Interviewee: Mary Hill
Interviewer: Theresa Stretch
Date: March 22, 2006
Description: Mary Hill served as a school foodservice director Mississippi and later as president of the American School Food Service Association.
Mary Hill: Well Theresa, I am originally from Jackson, MS. I graduated from Jackson Public Schools. So I can say all of my early education was in Jackson Public Schools. Then I proceeded to The University of Southern Mississippi in 1974 where I received a B.S. degree in Home Economics with a minor in English and a master’s degree in Home Economics with a minor in Nutrition with emphasis in Commercial Foods.
TS: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs or school lunch programs?
MH: Well, I was involved in the program. As a student in Jackson Public Schools I participated in the program. As a matter of fact, my mother was a single parent raising two children, so I benefited greatly from the program. I also worked in the cafeteria during my senior year at Central High School. And my emphasis all along was Home Economics. So, my Home Economics teacher felt the importance of integrating the cafeteria and food service with some of the classes that we were having in Home Ec. So, we would do some things in the cafeteria; clean the tables. We actually got to do some serving on the serving line and some other things they would let us do that really didn’t interfere with the aspirations of the cafeteria. But I actually worked in the cafeteria during high school.
TS: How did you become involved in the school nutrition program?
MH: That’s an interesting statement because all during my high school years and my college years, it was my desire to be a Home Economist. And that basically is what I went to school for, was to be a Home Economist. But during my graduate studies one of my professors peaked my interest in the area commercial foods. And [the professor] said, “Really, you should get certified in the area of Commercial Foods.” So I did. And when I graduated, I of course initially could not find a job as a Home Economist because they were not just jobs that were just readily available and waiting on you to graduate. So I went to work in Laurel, MS, and I taught Commercial Foods for four years. I decided that I had been away from home for so long and I wanted to go back to Jackson. And someone had told me that there was an opening in our Career Development Center there. So, I decided, “Hey what do I have to lose? I’ll apply for that position and perhaps I’ll be able to get in”, still in the back of my mind waiting on that Home Economist position to open up. So I went to the district and I applied for a position they had available. And they called me for an interview. When I went to that interview, and of course it was a general interview that would basically get you through hurdles to talk to individual principals about vacancies that they had in their buildings. I went to that interview session, and I still laugh about it, because when I walked in I actually knew one of the interviewers. It was just a room full of men. It was probably about four or five men. All principals, except one gentleman who was Deputy Superintendent of Operations. And I went through the interview very well. And when it was over with he approached me before I left and asked me if perhaps I might be interested in the Director of Food Service position that they had vacant in the district. And I politely told him, “No sir, I’m interested in the Commercial Food position.” So he said, “Think about it.” And I said, “No sir, I’m interested in the Commercial Food position.” But anyway, he told me to think about it and call him by five o’clock the next day. So, I thought about it and I didn’t call. So, the day after that he calls me and asked me if I wouldn’t be interested in coming in to talk to him about the position. And again, I told him, “I’m interested in the Commercial Foods Instructor position that you have available.” So anyway after our lengthy discussion I agreed to go in and talk to him about that position, and as they say, the rest is history. I was successful in getting that position. I started with Jackson Public Schools in 1983. And I am now completing my twenty second year in Jackson Public Schools with the intent of not staying long, because remember I was still waiting on that Home Economist position to become available.
TS: Was there someone, a mentor, who was influential with directing you in the child nutrition field.
MH: Over the years I credit Dr. Haynes with that, Dr. Joe Haynes, because truly, if he had not been persistent and perhaps saw things that I didn’t see, and when I say that [I mean] my capability as far as operating that program, perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am today. But because he was so persistent and felt like I would be a good candidate for that position, I often look [back] and say, “Is it a positive or is it a negative?” But yet I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve been very thankful to him for his persistence, because truly without it I don’t [know] that I would be sitting in this seat or have been in Jackson Public Schools as Director of Food Services.
TS: Would you tell us a little bit about your educational background and how that prepared you for child nutrition programs?
