Interviewee: Phyllis Hodges
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: July 23, 2008
Description: Phyllis Hodges of Dickson, Tennessee, spent fifteen years as Food Service Director, and was instrumental in founding a local nutrition association in Dickson County. She is a firm believer in training and networking. For the past five years Phyllis has been the Director of Procurement and an Educational Consultant for her state agency.
Phyllis Hodges: Thank you, and you are welcome.
JB: Could we begin by your telling me a little bit about your background, where you were born and grew up?
PH: I was born in Dickson County in Tennessee. And that is actually where I have grown up and been all of my life except for when I went to college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
JB: Okay. What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition? Was there a lunch or breakfast program when you were in elementary school?
PH: There was a lunch program when we were in elementary school. I can remember a large cafeteria with a lot of children in there. You know, one of the things that sticks in my mind around a lunch program, not necessarily about the lunch program there, was that I was at lunch the day that we found out that John F. Kennedy had died. It was the middle of the day and that was the setting that we heard that. So I remember that. But then I remember a little more about lunch probably when I was in high school. It was a little bit smaller school than my elementary school. And I can remember the homemade hamburger buns, homemade rolls, the wonderful smells that came from the cafeteria. I don’t ever remember taking a lunch. I think children then pretty much bought lunch, where now they have a lot more other opportunities or things that pull them away from the standard lunch. But of course we didn’t have offer vs. serve back then. It was just a standard reimbursable meal. You had what was on the plate. I remember the homemade soup being very good, the homemade rolls being very good, the peanut butter cookies being very good…a lot of those memories that stay with us forever.
JB: I believe everybody remembers the homemade rolls and you can still smell them today.
JB: So, what brought you into child nutrition as a profession?
PH: When I came to work, I was actually at home, raising my children, helping my husband on the family farm. We had a review in the school system where I was raised from the state, and they did not do well. They didn’t have a School Nutrition Director in charge of the program and my high school principal was actually Superintendant of schools. He said, “Come to work. We need somebody to come to work. We need to get this together.” I had no idea what a school nutrition program was. I knew that they fed the children. But as far as knowing any of the rules, anything that it took, I didn’t know any of that. My degree was in Nutrition. He thought that would fit. So he encouraged me to come to work and I did – twenty years ago.
JB: Okay. Has there been any special person, a mentor, someone who has been really helpful in guiding you in your career?
PH: There have been several. One of the ladies, there were actually two ladies, on staff when I went to work. One was Frances Self and one was Shirley Cavender, who were Managers at the time. And they could have, if they chose to, been very intimidated by me coming to work because they were in charge of their program until I got there. When I got there, I was in charge of everybody’s program so they could have chosen to be intimidated. But instead, they brought me along, helped me learn what I needed to learn…encouraged me. They all brought the team together to work together. My little girl was five, and they used to tell stories about the first meeting we had with them. She brought her Barbie dolls and sat on the floor and played Barbie dolls. So they helped me raise my children. They were just very, very special people to me. They helped us get our association together. We didn’t have an association in Dickson County when I went to work. They helped us put that together. And we were a very active association for many, many years. We did a lot of training, a lot of networking, we always went to conferences. We did everything we could to not only improve our program in the school, but also our program statewide. And they were very instrumental in that.
Another mentor, at a little different level, is our State Director, Sara White. She taught me so much about how to be a leader, how to learn, how to move forward, how to always keep the big picture in mind and to always be willing to accept the challenges and opportunities we have, and move forward with those. Those folks have been really been special to me through the years.
JB: You started out as Director. That’s a bit different career path from most people.
PH: I did. I didn’t come out of the kitchen. I didn’t have any of the operational background at all. I didn’t even have any training in school lunch, school food service. My degree was in straight Nutrition. So, I didn’t have the management background, either. I’ve had to learn a lot on the job.
JB: And you have how many mangers?
PH: I’m not at the district level anymore. I am at the State Agency level now. But I had 14 schools when I left Dickson County five years ago.
JB: Okay. What was a typical day like as the Director?
PH: As a Director, a typical day was getting there with things you had in mind that you needed to accomplish and getting to the end of the day and finding that you didn’t get a single one of those things done because there were several other things that happened as the day went on that you had to take care of. School Nutrition Directors wear so many hats that the outside public doesn’t realize. They think that they are there just to, maybe, plan menus or order food. They don’t think about the personnel issues. They don’t think about the business management issues. They don’t think about all of the things that come up on a daily basis. This time of year when we are not in school and people would say well, you don’t have anything to do in the summer. It is always the busiest time of the year for School Nutrition Directors because they are trying to finish one year and start the next, without ever catching up. A typical day never was typical. There was no typical day.
