Interviewee: Paul Schmitz
Interviewer: Meredith Johnston
Date: January 13, 2005
Location: Dallas, Texas
Description: Paul Schmitz was a native of Dallas, Texas, and attended the University of North Texas graduating with a degree in Education and earning a teaching certificate. After briefly teaching he went to work for the USDA and spent almost all of his career working with the Child Nutrition Programs in the South West Regional Office in Dallas. Schmitz retired in December of 2004 after 42 years in Federal service. His last position was Section Chief for Program Development. Schmitz passed away in April of 2005.
Meredith Johnston: This is Meredith Johnston and I am here at the USDA Southwest Regional Office in Dallas, Texas, to interview Paul Schmitz. It is January 13, 2005. Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to interview you.
MJ: We are really glad to be here. Could you tell me a little about yourself and where you grew up?
PS: Well, the last of the born Texans, I was born and raised in Dallas. I grew up right in this immediate area and went to school here. One of the questions you are going to be asking me, I know, is what was my first exposure to school lunch. Well, I went to Catholic schools when I was growing up. I went to a school, elementary school, St. Cecilia School, that certainly could have used the School Lunch Program, but this was in the 1950s, the early ’50s, and they really didn’t have a program except what the people would bring for lunch and the teachers would prepare for the kids that couldn’t afford to bring a lunch. So they really had a bit of a program, but it wasn’t connected to the National School Lunch Program. We hear people say that the School Lunch Program started in 1946, and it did, but it didn’t just immediately go all the way across the country. You know, it took quite a while to get spread out and to become a truly national program. I then went on to Jesuit High School, which I swear to this day does not have the National School Lunch Program. It was just too much of a challenge for the kids to get off campus at noon, too much for the seniors to escape and run off to get away from it. So really I wasn’t exposed to the School Lunch Program at all through growing up. I went to school up at the University of North Texas. I got a teaching certificate and started teaching school. Unfortunately, or fortunately, at the time I was married and starving to death on a teacher’s salary. So I started working for the post office during the Christmas break. I discovered that I was making more money working for the post office than I was teaching school. So I said, “Well, wait a minute. I will go to work for the federal government.” So I applied and the first job that came open was a job in Dallas with the National School Lunch Program, which I had never heard of. So, then I was a school teacher and I knew everything, so I figured I would come down and see what it was about. And I came down and interviewed and took tests. In those days you took pretty extensive tests to get a federal job, especially one with School Lunch. There were no questions on the School Lunch exam about School Lunch or about nutrition or about feeding children. But there were a lot of questions about how do you account for money and things like that. But anyway, I got the job in 1965 and came to work in the regional office, which wasn’t in this building at the time. It was over closer to the Dallas City Hall and what now is very close to where the homeless shelters are. So it was not a desirable part of town, but it was fine. Well, I came to work there and they said, “Okay, we are very glad to have you, and here is a copy of the School Lunch regs.” School Lunch regs in those days were about 16 to 18 pages long. I have heard, and I had seen copies of the original regs, which were two pages or a page and a half, but by 1965 they were 16 to 18 pages. They gave them to me and they didn’t really tell me what to do. They gave me a desk and every thing to sit in. And not knowing what else to do, I started copying the regs. I made a hand-written copy of the regs, as I figured that way I would know them. At the end of the week they told me, “What are you doing next week?” I said, “I am working for y’all, so whatever you want me to.” They said, “Come on, we are going to San Antonio and do some private school reviews.” I said, “Okay. I will learn a lot,” and all of that. By Wednesday they kicked me out on my own and I was doing a private school review. I did my first independent private school review second week on the job, 1965. You can imagine how wonderful that was. But these were little private schools at the time, and what we were doing basically was making sure that they were using the commodities correctly and that they were using the money that we were giving them and all that kind of thing. It is kind of interesting because the federal per diem in those days was $9. You got $9. That included your meals and your place you stayed, your hotel or motel. The guy who was with me, training me, said, “Come on, I know this great place.” And I said, “Jose, we are only getting nine bucks. How much is it?” And he said, “It’s $5 for a hotel.” I said, “Okay, great!” And later on I found out how come it was $5. In the middle of the night a roach tried to carry away the… uh, well, anyway. It was interesting in those days to see what the program was about. The program in those days was mainly a commodity program. We did not have very much cash assistance to make available. I know you have heard that from many people back in the old days, but back in the mid-60s we still were. Some people were getting as low as a penny-and-a-half for milk and only a penny for school lunch, which I thought was kind of different, but that is the way it was set up. Anyway, they were getting a fair amount of commodities. The School Lunch Program had come out of the Commodity Program. They were really a part of the Commodity Division in Washington when all that started. So a lot of what we were doing was checking to make sure they were using the commodities correctly and that the kids – nobody was getting sick or anything like that. But some of the material I have on the table there has to do with what I was just talking about. Not the ones on top. Not the red one, and not the ones on top. This [indicates newspaper] and then the black book. I don’t need to really show it to you. I will just talk a little bit about it. One day I was sitting in the office and everyone else had left and put me in charge. And this was in 1966, right. I was a Grade – in those days you either came in at a Grade 5 or a Grade 7. Well, because of the grades I made on my tests, I came in at a Grade 7. So I was a Grade 7 in the office. Well, everybody took off and went different places, so one day I was in charge and the phone rang. And this fellow started talking, and he said that there is this school over in West Dallas, which was one of the poorer areas of Dallas and still is, and he said that they are badly in need of a school lunch program, but they just can’t make it on that penny-and-a-half you are going to give them. Well, nationally, Washington had just started a special