MH: My background is primarily Home Ec, Home Economics. And of course when you look at the over-structure of Home Economics, they gave us a little of everything. We got a little of childcare. There were some courses in Food and Nutrition. There were some courses in Tailory. There were some Merchandizing courses. I think when you look at the Home Ec area, it is a rather broad area. And then when I decided to get my master’s, I did branch off into the area of Commercial Foods; actually I did an internship at one of the restaurants in Jackson, which really broadened my knowledge for the Commercial Foods side, in particular with the equipment and with the quantity food production that I did in order to get my master’s. And then I actually taught a Quantity Foods class. The Commercial Foods program that I taught in Laurel actually did Quantity Food prep, it was indeed a commercial foods kitchen, and I taught my students or should I say prepared them for the Commercial Foods side as far as job availabilities were. So between all of that, that was my intro to basically the type of kitchen that meals are prepared in schools.
TS: Would you tell us about your career and the positions you have held in child nutrition?
MH: Well I’ve been blessed. I have only basically handled two jobs. I taught in Laurel, MS, for a number of years before I came to Jackson Public. So basically I’ve been a Commercial Foods Instructor and I’ve been Food Service Director for Jackson Public Schools. I’ve also done some instruction as far as Hinds Community College’s concern. I’ve been one of their instructors for the re-certification course for Food Service Managers in the state of Mississippi. And I have taught for them probably about fifteen years still in the area of child nutrition.
TS: Would you tell us about your involvement with the School Nutrition Association?
MH: Let me just give you both sides. I initially started with Mississippi School Food Service Association when I came to Jackson Public Schools. I never will forget, Johnny Larking was instrumental in getting me involved in the state association. And I was very active and still am very active serving in a number of capacities from Bylaws and Resolutions Chair to Program Chair for our state conference; Local Arrangements Chair, I also served as Chair of the Nutrition Ed Committee and then eventually President of the state association, which I consider my springboard to the American School Food Service Association, which is now the School Nutrition Association. I have been involved with them since my first committee appointment, which was in 1989. And I was fortunate to be selected to serve on the Resolutions and Bylaws Committee. And I have been very involved with them since. I served not only on that committee, but also Chair of that committee. I’ve served on various committees such as the Nutrition Committee, the government’s task force, their strategic planning committees; just a number of committees as the association is concerned. And of course last summer I was installed as Vice President of the School Nutrition Association and will serve as President. I’ll be installed in 2007 in Chicago as President and serve from 2007 to 2008 as their President.
TS: What changes have you seen in the child nutrition profession over the years?
MH: There’ve been many. But I think probably if I was just to think about the most significant changes, I would look at the food choices and selections that we are serving our students, our children. And they have changed even when I look at the meal choices that we had in high school, which was years ago and I won’t date myself. And look what we are serving children now. I think emphasis certainly has been put on the health of the children, and since so many of our children come to us today with all kinds of illnesses, all kinds of health issues, that certainly includes us as child nutrition professionals to make sure we have those choices that will enhance their eating habits. Certainly we have looked at moving from fried foods to baked foods. We’ve looked at the fat content in our menus. We’ve looked at the sodium, the sugar content. We’ve looked at the trans-fats in our oils. We’ve just, at this point, looked at what it is that you’re serving them, yet being very understanding that for many of them nutrition education is important. Because even though we want them to make the right choices, many of them are not aware of what some of those choices are. For quite a while I think much of the emphasis of Nutrition Education has been put on our shoulders as school food service professionals, and to me it is something we should be sharing, and it should be part of the curriculum and stressed more in the curriculum than it is. But certainly, I think that the doors of the wellness policy will open, that now others will help us to assume some of the responsibilities for the health and well-being of our children. And certainly we are going to do our role when we’re looking at how we can enhance that, how we can make sure we have those selections that are healthy choices. But better than that, make sure students are aware of what those healthy choices are. To make sure they make those healthy choices. Because it’s one thing to have them on the serving line available to them and then they still don’t make those choices. I’m a firm believer that they need something in order to learn. You cannot teach a hungry child. And certainly we want to make sure that they know what those choices are and that they’re willing in many instances to give it a try.
TS: What do you think has been your most significant contribution to the child nutrition field so far?
