Interviewee: Perry Fulton
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: February 19, 2019
Location: Institute of Child Nutrition
Description: Perry Fulton is retired from the State of Alabama, having worked in multiple capacities for thirty-nine years, including food service director and financial problem solver for multiple districts throughout the state. He was also instrumental in implementing the statewide purchasing program.
JB: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is February 19, 2019. I am here at the University of Mississippi campus at the Institute of Child Nutrition with Perry Fulton. Welcome Perry, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
PF: Thank you for asking me to come.
JB: Could we begin today by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?
PF: Well, I was born in Alabama, grew up there.
JB: What part of Alabama?
PF: East Alabama, around Alexander City.
PF: Grew up in the mountains around Talladega. I still have a family farm there that I own now.
JB: Do you go to the races?
PF: I haven’t been since the very first one on Talladega. We all skipped school and went up there to watch the trials. But I haven’t been back to one since.
JB: I went once, one time myself many years ago, and came down with food poisoning the night before. It was not a pleasant experience. What’s your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs? Was there a program when you went to school?
PF: Yes. There was. If I call correctly it was twenty-five cents for the meal. And if you wanted extra milk it was a nickel. There was a very small clapboard building that we left the main building and went out to, and that was the lunchroom. And I remember I think it would hold maybe two classes. You know, the first and the second grade went together, and so forth. We went to that until they built a new school in the early 60s, and we went to that. It had a cafeteria that was part of the building. We didn’t have to go out into the rain and the heat – well we had to go out into the heat, because there was no air conditioning. But anyway, it was part of the building. It was easier to get to. You didn’t have to walk through the mud to get there.
JB: And what town was this in?
PF: The little town was called Good Water. There’s no school there anymore. Unfortunately, it’s like a lot of small towns across the country. Jobs go elsewhere, and they close schools, consolidate schools.
JB: Do you remember what some of your favorite menu items were in that cafeteria?
PF: They had the greatest fried chicken and rice and gravy that I have ever had. In fact, I used to swap things for the rice and gravy with other kids. I never had any that tasted quite the same since then.
JB: I’m that way with high school cafeteria’s macaroni and cheese. I’ve never had any like it. It’s funny, those memories we have from growing up.
PF: Another thing, we had coleslaw every day. That was a quick and easy vegetable requirement to fix. But every day. I do not remember a single day ever not having coleslaw. So I despise coleslaw to this day.
JB: That answered my question. I was going to ask if you still ate coleslaw. So where did you go to school after you finished high school?
PF: I went to the University of Alabama, majored in biology and chemistry. In about my junior year there were no girls in my classes, so I asked a young lady who lived close to me if there were something over in one of the other areas – she was studying to be a dietitian – and I asked her were there some classes over there that I might have with some girls. And she said, “Oh yes, you need to take Mrs. So and So’s class. She never has any boys in there and she would love to have you in there.” So I went and there were twenty-seven girls in there. I think I dated half of them, but I became interested in nutrition and went to work for Dorothy Jones, who was the instructor in quantity foods, and also ran the little restaurant that they had downstairs. It was open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And she had been the school food service director in Tuscaloosa County before she came to work at Alabama. And she introduced me to Ruth Shepherd, and also to Louise Sublette, and they co-wrote the school food service menu book that I kept for many years, and someone lifted it from me, so I don’t have it with me anymore.
JB: Now Miss Sublette was from Tennessee.
PF: Right, but she and Ms. Jones were friends and she and Ruth Shepherd were friends, and she would come down to visit and they would all get together and they would come over and have lunch at the little restaurant that we had. Everyone in the classes had to do the different jobs there in the program, and I usually got assigned the duty of washing dishes, because the girl who would be assigned that on rotation, about ninety percent of the time laid out, so I rotated into that. And I also received the deliveries, and had to be at 5am in the morning on Fridays to receive deliveries for the next week, and inventory all that and put it up and have it ready to start for the next week for quantity foods, and quantity food labs, and so forth. Anyway I came to know food service that way, and as I was finishing my master’s a job came open in a rural county west of Tuscaloosa, on the Mississippi line. And I went over there and interviewed for the job, and the superintendent asked me would I stay for two years. And I said, “Well, you know, I guess I will.” And thirty-nine years later I was still in school food service.
JB: Just to backtrack just a little bit, what did you get your master’s in?
PF: I got it in Foods, Nutrition, Institutional Management.
JB: And then you stayed in that same district for thirty-nine years?