assistance program that could give, wow, all the way up to fifteen cents. So I said, “Well, y’all just,” of course, not knowing what I was doing, “Y’all just sound like real good people to do this.” And he said, “You come out here and let me show you.” So I went out that afternoon because I knew if I asked anybody the next day they wouldn’t let me. So I went out the next day and it was a very, very poor school over in West Dallas, and we worked very closely with them to help them set up a lunch program from the start. Mary Kay was also involved in it. She was one of our nutritionists at the time. We had three nutritionists but she was the youngest one, the one closest to me, so the one that I counted on most of all, but anyway, we helped them get a school lunch program started. That’s some of the Dallas Morning News articles that they did about the program [points to materials on table – Special Events In Dallas, February 5, 1966]. It was kind of interesting. I asked Mary Kay if she had a copy of the black book. And she said, “What black book?” and I said, “Well, the black book about St. Augustine.” She said, “No, I didn’t.” And I said, “Well, you need to have had this.” But anyway, they took hers away from her. This is, these are copies of photos and things like that. This was a book that was given to Hubert Humphrey when he was vice president because he was interested in School Lunch Program all the way back in 1966. And they told him that we were doing some things with that special assistance program, and they flew up a copy of this book and handed it to him when he was going on a retreat to talk to, to work on the School Lunch Program. So anyway, I was always kind of proud of that. You know, it is interesting starting programs from scratch. I have gotten way off your list, so help me get back on there.
MJ: Well, St. Augustine. Is this St. Augustine’s?
PS: It was the name of the school, St. Augustine Episcopal Missionary School. It has even got the number of the kids that were in the school and all that kind of thing. Some of the average income was like a thousand dollars for a year, which to me seemed awfully low for the time. But they needed it, and of course a lot of schools needed it. One of the things I learned when I came into the program studying the 16 pages of regulations and all of the background information that they gave me, that when the program was set up in ’46, it was devised to be a three party program. There was supposed to be support for the program from the local school districts, from the state agencies, and from the federal government. Well, I knew that the federal government wasn’t giving them very much money, except for the commodities. State agencies in our region, and in those days the Southwest was a seven-state region, we had Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, is that seven? Something like that. But anyway, the state agencies were not able to give much support to the School Lunch Program in those days and the locals were giving most of the support that was being given. A lot of this support was in-kind support where they were, the school district would allow them to run into the black if they had to at the end of the year – the red, actually, I should have said instead of the black. But anyway, most of the support was coming from the locals and that’s the way it should have been. The original act, if you read the School Lunch Act and the original regs, and the regs in ’65, it said that the local school districts would take care of those kids who could not afford to have school lunch. And I think what Congress thought was happening was that the local was able to pick up and pay for every one of those meals that the kids could not afford it. Well, as we got out, we being the feds, and we being the states, and we being the locals, you know, there was no way that the locals could afford to pay for that. And a bunch of studies that were done in the late 1960s that lead up to some of the School Lunch changes in the early ’70s which was when we got our big changes, and under of all people the Republican Nixon, we got the biggest and greatest changes in the School Lunch Program that ever happened. You know, free, reduced, and paid, entitlement programs, and programs that were with enough money in them to be a viable program over the years and that is where they came from. You asked me, one of the questions you are going to ask me or have asked me is how about mentors in the program? You always remember the very first people you work for. And of course we, in this region and in Washington at the time, we had some really interesting, interesting mentors. None of these people were trained in School Lunch. Our first regional director, and I don’t think they even called them that in those days, but the first person in charge of it – it was a Commodities office in those days – but the first person in charge of it had a degree in Chemical Engineering. The people that worked for me, that worked above me, one of them was an accountant and the other one had a Psychology degree. So none of them had anything to do with School Lunch, but after they had gotten into School Lunch they got the most important thing in School Lunch, and that was they really learned to care. They really learned to care about the programs and so that was the best thing they could mentor me, the best thing they could teach me was, “You know, you really need to do what you can to help the program work.” And so people like Gene Good, Harry Freeman, who were here in the 1960s, stayed to the middle ’70s, had quite a bit to do with what I learned. Also the state agency people, because some of those state agency people in those days, it was just unbelievable. They were some of the best people and some of the most interesting people. I mentioned we had seven states, and they were all political in those days. These were all elected officials. Head of the state school lunch program would be an elected official. So some of their agendas were a little bit different than we might expect. We learned to work with all of them and they learned to work with us very quickly. Now, being at the federal level and being at the regional federal level, we always had a little bit of an advantage, because we are the cash cow. As far as a state agency is considered, and in a lot of cases as far as the locals if they even know we exist, as far as they are concerned, we are the money people. We are where their money comes from and they don’t want to do anything that would cut off their money no matter how much it was. Whether it was a cent-and-a-half or whether it is whatever they get these days, which is quite a bit. You know. I think when I came to work the total budget for the whole School Lunch Program nationally was $114,000,000. Well, as you know, now it is nine and a half billion dollars and our region went over a billion dollars by themselves in 1996. That was something I always tracked and I was always very proud of. You know, because we were not a, we were never a big region, but we had a lot of lunches being served, and then a lot of breakfasts – more breakfasts than anybody. Okay, I will let you ask the questions. Meredith, it is your turn.
