Interviewee: Mary T. Wroten
Date: November 17, 2008
Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Description: Mary Wroten, a native of Mississippi, worked in the East Baton Rouge Parish Child Nutrition Programs for twenty years. Among her many accomplishments while there was to greatly improve the procurement procedures for the district. Mary’s legacy will continue in Dietetics when her daughter graduates in the same field in May 2009.
Melba Hollingsworth: This is Wednesday, November the 12th 2008. I’m Melba Hollingsworth and I am here interviewing Mary Wroten. What was your birthplace?
Mary T. Wroten: I was actually born in Jackson, Mississippi. But shortly after that my parents moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi. That’s where I grew up. That is where I went to kindergarten and elementary school, middle school and high school.
MH: Oh my goodness, really?
MW: Very historic town.
MH: What is your recollection of child nutrition programs when you were a little child?
MW: Well, you’re going to be surprised, I think. I went to a Catholic girls’ school in Vicksburg. We had school lunch, and I had never heard anybody mention, of course when I was a child, the National School Lunch Program. I suspect that was the way for them to be able to cook a hot meal for us every day and charge us 20 cents.
MH: Oh my goodness.
MW: So, thinking back to the foods we had. I liked everything. I can remember spaghetti and chicken and noodles, hot dogs and hamburgers. I think we had fish sticks. We had vegetable soup. But I can remember that we had the five components that are required. For that reason, I feel like we were on the National School Lunch Program.
MH: What year was this?
MW: Oh…you’re going to get personal now (laughs). I started first grade in 1952.
MH: Well, great.
MW: I have more to tell you. I know there was no breakfast program in 1952. But we did have breakfast. We would go to Mass before we would walk down the street to the school. They provided breakfast. Now we didn’t have any choices. It was the same every day, but it was delicious, because it was white toast, dripping in butter, and cold chocolate milk if the weather was hot and hot chocolate, if the weather was cold. Let’s see, you could get two pieces of toast and milk for ten cents. But I always wanted four pieces of toast, so it would cost me 15 cents for breakfast.
MH: Wow. Do you remember the name of the school?
MW: Oh, yeah, St. Francis Xavier Academy for Girls.
MH: So that is your early recollection of child nutrition programs as a child. Could you tell us how you became involved in child nutrition programs?
MW: Well, quite by accident, actually. I am a Registered Dietitian.
MH: You need to tell us where the schools are that you went to.
MW: Okay…where did I go to school? I graduated from high school in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and then my family moved to Baton Rouge. So, I went to LSU and got my degree in, it was called in those days, Hospital Dietetics and Food Service Management. I then applied to and was accepted to an internship at the VA Hospital in Houston, Texas, which in those days was a 12-month internship, August to August, 1967 to ’68. My first job was as a dietician at Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans. I worked there a year and a half. I worked there every other weekend. I was early kitchen management dietician. I went to work at 4:45 a.m. That was tough when you’re single. It was probably tough, anyway. So I decided after a year and a half, although I loved working there, it was a wonderful first job. I had good mentors, among them Sara Crumly, Marie Manual, Cathy Berker and others. I decided that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to work every other weekend the rest of my life, so I applied to graduate school at the University of Texas and managed to get a fellowship. I went there and got a master’s degree. I moved back to Baton Rouge and took a job at the Geriatric Hospital, in, well, it is between Jackson and Clinton, Louisiana. It was a 750-bed hospital. There were three separate patient buildings. And I was the head dietician there. I worked there for two and a half years, and then married and had to move to Valdosta, Georgia, where my husband was stationed in the military.
MH: I see. And that continued?
MW: Well, he decided after we had lived in Valdosta, Georgia, for a year to come back to Baton Rouge and go to graduate school. So, since hubby was going to school, Mary needed to look for a job. I put out some feelers, and Dr. Harvey Lewis at LSU told me that there was going to be a position open at the East Baton Rouge Parish School Food Service, and the director happened to be Mary Eleanor Cole. She had just succeeded Mildred Stringfield, who, of course, had been there from the beginning, and was retiring after 30 years of leading the program. I had a little connection with Mary Eleanor Cole. While I was at LSU, she was at LSU working on her master’s degree. So I hooked up with her and she sent me to interview in front of the entire School Board which was baptism by fire, I can tell you. I was offered the job and I took it, and I stayed there 20 years.