MH: When I think of the areas, one of my strong points and one of the things that I’ve really tried to work very hard in our district with is training. We find that when we get the labor force, at times they’re not adequately trained to do the job that we want them to do. Then we look at sometimes the caliber of the individuals we get in school food service. And we have just bent over backwards in our district with making sure our people are trained. The flipside of that is in many instances we train them and then they go to work for other folks after we have done such a fine job in training them. It’s certainly – I believe the success of the program depends on the people who are working for you. And certainly, if they don’t know in many instances what it is that they need to do, or where the emphasis needs to be, then you have problems that often grow. And rather than being successful, you’ll find that you’ve got some forks in the road. And certainly, that’s what we’ve been looking into, is how to re-straighten that road so we don’t have those forks in the road. When we look at our employees and look at some of the issues we’re faced with, our customer, and that’s how we like to refer to our student population, our student population as our customer. Then the workers need to be trained to know what it is that they need to serve to those customers. Most importantly for me, they need to know what type of customers they have and what those eating choices are, and what those correct eating choices should be. And certainly, since those are the individuals doing the food preparation, it is key that they know how to prepare and make sure those healthy choices are on the lines every day.
TS: Do any memorable stories come to mind when you think about your years in the child nutrition profession?
MH: Yes. There are several; two I’d like to share with you. One concerns me. I think about my first Annual National Conference for the American School Food Service Association. I just had been named Director in the next year. I got the opportunity to attend my first conference in Indianapolis, IN. And it was so ironic because I was so energetic. I was just, oh just, I was like a sponge when it came to getting knowledge. And I never will forget, I think I spent every day on the exhibit floor. I went to every session that they had. I did not miss a beat. I picked up leaflets, pamphlets, I got samples. And back then we didn’t have the weight issue that we have on the plane. So I had two bags in each hand. I had my suitcases packed to the max, because it was so much I wanted to take back to the district and I didn’t want to miss anything. But I want you to know I truly paid for that because I went to bed for two days. And I was so tired because at that point I didn’t know, but when I finally got back and crashed, it was so overwhelming. But I wouldn’t have changed anything because certainly that gave me my initiative to start, that really let me know what was ahead and just how much work I had to do in order to get my program where I felt my program needed to be. But that was my first intro. And I met so many wonderful people at that conference. We networked along with all the others and I had business cards galore. Because I was asking everybody, “Do you have a card?” And it was just so funny because they were probably laughing too, because they could tell my newness to the area. But I just wanted to make sure, and I’m a very outgoing person, so I don’t have a problem talking to you. I don’t have problems asking questions and I often look at some of those individuals today that were so generous in giving me information, because I used those cards. I made those telephone calls, and they just sent me what I asked for. And that is another plus that I have enjoyed in this business is the generosity of the professionals in the child nutrition programs. They will share what they have and it’s like they want all of us to succeed so certainly if there is something that I have you are more than welcome to have it. And I have always told my people, “Why reinvent the wheel if I already have a wheel and it will help you?” The other one that I think about is a student in the district. James was one of my elementary school students at Brown Elementary. And the cafeteria manager there I think just really adopted James, because he was just a little sweetheart and just as cute as he could be. Breakfast started at seven o’clock in the morning and he would be there at six-thirty. He just wanted to kind of help out because he knew that his cafeteria manager would give him something a little extra that morning. And James at lunch, anything that he could grab or put in his pocket from lunch he would put it in his pocket. The cafeteria manager was aware of it but the teacher came in one day and said, “Do you know that James is taking food out of the cafeteria?” And I guess that it was so obvious because he would put an orange in and the orange would be protruding. But the question was, “Why was James putting the food in his pocket?” Well the manager later on shared that she also on some days would give James an extra sandwich if there were some things that were left in the cafeteria. So we did some further investigation, because we knew probably, and the teacher was very concerned, I was very concerned, and the Cafeteria Manager was very concerned that we actually went home with James. What we found was that his mother had been laid off from her job and really did not want any assistance. She said that she did not want welfare, and there were five children at home and we truly believe that James was gathering those food items so that he could feed his little sisters and brothers in the evening. But we were very successful in getting her some assistance, and believe it or not, that manager retired several years ago and James came back to her retirement celebration. He is a very successful young man now, and should have graduated from Jackson State University by now. But there are many of those stories that we could tell that child nutritionist professionals have had impacts on students and their lives and there are memorable impacts that they have had.
