Interviewee: Mattie Bradley

Interviewer: Traci Burgess

Date: August 8, 2008

Location: Weiner, Arkansas 

Description: Mattie Bradley was hired as the Food Service Director/Cafeteria Manager for the Weiner School District, Weiner, AR in 1996. She was a local restaurant owner who decided to sell her business and retire. When the local school district found itself in need of a Food Services Director, Ms. Mattie’s reputation as an excellent cook and manager got the attention of the school district and she was immediately offered the position. Working within the guidelines of the Arkansas School Nutrition Program, Mattie and her staff provide wholesome meals, both breakfast and lunch, to over 300 students daily. For many students these are the only two meals they get during the day. Ms. Mattie makes it her responsibility to provide nutritious and great tasting meals for her students as well as encouraging them to develop life-skills to help them succeed once they graduate.

Traci Burgess: Please tell me your name, where we’re at and what we are doing here today.

Mattie Bradley: My name is Mattie Bradley. I am the Food Service Director for Weiner Public School District and I will be interviewed by Traci today.

TB: Would you tell me a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?

MB: Age?

TB: You don’t have to tell me your age. (Laugh)

MB: I really don’t mind. I was born in Harrisburg. From Harrisburg we moved to Grubbs, where I attended school. I have 5 brothers and 4 sisters; large family. I had a wonderful family, mother and father. We lost our dad at an early age of 65 and our mother at 86. Married on February 1, I have five children, I have Belinda, Tommy, Roger, Chris and Renee. I have 12 grand children, and one great-grandson. They are all married, with great spouses. I enjoy the family get-togethers. I enjoy family. I’m talking about hobbies now, I shouldn’t be doing that. My education, are you going to need my education?

TB: Yes, I will ask you that a little bit later on. What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs?

MB: Well, as a child going to school I wish we had had the child nutrition program, because we didn’t have that opportunity. When my children started school in ’66 that was when I was aware of the food program and was very happy that our children had the access to healthy foods. They had the milk program and just different things like that. I would say ’66 would be my earliest.

TB: So when you children actually started to school?

MB: Yes.

TB: So how did you become involved with child nutrition as a profession?

MB: Well, I worked in food service all my life, it was restaurant. I owned a restaurant for several years. I decided to retire from the restaurant; sold my restaurant. And after two weeks I began to work at Coastal, cooking in their kitchen. And after two weeks the school approached me to see if I would be interested in being the Food Service Manager, Director, all positions that pertain to the lunchroom. So, I came. I was interviewed by Charlotte Wright. I was hired on the spot and that’s how my career as a food service person first started.

TB: So you’ve always been in some sort of food service position?

MB: I have always worked food service, yes.

TB: So was your restaurant here in Weiner?

MB: The Rice Paddy. Yes.

TB: Was it really? I did not know that.

TB: Would you tell us a little bit about your educational background? What prepared you for your career in the child nutrition program?

MB: OK, I tried to jot some dates down so I could…. Ok, in ’96, the first semester, I went to my first conference in Little Rock and that kind of prepared me, but nothing to what was to come. I went to Conway (AR) four years for Manager’s Training and I am a Certified Manager after four years. Went through the Manager Training and then I was certified as a trainer. But, I was considered the Director because we are a small school, but I wasn’t officially the Director. So I continued my school, well in ’98 -99, after fours completion I was the Manager. And, I did not graduate high school. I quit high school in the 9th grade, thinking I’d never want my diploma. Well in order to be Manager you have to have your education, your GED. So I go to take my GED, and I missed it by one-tenth of a point and time is running out. Well I went back and passed it with flying colors, got my GED, so then I became the Food Service Manager, they certified me as a Manager. And then last year, my 12th year, I was grandfathered in as a Director since I had been serving as the Director, they went ahead and grandfathered me in.