MJ: Could you tell me a little bit more about your educational background and how that prepared you for your involvement in the child nutrition profession?
PS: Well, it was as I mentioned earlier, I went to the University of North Texas and got a degree in, actually I got a degree in Education with a major in English and also in Economics. So I started working, teaching at the high school level, and I got to monitor the School Lunch Program every day. Now this was a public high school located in one of the poorer parts of Dallas, in the Dallas Public School District, and those kids needed the school lunch, but that didn’t stop them from being, you know, very interesting, very interesting kids. So I got to monitor the School Lunch Program every day and I started learning a little about it then, but there was nothing really that prepared me for it. The main thing I could tell you I knew about the School Lunch Program was the teachers loved it more than the kids did because they got more food. Teachers always got more food in the School Lunch Program in those days, so that was something that I learned about it. And I learned that it was needed, certainly in areas like South Oak Cliff, which was the school that I was teaching at. Today if you were to say South Oak Cliff to someone who is from Dallas, they would know immediately what I was talking about. You know, that is not one of the more wealthy schools in the Dallas School District. But then as I mentioned, I got an opportunity to go to work with the federal government, and so I took that opportunity. Now I worked with the federal government over 42 years, and 99.9% of that was in Dallas working in the School Lunch Program. I like to tell people that I wandered off several times into other programs, which I did, but I always managed to come back. I also went to Denver and worked there for a while, went to Washington and worked there for a while. But I always, Dallas was my home and that is where I wanted, kept coming back to, and always managed to get a job here in the regional office, you know, usually working in School Lunch. If not, it would be Commodities, something like that, so.
MJ: What were you working at, what programs were you working on in Denver and Washington?
PS: There was a program with the Agricultural Marketing Service called the Plentiful Foods Program. If you will look in the National School Lunch Program regs under the definition, you will find “plentiful foods” still mentioned. I have been trying for the last ten years at least to get them taken out of the regs and I have been unsuccessful. All the regs say now is that schools will use foods deemed in plentiful supply to the extent practical. Well, that all came out of the fact that back in the ’60s and ’70s, we had a program called the Plentiful Foods Program, and what that program did was it would go out and through the farm programs it would see what foods were in plentiful supply. Now there are always foods in this country that are in abundant supply, and what we would do, we had a few people located throughout the country, federal people, who would go around and encourage restaurant chains, food chains, to use these foods that were in plentiful supply. So I would go around to HEB grocery chain and I would say, “Look, right now, Texas,”I will use a real one, “Texas potatoes are in big supply.” And he would say, “Why should I buy them when I can get California?” And I would say, “Well, number one, you would be doing your country a favor. You would be helping to take these off the market so that we don’t have to buy them, federal government doesn’t have to buy them, you know. We can probably help you arrange to get them at a better price, etc., etc.” Well, you would be amazed what a few people going around talking to these big chains can do, as far as to move foods throughout the country. And that’s what we did. There were seven offices located throughout the country and there were generally two people, sometimes three, in each of those offices. And by that time I was well trained. It was the middle ’70s. I had been working for ten years. I knew everything, you know. But I knew enough to be able to go in there and know which buttons to push because I would say to him, “Look, yes, this may cost you a little bit of money to do this, but it is going to come out of your advertising budget and this is something that is good for the country. It is going to make you look good.” We had our own “plentiful foods” symbol that they would put on the foods that were being sold. We would have, when we would have big promotions, like beef promotions, when beef was in plentiful supply, you know, we would have special materials that we could make available for them. Point of sale materials, materials going in there. So it was really a very, very good deal and it didn’t cost the USDA hardly anything. Our entire administrative budget was around a million dollars. Well, in 1974 I was working for the program and my boss called me. I was down in San Antonio. I had been calling on food chains down there. And he called me and he said, “Paul, are you sitting down?” And I said, “No, but I can be.” And he said, “Well, you better sit down.” And I said, “Okay.” And I said, “What is going on?” And he said, “Well, somebody in Washington needed the million dollars for a program. And they looked around at USDA and we were the only program with about a million dollars that didn’t have strong people to defend the program. So we are being phased out as of next pay period.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “It means that you don’t have a job come next Saturday.” I said, “Well, okay. That’s interesting.” I had married by then and had two small children. But anyway, I headed back towards Dallas and by the time I got home I had a phone call from the regional office of FNS, it had become FNS in those days, and said, “Paul, don’t worry. We’ve got you another job. Just come on, come see us Monday. Everything will be all right.” And I did, which really made me feel a whole lot better about the whole thing. One of the reasons I stayed with them over the years was that they always took care of me when I did things like that. But educationally, no, I was as ill-prepared as anybody could be, I do believe, but I always enjoyed it and always tried to learn a lot about what I was doing. I told people I was a rock and roll nutritionist. Can you cut this for a minute?
