Interviewee: Michael Anderson
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: February 17, 2016
Location: Anchorage, Alaska
Description: Michael Anderson, originally from Oregon, now cooks for the Nenana School District in Alaska.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is February 17, 2016, and I’m here in Anchorage, Alaska, at the AKSFA meeting, and I’m talking this afternoon with Michael Anderson. Welcome Michael and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Could we begin today by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?
Michael Anderson: Well, I was born in Albany, Oregon, and moved to Metlakatla, Alaska, which is way down in the southeast panhandle. It’s a reservation in Alaska. I spent a lot of years there. The family kind of split up and I moved to Ketchikan, Alaska, where my family was in the restaurant business, bar business, and eventually hotel business.
JB: What part of the state is that?
MA: Ketchikan, southeast Alaska, right on the panhandle. As a matter of fact the first two Alaskan cities would be Metlakatla and Ketchikan. And I ended up in Nenana, Alaska. We have a Living Center in Nenana, Alaska, the city built. It’s similar to a boarding school, but the difference is our center is for high school kids who live there. And they go to our public school, versus where Mt. Etchkum do the schooling and housing together as one facility almost. So ours is a separate facility. Kids from all around Alaska come to live there and then go to our little public school in Nenana. And I was fortunate to get a job there as a cook, because that was one of my traits was cooking. I was an Eagle Scout to boot, so I spent a lot of time with youth. And I was an adult Eagle Scout as well. I helped after. After I got to be older I stayed in the Boy Scouts and was always around kids. I should have known the handwriting was in the wall my first night at work at the Living Center I had no idea what I was really doing. It was not what I expected. I decided to barbeque hamburgers, and after about six hamburgers on the grill the propane in their facility ran out. I should have left then, but I’ve been there now for close to fifteen years.
JB: Before we get too far into your career, first can you tell me about your educational background? Where did you go to elementary and high school?
MA: I did a little bit of elementary in Hawaii, a little bit of elementary in Alabama, and a little bit of elementary in Metlakatla, where I was until just about junior high, and then I moved to Ketchikan and went to junior high in Ketchikan and high school in Ketchikan.
JB: Were you in a military family?
MA: My father was military, yes. My mother’s side of the family lived in Ketchikan, Alaska, and ran businesses in Ketchikan for over fifty years.
JB: Were there school nutrition programs in those different elementary schools?
MA: Not back then, no. If you wanted to eat you brought your own.
JB: So then after high school what did you do?
MA: After high school I went to Oregon to go to college to be a mechanic, and I got a job in a twenty-four hour omelet house there, and I ended up never really going to college. I ended up hurting a leg and ended up going to Hawaii to get operated on. And I met my first wife in Hawaii and she was from Oregon and I said, “Well that’s cool. I have lots of relatives in Oregon.” So we moved back to Oregon and got married and I worked for a mink ranch. I cooked for mink for about a year. We raised them from kits, bred them, graded them, pelted them, and I was in charge of feeding them, as well as a lot of other things, but the feeding part was the most fun. And right after Mount St. Helens erupted I had a little colorful pass with the law a little bit, nothing real serious, but they suggested maybe that I leave town, so I went back to Ketchikan. My grandfather helped me get a ride back to Ketchikan on the ferry and I went to work for the family business, which was restaurants and bars and stuff like that. I started my own fishing company when I got older and we fished a lot. And I cooked a lot for adults mostly, not kids. I didn’t start cooking for kids until I moved to Nenana.
JB: And how did you get involved with that?
MA: I actually came to Nenana to see a friend, who owned a bar in Nenana, and he asked me if I would come up and help him. And I was in the process of a divorce and thought it would be a good place to just come hide out for a while. I came to town to visit and I never left. I just loved the place. It was a great town. People are awesome. It was kind of like a lot of what you read in Alaska Magazine when you lived in southeast Alaska, you’ve never seen because it’s so far away. It was just awesome being there and I just never left.
JB: And so how did you get with the school there?
MA: I actually had applied to be a night watchman and janitor for a fairly new business. They had only been open a year. Prior to that I was working with the head chef in one of the restaurants, and just wanted a change. And I didn’t get the job. I came back for them to tell me I didn’t get the job, and the director says, “I understand you can cook.” I said, “Yea, I can cook.” He said, “Well could you cook for forty-five or fifty people?” I said, “Yea, I cook for five hundred. What’s your point?” And that was the end of the second interview. Then he called me back in and he said. “I want you to be a dorm parent.” As a dorm parent you were in charge of the kids at the facility. I laughed and said, “You wouldn’t let me be a janitor, but you’re going to let me be a dorm parent? That makes no sense.” He said, “Trust me. I need a cook but I don’t have money for a cook. Once you get hired as a dorm parent you have to do what I tell you, and I’m going to tell you to go cook.” And I chuckled and I laughed and I said, “That sounds pretty hokey, but that’s hokey enough and I like hokey so let’s try it.” The rest is kind of history in a way.
JB: Is there anything unique about Alaska regarding the child nutrition programs?