MH: Now, what year was that?
MW: That was in 1976.
MH: Okay, all right. What position was that?
MW: That was called supervisor. There was a director and two supervisors; Mary Eleanor Cole was the director, and Murdis Dixon was the other supervisor. Actually, I took Mary Eleanor Cole’s position when she moved up to director.
MH: So, she was a supervisor.
MW: Yes. Before she became director.
MH: So, how many schools did you have? You divided the schools, then…do you recall?
MW: Oh yeah (laughs), do I recall! More baptism by fire…if I recall correctly, when I came to work for the school food service…for the School Board…in 1976, there were 115 schools. Well, I had half of them and Murdis Dixon had half of them. Can you imagine? And that was in the day when school lunch forms…free lunch forms were checked and approved by the principals, but then had to be re-checked and approved by someone from the school food service office. Well, at some schools, they had lots of students. That could take two or three days. And you had other responsibilities, of course. Murdis Dixon had her responsibilities and I had mine. They didn’t go away while you were out in the schools. So it was busy. It was very busy.
MW: We never caught up (laughs).
MH: Thirty days to get that application back, and sometimes you couldn’t even get them back.
MW: That’s right. The principals approved them and then we had to go back and check them.
MH: Do you think all of the preparation you had prepared you for what you came into in the child nutrition program?
MW: No. (Laughs) I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was totally different from anything that I had done in the field of nutrition prior to that. I mean, I had worked as a student worker at LSU in the biochemistry lab, actually first, I started there first. I then moved over to the nutrition lab. It was strictly research in the lab. And then, as an intern, we did a rotation through the school system in Houston, but it was only a couple of weeks. And, the rest of the time was spent in other areas, public health, MD Anderson Hospital, St. Luke’s, most of the time was spent in the VA Hospital, where we were largely dealing with adults and sick people. So, no, this was a totally different ballgame. Dr. Harvey Lewis kept saying, “You can do this!” Mary Eleanor Cole said, “You can do this!” I’ll tell you what, the first couple of months, I really wondered.
MH: So, those were your mentor’s, huh?
MW: Oh yes.
MH: Were there any other ones besides those two?
MW: Well, I always had really good bosses. I had already mentioned some at Ochsner Foundation Hospital. Across the state, when I was the head dietician at the Geriatric Hospital in Jackson, Louisiana, I would sometimes go to visit other state hospitals just to kind of see what was going on. This hospital between Jackson and Clinton was out in the country. And, when I first went to work there, they had no freezers. We had no freezer space, and you can’t utilize leftovers very easily. You can’t store foods very easily. We were 60 miles from Baton Rouge…maybe not quite that far…maybe 40 miles from Baton Rouge, so you had to get deliveries a lot, and I would ask the superintendent at the hospital if I could travel to another city to just see how other people did things. So, Elizabeth Hightower was head dietitian here at Earl K. Long right here in Baton Rouge, and I would confer with her. I went up to Pineville, I know, and spoke with Grace Beasley, who was head dietitian at one of the state hospitals there, and I went to some others around the state. And I got great ideas from them, so I had lots of help. But, of course, my main help came from my main boss, Mary Eleanor Cole, and certainly, Murvis Dixon, who had been in school food service for so long and knew all of the ins and outs and just the right way to do things. She taught me a lot about how to go into a school and find what they were doing right. And that served me well. I took a long time to learn that, but when I finally got it, I got it.
MH: I remember her. So, what were the positions that you held?
MW: Well, only supervisor, really, because later, as I had been there a longer time, Ms. Cole sort of re-vamped some positions and some titles. But, essentially, I was doing the same work. So, when I retired, I was called assistant director. Nothing really changed other than the title.
MH: I remember you doing all of the procurement. I remember you doing the specifications.
MW: That was a big other part of my job. It was purchasing the food and small equipment. Ms. Cole actually did the large equipment, thank goodness. And it was tough. It was hard because I didn’t have a lot of background in writing specifications for things like dish washing detergent. What it boiled down to figuring out, of course as a public entity, when we purchased anything, we had to take bids. And, you had to take low bid, all things being equal. So you tried to write your specifications so that everybody was bidding on the same level…the same plane, so that, I can remember, was extremely difficult, because you got into figuring dilution rates of detergents and how many trays or plates they could wash, and did they all perform well? It was very subjective testing, so in reality, it kind of boiled down to who gave you the best service. But, that was a toughie.