[Pause in interview]
I learned nutrition as I went along. And it was amazing because I generally, because I wanted to learn it, could keep up. And when nutrient analysis came out I was even able to keep up with that. But we had our little tests, and see who got the right vegetables and fruits and all that and I could always do that. But anyway. Very, very little formal training for it. Over the years, I was able to take a few classes over here at the junior college here in town. I took a class in food preparation and in food sizing and safety and sanitation because I would end up teaching that course, so I figured I’d better at least take a few courses on it. So. But anyway. Very little formal training.
MJ: Could you tell us a little about your job here at the Southwest Regional Office? Maybe a typical day, or just anything you would like to tell us about your job here?
PS: Well, it was really interesting. We basically had two parts, two sections within the Southwest Region, and this was going back to the ’60s and ’70s as well. We had one group that took care of private schools, I mentioned private schools earlier, and one group that worked with state agencies. When I came in we had seven state agencies. With my 30 years here we’ve gone from seven state agencies to five state agencies to 11 state agencies. That was interesting. We went from Canada to Mexico. We have covered the entire mid part of the United States, and then back to five state agencies. And so you know there was always a varying number of state agencies. But the other section always worked with state agencies. And when you worked with them, what you did with them, you basically did two different things. You did monitoring, which was to make sure the state agencies were following the rules and regulations, and with the state agencies, visiting the local schools to make sure they were following them. And then the other half of that was training and technical assistance to see that they would get as much training as they needed. A typical day in those days, when we had seven states, when we had 11, when we had five, it doesn’t matter, I was going to spend 90 percent of my time on the phone. It is going to be answering questions from the state agencies, because maybe you have heard it said this way, I don’t know. I’ve been saying this for 30 years. Nobody planned these programs that we are talking about today, the Special Nutrition Program. Like [Topsy] they just grew. You know, we had the School Lunch Program in ’46; we got the Milk Program in ’54; you got the Breakfast Program that came in a little bit later than that. Then we got a program that turned into the Child Care Food Program and the Summer Food Service Program for Children. And nobody ever sat down with these programs and put them together to see, “Well, does this part go here and does this part go here?” It doesn’t work that way. They just set us up a new program every time and, you know, we would just say, “Okay, state agencies, Texas Education Agency, here is a new program. Here is the Breakfast Program. Here is the way it is going to run.” And they would say, “But, Paul, this isn’t being run the same way the School Lunch Program is being run.” And I would say, “Yeah, it has some similarities.” But they would never be exactly the same. So that meant that the state agencies had to ask a whole lot of questions. And that’s one reason you really needed to have regions, because they would have absolutely inundated Washington if they had been asking them all of those questions. I mean, we are talking literally thousands of questions on things from as simple as, well, you know, “Do we have a special time of day we have to serve breakfast? How about we serve breakfast in the afternoon?” They were always trying to get a snack program. School lunch people were always trying to get us to pay for a snack program for them. Well, they figured out that we would do the Breakfast Program and we would serve something that amounts to a snack but it would be “No, no, no, no, you have to do the Breakfast Program, serve something on or about the beginning of the breakfast day, the school day.” You know. Programs as simple as that to some really, pretty heavy duty ones like, “Paul, I am the only – this from a public school district – I am the only account in the district that has money and they just went into my account this morning and took $8 million out of my School Lunch account. Can you help me?” And you know, that is when you help them as much as you can.
MJ: How would you have helped that person? I mean, how could you have helped them?
