Interviewee: Melba Hollingsworth
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: July 18, 2012

Description: Melba Hollingsworth served as a school food service manager and director in Texas before becoming an Education and Training Specialist at the National School Food Service Management Institute.

Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is July 18, 2012, and I am here at the National Food Service Management Institute at the University of Mississippi with Ms. Melba Hollingsworth. Welcome Melba and thanks for taking the time to share your story with me today.

Melba Hollingsworth: You’re welcome.

JB: Let’s begin today by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up.

MH: Well, my name if Melba Davila Hollingsworth, and I was born in Houston, Texas. When I was five years old my mother passed away, and therefore I had to go live with my grandmother in a Spanish speaking home in Brownsville, Texas. As a small child living with my grandmother I remember us occasionally going across the border to Mexico, because we lived right in a border town. When we crossed the border, within a block we would start seeing children begging for food. That made a big impression on me, and I would always ask my grandmother how could one block make such a difference in hungry children? I wanted to find the answers, and that became my mission in life.

JB: How interesting. Let’s start off first about your early education. In elementary school you started I assume in Brownsville?

MH: That’s correct. I went to a parochial school during my primary years – in a nuns’ school. Our teachers were all nuns. During middle and high school I went to the public school system.

JB: Was there a breakfast or a lunch program at the parochial school?

MH: At the parochial school there was not at the time. My grandmother used to fix my lunch to pack. If we didn’t have a lunch the nuns would always cook a pot of beans, and it was shared with students. Sometimes we were selected the one who was going to have lunch with the nuns.

JB: Oh, so not everyone got to eat with the nuns?

MH: No, there was only so much you know. But anyway, different people got to go eat with them and it was like a treat to get to do that. But that was what it was. During middle and high school I walked back home. Back then you walked 10-15 minutes back to your house and ate lunch for 15-20 minutes and then you went back. Of course my grandmother always had a hot meal for me.

JB: So was it an option to go home, or was there no lunch program as the school?

MH: You know, I don’t recall. There might have been a program there, but I was very tied up with my family and our eating habits.

JB: Ok. So what were some of the lunch items that you had at home then, during your school days?

MH: Well, my grandmother always had arroz con pollo or soupa, always a soup of some sort, and some beans; very humble meals, but they were made with love and they were nice and warm, so I remember that.

JB: Ok, so talk to me a little bit about your educational background. Where did you go to school and what did you study?

MH: Well, like I told you, my primary and secondary school I went in Brownsville, Texas, but I also started with a junior college down in Brownsville, Texas, Texas Southmost College, and I went there for about two years. Eventually I wound up at LSU when I got married, and I wound up with a BS degree in Dietetics from LSU. I went to work after that, and I was working on my master’s degree while I was working fulltime.

JB: Where were you working?

MH: I was working at East Baton Rouge Parish School Food Service. I was working there at a school. Because it was a nine month period I had the summers off and so I would travel to Denton, Texas, where I got my master’s in Institutional Administration at Texas Woman’s University. I became a Registered Dietitian with my master’s degree and work experience.

JB: So, when you were at East Baton Rouge Parish were you a cafeteria manager?

MH: Correct.

JB: Ok. So tell me about that. What were your responsibilities?

MH: Well, I was a manager from 1985-90 at East Baton Rouge Parish, and I worked in several elementary schools and middle schools. But the middle school was really my favorite that I spent a little more time on. We fed about ninety percent of the children there at Istrouma Middle Magnet. We served about 900 lunches and 150 breakfasts daily. The middle school operation included ten employees that helped me learn that, and that was a great place to learn as I was heading out for administration, to learn from the bottom up, so I really enjoyed that. And like I said, I attended graduate school at LSU for some classes until I was able to get accepted at Texas Woman’s University in Denton.

JB: So you did all your master’s work during the summers?

MH: That is correct. One of my mentors is Dr. Carol Shanklin, who is now a Dean at Kansas State University, but she kind of took me in – always a mentor who is out there to help out somebody who is clueless about life.

JB: And she was at Texas Woman’s at the time?

MH: That is correct. She was my major professor at Texas Woman’s University, but she is now the Dean of the Graduate School at Kansas State University.

JB: What made you choose child nutrition as a profession after you had gotten your bachelor’s? Is that what you knew you had always wanted to do? Was that the plan even when you were in college?