PF: No. I stayed there for about twelve years, and then I was asked to come to work with the state. And then worked in different positions with the state, and then I became the one that school districts that were having financial problems in the child nutrition program, I was sent there to in some cases to take over the child nutrition program, and went to Birmingham City in one instance and stayed there a year, worked for them a year. And anytime there was a financial problem, meeting payroll, I had to go analyze different school districts, and I probably have done twenty-five, thirty of them over the years, giving them recommendations, or actually gone through the process of reducing staff, or reducing expenditures, and so forth like that.
JB: So you were kind of a trouble shooter?
PF: Yea. I was the one they didn’t want to see coming.
JB: So I understand you were instrumental in implementing the statewide purchasing program. Tell me about that.
PF: Yes. That was a program – we started looking at that in ’92 or so. We talked with Mississippi about how they did things and we were ready to implement that, but it got delayed at the higher level. And when I went to Birmingham I actually joined the Mississippi cooperative and used their prices, and that helped us bring our cost back into line. We cut food costs a million dollars by going with that. And then after I finished in Birmingham and came back to the state, I had an assistant superintendent who was over me who was very interested in that program. And he pushed it through the state superintendent and the state board, and we implemented that. We had initially defined our success parameters if we go thirty-five school districts to participate we would consider it a success. We had eighty-seven to sign up the first year, and then by the time I retired we had all but two that participated with it. So that was a big success. I think we were very fortunate to have the support that we did. We were able to reduce food costs statewide to about thirty percent of expenses, which is far below normal. We returned in rebates and other things over $150,000,000 to the schools in the time that we did that.
JB: How did the program work? Does everything go out for bid each year?
PF: No. it was a one year bid, with the condition that the condition that we could roll it over for additional years if both sides agreed, and no one who got that bid, either manufacturers or distributors, ever wanted to not roll it over. We would send them a letter each year saying, “It’s time to renew this. Do you want to renew it, and if you don’t, let us know?” And we would get a fax back the next day, after they got that letter, “Check that box. Yes, we want to renew it.”
JB: How did the individual districts actually get their food? Did they order it from the state?
PF: We had an online ordering system that was tied in with the distributors. And they made their orders, the distributor verified that order, told them anything that they might be out of, so that they could make substitutions. And then they got a confirmation of the order, and then that was delivered once a week to every school district in the state, once-a-week deliveries. That was an adjustment for some, but really only limited problems with that. We had, of course, some school districts that had older schools, that were built for two hundred kids, and their enrollment had gone up to seven hundred, and so they didn’t have storage facilities anyway, and so they had to commit to increasing their storage facilities and things like that, but it was always a good thing when they did that.
JB: Is there anything unique about Alabama regarding child nutrition programs?
PF: As compared to the rest of the country, I don’t think so. We certainly have our preferences. We’re not like Louisiana in that we don’t do a lot of Cajun eating, and we’re not like the Southwest that do a lot of Mexican foods and things like that, but that was beginning to change. Once school districts found out that they could order things, shrimp or premade burritos, they started trying that. And by the same token, when I started none of the schools that I had in west Alabama had ever tried broccoli. And I introduced broccoli to them. First time there were three trashcans full at each school of broccoli. They didn’t know what that trash was. We had kids that had never seen shrimp. And they would, “What’s that?” “Them’s scrimps.” “What is that?” “Well, you know, those little bugs that crawl along the bottom of the river.” “Well I’m not eatin’ that.” And then kids that knew what it was, “Well give it to me.” I remember one kid at one school had a pile of shrimp several inches high and just chowing down on it.
JB: What was a typical day like for you during your career? I guess it would have been different in the different positions you held.
PF: Yes. You couldn’t stay on a schedule. You had to be able to adjust on the fly. It depended on what was going on. And manager would call. “Sally said God talked to her last night and she ain’t supposed to work anymore washing those trash cans. And I need the trash cans washed.” Or in one case, “Betty’s down here. She’s got a gun and she says she’s going to kill everybody. You need to come down here and take this gun away from her.”
JB: That really happened?
PF: That really happened. So my office was across the street from the Sheriff’s Department. I just walked across there and got him and walked down a block to the school, walked down there and he cussed her a little bit and took the gun away from her, led her outside and brought her up to the jail and put her in there for a while for her to cool off.
JB: Never a dull moment in your career.
PF: No. And then there was one time in Birmingham I had a manager to call and she said, “Mr. Perry, I can’t fix lunch today.” I said, “Why can’t you fix lunch today?” She said, “Don’t nothin’ work.” I flipped over to her equipment inventory and I said, “What have you got for lunch today?” “Well, we were going to have hotdogs, but I ain’t got nothin’ to cook ‘em on.” I said,” Well, you’ve got ovens don’t you? You can bake them in there.” “Well, they don’t work.” I said, “Well, it shows you’ve got a steamer.” “It don’t work.” We went through the whole list and nothing worked and I said, “What have you been doing to cook on all this time?” “Well, I brought a hot plate from home and that’s what I’ve been cooking on.” So things like that come up.