PS: Well, luckily the regulations are extremely strict on use of the School Lunch funds, and they have been from the beginning. From the very beginning they limit what you can do with the money. It can only be used for school lunches and purposes like that. And we always made sure that the superintendent of schools sign the agreement with the state agencies. And they sign something that I would never have signed in my entire life, because they agree to follow not only the regulations, but they agree to follow the instructions, the memorandum, anything we put out, they agreed to follow. And the superintendents sign them. They still sign them to this day, because like I said, we are their funding source. But anyway, I would call this superintendent and I would say obviously there had been a mistake made, because these funds are limited funds. And he’d say, “Well, we are just going to borrow them for a short time,” and “I am sorry, sir, you can’t even do that.” And you know, a little later on in the ’80s, we got into an, “Oh, by the way, if you do try to do that, we are going to charge you interest and we are going to enforce it through federal courts if we have to.” And they don’t want to hear that. But generally when you told them, “No, you can’t do it,” that generally took care of it. We had a couple of them that wanted to fight and we would go get our Office of Inspector General and our Office of General Counsel and they would get a nasty letter from our general counsel in Washington saying, you know, “We are going to withhold your money, blah, blah, blah, and eventually we are going to terminate your program, and if we need to we are going to take you to federal court.” And nobody wants to mess with the feds even though we would never have carried through on a lot of that stuff. That’s one of the things we could have done. A lot of the, most of the other questions were questions that we could answer or they were cries for help. “We are not getting enough money. Is there anything we can do?” “Well, are you using all of your commodities? Have you talked to your commodities people?” You know, things we could try to help them on. As I said, we were two sides: we were a monitoring side and we were a training side, so we tried to do both. We wore two hats, a white hat and a black hat. And I always liked the white hat better, but I would wear the black hat if I had to. And sometimes state agencies would call me to come down and talk to their superintendents and a lot of times schools would call the state agencies, and the state agencies would do everything they can and then they would call in here, and they would say, “Paul, would you go tell this guy that he can’t do that. You know, he is doing something that he just flat can’t do.” I will never forget, when we had what I called the big region, when we went up to the Canadian border, I got a call one time from the Montana state director, and he said, “Paul, we’ve got a state superintendent that is using, illegally using School Lunch funds, and he’s been doing so over a year and I have told him to stop and I’ve warned him and all that kind of stuff. And now I am going to sanction him and I am going to take money away from him, and he doesn’t believe I’ll do that. Will you come up here and help me?” And I said, “Sure.” To get to Montana, the wilds of Montana in those days, we flew to Denver and then we flew into Helena on a twin engine plane, not a jet, one of those little Piper planes that had to circle to get in there. And then we drove six hours through the mountains to get up there to where this guy was and you know, we walked in and the school lunch director said, “This is Mr. Schmitz. He’s from Dallas. You know, they are the Regional Office of this, and he’s got something to tell you.” And the guy said, “You don’t have to tell me anything. I won’t do it. I will quit. I will give the money back.” He said, “Everything’s okay.” We turned around and walked out and left. You know, I mean – but that’s some of the things that we would do to try to help them. Anyway, a typical day was we had no typical days. We traveled in those days. We would be out of the office two weeks at a time and back in the office one week. When we traveled we would be visiting with state agencies, visiting local schools, or working with state agencies in their offices. So that is what we would be doing, but we traveled a lot in those days.
MJ: Are there a lot of differences among the states in the region? Were there a lot of differences?
PS: There were a lot of differences, but there were a lot of similarities. When we got the big region is when I found out where there were differences, because we had been the Southwest Region for several years. I came in the ’60s and this was like 1978 when we picked up the big region. What they did was they took some of the states that had been run out of Chicago and some that had been run out of San Francisco and gave them to us, figuring that that would save money. How they figured that I’ll never know. But anyway, they did. So we got those states up in the Dakotas, Montana, Utah, up there. And it was quite – then I found out that there were a lot of differences. They said, “Well, we never had to do it that way when San Francisco was running us.” And that was because San Francisco never got up there. It cost too much or whatever. They never did. Same thing for the Chicago ones. And I said, “Well, I am sorry but there is a new sheriff in town now and we will come and we will visit and we will do that.” And they were just shocked at first. But then as far as the way they were running the program, they did not mind at all coming into compliance if they were out of compliance. They would certainly argue their case. “Well, now we don’t want to do it, the regs, it is really unclear. Maybe we can do it this way.” That kind of thing. But they would all see that they needed to come into this together. That’s one thing in the Southwest, from the very beginning we had tried to preach that we are all in this together, and all of us included the locals, the state agencies, and the feds, that we are all in this together, you know, for the benefit of the kids. And really, none of us are going to do any good on our own. And we are all going to do much better not on our own. But it was, you know, some of them, I mentioned they were political people. In Texas, up until I guess this year, there had been only three state directors from 1965 on. When I came in in 1965 I met a state director named Charles Hicks and he stayed there until about ’68, 9, something like that, and after Hicks came Charlie, another Charlie. He is going to kill me if he ever sees this, because he was there longest of all. But anyway, he was there for twenty-something years, and then his assistant John Perkins took over and is director to this day, sort of. They moved the program over to Agriculture and all of that. But anyway, there were only three directors that we really worked with. And so it made it easier in a way and harder in a way, because they did know the regs a whole lot better if they had been there for 20 years and they could always say, “All right, you point to exactly where it says we had to do that.” So it made it more difficult but it made it easier, too, because it made it, uh, easier to convince them it is in their best interest to do the things we were doing. One of those things like, talking about solidarity and all that, when the Breakfast Program came in, you know, we, the regional office fell in love with the Breakfast Program. You know, this is something we had been saying we needed for years and we finally got it. So now we said, “Well, we had been preaching it and we are going to go really preach it.” And so we went out to all of the state agencies and said, “Y’all have got to go there and sign these people up and get them in the Breakfast Program.” At first, they said, “Well, yeah.” But then we said, “This is a benefit to the program. You know that. You are telling us, we don’t have to tell you.” And they finally went, “Yeah, okay, okay.” And they went out there and they’ve done a tremendous job, so much so that the Southwest, for a long time, has had more schools in than anyone else in the Breakfast Program. And you know we were real proud of that. It was something that we all worked together to make happen. So you know that kept us together. That wasn’t true up in the Dakotas and that country up there.