TS: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
MH: In closing I would just like to say what a joy it has been working in school food service. I certainly would have never thought that I would have number one, been here and number two, lasted as long as I have. And I can really say that I love what I do. I love my students, and each and every day it is my goal to make a difference in just one life, even though I have a lot of lives that I need to make a difference. Certainly if I can just make one difference in a student’s life in Jackson Public Schools, then I feel that my day’s accomplishment has been well spent and certainly I do plan to retire in School Food Service and then do some other things, but certainly it’s been a pleasure as well as a privilege to make an impact as far as children are concerned, in their health and well-being, as a child nutrition professional.
TS: Thank you.
***Mary Hill Oral History Addendum Transcript***
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is October 2, 2008 and I’m here at the National Food Service Management Institute with Mary Hill. Thank you, Mary, for taking the time to be with us today.
Mary Hill: You are welcome, Jeffrey.
JB: You’ve already done your oral history back in March of 2006, but you’ve had a lot going on since then so we wanted to add a little addendum to that. Is that okay?
MH: That’s okay.
JB: Okay. Since March of ’06, you became the SNA, The School Nutrition Association President, right?
MH: That is correct.
JB: When were you installed as that?
MH: I was installed in Chicago in July of 2007.
JB: I’ll bet that was an exciting event.
MH: It was definitely an exciting event.
JB: Well, tell us about first that event, and then your year as President.
MH: It was a wonderful conference in Chicago. I think just the mere point, at the conclusion of that meeting, I had the very honor of being installed as President of SNA. And then of course, all of the support of my Mississippi associates and professionals and the wonderful reception that they gave me after that installation, which really was a premiere event for me, and just showing how much they supported me and believed in my capabilities to serve as SNA’s President and represent the State of Mississippi. So, Chicago was very special to me. It was a wonderful conference in a beautiful city with a lot of attendees.
JB: How many were there that year? Do you remember?
MH: I think it was well over 6,000 in total, between actual School Food Service professionals and industry as well.
JB: Wow. That’s quite a crowd.
MH: It was quite a crowd.
JB: So what were your responsibilities or your activities as the President of the School Nutrition Association?
MH: Oh, there were many. One was, of course, to fulfill the goals and objectives of the Association Guide during my year as President, as well as the opportunity to represent the Association at various meetings, affiliate and organizational meetings, as well as state visits; the opportunity to visit many of the state associations and network with our members. I had the opportunity to install many of their state affiliate officers during their installation to serve as officers of those states. It has just been a fun year, just running around visiting, networking, and sharing the SNA story, to not only just our members but to several of our affiliate organizations who need to know what we were doing in SNA.
JB: Well, tell us about what you were doing. Was there a particular platform for your year as President?
MH: There was. I really worked on five major goals; membership being one. And just to highlight a few things I did for membership, I am very pleased to say we were very successful in getting school districts on membership, which simply says that school districts now can pay for membership in the School Nutrition Association using child nutrition funds. And we think [that’s great] because one of our goals was to increase the membership in the Association, because we believe the more voices we have, the more ability that we have in order to be successful in the many goals, particularly with legislation, and those kinds of platforms that we need in order to better our child nutrition programs. So we are piloting that. We’ve worked up all of the criteria procedures, piloting it in three states, and hoping by January of 2009 to release it as a membership category to the entire state affiliates across this country. Another push with membership was to look at our designs and to meet the needs of our diverse membership categories. In all of our various meetings last year, we looked at what were the needs of the single unit? What were the needs of our major city Directors, our District Directors? And many of our programs, then, were focused in that direction, particularly with ANC. The tracks that we do for the intercessions, those educational sessions that we do at conferences were then focused on those guides to meet the needs of those particular members. We did quite a bit this year under the wellness category. With the release of national nutrition standards that the Association has pulled together and really about two years of work to get to where we got last year. And that simply says that we want standards that everybody, all of our child nutrition programs across this country, can use and can focus on that will bring us some uniformity to what we do in our child nutrition programs. We all are diverse, but yet very similar in the jobs that we do. Our student population may be different depending on the various sections of the country that we come from, but the bottom line is that our nutritional needs should be similar. And that was one of the big pushes with national nutrition standards, and hopefully that we can impact that as we move ahead for reauthorization in 2009; to have that, hopefully, as a part of the platform to look at some type of uniformity of standards for our programs. We also examined informational complexities of our programs; really looking at all of the requirements that child nutrition professionals have to do in order to supervise the programs. We had several task forces to really pull together some information. That will be ongoing. I did not complete that totally during my year. But it will be ongoing for the next administration to look at as well. We also did some things in the area of image, professional image, under the professionalism category. This year, we will have two schools, two universities, who will be looking at internships. One has already started, which will be in the Dallas Independent School District. And there will be one, hopefully starting in January, in the Mesa School District in Arizona. So those were just some of the highlights. I could talk on and on.