MH: All the descriptions of foods and such in order to compile the orders…
MW: Well, I had background in that from my major at LSU and writing specifications and my internship and my other jobs.
MH: That was helpful.
MW: I’m not going to tell you it was easy. I solicited help on numerous occasions from the State Department, like specifically, Jane Mandell. I can remember Jane coming to the office and I would tell her, “I have got to get a good specification for sausage.” I said, “Because we’ve got all kinds of stuff coming in here, and we’ve got to narrow this down. Can you please come help me?” So she did.
MH: Did she really?
MH: That’s great. I am sure that was so tedious, because I did that and it was overwhelming. I have deep respect for you doing that.
MW: It’s labor intensive. It’s hard. I mean, they have to be tight enough to get what you want, and yet open enough so that you’re not excluding one person because of some small little technicality.
MH: Is there anything unique here in the state with regard to child nutrition programs that you worked in? Anything that you think is uniquely Louisiana?
MW: Well, not having ever served as a Director, I probably can’t answer that question very well. Although, I think that I learned in my twenty years working in child nutrition in the state of Louisiana, that the state was totally committed, very supportive, at least financially, to this program. Because, they chipped in their own money toward it.
MH: Right. We did get a stipend, didn’t we?
MW: Yes. So, there were some areas, though, where I sometimes wondered because of concessions in the schools, and that didn’t quite match up with what we were trying to do. Although there were rules, you know rules are bent. That was an area that I wish we didn’t have to worry about. But we did.
MH: What changes have you seen in the child nutrition profession over the years?
MW: Lordy. (Laughs). I brought a few things to show you. (Holds up a glass bottle with a cap). This is not a milk bottle, but it is the closest thing that I could find that looked like the milk bottle I got milk in when I was in the first grade in elementary school. It wasn’t shaped exactly like this, and it was probably a little bit smaller than this. The top was not a screw down top, it was a little cardboard tab that fit inside. Of course, they recycled. They would go back to the dairy and they would be rewashed, refilled and brought back. This was 1950s. And 30 or so years later (she holds up a small paper chocolate milk carton) this is what milk came in.
MH: The table top carton.
MW: Of course, we didn’t have…I said we had chocolate milk for breakfast at school. They made it. We didn’t buy chocolate milk, they made it by adding cocoa and sugar. Certainly, we didn’t have a choice of different amounts of fat in our milk or different flavors. (holds up chocolate milk carton) Thirty years later, milk was packaged like this in the cartons, and flavors and different levels of fat came to be available.
MH: So, that’s what you remember bidding?
MW: Oh yeah. Mostly, that. And, as you well know, 30 years later, we have milk pouches, and we use disposables with the little straw, to puncture the milk pouches that is included in the little utensil bag here (holds up plastic utensil packet that includes straw, utensils and napkin wrapped in plastic). I always think that is kind of unique for show and tell…to show the difference in the milk. My goodness, changes over the years in school foodservice…we have gotten more into the area of accommodating some special diets as far as we can, with people who are diabetic or lactose intolerant and other types of intolerances in so far as we can…we are not a hospital, so we don’t stock special foods like a hospital would. We did our best to accommodate those things…peanut allergies, things of that nature. Offer vs. Serve, where the students did not have to take or be served all five of the items that were required for it to be a reimbursable meal. The advent of the School Breakfast Program. Snacks…after school snacks. The advent, of course, of different levels of fat, skim milk, reduced-fat milk, flavored milks. The milk pouches, which I have already mentioned. Selling extra items. Selling juices and bottled water and things of that nature. Salad bars. Offering students a choice of an entree or a choice of a salad bar. Satelliting. In order to stay within budgetary constraints, cooking only or preparing only at certain schools and trucking food to other sites where it is just not cost effective to maintain a whole staff in a kitchen and maintain the equipment that is required to cook the variety of food for the number of people that we have to provide for. Processing of commodity foods. You know, we received USDA commodities, and we used to take them and use them in our kitchens. We would process them, so to speak. Whatever form they came in, our employees took, and made into a meal for the students. Now, the commodities may be sent to a manufacturer who might turn them into…the ground beef or the ground turkey or both…into hamburger patties.