MJ: A lot different there?
PS: Yeah. A lot different. A lot different.
MJ: Could you comment on how the Southwest itself is different from other regions?
PS: Well, part of it is what I have been talking about. The fact that we, number one, we saw them more often than the other ones. Some of the other regions, I don’t, to this day I don’t know what they did with their travel money, but every dollar we had for travel money we used to go out and visit the region, and visit the locals. We felt like this was our job, and what we were supposed to be doing. So we were out there a lot and that meant if we asked them to do something, we were not a stranger asking them. You know, we were somebody that they knew. Early on we talked to them on “We are all in this thing together.” And I have learned that that is not always the case in some of the other regions, but here we did. One of the big things that happened, and we take no credit for this whatsoever, that one of our alternate agencies – do you speak alternate agency?
MJ: No, I don’t think so.
PS: Okay. In the late 1970s, Washington got an initiative for the regions to get rid of these private schools that I was talking about. We had been administering these private schools since 1946. But they said, “That’s not a very efficient way to do things. Let’s get the state agencies to take over these alternate, these private schools.” Well, education agencies would quickly tell you, “It is a conflict of church and state to take over these private schools. We can’t do it.” So we said, “We’ll go find a different state agency to run them.” And that’s what we call the alternate state agencies. People like Texas Department of Health and Human Services. We’ve had some really different ones over the years. But in ’78-79, we said, “Go on up there and try to talk them into taking these programs.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll try to talk them into taking these programs, but what’s it going to benefit them?” “Oh, well, the programs are going to be run better and their private schools will get better service,” and all that. And I said, “Chief, that ain’t gonna fly. That is not going to sound very sellable.” But they said, “Go do it.” So I became a used program salesman, and I would go out to all these different alternate agencies, and I would say, “Boy, do I have a deal for you.” And you know over the years we became successful. Other agencies would help us. In Texas, Texas Department of Education, Texas Education Agency was a tremendous help to us in getting Texas Department of Human Services to take over private schools, and then later on the Child Care and Summer Programs. And they were a big help to us ’cause they had been running the program for years already and they told them, “Nah, it’s not so bad. These guys aren’t too bad to do business with,” and all that kind of thing. So we became the first region by 1982, the first region that had gotten rid of all our private school. And by this time Child Care had come in and we had also gotten rid of those. So we had the most successful salesmen of all these programs. Finally, in 2004, I think maybe there were two bunches of private schools that are still being run by the regions, one in Denver and one in San Francisco. But we got rid of all of ours and that meant that we only had five states, but we may have 11 different agencies running it because we had these alternate agencies running it. And we would call all of our agencies together maybe once every year if we could afford it. But it was always just the state directors doing it and nobody else. Well, our state agency, Texas Department of Human Services, came to us and said, “We want to have meetings more often than that. We want to set up something called the Special Nutrition Program Regional Task Force and we want to have y’all come and all the states come and bring all their staff. And we will get together and discuss our problems uniformly.” Well, we got those going in about I guess, ’85 or ’86, and they are still going to this day. And so bringing those people together, having them take the lead on that, has been a great deal in making us a very unified region. They plan the meetings. They decide where we are going to be. They set up the meetings. The Task Force set it up on a rotating basis so that once every five years a state knows it is their turn and then no matter how many state agencies there are in that state, like Arkansas for example, there is one agency that runs public schools and a different agency that runs private schools, Child Care, and Summer. Well, when it comes their time to be Task Force, they’ll get together, they’ll get a hotel. They’ll plan the meeting for us. Of course we have a heavy input on that. We get them a lot of speakers from Washington and all that kind of stuff. But they will do the planning because it is their meeting. It is a state meeting. The other state people are able to come. So we’ll have 150 to 200 people attend these meetings at least once a year, and it is people talking to their peers, which is really good, and the feds are right in there with them. You know. I mean, we are in there talking and they’ll say, “Take it, let’s go off the record,” and we go off the record and we can solve a lot of problems that way. And that’s what we’ve done over the years and that’s what I think made the Southwest a special region as far as I’m concerned.
MJ: You’ve talked a lot about changes. Could you comment some on changes in personnel or how the types of people you have working with you, how they have changed?