JB: Sounds like a busy year.
MH: I think those were some of the major ones that we really looked at last year.
JB: You must have racked up a lot of sky miles. How many states did you visit last year?
MH: I had 14 that I was scheduled to visit and I can successfully say that I did all but three. And that was because many of their state conferences are held during the summer, the month of June, and it is just kind of hard when you are trying to be in many places at the same time. So I did have to ask my President-Elect as well as the Vice President to help me with some of those state visits, because certainly we wanted those states to be covered. But, it has been a wonderful year. I think when I look back, probably the most exciting part of the presidency was the networking and getting out in those states, actually seeing what they are doing; all of the great work; meeting all of the wonderful people who are involved in child nutrition programs across this country. And they do an outstanding job.
JB: Tell us about that. Were there any memorable stories, any special person or event that sticks out as you traveled to those different states?
MH: Well, I guess they all had their moments. Should I say from actually visiting cafeterias that were doing an outstanding job with the variety of food choices that they were serving the students and just the happy faces as they came through the line? It was wonderful when I would visit a state for their state conference and I actually got an opportunity to go visit a school while I was actually in that state; and I was able to do that in several of the states. But I think probably the most rewarding aspect of those trips was seeing how they come together at state conference and have so much fun. And the learning process of how they can be better child nutrition professionals, but also mix the fun with it. They even had me bowling and I don’t even bowl. It was so interesting because I broke a fingernail and they were just insistent that I go bowling. I even tried to hit a golf ball; which I don’t play golf. But they were insistent that I try, which I did.
JB: It’s a lot harder than it looks, isn’t it?
MH: I’m not going to tell you where the ball went. Let’s just say it left the golf course, okay? But, just in those sessions that they had, inspirational speakers, and just seeing them come together for the betterment of child nutrition programs across this country. The other point is their excitement. They’re excited about what they do. Our state associations are strong across this country and we have some outstanding volunteers who give of themselves, who give of their time, and they are not being reimbursed, which shows that they love their state associations. They enjoy what they do and they want to take it to the next level.
JB: As I travel and do these oral histories, I discover some really remarkable people with some remarkable stories.
JB: Do you see any differences regionally as you travel through the country? Is the Midwest different as they do their school nutrition thing from the South or the Northeast?
MH: Yes. We all do it a little differently as far as structure of programs, as far as the number of days, perhaps, our conferences are. But we all have the same goal in mind. Some may meet in a hotel. Some may meet in a school. Some of the meetings were four days. Some were three days. So, I think when you talk regionally, their needs and what their capabilities are may differ, but the bottom line and the theme of the conference, the mission of the conference as far as the educational piece, it is the same. No matter where I am; whether I am at a one-day session which I thoroughly enjoyed in the state of Delaware, which was just wonderful. The conference that I attended in Delaware was so interesting because there are only three counties in Delaware. And I was there from Friday to Sunday and they made sure I was in all three counties before I left the state. So, when I say I went from one end of Delaware to the other, I literally went from one end of Delaware to the other. I actually arrived in one county, we had the meeting in the other county and they made sure I visited the third county. So I covered the state of Delaware from Friday to Sunday. But it was just a very rewarding situation because they did all of it in one of their large middle schools. We had the meeting in the auditorium. We had exhibits in the cafeteria. We had small break-out sessions in the classrooms. I mean we just did everything at that one school that one day. And I mean they did some wonderful things. So yes, it is different as far as the length of the time and even some of the composition of the actual conference. But the bottom line, the goals, the sessions, the speakers, [are] still the same. And reaching those child nutrition professionals is ultimately the goal, regardless of how long the conference may be. The bottom line is whether they were successful in learning something that they can take back to their school environment to make their programs better.
JB: All about feeding the children.
