Interviewee: Penny McConnell
Interviewer: Beverly Lowe
Date: February 2, 2006
Location: Fairfax County, Virginia
Description: Penny McConnell, a native of Canada, spent her career in child nutrition in Fairfax County, Virginia, working her way up from manager to supervisor to eventually director of Food and Nutrition Services.
BL: Good morning. I am Beverly Lowe, and I am here to interview Penny McConnell, who is the director of food and nutrition services for the Fairfax County, Virginia, schools. Good morning, Penny.
PM: Good morning, Bev.
BL: Penny and I have been friends for a while, so this is going to be a very easy interview for the two of us. I know more about you than I will let everybody know, since we’ve roomed together and some other association things together. But I would like for you to tell us a little bit about where you grew up and a little bit about yourself.
PM: Well, I grew up in Canada. I am a transplant to the United States and that might be why I am so sensitive to the adjustments of the diverse workforce and students that we have in Fairfax County Public Schools, because I know it is an adjustment to adjust to a new country. But I have been in Fairfax County for forty years. When I moved to the United States, I moved to Fairfax County. My first job, though, was with Fairfax Hospital as a clinical dietitian. I have a son Bill and daughter-in-law Charity and my first grandson Foster, and they live in Nashville. I love to golf and garden and of course I am a great world traveler.
BL: Yes, I know that, from the Dietetic Association, etcetera, etcetera. What is your earliest recollection – what do you remember about early child nutrition programs?
PM: Well, coming from Canada, we did not have a national school lunch program; in fact, there isn’t one there today. Some provinces have a mock one, so, no, we didn’t. So my first introduction to school lunch in Virginia was when I accepted the position as an elementary school manager the first year that I came with Fairfax County Public Schools. And I am an example of the career ladder in Fairfax County, and they often use that, because I started off as an elementary school manager. In those days you didn’t hop into a supervisory position even though you had the education. You paid your dues. And I did climb the ladder. I managed a couple of high schools, opened another high school, and then I became a supervisor and eventually became director of Food and Nutrition Services.
BL: Yep, you paid your dues well.
PM: I paid my dues and I continue to love the profession.
BL: Now tell me about your mentor. I know you had one, and I have heard you say many nice things about her. And that would be nice for everyone to know about.
PM: Well, I was very blessed. The first director of Food and Nutrition Services in Fairfax County Public Schools was Adelaide Neeley, and I loved her as a person and also as a professional. And she had such high standards. And she was one of the pioneers of school feeding in Virginia. She also served on the American School Food Service Association board for several years and she was one of the pioneers that really set the foundation just for school lunch in Virginia, let alone the nation. So I think if you’ve ever had the opportunity to work with a pioneer, you really appreciate all that they did to make sure that the children in the nation today are receiving nutritious meals. She started off as the home ec teacher, and I remember her telling a story, it was a high school out in Herndon where she had to oversee the processing, the canning, they had a cannery there, the processing of commodities and fresh beans and so forth from the rural, from the farms, because Fairfax County used to be a very rural area; it isn’t today of course – and just sweltering in there in the cannery with the students so they could process these foods so they would be available in the school lunch program. But she was a wonderful, wonderful professional lady.
BL: Well, she sounds like an interesting person with a lot of personality, too.
PM: She really was.
BL: As well as you. Tell me about your education, I know you are a dietician, but what other credentials do you have and where have you gone with that?
PM: Well, I am a registered dietician and I have a master’s degree, plus almost, I did about half of the education towards a doctorate, and I decided that that was something I didn’t want to do anymore because I don’t want to teach in the university or something like that. I wanted to, I continue to study, I mean, I take classes as often as I can, but this way I can take them in areas that are of interest to me and are also a benefit to my profession. For example, marketing, business, working with a diverse workforce, those type of things. And I am very active in the Dietetic Association as far as the exam panel, working on the registration exam. I have been on that panel for the last five years. And I just really believe that as an active member, and this was something that my family stressed to me as I was growing up and also something that Adelaide reinforced, that when you accept a profession that you like you need to have passion with it and you need to pay back and so I think that is probably why I have been so active in both the American Dietetics Association and the former American School Food Service Association. I always feel you need to pay back. An association depends on the involvement of its members, and I like to promote that with the dietetic interns that we have that come through Fairfax County to be exposed to school food service.
BL: Well, since you brought the dietetic internship program in, why don’t you tell us a little bit about how they interface with your staff here?