MA: I’m not so sure if unique is the right word. It’s challenging really, especially for us in the interior. It’s zero and beyond below for most of our school year. We only have a couple of months of the growing season. Things have changed for the better. There are a lot of places where you can get hothouse grown stuff. Obviously those vegetables do OK in the wintertime, but to keep up sometimes with the USDA regs can be challenging.
JB: How do you get your food, your supplies?
MA: Well we are a USDA facility. We’re registered with USDA. Part of that is the school is registered with the USDA, but the kitchen at the Living Center is not a USDA, so our regulations are what I set basically. We do follow the USDA guidelines. So we get food from them, and we buy a lot of food at Sam’s Club. For the last three years we’ve had a grant from the state to buy Alaska-grown fruits and vegetables if we can find them, Alaska-grown meat and fish if we can find it. And of course it had to be USDA-certified slaughterhouse for the meat and we buy fish from food processors. That was a great grant. We loved it. Every school district got a certain amount of money from the state and you got to go spend that on – we would have Steak Day at school. I mean when was the last time you had a nice top round steak with baked potato, salad bar at school? The kids really enjoyed that part of it, and unfortunately Alaska went south so we’re not getting it right now. And then we order commodities from USDA.
JB: How far are you from that Sam’s Club that you are buying from?
MA: We are about sixty-five miles from there. We have an expeditor who goes up twice a week. He goes up one day a week for the school and then one day a week for the Living Center. We pick up food from them, and that’s where we get most of our vegetables, and hopefully we’ve got some things in our freezer from before. And my school district is very accommodating to us. If I want to go buy a pig or something and have it done they’re all for paying for that. They’re real good about that.
JB: What’s a typical day like for you?
MA: Well, I go to work about five or five-thirty in the morning. I turn on everything in the kitchen at the school and I get breakfast started. Then I go back and start doing paperwork. One thing about being a USDA school, they love paperwork. And we serve breakfast at 7a.m. for our school kids. We’re a fairly small school district so I only have one other employee at the school, and she only works four and a half hours with me. Soon as breakfast’s over I do my cleanup and then I go right into cooking lunch, because lunch starts at eleven for our elementary school and 12:15 for high school. And then I spend the rest of the afternoon cleaning or doing paperwork or putting freight away. We get freight three days a week. My expeditor hauls some of our freight from USDA in Fairbanks, so then we have to put it away.
JB: And how far are you from Fairbanks?
MA: About 60-65 miles.
MA: South actually. I also am the manager of the Living Center kitchen. That’s where I started. I’ve only been at the school about six years now. I was at the Living Center for the other seven or eight years that I’ve worked for the school district. But now I run that kitchen. I don’t supervise that kitchen. I have a cook that does the daily stuff like I do. And so I’m over there a lot, as much as I can be. When I cooked at the Living Center I was the cook, I was the driver, I was the activity director, I took the kids camping. We went fishing. We would go ice fishing, because you have 65 to 75 kids, you have to keep them busy. So not only did I cook, but I also did all the activities. Since I’ve moved to the school I don’t do as many of the activities as I used to.
JB: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
MA: I don’t really look at them as challenges. It’s like just go and do. We do what needs to be done. I can honestly tell you my school district has got to be up there in the best that there is. They say they’re short of money, but by golly they always make sure I have what I need. The challenges are probably more in the line of extra help when you need them. And we also feed the community once a month. We have a community dinner once a month, or a community lunch. We used to do dinner. When I worked at the Living Center it was dinner. We fed the community dinner at the Living Center. When I moved over to the school we moved that program over to the school and we cook lunch. And we do Thanksgiving lunch and we do a Christmas dinner actually at the school. And it’s all free. My school district picks up the tab for it. And we don’t even charge the kids, because being with USDA you have certain nutritional things you have to meet and stuff, so sometimes we don’t necessarily fall into that category for those particular meals, so we don’t charge our students even for the monthly meals that we do.
JB: How big is the community that you’re in?
MA: We’re around 435 people I think. As I said, we’re on the road system. We’re where the Tanana and Nenana Rivers meet. It’s just a really beautiful place.
JB: So you don’t have to worry about barging in or flying in your food.
MA: No we don’t. We have a bridge. Unless the bridge goes out, then you’ve got to worry about getting across the river. We actually have two bridges. There’s a railroad bridge and a car bridge. It’s a unique place. It was very Old West when I moved there as far as how Alaskans looked, guys sitting in bars with guns on. I mean it was just really a cool place.
JB: What changes have you seen in child nutrition over the years?