PS: Okay, well at the federal level, they have become much more professional over the years. This, I talked about earlier that I didn’t have any real training for School Lunch coming in. Well, nobody else did in my offices either at the time, but that’s changed to a great extent. People coming in at the federal level, people coming in at the state level, are better trained for it. You know, there has been very much more emphasis on nutrition in the last few years and so people have come in better trained in nutrition, better trained in School Lunch in particular. So I think overall from the local level all the way up, you find people better trained. It’s always been interesting in Washington because these programs have always been run by politicals, political appointees. And you know, some of them have been very, very good, very interested in the program, and some of them haven’t given a flip quite frankly. But you know, in the last few years we have been lucky to get the really good ones. We went through a period of years there, four or five or six, seven years there where the people had actually worked in the School Lunch Program that were deputy-undersecretary, or deputy-administrator, and that really helped. But now I think that the people have gotten better. The main thing at the federal level is that the program has become so much smaller. We have now about, well, we’ve lost over 35 percent of our staffs since 1990 at the federal levels. That goes for all the regions, and for Washington. It is because of the way they were trying to cut the federal government back. We now have, you met Valerie out there. Valerie is the “Last of the Mohicans.” We don’t have clericals in the regional offices anymore. They don’t have them in Washington to speak of. Everybody has to do their own work, their own word-processing and all that, which is fine and dandy. I can see both sides of it, but it has been a big change. It has been a big change for a lot of people. As I say, the state agencies have gotten a lot more professional. We’ve become a whole lot more professional. We don’t, we only have one state agency now that’s run by an elected official. The rest of ours are run by people who are appointed by state boards of education, things like that, so it makes for a more professional program. Of course it is a much bigger program as I said, nine-and-a-half billion dollars. We have a lot of people interested in the money in it coming into the programs. Don’t get me started on food service management companies. Our region has always had a real special relationship with food service management companies because as I said earlier, we do look. We do care about what they are doing. When they first started coming into this region they would always, since they were allowed in the program, it was back in the early days, we had always had a few in this region. But all of a sudden Texas went from having 20 food service management company districts to 60 to 80 to 100 to 140. Well, even if they’ve got eleven-hundred districts, which they do, that is still a pretty good percentage. So we gathered up our friends in the state agency and went and started reviewing some of their districts to see what was really out there. Well, I can tell you, because it is on the record – million dollar overclaims. Things like that. Most of it, and this is what got me, most of it was because they were short-changing the kids. They were not feeding the kids enough food to meet the requirements. And as you know, our requirements are minimum. So this kind of hacked me off and a couple of other people in here, so we again convinced our state agencies, “This is a real problem. You need to look at it. You need to get out there. You need help, we’ll give you help. You let us know.” All the contracts in this region that we look at, before they go out there, so that now that 140 has slipped down, back down around 80 now. But the ones that are out there are doing a good job. Don’t get me wrong. There is a real place for them in the program and some of them are doing a very good job, and all we want them to do, we just want to keep a level playing field. We want them all to do a good job. But around certain, ahem, Philadelphia lawyers who work for certain I won’t mention the company in Philadelphia – they come down to see us. By the way, we don’t have to go up there and see them ever since the day one of their employees offered to pay my way up there. He wished he hadn’t done that. But anyway, no, they, if you mention food service management companies and School Lunch, they will say, “Yeah, but don’t go to Texas. Don’t go to the Southwest Region.” All that means is we are going to make them follow the rules, and hopefully everyone else will too. But you know, all I can do is look after my own.
MJ: How about technology?
PS: Oh, technology has changed tremendously over the years. When we started everything was hand-written, and, as I said, I wrote out the regulations. That’s the way I learned them. Everybody has gone to computers. We’ve tried to help. From time to time we’ve, not on a regular basis, but from time to time we’ve had money available to help state agencies develop automated systems that they can use for things. And rarely, to help local school districts do it too, to automate free, reduced and paid systems, things like that. When I first saw the automation coming into School Lunch at the local level, I said, number one, “I could quit the feds right now and get real rich by setting up some of those systems.” But I said that, “This is going to be the best thing that has ever happened.” And it has been because it has freed up the people who used to peel the potatoes to do something much more important in School Lunch as far as nutritious meals go. The requirement that we have that meals meet the nutritional standards has been kind of a blessing and a curse both ways because it put a lot of pressure on schools, but it has also made them think a lot about what they are doing and what are the technological tools that they can use to help them know that they are meeting the requirements, first off, meet the requirements, and then know that they are meeting the requirements. And they have really picked up the challenge and are doing it. Now this is a big bunch of people, entities we are talking about. Texas right now, just Texas alone has got 1,100 school districts and of those, over half of them, over half of those 1,100 districts only have two schools. Yeah. And their enrollment is less than 100. So you’ve got 500 districts in Texas that still have 100 kids. It is hard to talk computers to those people. But you look at some of the bigger ones. Louisiana was a state we worked with a lot because they had big school districts that were willing to listen to you when you talked to them about computers and what they needed to be doing and how to make their School Lunch Program better through technology.
MJ: What do you think would be your most significant contribution to the child nutrition profession?
PS: Ha. You know what, you sent me a copy of that and I thought about it for a long time. And you know I always kind of thought of myself as a doctor when I was practicing School Lunch, because as a fed, as I mentioned, we have a whole lot more authority than we should have, probably, in a lot of places. When I would go into a little local school, still dressed like this, scare people to death and all of that. So I decided I would be like a doctor and my first rule would be, “First, do no harm.” And so I tried over all the years to make the programs as good as I can without hurting anybody. I got a note from some of my states, and I won’t mention them, of course, when I retired, and they said, “Now, Paul, thanks and all that, and, boy, we really put a couple over on Washington, didn’t we?” And they really to this day think that we did something that might have been a little bit, uh, but, but it wasn’t. It was just, I went into it with the attitude that the children are what we are there for and so my happiest thought is that we were able to help those kids get better meals. You know from St. Augustine to what we’ve got now is a pretty big, pretty big jump and I am proud of it, proud to have been a part of it, a very small part, but a part.