PM: Well, in Virginia we have a couple of dietetic internships, one with the health department which is overseen out of Richmond, but they are in the local health departments like the Fairfax/Arlington one. And then of course, MCV, which is our big medical college in Richmond. And then years ago, before they eliminated the traineeships, we used to be able to have mothers who had left, gotten their undergraduate degree, and raised their families and then were coming back to the workforce and were very interested in pursuing the registration examination experience, and they had what they called a traineeship, and Jean Shaw and I operated that in Fairfax County for several years. In fact, we had ten of our managers who had come back to the workforce that we offered that program for. Then the Dietetics Association just continued that. But we had the dietetics interns spend a good six weeks to three months with us, learning about the program, and because Fairfax County is not really just school lunch, we are a community nutrition program, meaning we feed elderly, day care, private schools, Head Start and after school programs, this really gives these interns a very good exposure to not only managing a food service operation, but community nutrition experiences, and as hard as I’ve tried to convince them that school lunch is the best avenue for the profession, I haven’t convinced them, because it’s not “sexy” enough. Today everyone wants to work in a spa or be a wellness coordinator in the gym. So I’ve been successful with a few coming to us but we were more successful with getting professionals into our avenue of nutrition when we had the traineeship.
BL: Well, that’s a good example of how you pay back your profession – very good Penny. I know Virginia is unique in a lot of things. What do you think the uniqueness is in Virginia with relation to the child nutrition program?
PM: Well, Virginia is a very, very, very conservative state, and often, as you know, living in Virginia, that when people think of northern Virginia they think we are sort of this orphan out here. I mean, we bring a lot of revenue into the state of Virginia, even as taxpayers, but we don’t always get the benefits because they think that we have the monetary support, that we don’t need additional things. And this often happens with school feeding, I mean, when you look at how much money comes into Richmond because of Fairfax County Food and Nutrition Services Program, I mean here we are the 12th largest school district in the nation. We have very low free and reduced but we serve a lot of meals and other programs, so a lot of the state and federal assistance comes in. So we have to be a little unique in Fairfax, though, because we are in a fishbowl. We’re right across the Potomac from the nation’s capital. We have a lot of congressmen and senators who live in our district, a lot of government personnel. And we have a community that expects us to be the best, not only in the school nutrition program, but in education, and we are. We are challenged to reach that higher level all the time. So we are fortunate. We have the support of the community and the educators, and we just are always on the competitive edge, and that might be my problem because I’m one who thinks that in our business to succeed, you can’t sit still. You need to always look at change. How can you improve your program? How can you improve service to the customers? How can you educate the community about the benefits of the School Lunch Program, about how we ensure children are ready to learn, that we are concerned with them developing new habits, healthy habits, physical activity habits that they will take into adulthood. So we are fortunate in that sense, that we really have the support that allows us to market ourselves, and of course, you know, we’re the Energy Zone.
BL: Well, I wanted to make sure you talked about the Energy Zone, because that’s one of your really outreach programs for your nutrition focus program. Tell us more about it.
PM: Well, the Energy Zone, you know we’ve had it for almost ten years and when you look at the colors – black, fuchsia, and teal – who would have ever thought those would be the “in” colors today! But we have it on our signage, on all our paper supplies; we have it on our own water. And we have it in uniforms and everything. But it’s really been the best marketing tool for our recognition in the community. I’ve gone shopping in the local mall and had parents come up to me if I was wearing my Energy Zone polo, which we do on Fridays, “Well, you know, my children eat there.” I mean, that’s really a plus for us, that parents know the Energy Zone. But we have marketed that and that was our own creation. And I think it’s done us well.
BL: Well, you know, we were talking earlier about the Virginia programs. Tell me a little bit about the Virginia guidelines for a-la-carte and nutrition.
PM: Virginia, I said they were conservative, and I am proud of them being conservative. I didn’t mean that to be misunderstood. They’ve been very conservative; they’ve been very strict on making sure that all of our schools follow the USDA Standard for Foods of Minimal Nutritive Value. And then our governor last year unveiled his governor’s scorecard which addressed not only nutrition standards for the schools but also physical activity expectations. And as a result, working with Virginia Action for Healthy Kids, and they came up with some very strong a-la-carte standards. In fact, they are so high that this fall when I on my own decided to implement them – they are not required – but because we have always been leaders in Fairfax and tried to be ahead of the nutrition wave, what’s new, the “ins,” we’ve always tried to be ahead of it. I decided we would implement it in Fairfax, and I found it was very difficult to get a-la-carte items that even met those standards. And I had to go to manufacturers and say, “Gee, I need an ice cream that meets those standards,” and I was able to find a Virginia ice cream maker who was able to do it. But this is how child nutrition has really changed probably for the better, and I am very fortunate that I have the education and the experience, and I am recognized as a child nutrition expert in Fairfax County, because today the expectations for a director, or even a manager, are very high. Parents want to know, students want to know, what’s in the food. For example, we do an ingredients list of every food item that we serve. And that’s available on our website for parents and students who have food sensitivities or who have therapeutic needs such as celiac disease. Our students requested us to give them information about the nutritional content of their foods. We have that posted in every dining area. So we go a little beyond. We have a lot of nutrition information on our website. But I think I am very fortunate that I have all that basic education and expertise and know operations to be able to meet the expectations not only of my community but nationally, the whole profession. With childhood obesity, school lunch was getting some very negative press. I am now an SNA spokesman and I know this year working with SNA we’ve really done a lot of press releases on what we do and the value of school lunch, and when I was president of ASFSA, I was very fortunate that time with Vivian Pilant and Dorothy Caldwell that we were challenged that term on reauthorization. We were faced with major changes such as the food-based menu planning. We were on the Hill battling because the whole issue of welfare reform, school lunch was being challenged. Were we going to become a welfare program? And fortunately for our profession as you know we have a very strong grassroots effort when it comes to telling our story on the Hill and we were able to save our program and really adjust and let them know that, you know, we’ve got a lot of directors and managers across this country who don’t necessarily have the expertise or the money for the technology to do what you’re asking us to do. And so that year we really became, I would say, recognized as a voice for child nutrition, as an association. It really paid off. And I think since then, although I know we are challenged, we know that we as a profession accepted the challenge then, we took the modifications that they asked us to do. And I think now with the new Dietary Guidelines and the new MyPyramid, we are going to be seeing additional changes this year. So I think we have to embrace those changes. But I am fortunate; it will be easier for me than for a peer in a very small rural district.