MH: Right. That was the plan. When I graduated Dr. Linda Lafferty was my major undergraduate professor you might want to say, at LSU, and at that time I was kind of clueless. I had a minor in chemistry and I actually considered going into microbiology. I wasn’t quite sure about it, because I had children at home, and having to expend so much more energy into studies and such, and I needed to be split into two different areas. I kind of had two different professions there, motherhood and work. And so she said, “You know Melba, what you need is, you ought to look into school food service, because they have the same holidays and summers as your children. And she said, “My sister is a food service director.” Dr. Linda Lafferty is from Arkansas. And she had I think several family members who were in school food service, and she said they loved it because of the ideal holidays and vacations that coincided with family rearing. And I think she might have mentioned it to the director there at East Baton Rouge Parish, because I got a phone call as soon as I graduated, to apply for a job there. And of course immediately I got the job working as a manager there, and started in the fall of that year I graduated.

JB: who was the director there then?

MH: The director there was Mary Eleanor Cole, again another mentor, made it very inviting for me to be there, made sure that I was well taken care of, and made sure that I had somebody to mentor me for the first year, because you know when you first get out of school you don’t know how to run a facility. And she put me under several different people so that I would learn the skills and be able to handle it on my own – just outstanding people that made things happen.

JB: So after being a manager, where did you go from there?

MH: Well, again, the summers I went to Texas Woman’s University until I graduated. And again, the moment I graduated I got calls for me to apply to become a director. They need directors for some of the parishes that were open. Ascension Parish was the one that was open, which is a really nice parish just below East Baton Rouge Parish. At that time the enrollment was maybe 11,000 – 12,000 children, somewhere in there. And they called me and of course different people applied, but I also was invited to apply, and I got the job. And I worked as a school food service director there for the parish for eight years. I was there from 1990-1998.

JB: And what did being a director involve?

MH: I had to supervise, direct, evaluate, hire, and train managers and technicians – I had 135 employees to make things happen. And I was also involved in doing all the procurement. I think my grocery bill at the time was like $1.7 million, and had a budget of $4.5 million. And I did all the accounting, the procurement. All those courses – like it all happened there, it all happened where I was able to use – and all the skills that I had been training all along. And all those pulled together. It was a growing parish where there were schools being built every year, so I learned a lot about building school cafeterias and such.

JB: How many schools did you have?

MH: At the time I had nineteen school food service cafeterias.

JB: So nineteen managers you supervised?

MH: Yes, definitely.

JB: Each school had its own kitchen?

MH: Not all. Ascension Parish is divided by the Mississippi River, and on the west side, the Donaldsonville side, I had a central kitchen that made food for about 1,800-2,000 people, and then we satellite to all the elementary and middle schools. Everything was prepared. And then all the other schools were what we termed ‘finishing schools’, so we had one central kitchen. They did everything from scratch, bread, everything. It was just a really amazing operation with all those folks. The community was predominately Cajun.

JB: Did that influence the menus?

MH: It really did. We had great jambalayas and gumbos and fried catfish and that type of thing. And red beans and rice of course every Monday. It was determined by washdays from way back. It’s still continues I think. The biggest menu influence there was the people from the west side wanted white beans occasionally, and the people from the east side wanted red beans and rice. It’s funny how one river can influence a menu.

JB: Interesting. So what did you serve with white beans?

MH: It would be white beans and rice with a little sausage, either a little ham or a little sausage to go along with it for a little protein in there; very, very well accepted.

JB: How did your educational background prepare you for your career in child nutrition? Or did it?

MH: I think the education helped a lot, but more than anything preparing me was the actual implementing and working in the program, working as a manager among elementary and middle schools with all the employees, participating in there, being in the pressure of making sure meals were served and all of the program came to fruition. I would say that prepared me for being a better director when I became that. Of course the education also helped me in developing colleagues, the people who network, learning where to get information if you don’t get it. The research part – there’s nothing like education to teach you about research and how to investigate and such.

JB: Is there anything unique about Louisiana in regard to child nutrition programs?

MH: Well, of course I’m a little biased, but I think we have one of the best programs in the nation. We only had one school food service director for each parish, or county, as they name them in other states. And so there were 68 school food service directors at the time for the entire state. And we all networked. And we had a saying, we might not have tea together, but when it came to school food service we were all for one and one for all. If you got a phone call from any of your colleagues in school food service you made sure you take care of that first, because they would not call unless they really needed some input or information or networking or support. And we were very bonded in working together to get things to happen at the time.

JB: What was a typical day like first as a manager and then as a director?

