Interviewee: Offie Karnes
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: June 26, 2007

Description: Offie “Mama” Karnes was born and reared in Bedford, Virginia, where she attended a one-room school. After working for the American Viscose Company in the Food Service department, Mrs. Carnes went to work for Roanoke City Schools in 1959. Her salary then was 62¢ per hour. “Mama” Karnes credits excellent training in the Roanoke City system with enabling her to work her way up to Manager and having a very successful and rewarding thirty year career with this school system.

Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and its June 26, 2007, and I’m here in Roanoke, Virginia with “Mama” Offie Karnes. Welcome Mrs. Karnes, and thank you so much for taking the time today to share your story with us.

Offie Karnes: And thank you for asking me to do it. I’m sure it will be a pleasure.

JB: Could we start out by you talking a little bit about where you were born and where you grew up, your early school days.

OK: I grew up in Bedford, Virginia, and attended school in the county, in a little one-room school, first through seventh grade. And you walked to school. There were no snow days or anything, you always went. You might slip up, but you always got up and went on.

JB: So, come rain, shine, or sleet and snow?

OK: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. We attended school.

JB: Was there a lunch program there at the school?

OK: Everybody always brought their lunch, but occasionally when the weather was real snowy the teacher might fix us some beans on the pot-bellied stove.

JB: A wood-burning stove?

OK: Yes, and we enjoyed that. But we always carried our lunch to school every day and we walked to school.

JB: What might you take with you for lunch to school?

OK: Well, we usually just had a biscuit, and maybe some fruit to carry with us, because Mother always had cookies or something, when you got home.

JB: After school?

OK: Uh-huh.

JB: How did you get into the child nutrition profession?

OK: Well, I was working for the American Viscose Company, in the food service department, and I had a boss who was an Englishman, and he taught me all about all foods. When the Supervisor of Roanoke City Schools found out American Viscose Company was closing, she called and asked my supervisor if I would come into her office to talk with her. She was interested in me having a job with them in the child nutrition program.

JB: So, she recruited you for child nutrition since the other company was going out of business?

OK: That’s right, and that’s when I went with the schools. I started out in 1959, in an elementary school, where we prepared everything each day. We even had greens that you had to wash and clean and serve. We had potato peelers that we peeled all of our potatoes with.

JB: Now what was a potato peeler for those of us who don’t know?

OK: That was a large machine that had water that ran all the time and you put the potatoes in and they came out a little door already peeled, and they were nice and clean then. They came out into your sink and you cooked them and prepared them any way you wanted them done. Sometimes we had buttered potatoes, sometimes we had mashed potatoes. After so many years we went to instant potatoes. We fixed them well, but they weren’t fresh potatoes.

JB: They weren’t the same thing.

OK: Yes. And I started out at 62 cents an hour.

JB: My goodness!

OK: But it was worth the training that I had through the years.

JB: Now you said that you had food experience, but did you have any experience with cafeterias or child nutrition?

OK: Not with child nutrition, I got all of that through the Roanoke City Schools.

JB: So they offered training?

OK: Yes. They offered training. You had your training and you were placed in a school with a manager who was already in that school, that trained you. And then they had assistant-managers while you were in training. I stayed in the elementary school about a year, and then I went to Patrick Henry High School, into the program they call satellite feeding, where food was prepared in the schools. You had a conveyer belt and each container held eight plates ready for the child to eat. It was kept hot.

JB: So you prepared food at your school, plated it up, and sent it to another school?

OK: Yes, and we had other schools also, but that was the school that I had. And I worked with the elementary schools at Raleigh Court, and I had very good participation over there. I worked with the kids and did little contests and things, each month to see who won a little prize or something for their room, or a little party. Most of them had almost 100 percent eating school prepared lunches.

JB: So you rewarded them through a contest for their participation?

OK: Yes. That was first through sixth grade. Then I was called and asked, one day when I was serving over there, if I would go to Jefferson High School. The manager was disabled and they needed somebody. So then I left Raleigh Court and went to Jefferson High School, and when I got up there I had the program there plus we had to send bulk food out to one elementary school that didn’t have a cafeteria at that time. They had closed their cafeteria. And then the rest of it was working with the students at Patrick Henry and Jefferson. I stayed at Jefferson until I went back to Patrick Henry. That was when Jefferson High School closed as a high school, and I went back to Patrick Henry and worked there until 1989 as the manager, and worked with the students.