BL: Now, Penny, I know you were president when we were celebrating our 50th anniversary. That was a benchmark year. Tell me some fun things, and some things that you learned during that year and doing the research, because we talked history the whole year, and then some.
PM: Yes, it was exciting. It was our 50th anniversary and the theme was “A half century of serving children.” I think what was so wonderful about that year, beside you know the natural things, traveling the country, meeting so many wonderful people dedicated to school feeding, was the fact that we were able to research the history again, and read it again. And I was so excited that we had such a great turnout of past presidents at our party. We had a special party for the past presidents at the Ritz Carlton in Houston. And we had a wonderful turnout, and it was a wonderful evening. And I had done some anecdotes on everyone’s year. And I think it really made you feel very fortunate that you got to meet them and visit with them. And I think the membership was excited about that, too. Of course, many of them have passed today. But they, it was just wonderful to interrelate with them and interact with them. And then we had Memory Lane where we had a lot of displays of the history of our profession and different school districts and so forth. And I think it was just wonderful, and then of course we had a huge 50, I forget, I think it was a 50-foot cake that Shirley Brown from Rich’s Products said, “Oh, we must have a cake,” and it was just beautiful. So it was just really a fun time because I think it really, every issue of the, our publication highlighted a certain decade. And I think it was wonderful for the members who had never met the pioneers who really established our program. It was a wonderful opportunity for them.
BL: Did you come across something, or unearth something, that you would not have had the opportunity to read, in doing all of those research items on the 50th?
PM: Well, I really did. You know, so many of them had marvelous comments as you read their years, their statements for the year, their plan of work and things like that. And I think each and every one added a brick to our block of child nutrition that it is today. We would never be where we are today without them. And they really had, they had similar struggles to what we have today. There were financial issues, there were federal reimbursement issues, and there were meal pattern expectations. Each of those issues that we face today were there; however, today I think it is a little different. For example, Fairfax County is a mosaic of cultures. And it is a blessing for my employees and the students that they get today to interact with students from different countries – over 100 different countries, 50 different languages – and my workforce reflects the student population. But that’s put extra demands on us. For example, we’ve had to make pictorial recipes, because a lot of them are not English speakers. And we do a lot more with pictorial things, even with the students we’ve had to do translated food pictures and things like that. But isn’t it wonderful in this global, fast changing world that we have today that our students and my employees have that opportunity to develop an understanding of different cultures and each other. I mean, many school districts in this country do not have that opportunity yet.
BL: And you know you are very fortunate to have that part of your experience to share with others. Tell me if you have had any “ahas” as to what the states did in their histories? There was a lot of state information on the history of child nutrition.
PM: Yes, there really was. And of course I was very focused on what Virginia was doing. You know, you tend to look at what your particular state did. The Tennessee people were leaders, the Florida people were leaders, I mean the Southeast was really I think the original foundation of school feeding, wouldn’t you say?
BL: Yes, I think so.
PM: They were, and today we are still the strongest membership. I believe we still are in the Southeast. But I think what is so interesting is that it’s just as when you look at your family history, you know, and fortunately we have the history of the program. And often many families don’t have their histories to the extent that we do. What was it? A Pinch of Salt. I remember, you and I were on the board together when we were debating whether we were going to fund A Pinch of Salt.
BL: We called it A Pinch of Love. You use a pinch of salt in cooking, to make a pinch of love.
PM: Yes, that was it. And then of course, Bryan was one of the big leaders. Her book, too, it was The Lunchroom.