MH: I think as a manager, again, making sure there is no variance. Meals have to be on time. The clock becomes your biggest friend and enemy because the kids are so scheduled and the time cannot change, so you have to be well prepared. Your goal is not to ever have a child go hungry. So it’s just coming together for a common goal and making people believe that is the goal that we have to do and do it every day. That is a manager. Now that again helped me under being part of a director. The director then becomes a troubleshooter because then you have more schools, and there are personnel issues, there are procurement issues, there are menu issues and such, and so going from that step to the next step you know how to handle it. Again, as a director you’re in charge. There is no variance. Everybody has to be fed, and so you are constantly troubleshooting to make things happen, and making it smooth so the classroom is always there on time for the students.

JB: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

MH: School board members. Sometimes they had unrealistic expectations or demands that sometimes we questioned.

JB: What sort of demands did they make?

MH: Well, hire my friend type of thing.

JB: So politics was your most difficult problem.

MH: Yes, exactly, and I think it still is. That’s just life. You just had to roll with it.

JB: What were some of the changes you’ve seen in the profession over the years?

MH: Technology of course. It is a blessing in disguise I suppose, but it’s new and improved constantly, so it’s a challenge to keep up with revisions and updates consistently. Technology at the time was just coming in to fruition and things were changing. That was a big learning curve going from a pencil for keeping up and balancing personnel, because I did payroll at the time.

JB: So when you started you were still using pencil and paper?

MH: Correct, to balance out all the benefits and such to come up just right. It was like a spreadsheet but I had to do in manually, and had to calculate. So I went from that to automatic benefits, which in a way technology helped me a lot to take that section of my job away so I could focus more on nutrition and menu planning and education. And that’s exactly what I did when eventually that was taken over by technology. That freed me enough to work with managers and technicians to get them to be certified in the state at the time.

JB: Ok. Then after Ascension Parish where did you go?

MH: Well in 1998 there had been talk about this institute developing, and it was just in its beginnings. And my husband’s from Mississippi and at the time he wanted to move back to Mississippi. And we thought the job would be in Hattiesburg. And as it turned out to be it was in Oxford.

JB: So he was from the southern part of the state?

MH: Yes, he was from the southern part of the state and he thought, “Oh, good! You’ve got something. Let’s get back,” because he had inherited his farm. And so in August of 1998 I applies, and I said, “Oh well, I don’t know if I’ll even get that, but I’ll try it.” And sure enough I got the job. I was very excited and it was something starting from the bottom up in the same field but a different mindset you might say. And I was very anxious to apply all the things that I had learned in implementing a program. And so I started in 1998 and I’ve been here fourteen years.

JB: At the National Food Service Management Institute.

MH: That’s correct. I’m an Education and Training Specialist and one of the favorite programs I was assigned was to develop some sort of school food service orientation to school food service directors, entry level, or those that have less than five years. And at the time they were trying to work with a curriculum that was accepted by the university already as an undergraduate and eventually as a graduate. I worked with that. It was a two week’s course in training and I had to coordinate that. And I think in the past fourteen years I have coordinated over thirty school food service directors’ seminars.

JB: These are two-week seminars?

MH: Eventually we got to one week. And after the university approved it for an undergraduate and a graduate course we could also have some Dietetics students for training. That is one in which I am very proud of, that I was able to touch over 850 participants that I had in all those seminars as school food service managers and directors. That was one of the main things that I did, and the participants were from all over the nation, even from the military, also from the U.S. territories, would come in for training to go back in their systems and become directors. But more than that, just having training, we also became networkers and we were able to band together and know that we were here to help them. It was not only a week’s course or a two weeks’ course, but also we became mentors to each other, and not only did I learn from them but they learned from me and it was a line of communication is what we’ve developed, and I still see these folks that keep coming up to me and saying, “Hi! I did this and I did that.”

JB: What were the major topics you covered in the orientation?

MH: Major topics were always USDA regulations that were new and improved all the time: food safety, financial management, environmental management, of course menu planning – I always enjoyed menu planning – culinary techniques. We also have procurement. My experience with procurement and also the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, that was another certification I earned. I also enjoyed the subject of procurement; it always had my heart also. We covered marketing and facility design. And menu planning – planning all those five new central kitchens helped me to be informed on how to start in menu planning. I want to mention that I’m bilingual so when we did translations in Spanish I was always able to proofread translations in many of our resources when we developed materials. So that was another thing that helped me. I have to thank my grandmother for making sure I spoke Spanish and keep that language alive. That was another asset I was able to bring to the Institute, and also Helpdesk questions in Spanish, and that type of thing. Another thing that I worked a lot on – education and training materials – I coordinated or worked with other team members here in becoming teams and adapting and proofreading and content information. The latest thing, the Food Buying Guide Calculator has been my last project here, large major project with a cooperative agreement with USDA, and that’s putting the Food Buying Guide in the internet so that people can calculate very regularly the amount of servings and also the serving sizes very readily. And posters – one of my favorite posters is Basics at a Glance poster, and that one came out right after I got out of the kitchen. I knew exactly what everybody needed on a quick-reference poster without having to dig through materials. That’s one of the posters I developed when I got in here and that’s become a very popular poster around the nation in all the cafeterias.

