH: So that is your earliest recollection of the child nutrition program then.

MC: No, my earliest is when I was a young child.

MH: Oh really?

MC: Yes, at school, I looked forward to lunch.

MH: So was there a school lunch or breakfast program?

MC: Yes, there were both.

MH: Now what school was this again?

MC: I was from Hammond, so I went to Pine Ridge Elementary. That was my elementary school. And I remember standing in the line waiting on red beans and rice. (Laughs)

MH: Was that on a Monday?

MC: I can’t remember what day, but that was the day everybody ate.

MH: So obviously that was one of your favorite menus. What were some of your other favorite menus during that time?

MC: The dessert was gingerbread. I loved my milk. We didn’t have all the milk we have now so kids today are very privileged. We didn’t have all that. We didn’t have gumbo, but that was the beans and chicken. It was just home cooked foods. Everything back then was cooked from scratch. It was really, really good. I still remember some of them. Even a little earlier than that; I think it was kindergarten, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and that’s when I started loving peanut butter with apple jelly. My mother fixed me one thing and my best friend had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but with apple jelly, and we switched; that was it.

MH: You got hooked, huh?

MC: I got hooked on peanut butter and apple jelly.

MH: Do you remember how you became involved in the child nutrition profession?

MC: Child nutrition here in Baton Rouge is when I married in 1980 and moved here and applied and got on. And I think I was questioning, when I left Lallie Kemp, when I was leaving I was questioning different people what positions were available in Baton Rouge, and they said, “Well the school board hires all degreed managers. You ought to be able to get on.” So I applied and that’s how I got it, word of mouth, word of mouth. And I came over and I applied and got a job.

MH: Was there someone, a mentor, who was influential to –

MC: My sister, she’s a dietician too. She’s three years older than I am, and I always wanted to do what she did. She went to Grambling, I went to Grambling. I went to Grambling and I started out in one major, and hanging with her and watching her, I ended up changing my major. So, it’s just – family! I always admired what she did. And I always follow her footsteps.

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

MC: Okay, here?

MH: Yes.

MC: Okay, I started out as an assistant manager for two years.

MH: At Belaire?

MC: At Belaire High School. I got promoted to a manager for Istrouma High School. I was at Istrouma High for twenty-five years. After doing those twenty-five years, I was a single-unit manager, which meant I only ran Istrouma for maybe about fifteen years. After that, I became a multi-unit manager. That’s when the challenges came in. I had Istrouma, and it started out with three other schools I was responsible for. And it went from three to five, five to seven, seven to ten, and I did that until 2005. And I left there and went to Robert E. Lee, and when I went to Robert E. Lee, I went as a multi-unit manager running nine sites. And that’s when I became a supervisor running the thirty-four sites that I run now. It’s no problem because I’ve run so many sites so long than I’m used to keying in and it’s really smooth, no problem.

MH: You did cover gradual process. Most people don’t.

MC: Yeah, and it really helped me out. It really helped.

MH: Do you think your educational background helped you for your career in child nutrition?

MC: Yes.

MH: What do you feel that helped you?

MC: Well, I think the education helped me because it taught me about the foods: we had nutrition; whereas if I would’ve come off the street I would’ve been in something else I wouldn’t have known about the food groups, I wouldn’t have known about the Vitamin C components and things like that that helped me. When I was out in the kitchen and the supervisor told me, “I need you to put a Vitamin C on the menu.” I knew from my experienced background and it helped me, where had I come from another area, Vitamin C, I would have had to find a book to find what had Vitamin C or whatever, so, it helped me.

MH: Is there anything unique about this state in regard to child nutrition programs?

MC: This is the only state that I’ve worked in, so I don’t have much to compare. I’ve always worked in the inner city, and it’s to help the people that really need it. Not saying they won’t have food when they get home, but just making sure that what they get is presented to them in an appealing manner to make them want to eat it, and to also be a mentor for them. I always like to mentor. I have some that’s in their forties now and they see me and remember me because you make a rapport with the students. You’re their server but you’re also there training. You’re training etiquette, how to act on a serving line in a casual way. We’re not teachers, but we do teach like that, because I want someone to help my kids of they do need it.