MH: What do they call it, diversion?
MW: To divert it to a manufacturing site. Fancier equipment…the convection ovens…cook and hold ovens for taking food that comes into the cafeteria already prepared and warming it and holding it so that it doesn’t overcook. Air conditioning.
MW: Air conditioning finally in most of our cafeterias…big change.
MH: I remember when the staff would come in. What a big difference it made for those ladies.
MW: Absolutely in the south in August and September and in May…and sometimes in April and October.
MH: So those are the things that you really remember. What a wonderful list. I am glad you put that out there. So, what do you think was your most significant contribution to the field?
MW: Oh, gosh, Melba, I don’t know. Gee. You probably need to ask somebody else that. You know, you don’t see what you do on a day-to day-basis. Hopefully, somebody would say I made a contribution.
MH: Well, I can tell you, in procurement, you made a tremendous impact in procurement because I remember… “Ask Mary Wroten. She’s gone through that research of that particular product,” which saves countless amounts of hours.
MW: Well, it was hard. It wasn’t an easy job. Yeah, and I guess I did work at it a long time (laughs) over a number of years. Good, I am glad that I learned something.
MH: It was a great contribution, I can tell you right now…you saved me countless hours.
Do you have any memorable stories or does anything else come to mind when you think over your profession?
MW: Yes. There are some memorable things that happened. Some of them were sad. Some of them were kind of funny. Every now and then one of the cafeteria managers would have to be out for an extended period of time, and either Murvis or I would be sent to substitute for them. And I can remember the first time I was sent to substitute for a Manager, I had not been here very long, and I had to go to Howell Park. I think that I was there for a week. And, when the Manager came back, she called Ms. Cole and told her that I had messed up her books forever. And I didn’t even know what I had done wrong. Apparently, the way I did her bookwork was not the way she did her bookwork. She was not very happy with what I did when I was there. Another time I was sent to….two other times I can remember specifically, interesting things happened. Once, I was sent to substitute University Terrace right when school started, because the Manager who was there got hired away by the State Department. And I was sent to University Terrace and Ms. Cole did not have anyone even interviewed to go in that slot. So I think I was there about six weeks. Number one, it was hot. As you can imagine, it was August and the cafeteria office was on the western side of the building with the little flat roof, so it was very hot. That school, although it only has as I recall, about 300 students, is situated right near LSU…right near the married student housing, so there must be about 150 different countries of students registered at this school with names that I could not begin to know how to pronounce. And so, the first day of school was going to come, now this was pre-computers, so they were checked in on a list by name. Luckily, the Principal there, Patsy Smack, realized that I was going to need some help, so she took my roll book and wrote the students’ names in there and wrote their status whether they were on free lunch, reduced price lunch or if they were full paying students, so that I would be able to do this on the first day that school started. A couple of other interesting things happened while I was subbing at that school. One day, I went in the restroom, and while I was in the restroom, a snake appeared on the floor of the restroom. Now, it wasn’t a big snake. I thought maybe it was a long worm. But, when it stuck out its forked tongue, I realized it was a snake. Now, they were putting the food on the lines, so I needed to go out and check the students in. And, I did not want to scare the other three employees by saying, “There’s a snake in the bathroom.” So, I came out and shut the door, and I went into the kitchen, and I found a knife, and I went very quietly back into the restroom and took care of the snake without anyone ever knowing it. Of course, I had to tell them, to warn them, to go find the custodian and ask him to please check around the school because I found a snake in the bathroom. The other thing that happened while I was there that is etched very vividly in my memory, again, it was almost lunch time, and the Head Cook was…we had spaghetti that day and she had just prepared all of her spaghetti and loaded it into deep steam table pans, on a cart, and was wheeling it to the serving line to put it on the line. A wheel of the cart got caught in a floor drain, and this spaghetti spilled out of this very deep, very long pan. I said, “Oh my gosh! What else have we got that we can heat up very quickly?” and she said, “We have canned chili.” So, I ran to tell Ms. Smack what had happened and could she delay lunchtime for a while. Luckily, we had backup and nobody panicked and the children got served lunch.
MH: Everybody got fed.