JB: Any special stories or memorable people as you think back over your career?

MH: I have had many mentors. I’ve thinking of Dr. Linda Lafferty, undergraduate professor, Dr. Carol Shanklin from TWU, two colleagues from work at East Baton Rouge Parish, which are Nadine Mann, and also Gail Johnson. Those were worker colleagues that are still my friends. We’ll be soul buddies forever.

JB: And how did they help you?

MH: Even when I became a director at Ascension Parish, if I had some questions, because they had more experience working in East Baton Rouge Parish, they were always there to help me – “How do you do this?” or “How has this worked better?” or “How can we improve this?” or “How can we train better?” – always exchanging information and materials. I want to mention also that Dr. Nadine Mann was also a college colleague. She was my roommate in college in graduate school, so that was also a great network. Now she is the director of operations at East Baton Rouge Parish.

JB: Since Gail Johnson retired.

MH: Yes. For NFSMI my immediate director which was Virginia Webb, just a wonderful colleague and now a friend for life. Just her dedication, her energy, made life happen so fast here and made things happen here. I owe a lot to her. Dr. Beth King – she taught me so much about writing. She had like four or five different degrees. At the time she had the technology experience, editing experience, and librarian experience. She had the research skills also. Her door was open to help you at any time. Those two folks were incredible and made my fourteen years go pretty durn fast here. And many others; I can’t figure out who all I’ve mentioned, but lot of the staff members have been incredible in helping us do projects together.

JB: And now that you’re getting ready to retire, looking back over your career what would you say had been your biggest contribution to the field? Or some of them?

MH: I do want to mention that there are so many challenges for this child nutrition program nowadays. The many demands and added programs with limited money – I just don’t see how some of these school food service professionals can make it in school food service. I mean they really have to be creative. Also another thing I’d like to mention is that people in school food service I have found out are special folks that have that nurturing instinct in them. I would say that’s their forte. That’s what makes it happen. You have to look for those folks that have that nurturing skill built within them because those are what make these programs happen, because they will go beyond and they will make it happen, no matter how many regulations, no matter how many other things that will happen. They care enough to make sure that the people of this nation will be fed, and to me my heart is open for them. And my dedication here every day – I have never forgotten – I do not want to see hungry children again like I did when I was five or six, and that can happen, that can happen. I’ve traveled all around the world after this question: Why are children hungry in other parts of the world? And I have traveled to China, Russia, South Africa, Europe, Japan, Chile, and Latin America, El Salvador, and the Virgin Islands, and what I have found is that governments have a big issue on this. And I guess we are government aren’t we? And I think we really need to band together somewhere along the line and not allow hunger to happen, because you do not know the resource in children. Another thing I have learned is that every mother does not want their child to be hungry, and that’s unanimous around the world. So we have a goal right there. We need to tie in to all the moms and take care of all the children that there are in this world. We’re all unanimous. We’re all unanimous. And we need to work together in this nation to stay together and help our own. And it’s everyone’s responsibility. And these folks that are out there in the field have my biggest admiration and respect for getting up when they get up and making sure that that food there for those children of this nation.

JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?

MH: Well, there’s a lot to be done. We do not want to go to the Dark Ages, and that can happen. And so if you truly have the passion, if you feel very strong about feeding children, no matter who they are, and you feel a strong mission in this in your life, then just be prepared to learn as much as you possibly can. And I think to even understand what’s out there you need to spend five years out in the field to understand what is actually involved in this field, in child nutrition programs, because only then can you understand how you can improve better and understand all the issues we cannot see when we get to where we’re in a desk type of situation. We need to be out there to understand, and be with the people and see how we can help them obtain this goal of feeding our children in this nation.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add?

MH: Make this your passion. If it isn’t find something else; find your passion. But if this is your passion life will go pretty fast.

JB: Well Melba, is there anything else you’d like to add?

MH: Well, yes, I tell you, I could not have done what I have done in my life working in school food service with child nutrition programs for over twenty-five years if it wasn’t for my husband’s support. Mr. James B. Hollingsworth has been very instrumental in helping me and being my team member in all my projects and duties – a big supporter – thank you. And also my family.

JB: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

MH: Thank you, Jeffrey.