MH: So what would you say is a typical day during your career, or was there a typical day?

MC: Which one do you want?

MH: Tell us about a manager vs. where you are now.

MC: Okay, as a manager, you report to work early, real early.

MH: What time did you go?

MC: Between 5:30 and 6:00 o’clock every day. You come in, you have your labor broken up into who’s going to do what, you have your fresh fruit come in, you get breakfast ready, you get breakfast prepared, get breakfast served, and while that’s going on you have to get through with breakfast and start on your lunch, and while they are doing that, I’m in the office doing breakfast count. Back then we didn’t have computers so we had to do a lot of hand things. It’s changed now. The managers out there today can hit a six on a computer. We had to hand-write sixes. You were there.

MH: Yes.

MC: We had to hand-write sevens. We had to hand-write everything! Those were the things, and at that time I kind of resented getting computers. I was like, “I got this, I don’t need any help.” And once I got started into computers, it became easy. Once you get lunch on you have thirty minutes to forty-five minutes to serve children lunch. Your mandating make sure you don’t run out of food, because the state requires you always have something for the last students. You’re watching the line making sure everything is on there – collecting, as a manager you have to collect. So you’re collecting, and you’re watching. I had two lines, so I would watch and I would look down and make sure everything was on both lines making sure the people don’t run out. And then you’re making sure you have the right portion sizes. You’re making sure they have the right components. Do they have a reimbursable meal? Being a manager is a lot but I LOVED it, and I still do love it. And I go out and help my ladies every chance I get. Compared to here – I don’t have to come in as early, my hours have changed, but I stay later. And I had to adjust to that but I’m used to it now. But I help my managers. [If] they have a problem, on the computer I can watch what they’re doing. I can see if they’re making a mistake on that six. I can call them on the phone or email them and let them know, “Hey, you need to check this. You need to check that.” I can check their food cost; make sure they’re not going too high. It’s basically what I was doing with my super schools, but here I have a bigger variety, and it’s two different games. I’m kind of like overseeing now, where I don’t actually have to go in and watch them preparing food. I don’t have to order food or anything. But I have to make sure they don’t have too much inventory in the kitchen, make sure the food cost is not over, and it’s tit for tat, but it’s not as detailed as being a manager. I love it.

MH: So what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

MC: I don’t know. I guess the computer at first. But then it really wasn’t, because I started out as one of the computer trainers. I caught on fast and I was one of the trainers, and I would teach people how to use the computer. I took all my challenges in stride. There was nothing to hard, nothing too big, nothing too high I wouldn’t jump over. I was always one of these ones that always strive for the best and if you put an obstacle out there I would just jump over it and keep going, so I just can’t say. I just took them as they came at me.

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

MC: It’s changed. Like I said, we have computers now. Here in East Baton Rouge Parish we have a lot of prepared food. We’ve gone from baking everything, from baking bread, cinnamon rolls, cooking everything from scratch. We don’t do that now. We still cook some things from scratch, but the majority of the things that we used to bake are now coming out of the pack. The pizza we used to make is coming in the box. It’s a lot of things different than it was in my day. In my day we actually got down did what we had to do. That all came because of labor. You have less labor now, which means you have less food to prepare from scratch. And the computer – the computers do everything – your seven, your six, your ordering. It does everything, and what I like about is we here at this office can tie in. You can click the [eye] and I can help you with your work. So that’s a big change. Back in the past if a supervisor needed to help you they had to get in their car and go over and help you. Now, on some things, anything dealing with the computer you can help here. It’s day and night, day and night.

MH: So you can just tie in and help those thirty-four schools you have.

MC: Yes.