MW: Everybody got fed. And, she had time to warm up more spaghetti and to prepare some more pasta. And to warm the chili. We had an unusual combination. Everybody got fed and we had the right components.
MH: So do you remember anything about some special person you worked with or the children?
MW: Gosh. Over the years there were a lot of wonderful people that I worked with at the School Board. Certainly, Jim Carroll, who was director of purchasing for the entire School Board was a tremendous help to me and anyone who was in the business of having to purchase anything for the school board, and his staff, Gladys Hunt and Joanne Strickland, in his office. There was another lady, Joanne Thurmond, who worked with the School Board, and she taught a medical program for students and I worked with Joanne some over the years in doing some nutrition lessons for the students. As a matter of fact, Joanne just passed away last week. We had a very good working relationship. And, there were a lot of wonderful, wonderful Principals and teachers that I still see. I actually work with them on some different things now, but we are still in the business of supporting the students and the teachers in East Baton Rouge Parish Public Schools.
MH: So, do you feel like you made the right choice going into child nutrition programs?
MW: Well, it was a good choice for me because I had regular working hours, and the benefits were good, and my husband was in the military and he was gone a lot. It would have been very hard for me to work an irregular shift in a hospital on weekends. And, we had three children and they all went through East Baton Rouge Parish Public Schools and I am happy to report are successful people. And so, it was a good choice for me and I met a lot of people which was important because I didn’t grow up in Baton Rouge. So when I moved here and went to LSU, I didn’t know anybody really. And working for the School Board, school food service, alone, had about 700 employees. The School Board had about 7,000. So, that was a good way for me to meet people in the community.
MH: Well, I know you just mentioned it to me, but we may want to say that your daughter now is going into our field…
MW: I can’t believe this has turned out this way here, because she always wanted to be a nurse, and she is a dietetic intern at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. They graduate May 22, and she is just eating it up. She just loves it.
MH: So, the family tradition continues. Anything else?
JB: What advice would you give someone today who is considering child nutrition as a career?
MW: I would tell them to do some volunteer work in the public schools just to get a feel for what it’s like to work in a school system because coming to the school system, having majored in Hospital Dietetics and my work experience prior to that was either in hospitals or nursing homes, I was used to having one boss. When I came to work for the School Board for the school system, everybody was my boss. The children were my boss because they were the customers, the principal of the school was my boss because the cafeteria kitchen was housed in the school.
MH: He was responsible.
MW: He was responsible, although school food service was also responsible. The School Board members, all 16 of them, were my bosses. Mary Eleanor Cole, the Director of School Foodservice, was also my boss. The superintendant was my boss. The public at large, the students’ parents, were my boss. So it was a very different working relationship that I had. You were accountable to the entire community. I can remember sitting at my desk, probably writing specifications, and one of the local TV stations comes into the door, one of the reporters, followed by a camera. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, wanted to interview someone about whether or not we were serving apples that had been sprayed with the chemical Alar. I had never heard of Alar, and I had no idea if we were serving apples to the students that had been sprayed with Alar. What I could tell the cameraman on television was that we had not received any warnings or directives from the State Department of Education, Child Nutrition Program, the public health department or from anywhere else warning us about this. Then, he wanted to go into our warehouse and photograph whether or not we had any apple products in there. Of course we did. We had applesauce. We almost always had applesauce. I couldn’t tell him if that had been made from apples that had Alar. But I could tell him that I had a child in elementary, a child in middle school, a child in high school, and they were eating school lunch that day. And that I would certainly pay attention to this and should we find out that any apples we were purchasing contained a chemical that was found to be unhealthy, we would not do that anymore. And, come to find out, the apples that we purchased came from growers in Washington State that did not use Alar. There were only a few growers who used that. That happened all the time. You are a public entity. So, that would be my advice: to volunteer in a public school for a while before you decide to do that, because you get a feel for it.
MH: So, what year did you retire?
MW: I retired in 1996, and I only had 20 years at that time. I took early retirement because my mother was gravely ill with Parkinson’s Disease, and I am the oldest and I lived here and she lived here. The handwriting was on the wall. That was just what I needed to do at that time.
MH: Oh. Well, alright. Thank you so much for coming. I really appreciate it.
MW: Well, I enjoyed it.