JB: So you worked from ’59 to ’89, thirty years?

OK: Thirty years, and I had a real good relationship with the faculty and students. Each child was the same to me, and we always met their needs and helped them. During the time that I was at Jefferson High School I was asked to do a breakfast program. I was the first manager in the city of Roanoke to do a breakfast program for one year to see how the students acted that had had breakfast, and how they studied. It was such a great success that from that year on every school had a breakfast program.

JB: So you piloted the program for one year to see how it would work?

OK: Yes. They asked me through the administration to do that, and I did. It was VERY successful, and we always had a good nutritious meal for the students at breakfast-time. The child who came to school without food, they always were able to eat breakfast. We had good participation in breakfast. The breakfast program was still going on when I retired. I don’t know if they have it now or not because that’s been twenty years. I retired the year after my husband died. Each year was a pleasure to me. I see students now most places I go and they always tell me about the good rolls, and tell me to look at them, what I did to them, and how much they enjoyed the rolls and how they would like to have some now.

JB: I remember those rolls. You don’t have a recipe do you?

OK: Yes I do and I will share it with you. It makes 50 rolls. You can cut it back. I make it now all the time myself.

JB: I would LOVE to have that!

OK: I would be glad to share it with you.

JB: What are some of the biggest changes you have seen over those thirty years you worked?

OK: Oh, they did away with all of us preparing all the meals. We did all of our meatloaves, all of our pizzas. We made all of our pizzas until a few years before I retired.

JB: So everything when you started was scratch?

OK: Everything was from scratch. Of course we had government commodities which helped us have those things.

JB: So you baked your own bread?

OK: We baked our own bread, our own desserts, and we were still doing that when I retired. I understand they are not doing rolls now, but I’m not sure that’s right.

JB: Well, that’s a shame if the kids aren’t getting those homemade rolls.

OK: And they did away with us making our own pizzas.

JB: When did pizza become so popular; when was it introduced into school lunch?

OK: I couldn’t tell you exactly, maybe ten or fifteen years before I retired.

JB: So probably the early ’70s.

OK: That’s right.

JB: And that was one of the most poplar items?

OK: Yes. Because when the students got to high school they had a choice. We had alternates for all the plates, but you could still get your Type A plate.

JB: But you had a choice if you didn’t want the Type A plate?

OK: Yes, another choice. And the most popular thing was pizza and the children loved that. And for breakfast we used to have eggs and toast. We made our bread for breakfast; the toast was made from homemade school bread. We had that and we had government canned beef and pork.

JB: That was part of the commodities program?

OK: Yes, part of the commodities program. We got canned beef and canned pork. We got all kinds of vegetables and fruits, and we got ground beef, ground pork, and our chickens and turkeys, all those things back then; butter and cheese.

JB: Even the flour for baking?

OK: Even the flour for baking. Corn meal, shortening, everything came then as commodities back in the first years.

JB: Who did the ordering for the schools to supplement the commodities?

OK: Our main supervisor’s office did a combined order for all schools. Each school had to turn in a list for their monthly supplies, and a weekly list for meats and produce that was delivered weekly to us as we needed. Of course a lot of our ground beef and such came from the commodities and we made our own hamburgers, and they were very good. We did those and pork patties and cut them in squares in the pans. Everything that we could use from the government to help us we used. And I also worked the summer program quite a bit, and one of the supervisors I had that helped me so much, Mrs. Howell, and I would try new recipes in the summer program, and go out with the children in the classrooms and let them see us prepare the recipes and sample the food that we had fixed for them, mainly the ones that they didn’t eat as well.

JB: So you improved the recipes so the children would eat them?

OK: We did things like adding ingredients to make the children eat the items better. We got all of our raisins and nuts through the government then.

JB: Those were commodity items also?

OK: They were commodities back in those years, and we made all of our cookies, all of our cakes and desserts.

JB: So everything was made from scratch?

OK: Everything was made there in the school. But now I understand most everything comes frozen. Now they still do some things. When I visited the cafeteria they still had a regular plate, or where you could pick up so many items to make it a regular plate, but you had such a great choice. You had cold plates, and you had hot plates, and you had pizzas and you had tacos, most anything, deviled eggs; all kinds of things.

JB: Wow, lots of choices.