JB: And now at the state agency, tell us about your job there.
PH: My job at the state agency is that I am an Educational Consultant which means I work with the School Nutrition Directors, where I used to be. We do training. We do technical assistance. We provide regulatory guidance. And then we have to do the dreaded reviews and go out there to find out if they are in compliance with the regs. If they are not, we help them get in compliance. So I have that role. And then I have another role at the state agency. I am also the Director of Procurement which means I don’t buy anything, as you would think a Procurement Officer or Director might do. I am in charge of all of the technical assistance for all of the districts across the state, as far as knowing what they need to do to stay in compliance with the rules, providing them with assistance when they have procurement questions, and so on and so forth.
JB: Is there anything unique about Tennessee regarding child nutrition programs?
PH: I think Tennessee has one of the stronger child nutrition programs in the country. We have a wonderful state organization, association that has had some great leaders who have helped to keep it together in challenging times as well as in good times. We’ve got a strong membership base. We also have a really good State Director and state staff that helps all of the districts around the state to know what they need to do to have exemplary programs and we strive for excellence. We want to be the best we can at what we do. We want to serve the children in the best manner possible. We always take it back to making sure whatever we focus on is feeding the children.
JB: What are some of the major changes you have seen over the years in the profession?
PH: Oh my goodness. Well, when I started to work, of course, most people were either taking tickets or checking off rosters. You almost see none of that anymore. We have so many automated systems to take care of the counting and claiming process. The nutrition standards over the last five years have changed dramatically and as we work through the IOM process and come back with the new meal pattern, we will see that change even more. School meals are so much in tune to what they need to be even before we get the regs in place. We have so many people out there doing everything they can to make the meals, provide what the children need to grow and to learn, more of an emphasis of the health of the children, I think, than it used to be, say, even ten years ago. Regulations get tougher. But for the most part, I think when the regulations do get tougher, it is for a reason and we adapt to those and move forward and still continually find ways to improve our programs. Work simplification; we don’t do near as much scratch cooking as we used to. Those good yeast rolls that we talked about earlier, we don’t smell those in the kitchens as much anymore. They are making some good products that smell good, but it’s not quite that homemade smell. So, we’ve had to go away from some of that. We may be going back to try to get the whole grains in there because our bakeries don’t seem to want to do that for us. So, we’ll see how that transpires. School nutrition is a very dynamic profession and dynamic industry. I think we are constantly growing, adapting, and changing, and that’s good.
JB: What has been your proudest moment as you think back over your career?
PH: My proudest, it wouldn’t be any single moment, I’ve had a lot of opportunities. I’ve had the opportunity to serve at the state level in the state association. I’ve had the opportunity to serve on the national board. And those have both been wonderful. But, I think the thing I am proudest of [is] when we started in Dickson County we had a group of ladies who didn’t work together. And they came together and formed a team. I watched them grow. I watched them learn. As we started doing professional activities, one of them, we were doing a state training program and they had to put 270 hours in to graduate from this program. We were actively involved in that. Two of them that were working through that process with us were in a car wreck. One of them died and one was very badly injured the Spring right before they graduated from that program. But I think my saddest moment was not seeing them get to graduate, but my proudest was seeing the rest of the group that had worked so hard to reach their goals and get there and to see the ladies that I worked with grow and learn and make themselves better. Working with the Leadership Academy now in Tennessee, we are taking a group of leaders each year and helping them to learn to lead and to stand on their own two feet and be more confident. That the best thing I have done. That is what I am proudest of.
JB: Any advice for someone considering child nutrition as a profession today?
PH: I think the advice is number one, to find out what a wonderful field it is. Child nutrition is a mission. It is a love. It’s something that gets into your soul and maybe if you don’t want to give all, maybe you don’t want to go there. Because I think it is so contagious, you can’t help it. You’re there and you stay. We find so many people who just stay. Our past presidents are such an example of that. We have a whole row of them here at our conference. They are retired or they are consulting or they are doing other things or they may still be running their districts, but they are here and they are still working. And they are still active. You just don’t let go.
JB: Any special moment as you think back over your career, a special child, or an incident or…?
PH: I haven’t worked directly with the children as much, so a special child is probably not something that would be at the first of my thoughts. I can’t think of one particular moment. They just have all been a culmination of great things that have happened in this profession.
JB: Anything else that you would like to add?
PH: I don’t think so.
JB: Thank you for your time. It has been a pleasure.