JB: What changes did you see in the profession over the years?
PF: Well, when I first started the required items to put on the plate included butter. No plate could go out without butter on it. And you could only serve whole milk, unless you had a written excuse from the doctor that that child could not have whole milk. So that changed. When Reagan came in the president’s office a lot of changes were made then. When Carter was in office we got a lot of peanut butter, peanut granules, whole peanuts, everything peanut, peanut oil. Another thing that I’ve seen is the increase in number of children with allergies, children with diabetes. The first twelve years that I worked I dealt with one case of a diabetic child. The last year that I worked with the state we had one school that had twenty-five. There were a lot of things that changed – meal pattern requirement. Computerization was a big thing. Everything was kept in manual books when I first started. The first computer system I had was about as big as this table. It was a Radio Shack and had a big, old floppy disc that could hold about 250 K or something. It might not have been that large, but a big, old floppy disc, and you did your work on that. That was a change. And we implemented an online child nutrition program application with the state, and the school districts didn’t have to fill out that paper form every year. They could just go online and put the days that they were going to operate the schools, and things like that, and then zip, zip, it was done. We also implemented an online claim system so that a school district could file a claim and it’d be in the queue instantly, instead of having to wait for somebody to shuffle papers and get down to, and then check the arithmetic on what they had put down. So that was a big change. School districts got paid quicker. That’s among the things I’m particularly proud of that we did. Probably if I had more time to think about this, other things would come to light but –
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the field over the years?
PF: My retirement. [Laughter] I would say probably the purchasing program and the online application and claims payment system. We got better quality products. We got lower prices. We were able to save schools money so that they could direct those funds into other areas that they needed to. Another thing was we got the state board to approve certification requirements for child nutrition directors. Previously it had been, you know, the school district would hire the coach who couldn’t win anymore, or the principal who couldn’t handle his school anymore, or a home ec teacher who was getting out of touch with things. So putting those requirements, and then having the annual continuing requirements, that was a big thing too. When I first started I was one of four registered dietitians in the state, and I think they’ve got at least forty now. And a number of them have come and gone since then, but probably we have had over a hundred that have come through at one time or another, and work with the child nutrition program. And I’m proud of that. I’m glad we are able to do that.
JB: Do you have any memorable stories about either special children you’ve served or people you’ve worked with over the years?
PF: Well, Betty and Sally Mae were two of them. Yes. I used to have an old ’85 model Jeep Cherokee, that I kept until last year. And I would drive it to work, and from time to time it needed some work done on it. And there was a place I would take it to because they were always very glad to see an old vehicle like that that didn’t have all the computer systems on it. Anyway, one morning I took it in and they asked a young boy to drive me down to the office. And when we were on the way down there he said, “Well, what do you do?” And I said, “I work with the school lunch program.” And he turned his head away, and I got a little defensive. I said, “Is there something wrong with that?” And he said, “No sir. You don’t understand.” He said, “When I was little Mama ran away and left me and my three sisters for Daddy to raise. And Daddy didn’t know how to cook anything. He tried but he just couldn’t do anything.” He said, “Those ladies in the lunchroom, they took us and they fed us breakfast. And they made sure that we ate lunch. If it hadn’t been for them, we would have starved.” And I said, “Well, that’s what they’re supposed to do.” I said, “Those are the kind of people that we like to have.”
JB: There are special people in child nutrition.
PF: Yes, there are.
JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a career move today?
PF: It’s a very rewarding program. It’s a very difficult program sometimes. I would advise them, based on my experience, to go into it. There are so many good experiences they outweigh the bad ones. And yes, just like with any job there’s going to be bad experiences. There’ll be difficult people to work with, but you’ll have more good times than you do bad times. And probably with dietitians, I would advise them to go into that, because it actually pays more money than a clinical dietitian in a hospital does. I know when I first started, my first paycheck, I made seven hundred dollars a month, the most money I’d ever had in my life. My wife and I went out and celebrated on that, and I bought a new car, seventy-three dollars a month car payment. So I would advise anyone to look at the situation they’re in. Look at the program that they’re considering going to work with. But by all means, if the opportunity is there, I’d to it all again.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add today?
PF: My gosh, there’s so much. I’ve been very blessed by working in this program. It’s given me the opportunity to see most of the states by going to conventions, or just working with other states, places that I would have never gone had I not been working with this program. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a great program and it does a lot of good for kids. And that’s what we should all be about anyway.
JB: Well thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
PF: Thank you for asking me.