OK: Lots of choices. They had cabinets around that had the cold plates and everything that was done each day. And it was a great improvement, I think, over what I had when I was there.

JB: Was there any one person, a mentor maybe that you had when you were coming though the profession, that really helped you out?

OK: Mrs. Pauline Howell, my supervisor; I worked under her and she really trained us and helped us so much. We took classes. We had a supervisor before that too, when we started the classes. But each month we took a class. And each month Mrs. Howell had what she called a managers meeting. All the supervisors did that, the managers meeting once a month to explain to the managers about the menus for the next month, what commodities and things would be in and such. We always had a managers meeting every month.

JB: Where were the trainings held that you mentioned?

OK: We had those in the different schools where Mrs. Howell had our program set up for us. We had a lot of work to do. At that time many years ago we went to Virginia Tech for a week each summer and had classes with all of the other School Food Services in Virginia.

JB: So you got to network with everyone else.

OK: Yes and we learned what each one did. Everyone got to participate.

JB: What were some of the trainings or courses that you had there? Was it like sanitation and food safety?

OK: Sanitation and food safety and handling of the food. Each group prepared some of the different meals. Then we would go back into the classes in the afternoons and they would discuss with us all the things that we needed to learn and do. It was really nice; it helped so much.

JB: So, the state was really supportive of the training and the staff development?

OK: Oh yes. One thing I can say is I had good supervisors, I had good managers in the school that trained me, and also I had wonderful principals and faculty to work with. I don’t know how it was in most schools, but I was one of the staff and I was always recognized, and they helped me every way they could to get the participations up.

JB: What would you consider one of the highlights of your career? What is something that you are most proud of?

OK: One thing is my relationship with the schools, and with the students who were in the schools and ate with me then. Now, when I see them, they all recognize me, they talk with me, and they call me Mama Karnes, a lot of them, and some of them Mrs. Karnes. And I was privileged to have the first breakfast program. I told you about that. And then I had the Governor of Virginia have breakfast with us one year. That was a great success. He ate with all the children. That was one of the things that I remember very well. That was one of the times that I thought, “Well I hope I can do my best today”, although I do my best every day. It was a success. And then each year for National School Lunch Week I had all the administrators from the school, and the city manager, and the mayor to come for lunch one day and be there with the children. Sometimes they would stand on the line, especially the mayor, and greet the children, because he was a minister. That was always a great success for all of us in our program. A lot of the children knew him. They knew the Superintendent of Schools too, and the City Manager. I always had them every year for National School Lunch Week.

JB: Sounds like you believe in community involvement.

OK: Well, that’s what carries us, community involvement; that’s how they know the job that you are doing when they come and see. I think it’s nice to promote our program through those things.

JB: If you had to give someone starting out in the profession today some advice, what would you tell them?

OK: Well, I would like to tell them how successful I was, and how much they will learn from the children and how much you learn to love them. I never had a problem with any of the children. I always showed my same love for each and every one of them and they knew that. If they had a problem they could ask me, and I always tried to help them. I had two special students who worked for me at lunchtime on job training experience. Back then a student was allowed to work and get a lunch at no charge.

JB: So, the students worked for their lunch?

OK: Two or three of them, and they sold milk and drinks, fruit juices, and potato chips, or whatever we had. That was what we called an a la carte department. And I guess they still have that to a certain extent. I don’t know, they’ve made an awful lot of rules. For years before I left you couldn’t have drinks or anything; it was all nutritional food. And I think the breakfast program added a lot too, knowing that I was able to help have the breakfast program through the years by my doing it for one year. I got along so well with Mr. Powers and all my supervisors and today I still talk with him a lot. And I would like to thank the Roanoke City Schools Food Service for giving me thirty years of pleasure working with students.

JB: And I think they should thank you for those thirty years also.

OK: Well, I enjoyed each day. Some days were harder, but others made up for it.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add today?

OK: I thank you for asking me if you could come and I’m thankful that I agreed. I’ve enjoyed it. You’ve been a pleasure.

JB: Thank you so much. And thank you for sharing your story with us, which we will preserve in the Child Nutrition Archives at the National Food Service Management Institute.

OK: And I do appreciate it and I’ll see if I can’t find you a recipe for rolls.

JB: I’ll hold you to that; thank you ma’am.

OK: Thank you.