Interviewee: Mary Eleanor Cole
Interviewer: Melba Hollingsworth
Date: January 27, 2009
Location: East Baton Rouge Parish Child Nutrition Programs office, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Description: Mary Eleanor Cole worked at Louisiana State University for seven years establishing food and equipment standards before being recruited by East Baton Rough Parish to become their second Food Service Director. She served as the Director for seventeen years.
Melba Hollingsworth: I am Melba Hollingsworth and it is Tuesday, January 27, 2009, and we are here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at the East Baton Rouge Parish Child Nutrition Programs office. I am here with Mary Eleanor Cole, retired Foodservice Director for East Baton Rouge Parish. Would you tell me just a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?
Mary Eleanor Cole: Well Melba, you and I go a long way back, and it’s so good to be with you today. I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. My husband was transferred with the state down to Baton Rouge, and that’s how we wound up in Baton Rouge. But my earliest recollection of the Foodservice Program was the smell of soup that wafted over the Line Avenue School.
MH: Oh really!
EC: Then I went on to Byrd High School and took Home Economics, and I remember two teachers I had, Ms. Bachelor and Ms. Bladderman, who were very influential in turning me towards food. Then one day when I was a senior we had a career day, and a dietitian came and spoke to us about food service. So I guess that was my inspiration for going into food service.
MH: Wow. So that’s your earliest recollection. Did you participate in the school lunch program when you were little?
EC: I don’t think so because I lived about two blocks from school, and we were allowed to walk home to lunch every day. But then after I got interested in food service, I went to Texas Women’s University, and I got a B.S. in Food Nutrition. Then later on when we moved to Baton Rouge I got a Masters Degree from Louisiana State University.
MH: Oh, wow. Do you recall what years were those?
EC: Oh it was too long ago! It was a long time ago. I will just say this. I grew up during World War II, and we had victory gardens so that was a memory I had of the angle of the food service industry.
MH: Well I went to the Texas Women’s University as you well know, so we are Tessies are we?
EC: Yes we are.
MH: So how did you become involved in the child nutrition profession?
EC: I think my mentor was Mildred Stringfield, who was in this parish for a long, long time. I worked at the Louisiana State University for seven years at the Pentagon Dining Hall, testing food products there. Mildred needed somebody like myself and asked me to come work for her at East Baton Rouge Schools. So I started out working here, and she wanted me to develop food specifications. At the time there was not any real good manual that you could use in order to buy foods. So I worked on food and equipment specifications when I first came here.
MH: Wow…I wasn’t aware of that.
EC: And when Mildred retired I was recruited to take her place…well not take her place, but succeed her.
MH: So what year would that have been?
EC: That was 1976, when I became Director.
MH: Ok. Mildred. Do you remember if Mildred Stringfield was the first Director for East Baton Rouge Parish?
EC: Yes I think so. She was here for a long time.
MH: For a long time… so actually she was your mentor.
EC: Yes she was.
MH: Would you tell us about other positions that you’ve held?
EC: The one at Louisiana State University I think prepared me for this job in that it required a testing of products that we were going to purchase. I spent a great deal of time seeing which was the best coffee and which was the best canned peas and all of those things that you purchase. That really prepared me for the job here.
MH: So that’s why we have some wonderful specification?
MH: Kind of started it up…
EC: Well it sure did. It took a long time to develop because when I first came in they were rather sketchy and were not too specific.
MH: Do you feel that your educational background helped your career in child nutrition programs? Do you remember?
EC: Well I thought particularly the TWU education was good in that it stressed quality and professional performance.
MH: Do you remember some of your professors there?
EC: Oh…I do, but I can’t remember the names.
MH: Alright. We had some folks that had been there a long time.
EC: I think by the time you got there they were all gone.
MH: Is there anything unique about Louisiana in regards to child nutrition programs?
EC: I don’t think the general public realized what expertise a person needs to run a child nutrition program. And of course we were all steeped in the USDA program, which is very detailed. You have to be very accountable in that program. I don’t think the general public understands exactly what’s involved in that.
MH: So what was a typical day like in your career?