But I took extensive training for four years as Manager. And when I say extensive, you’re sitting there from 8 to 5; you’re learning all the skills you need to do the job. Now I train my staff 10 hours a year, they have to have 10 hours a year and I have to have 10 hours a year to keep my certification. It just passes down. But my staff they are trained in all areas, except paperwork of course. They are trained in sanitation, they’re trained in cooking, any part of the lunchroom they’re trained for ten hours each year. It was just a long, hard, the four years, they were really hard. I mean we would go for two weeks at a time and it wasn’t easy. I mean, our trainers, they were hard. I’ll never forget whenever we went, and this lady, every time I see her, I forgot her name, but every time I see her I think of her. The lady and I, we cleaned this dishwasher until it was shiny, I mean there was nothing left on this dishwasher, she came in there, “There’s a little water there; we can’t leave the dishwasher like that.” So I mean it was that tough; hands-on training. Although I did enjoy it, the learning. I love the learning, so I mean that was good for me; it was really fun; the change, the challenge was fun. Basically, like I said, I had the four years training and I go every year to conference for ten hours each year. I will be taking some classes at Harrisburg (AR) this year to get some hours. But basically that was our training, at Conway. We stayed at the college. We stayed in the dorms. We were just like college students.

TB: Oh how fun. Has there been someone along the way that has been your mentor or has had an influence on you?

MB: Oh yes, Suzanne Davidson, well she is my Area Specialist. She is just, well the whole staff down there, I mean they are so encouraging when you go for that two weeks. Oh, they just encourage you. Even in the time we were taking our classes down there, it was their encouragement. There was a, I can say Jerry but I can’t think of his last name right now, and he also. And Barbara Smith, she was head of ADE (Arkansas Department of Education) down there and she really encouraged me a lot. And meeting with other ladies, you know, we all had the same common interest and same concerns, you know, because things changed. When I came in to the Food Service, we began to implement what’s called “Three Steps.” It took several years to implement that, and then we would go back, things would change you know and we would come up to the changes or whatever the challenge was; basically we would come up to it. There’s going to be some new challenges this year that I’m not looking forward to, but like they said, “Take a little bit at the time; bite it off and chew it and try to digest that. Then try a little more, you know.”

TB: Do you find that when the state makes changes in the nutritional guidelines that you are the one that usually gets blamed for it?

MB: No, we do not take blame, they don’t blame us. Child Nutrition, they are just, if you could meet them and work with them; no, they do not blame us, they encourage us.

TB: Good, Good. You kind of talked a little before about your careers before in food service, is there anything unique that, early on when you said your first encounters with it that the Milk Program and the food program that were really good; is there anything today that just makes this an excellent program for the student?

MB: Yes it is. It is called the “Three Step System.” We have cards that we follow for our menu and they’re color-coded. We choose, and each color represents so much nutritional value and if you follow your colors, follow your cards, follow your system, the children will receive the right amount of everything they need for that day for nutrition. They will not go over 30 grams of fat. So to me that’s really unique when we can use those cards, it keeps us from having to pull up all that information, it’s all provided for us. I’ll just pull one and let you look at it. If I serve a yellow card, I know that that child is going to be served exactly what they need for that day. They don’t understand it sometimes but it’s for their benefit.

And this is what I use. This is a Three Step System and you have a card system you go by and like I said all the information you need. I had my CRE last year, my CRE that is where they come in and check you and check your production records and all, mine was OK, did good.

TB: Good, I don’t doubt that.

MB: To me that is really unique. Like I said, the children are sometimes disappointed because they can’t have all the cake they want, they can’t have cake. To me the unique thing is they get fresh fruits, they get fresh fruits nearly every day; every day nearly there is a fruit item on the menu. And to me that is important, because there’s children that don’t get fruit, you know. I try to find cards with some cookies. We make our cookies. To me that is just the unique part, is that now we know that when we feed our children, I know that they are not getting too much fat, they’re not getting too much calories, all the minerals or vitamins or whatever they need is in that day’s menu. To me, I think that’s a unique part.

TB: That’s excellent. You talked a little about some of the changes you have seen over the years; can you elaborate a little on those, some of things that you have seen change?

MB: Its just changes that you wouldn’t notice unless you are doing the job. They upgraded it so that it would be easier for us. We have a production record, which you fill a production record out for each meal and you have a production record on the computer that will match each card. It is changes like that. As far as nutritional and all, after we started this (Three Steps Program) they’ve added new recipes, they let us make recipes, send them, they will evaluate them, and then if they are acceptable, or they’ll make them, then they will add those to the program. So, and then a few years ago, they implemented fresh fruits and vegetables for us, which helped us tremendously, I mean with our budget and all, we can now order fresh fruits and vegetables. We’re allotted a certain amount of money according to our school size, mine is usually 3 to 4 hundred dollars. But you know that will buy a good bit of fresh fruits and vegetables. It is just small things like that helps us as Directors, more than I would say because the cards are so good.