JB: Okay that sounds like a really busy year. But you didn’t leave off with that. Now you have taken on a new responsibility. Tell us about that.
MH: I certainly have. As of August 1, I am now President of the School Nutrition Foundation, which is an arm of the School Nutrition Association. And really, I look at it as that support piece when it comes to the education, the research and the scholarship piece. And of course, we will be involved in those aspects of the Foundation. But in essence, it is the benefit of the members of SNA. The things that we do in the Foundation, of course, benefit the members of the Association. So our goal for this year is to really evaluate where we are in the Foundation, because the Foundation has been led by some great leaders. Many of our past presidents have already laid the basic foundation. So it is just a matter of going in to look at where we are, how we can enhance what we have, then build new building blocks, as I always say; our new programs; we can hopefully work with our partners in industry to have more programs that will reach our members. And that will be one of our goals. The other one is to really get the word out about the Foundation. I don’t think really many of our members understand the benefits of the Foundation and the resources that the Foundation provides. And I think that’s going to be an ongoing responsibility of whoever steps in, is to make sure that they know what the Foundation has to offer.
JB: Tell us what it is offering. What is its mission?
MH: Well, the mission is to cover the education, the research and the scholarship arm. And there are a number of programs that are housed under the Foundation, such as the “Keys to Excellence,” and we have just finished the “Three a Day” with the Dairy Council. So we have got several programs that are housed under there that we work with industry, which co-sponsors those. And they are open to our membership, that they can readily use those education programs. And we are still building. As a matter of fact, we have got a new one this year with Hidden Valley that will be awarding ten $15,000 scholarships to schools, in their promotion of fruits and vegetables and use of fruits and vegetables in schools. So each year, we normally will pick up an additional project that will benefit our child nutrition programs across this country. The other piece is scholarships. We have several scholarships that we award yearly. Last year, the Foundation awarded about $75,000 worth of scholarships. Whether it be grants for GED, or ANC scholarships for those who want to go to ANC; even educational scholarships for those members who want to go back and pursue educational degrees or take courses. So I mean we have got a wide variety of scholarships that we offer. It is our goal this year to award over $100,000 in scholarships. But I think the big thing is to make sure our members know what is available, make sure that they participate in that application process, because we can’t just award the money. But I think if more of them understand what the Foundation has to offer, then they will be more willing to do some of the things so that we can enhance their education opportunities. And then there is the research piece. We are always looking at the trends and what is happening in child nutrition programs, and making that information available to our members. So that is our goal basically; to cover those three areas and it is a busy process for the staff, SNA as well the board.
JB: And in addition to all that, you are still the Food Service Director for Jackson Public Schools here in Mississippi.
MH: As I tell a lot of them, “That is my full time job.” It seems to be the sidebar on occasions.
JB: Did you take a leave of absence while you were doing all of this other? Or you were still running the whole show.
MH: I was still running. I have some outstanding people who have really kept me above water these last two years as I have really traveled and done the work of SNA. But certainly those days that I was there, I was in an active role as the Director. It’s wonderful to have e-mail and telephones, fax machines, those kinds of things. Really, I tried to stay at the pulse of what was happening. On occasions, I would be a little off balance but not on many. And it was burning the midnight oil when I was at home and in the district, some days working 10 and 12 hour days, working weekends just to stay on top of it. It was all worth it just to have that journey and that experience with SNA.
JB: Anything else that you would like to add?
MH: I just want to encourage individuals who may hear this that if you are not a member of SNA you are missing a great opportunity to be a part of a wonderful professional organization for child nutrition professionals. And I think it has so many benefits. Many, sometimes, don’t stop and investigate, but it is well worth the time, effort, and the money that you may put into membership to be a part of this wonderful association. And I just encourage all of those child nutrition professionals who may or may not be members to certainly look at that and then I want to thank all of those wonderful folk out there who do an outstanding job every day feeding the children across this country. We need you. And sometimes we are unsung heroes. People really don’t appreciate the outstanding work that we do. But know that the children that we work with each and every day, whether they tell us or not, they appreciate with we do. We just have to bind together as true professionals to continue the outstanding work that we do.
JB: Well, thank you Mary for making the Magnolia State proud.
MH: Well, thank you. It has been a pleasure representing the Magnolia State.