EC: Oh there was no typical day. Every day was so different. That’s what made the job so interesting. Not only did you have to deal with food procurement, menus, personnel management…just all aspects of a business, then make it come out financially. So whenever I meet someone that is a young person in this field I always tell them that it is one of the most interesting jobs you can have because it’s so diverse.
MH: So what were your biggest challenges?
EC: I think one of the biggest challenges was personnel. When I first came to this system we had 115 cafeterias, and I think we had 700 personnel. You had to work with principals and teachers and school foodservice workers and the school board. One of the big challenges to me was the politics of a public entity. Many a time I went to the school board meeting to show them why we needed to buy a certain bag or a certain piece of equipment because of its quality. I tried to always live up to the lowest bid that meets specifications.
MH: What changes have you seen in the profession over the years?
EC: One of the big changes, Melba, I think, was the amount of paperwork that we all had to do. That was true from the beginning. The managers had so much paperwork to do. You almost couldn’t do it in a day. You had to just stay there at school until it was all done and accounted for; all the food that you bought, all the children that you served, and then make sure it was correct because you would be audited by the state of Louisiana, which was audited by the USDA. It was a very complicated situation that you just had to deal with every day. One of the big challenges I think I faced was the concessions in schools because the principals needed to have concessions in order to have money for their athletic equipment and their teams. That was hard to reconcile because every time the principals opened concessions you’d see the count of the lunch go down and kids would go and drink pop and eat candy instead of buying the school lunch. It was something you had to handle. Another thing that happened when I was here was the teachers’ strike. We had the strike and we had to still feed the kids.
MH: Do you remember what year that was?
EC: Oh gosh, I don’t remember. Some time in the ’80s.
MH: What do think has been your most significant contribution to the field.
EC: We tried to upgrade the training of personnel. When I first came we were able hire degreed managers…young women and men who had been to some of the universities around. We had LSU, we had Southern, we had Southeastern, Southwestern, and Northwestern. We had a lot of colleges to draw from. They all wanted to work for school foodservice in Baton Rouge. We hired degreed managers, which was unique in the United States. They did a good job because they had a background in Food Nutrition. I thought that that was one of our big contributions. Many of these ladies went on to get advanced degrees and become directors themselves. I feel like that was my biggest contribution.
MH: Yea, we owe a lot to that policy. You can see folks all over the nation have gone beyond…that come from here.
EC: It’s very fulfilling to see those ladies.
MH: Do you have any memorable stories or anyone that comes to mind as you think back through the years of your profession?
EC: I can’t remember anything in particular, but I do know that the public was very interested in our program we would be interviewed by the press and on TV, and any time anything happened in the United States we would be asked how it affected us. We felt very much a part of the school system.
MH: What about folks? Do you remember anything special about folks?
EC: Oh my, so many many people that we were privileged to know. I still see foodservice workers come up to me in Wal-Mart and places and say ‘Ms. Cole! Is that you?’ It’s such a pleasure to see…in fact yesterday I was at the YMCA exercising and I saw one of our head cooks there. We talked and she said, ‘Have you tried that coconut pie recipe in our cook book?’ I said, ‘No.’ But I went home and did make the coconut pie for my husband so…it just goes on and on.
MH: Isn’t that wonderful?
EC: It is wonderful.
MH: Is there anything else you would like to add?
EC: Just the part that the American School Food Service Association played in our program, and the Louisiana School Food Service Association. We encouraged everyone to belong to those groups because you learned a lot about sanitation, food preparation, and all kinds of things a person needed to know in the field. I felt that that was a very important part of our careers…to belong to those associations.
MH: And the networking isn’t it?
EC: The networking with your friends and your fellow directors, managers, and foodservice personnel. It was a real pleasure.
MH: You were in East Baton Rouge for a total of how many years was it?
EC: I think it was a total of seventeen.
MH: Seventeen. And then you worked at the university for seven years.
EC: I worked at LSU seven years before that.
MH: Well we certainly thank you for coming and taking the time to do this. You are a busy lady still.
EC: My pleasure, Melba.
MH: Thank you.