TB: That is an excellent program, I just assumed you came up with your own menu and planned it all out.

MB: Ok, now sometimes I may change my menu if I have commodities I have to use. I have to work those commodities around my cards because we do receive those commodities. That’s a good program. Commodities are better now than they have ever been. You can’t buy food as good as the commodities are.

TB: What kinds of foods do you get in the commodities?

MB: We get cheese of course. Now we get sliced cheese, we get low fat cheese. We get beef, chicken, pork roast, turkey, turkey roast. Gosh, you name it, we get it. We get canned fruit, we get frozen fruits, and commodities… the last couple of years you know with the war going on; I understand that ours, it seems like ours, there is a little bit, and the cost, seems like we get a little less than we did, but overall we get a good volume of commodities. And we use our commodities very well. We use our commodities. (Laughs)

TB: What do you think your most significant contribution to the field has been? In what ways do you feel you have impacted the students?

MB: Ok, when I first came, of course the students were all new to me. We will be graduating my kids this year. The 12th graders this year are my babies. (Laughs)

TB: They started kindergarten when you started here.

MB: Yes, they were my babies. And, when I came, the children were rude, disrespectful, so I started training them, when they came in the lunchroom, to be respectful to others; encouraging them to eat in the lunchroom. And I can see the results by the high school that comes to eat with us now. I meet them on the streets; they are always ready to see to me. I try to be friendly and if there is a need I try to help with that need. I feel like overall that I have accomplished with the children and hopefully with my employees, I try to be fair. Like I said, with the children, if I see one, I don’t treat one different than the other, but sometimes there’s different needs. Some of them need hugs and they will come up and they will want to hug and I hope my impact has been that children has gotten the love and the food and a self-worth you know, that’s what I want to try to do is just to make them feel better about themselves and be a better person. I feel like, looking at the 12th grade today and looking back twelve years ago, it is a whole new set of children, they are so much different. And of course, the whole school has a part in that, I’m talking about the lunchroom part, when they are in here they are respectful when they are in here, and they are really nice kids. They will do anything they can, they’d love to work and help you if they could. They would love to work in the lunchroom.

TB: And on that note, what is one of your most memorable stories?

MB: Ok, this is a story and I’m not saying we don’t put all the meat in the soup that we should because we do, but you are serving around 300 people and in our soup, we make a vegetable beef soup. We put usually 60 pounds of ground beef to the pot of soup. Which we are only required not quite that much. And, this little girl, she’s eating her soup one day and I’m on the line and I hear holler, “I found some meat in my soup!” I guess that will be one I will never forget. When she hollered, “I found some meat in my soup!” For some reason, maybe she never noticed or she got a larger chunk; maybe didn’t get stirred in. (Laughs) But I mean I might not need to put that one in, but that story stands out, I’ll never forget that story. I guess graduation, just before graduation this year we did a luncheon for the seniors. This might be a better one to put in. So we held up the line until the seniors got here. Well, some of the seniors were lagging behind and when they came in they got to “cut”. Well this one boy just came shouting and dancing all the way over here, “I get to cut, I get to cut, I get to cut” and when he came in the line, he realized he could have iced tea and he started shouting all the way out. That was really, those two really stand out in mind as really…with the children, you now in the kitchen, oh mercy. (Laughs) In the kitchen there’s been lots that stands out in my mind, but with the kids those two stories. That little girl, I mean, like I said she had either never noticed the meat was real fine you know when you grind, as they cook they stir it and get all the lumps out of it and evidently she found a lump and when she hollered that I thought I would just fall out now, because you know we are noted for different things. (Laughs)

TB: Well that’s all the organized questions, is there anything else you would like to add, any comments?

MB: Well, it’s been an exciting 12 years. It’s been a different, there is something different all the time, it is not routine. There’s always something with the children, I love working with the children. I love watching the children when they are enjoying their food. I enjoy working with the ladies. I enjoy working with the staff. It has been a good twelve years, good twelve years. Enjoyed it, and really enjoyed when you worked here. Really miss you working here.

TB: I miss here too, that’s why when this opportunity came up I thought I’ve got to interview Ms. Mattie.

MB: Well, I hope I’ve given you some information that you can use.