MA: Well, it’s gotten probably a little more difficult – time consuming for people in my position I think. For one, if your educational background wasn’t necessarily child nutrition, you can be a cook for thirty years and think you know nutrition, and USDA starts throwing all of this stuff at you; it’s kind of wild. It’s changed a lot, from ground zero. Anything we used to do, we just don’t hardly do anymore, for us old timers used to just go in the kitchen and cook up grub, a Blue Plate Special for this or a Blue Plate Special for that. Back when the USDA came to us in a meeting similar to this, years and years ago they said, “These regs are coming down the line,” and talked about whole wheat and things like that. And I said, “Ok.” So I went home and told my superintendent. I said, “I’m just going to do this now.” And I tell you what, ten years ago, eight years ago, it was really hard to find whole wheat products in quantity. We used to get more of our suppliers to bring it in for us. So by the time that the USDA regs actually kicked in for that we’d been on it for over a year, a year and a half. The last audit we got – we save labels for USDA – she wanted to look at some of my labels. I said, “Sure.” I brought these two great big totes full of labels. She said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I said, “No.” She said, “I need you to talk to these other school districts I’ve audited. They told me they couldn’t get this in whole grains or whole wheat.” “All you’ve got to do is look for it,” I said. The fruits and vegetables – a different story. We have a lot of kids from villages. They don’t see a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables in the villages. In our lunch line it’s a pretty hard sell for them. I kind of get a kick out of them. They much prefer canned fruit. I’ve actually seen kids throw fresh strawberries away.
JB: Because the canned or the frozen is all they know?
MA: Yea. It’s funny. We’ve taken measures to help cure that. We also belong to the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which doesn’t help our high school students, but it does all of our elementary kids get fresh fruit or a vegetable every day in the classroom.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the field of child nutrition?
MA: Probably not a lot because I weigh 467 pounds. It seems kind of funny to be labeled as a child nutritionist. I don’t know. There are probably a lot of people downstairs right now that are a lot better at it than I am. We do our best, and I’ve taken our school district in a totally different realm of child nutrition than they ever would have imagined would have happened. A lot of these kinds of meetings that we’re attending here today help and it gives you people to call. The lady that sits with me, she’s from Valdez and we’ve talked. You learn to know people and you know that one person might be really good at certain things so you call them up and you talk to them.
JB: There are some nice networking opportunities.
MA: Yes there are. It’s one of the reasons I like coming here.
JB: Do you have any memorable stories about special children you’ve served or people that you’ve worked with over the years?
MA: Oh well, when I worked at the Living Center it was amazing. The youth of Alaska – they all help you. We started a program that they actually help you cook. I had kids designated to cook and they are actually employees of the school district. We sign them up. It’s just like a job. Over ten years ago I had four students – it’s a four-year high school – and they were students that had come to the Living Center for four years and stayed all four years. And they worked in my kitchen from the day they first came, and I happened to have a heart attack. And I had a young man that could do my orders for me. I had a young man that knew the ins and outs of the flattop. And I had a young lady – all of these kids are teenagers – and she could do just about anything in the kitchen I could do. And I had two other young men that just knew the routine. They could do stuff. It was funny. I was in the ambulance and I was in Fairbanks, and I asked the guy if I could use my cellphone, and he said, “Sure.” And I called the office and said, “Hey, it’s Big Mike. Don’t think I’m going to make it back to Nenana to do dinner tonight, and you better get ahold of my kids.” And they said, “Well how come Mike?” I said, “Because I just had my second heart attack of the day and I’m in an ambulance and I’m going to the hospital.” And you know, those four kids ran that kitchen for three days. My boss got ahold of the superintendent at the time, and the principal, and they just let those kids kind of check out of school till I got back, and they ran that entire facility as part of the food service. And that’s probably one of my proudest things. We were able to teach those kids. People say, “Aww, young guys. Young kids don’t want to work.” They’re wrong. You’ve just got to have somebody that’s willing to teach them something, and make it fun for them. And then the school, one of the biggest things I get out of the school is when you take and do something for the elementary kids, for instance dragon fruit. I would imagine not too many native children and people in villages even know what a dragon fruit is. If you’re not in the food business you probably don’t know what it is.
JB: I don’t know what it is.
MA: They’re gorgeous. They’re this nice pink piece of fruit. They look like a dragon. And you slice those babies open and they’re pure white with black seeds, and they’re the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten in your life. And I remember the first time I went to every elementary classroom and presented them with dragon fruit, took a whole one in and showed them how to cut them and how to eat them. I actually had kids to get into trouble in junior high because they skipped class and came down to the kitchen to see if they could get more dragon fruit. Being with the kids, it’s just awesome to see kids grow. I’m serving kids now that I knew their parents when their parents were almost born. I’m on my almost third generation of kids. It’s very gratifying.
JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?
MA: Do it! If you like kids and you like hard work do it. It’s very gratifying. You hear a lot of the old lunchroom horror stories, but nowadays you don’t hear horror stories anymore. The stereotype of the wicked lunchroom lady or man is kind of gone by the wayside. Now you hear kids seek out the people in the kitchen for kindness. One of the things, you can’t go through my line at breakfast, you don’t get your plate of food from me, because I not only cook it, I serve it. You don’t get your plate of food from me until you smile, and they all know that. And it starts at the beginning of every year, and the ones that have been coming back, they know that they don’t get a plate of food until they smile. I don’t tolerate grumpiness in my cafeteria – unless it’s me, and I’m hardly ever grumpy so –
JB: Anything else you’d like to add today?
MA: Ah, no. This is kind of weird. I’ve never done this before. It was great. Thank you.
JB: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
MA: You bet.