MJ: Do any memorable stories come to mind?
PS: Oh, yeah, there are bunches of memorable stories come to mind. One of them had to do with our food distribution work. During School Lunch days we always had to make commodities available during emergencies and in 1967 we got the biggest hurricane ever to hit the coast of Texas, Beulah. Absolutely drowned out the Rio Grande Valley. So we decided that we had to fly food in. They looked around for volunteers that would go down on the first planeload of food. I was extremely young and extremely dumb and I said, “Sure, that sounds like a lot of fun to me.” So anyway, we loaded up in Dallas, seven planeloads of food, and the planes we were using were some that were military, that had just got back from Vietnam. All the crews were just in Vietnam, well in 1967 we were still fighting in Vietnam, so these guys were straight out of Vietnam, and they said, “Alright, no sweat, we will get you down there.” So anyway, we got off and we flew, and it was rough, but I had rougher, until we got to about Corpus Christi, and then tornadoes in the air. I could see, at one time I could see seven tornadoes in the air at the same time. Three of the planes either got hit or had to divert and try to land in Corpus, but we went on into Harlingen, and when we got there they told us the runway was closed because there was five inches of water on the runway. And the pilot just, we heard over the intercom, they said, “Captain, they said the runway is closed.” And he said, “Huh, it ain’t closed to me.” He said, “It looks like I can see a dry spot right over there.” And he did, he set that thing down like you wouldn’t believe. But one of our guys had been down there for a couple of weeks earlier and he said when I got off that plane that I was whiter than the color of the plane. But that was food distribution in the early days. The governor came out and had his picture taken. The pilot got off the plane with his crew wearing their, they are wearing their Vietnam garb, their battle garb, has got a pistol on and his knife stuck in his back. He takes one look around and said, “Which way is Mexico?” and heads out and I never saw him again, because I came home on a different plane several days later. But food distribution was always a big part of it. Another quick food distribution story, another hurricane we had down in Corpus Christi, and they called and they said, “We can’t get hold of anybody in the schools, but we need some of the food. What can we do?” And I was in Corpus Christi, and I said, “Well, I will meet you at the warehouse.” We got to the warehouse, and this guy worked for the district, but he felt like he didn’t have any authority. He said, “Well, what can we do?” and I said, “Break that lock. Don’t worry about it. We’ll worry about it later.” And so they did and we loaded the food out to them and got the food moving. That’s something that you had to do in emergencies, had to keep the food moving. But School Lunch stories? Oh, Lordy. One of the pieces of paper that I had for you had to do with some of the monitoring systems we had. We had, they were called “AIMS”, they were called “PEEMS”, they were called a little bit of everything. One of them that was more or less invented in the Southwest Region and then picked up by Washington later for a few years was one called the “Management and Technical Assistance” or “MTA.” It was one where we went in and looked at the major areas of concern in the big school districts, management, nutrition, and financial, and it was really, really kind of neat. I take full credit, after the schools had told me this too many times, when we started going in on MTAs, one of the things we were finding, we were finding these old wooden shelving that had been left over from the ’50s or ’60s. I mean we’re up now into the ’70s. And they still have this wooden shelving and of course you can’t clean it. And the health inspectors the first time they saw it they had a heart attack. So we managed to convince a whole lot of school districts they had to have this modern stainless steel wire shelving in there and it was an absolute federal requirement. If they ever tried to find it, or ever tried to get me to find it in the regs, it wasn’t there, but I don’t care. We got a lot of good shelving for a lot of people. Travel stories, Lord. We went to places where one key would fit everybody’s lock, you know. We had some of our young ladies, because at this time a lot of the people working for us were very young, and you know mini-skirts were in fashion in those days and I had one of my young ladies picked up by the police; they thought she was in a different profession. I had to go down and bail her out at night. Yeah. We had some good ones. The MTA was too good to last. Washington took it over and changed it into one of theirs, one of their programs, but anyway it made for a whole bunch of good stories. A whole bunch of good stories.
MJ: Anything else you would like to add?
PS: No. I just appreciate the opportunity to do this. I am sorry I wasn’t feeling better today, but you know, we’re glad you could come to Dallas and do this. I have a whole bunch more materials I will be sending you but this is all I had today; and anything I send you I’ll try to notate what it is a little bit better so you’ll know what it is and what it stands for. But again thanks for coming. Give my regards to everybody over at the Institute.
MJ: Well, we just thank you so much for allowing us, for giving us the opportunity to interview you, to talk with you about your many years of experience.
PS: Well, it’s been fun.
MJ: Could you tell us about any kind of special awards or honors that you’ve had?
PS: Well, I think that the greatest honor I have had in my career came at the end of my career when the Southwest Regional Task Force set up in my honor, in my name, a scholarship to the University of Mississippi through the Institute to let my name at least live on with the University, and I think that’s the greatest honor they could have given me and one I am most proud of.
MJ: Anything else that you would like to add?
PS: No, I think that’s plenty enough. Plenty enough as they say in Texas.