MH: Fabulous. What do you think has been your most significant contribution in the field?

MC: To me, it’s helping my employees. I’ve always been the one that helped. Any employee, give me the bad employee, when I get through with them they’re going to be good. I find the best in everybody so mine is people. People. My contribution is people, and helping everybody find the best in themselves. So to me that’s my contribution.

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

MC: I would say, “Go for it.” A lot of people try to talk them out of it but you need people to know about nutrition. You need people to help the young people know which way to go. They say that we have the highest obesity rate. If we had more people that were conscious of what they were eating, why they were eating, what it was doing to their body it would solve a lot of problems, even if they didn’t do it at the school, they could help at the house, they could help at the church, they could help in the organization they’re in. If you get in nutrition you can help the world really. So I would advise anyone that’s truly interested in having a heart to apply for it – having that heart because it’s hard. It’s a hard field. There’s a lot of science, but it was worth it because it’s what I wanted to do. So I would advise if they really and truly feel that’s what they want go for it, put their heart in it it will work out fine.

MH: Did you go through any of the storms?

MC: Here?

MH: Yes.

MC: I went through Katrina.

MH: How was that? What did you see there?

MC: Katrina wasn’t too bad. We were out of school for a bit. I was in school, see. I was a manager, and I had a few schools, which meant I had to constantly go and make sure, see if the lights were on, if they had electricity, what food was lost, and doing different things. So that’s a part of being a manager too. You are responsible 24-7 for your kitchen. And the last one was Gustav. He really did us in. He hit us worse than Katrina and –

MH: Hurricane Gustav was worse?

MC: Yes, in Baton Rouge. We were off for two weeks. I had no electricity at home for thirteen days. So we as supervisors got together and got the food out of the freezers. Even as supervisors we are still responsible for this food. And the hurricanes are really bad that time of year – it’s really bad. We even had snow. I happened to have been out at a school that morning and they called school off. They had fixed the breakfast. The children had come in to eat. And they called and said school was closed. I helped the manager get everything together and we got everything put up. You just have to take it as it comes – and be willing to roll up your sleeves and do whatever you have to do to get the job done.

MH: That’s the truth isn’t it?

MC: Yes.

MH: So you’ve been here for thirty-four years?

MC: I’m on my thirty-fourth.

MH: So you’ve seen lots.

MC: I’ve seen a lot, a lot.

MH: Do you enjoy working with folks?

MC: I enjoy it, I’ve really enjoyed it.

MH: Do you feel you’ll have friends forever?

MC: Yes. Not just my coworkers, but like I say from kids. I have students – I remember I went to a Christmas parade and I was standing with my daughter, and all of a sudden this parade of trucks stopped. “Wait! Wait! Wait!” I said, “Brittany, what are they doing?” This guy came out, it was one of my students from Istrouma, he came out and said, “Wait a minute. This is Mrs. Carter. I’ve got to get it.” I personally got my cups, my beads, my everything. So that was the thing. So you do influence people that goes on forever. I just met one of my ex-students today when I was going to move my car. He works for the air-conditioning company. He said, “Don’t I know you?” I said, “Are you from Istrouma?” He said, “Yes. Mrs. Carter?” So I’m just saying that even as we get older those kids grow up and remember us if we’re nice, although they remember you if you’re mean too. But I try to treat everybody nice. It’s just nice seeing the kids grown and when the children’s children start coming to school it’s time to go home, because I have had, this is before I left Istrouma, some of my students’ children were there. And I don’t mean an elementary school – you can get an elementary – but a high school. And I said, “Wait a minute. You know, I’m getting kind of close to going home.” But I’m not ready to go home yet.

MH: Well Mary I want to thank you for stopping in.

MC: It’s been good talking to you.

MH: It’s nice seeing another buddy manager here.

MC: This is a buddy for life. She was at Istrouma. This is a buddy for life. [Patting Melba on the shoulder.]

MH: Thank you.