BL: So we have some historical documents that we have collected. We have an oral history of a number of people who were involved in the formation of the association, and we have the 50th president. If you were to tell us what you think your significant contributions have been to the industry, what would you tell us?
PM: Well, I think I am one of those people who walk the talk. I operate my program with the philosophy that we talk, serve, and teach nutrition. And, I’ve been a role model for not only my people but nationally, that I can show that you can run a self supporting business – we are a $60 million business – with a low free and reduced program, maintaining high nutrition standards, requiring my leadership team to get in the classroom and teach, and being willing to serve community meals; all of these require extra efforts, but I think that that is important because if I don’t have the Energy Zone or the Food and Nutrition Program visible in the community, it would be a challenge to make them really aware of the benefit that we are to the nutritional well-being of our kids.
BL: Do you have any memorable stories? I know you were a manager; I know you were a trainer. I know you’ve had a lot of years in the business. Do you have anything that you would like to share? It could be a memorable child-related or adult-related story.
PM: Well, I think, Bev, that you and I probably have, we’ve been in it for a while in Virginia. I remember, in fact I share this with employees in my leadership today when they think that we are doing too many changes, you know what I’m saying, to stay progressive and to stay current. And I will always say, “You don’t know how easy you have it.” I remember my first year as an elementary manager working ‘til midnight to find 3 pennies because my state report was not balanced, and in those days it was all done manually, as you know, but the report had to be balanced. I remember getting 50-pound blocks of cheddar cheese and butter. And in those days a pat of butter was on the meal pattern. So we had to take this 50-pound block. The custodian helped me design a wire cutter so we cut this 50-pound block of butter into 50 1-pound units that we could slice into pats. We did the cheddar cheese that way – or praying for the turkeys, the frozen, whole birds to arrive that you had to de-bone for Thanksgiving luncheon. I mean when you realize today commodities are processed. I mean, for food safety you wouldn’t bone turkey today, but when you think of that. When I was manager of West Springfield High the kids – pizza was just becoming popular, and the kids said, “Oh, Ms. McConnell, won’t you please make us pizza?” It took us a week to make pizza crust ready on the sheet pan, and remember a sheet pan only did 12 pieces of pizza.
BL: And they were square pieces, not triangles.
PM: I mean we would stack these in the freezer so they could have pizza. But in those days, you’ll even hear some of the old teachers say, in those days you could smell the cinnamon rolls. We used to have the whole grain, bulgur rolls which kids ate. Here we were with those nutritious items in those days. We baked everything from scratch. And we had – in those days the employees were mothers who were working to get a new rug or something in the home. They had never been taught to cook institutionally, and to bake, I mean to bake thousands of rolls in a day. And I remember the big mixer. You always told these new mothers who were used to a little hand mixer, “Remember, you never turn on the paddle, you never turn it on high speed. You start very slowly when you are doing the dough.” And once just having a snow cloud, I mean, all the flour just all over the place. But those were fun days, they really were. But we’ve come a long way. Today, you don’t cook from scratch in the majority of the districts; it is heat and serve.
BL: And the commodity processing has brought to us different products that are available for a reasonable cost.
PM: And the children are more familiar with. This year I decided we were doing the whole grain breads and pasta in our district; and I mean the children, some of them really questioned it if they were not really used to it at home. Well, in those days the kids ate a bulgur roll or a whole wheat roll. Nowadays, you have to really plan your menus and educate children more so than we did in the past. You are really in the classroom educating them and having student taste parties. We do a lot of student taste parties, unveiling products that would go on the menu, because many children have never had a whole grain roll at home. And mothers today don’t bake cakes or anything like that that we used to do years ago.
BL: Well, if you had one last final thing that you would like to tell about school lunch or school breakfast or after school snacks or vending, all of the things I know you are participating in, what would it be?
PM: Well, I would just give some words of guidance to my peers, that we are an exciting profession. It is not an eight-hour-a-day job. You need to always put in more than you are going to get back. But how many other professions have the wonderful opportunity to interact with children every day? And you know you see a child come through the lunch line, or you are in a classroom teaching them, and they just make your day because they appreciate what you are doing. And you’ve probably had this happen to you, too. Billy, my son, had no choice. He had to have lunch and breakfast at school. And of course, he loved it. He was a jock, so he was a two-lunch, four-milk student. But he was always proud of having me come eat lunch with him. It was nothing like, you know, many children don’t want to have their parents around in the area, but Billy was always wanting me to have lunch with him and the kids from the neighborhood, and I’d do that once a month. But you know, whenever you go in the serving line, you are visiting a school, the elementary children especially, they’ll say, “Whose mother are you?” They don’t realize who you are. They are very aware of who the faces should be in the cafeteria in the serving area. But I, I mean, we are so blessed, we really are.
BL: Well, I thank you for your time. It has been a great time to speak with you.
PM: Thanks, Bev.