Interviewee: Polly Holloway
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: June 26, 2007

Description: Polly Holloway grew up on a farm in Tasewell County, Virginia. After graduating from a two-room high school, she went on to Virginia Tech, where she earned a degree in Home Economics in 1956. After a brief career as an Assistant Extension Agent, she moved to Roanoke, where she taught Special Ed for Roanoke County Schools. She was soon persuaded to take on the role of Cafeteria Supervisor and credits her state agency with offering valuable training. She returned to Virginia Tech in 1972 and earned her master’s in Nutrition. By now a firm believer in the value of training, Holloway manages to get all of her managers and many of her workers certified while overseeing thirty-two school nutrition programs in the Roanoke County School System.

Update: We were saddened to learn that Polly passed away suddenly on October 6, 2009:

Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce. It’s June 26, 2007. I’m here in Roanoke, VA, with Mrs. Polly Holloway. Thank you so much Polly for being with me today and sharing your story. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?

Polly Holloway: I grew up in a farming area in southwest Virginia. The little place was called Shawver Mill, and it’s in Tasewell County. You probably have never heard of that before.

JB: No. This is my first trip here. That’s a small one that I haven’t heard of.

PH: My father had a small farm there, and he was the postmaster in a general merchandise store. I grew up helping clerk in that store.

JB: Did you work in the post office?

PH: I worked in the post office when we were sure no one was around. I went to a two-room school. I was there for only six years because my mother had taught me a lot at home and so therefore they put me in the second grade, skipping the first. I went through the seventh grade there. We did not have kindergarten back in those days, and we did not have an eight grade in our area. So from seventh grade I went to freshman in high school and went four years to high school. So I graduated from high school when I was sixteen, sort of young.

JB: That is young. Was there any sort of school lunch program in this two-room school?

PH: No there wasn’t. There wasn’t even a bathroom and there wasn’t running water inside. So we went to the toilets in the back and we carried buckets of water and brought our own glasses.

JB: Oh my goodness! And you brought your own lunch?

PH: Brought our own lunch, right.

JB: What was a typical lunch back then?

PH: Well, I always had ham biscuits, because my mother made biscuits every morning, but I would trade that for a bologna sandwich. [Much laughter]

JB: That doesn’t seem like too good a swap somehow.

PH: Well, it wasn’t too good a swap. Nowadays I look back and think, “Why did I do that?”

JB: Did you all cure your own hams? I’ve always heard of Virginia hams.

PH: Oh yes. We cured our own hams, had our own chickens, had our own eggs, had our own vegetables.

JB: Just about self-sustaining, huh?

PH: Almost, except for sugar, and coffee, and flour.

JB: Well how did you get involved in child nutrition?

PH: It was really strange because I graduated and went on to Virginia Tech from high school. I graduated from high school in 1952 and from Virginia Tech in 1956 with a degree in Home Economics, with sort of an aim to be an Extension Agent, because I had been a 4-H member, coming from the farm. My assignment was Bedford County, and I was an Assistant Extension Agent. I stayed down there until I was married, and then moved back to Roanoke. When I was expecting my first child, in 1959, I resigned from the Extension Service. And I stopped and had another child, and then another one, and then another one. I had four. And then I was called to teach, and I taught Special Ed for Roanoke County Schools. And while I was there teaching the Superintendent of Schools called me over to his office and asked me if I would be interested in being a Cafeteria Supervisor. I told him I couldn’t work in the summer. I guess he was still interested because he called me back and asked me if I could work eleven months. So I started, and I had no previous experience.

JB: None at all?

PH: None at all.

JB: It seems like a lot of people come out of 4-H and/or Home Economics. I talked to a lady in Hawaii that did that.

PH: Yes.

JB: What sort of training did you get, then, for this new position? Did you take courses or did the state agency offer trainings?

PH: The state agency offered a lot of training. One of my mentors was Barbara Richardson, who was a director in Chesterfield, and Beverly Lowe, who was in Hampton City, and the state people sort of brought me through and then I applied for a scholarship to get my master’s, and I got the scholarship, which was a surprise. It was a two thousand dollar scholarship, and with four kids we couldn’t afford for me to go back to school without it. So I was able to go back to Virginia Tech and in 1972 I got my master’s in Nutrition. They allowed me to select the different courses that would help me, and so I took Kitchen Planning, and Lighting, and a lot of different things that would help me with my position. The superintendent allowed me to go during the day to school sometimes.

JB: But you continued to work full-time?

PH: I continued to work and had four kids at home.

JB: You were one busy lady.

PH: Right. But I got my degree in 1972, and I barely got under the wire, because I think they allow you five years, and I barely made it. But I did make it and I was pleased to get my master’s. The superintendent wanted me to have my master’s because he wanted me to be on the same level or above of the principals and the principals all had to have a master’s. At that time we had thirty-two schools.

JB: Wow, you were supervising thirty-two schools?

PH: Supervising thirty-two schools and a lot of my 4-H training and leadership training really came into play as a supervisor.

JB: What was a typical day like, or was there a typical day?

PH: There was never a typical day. At that time, with thirty-two schools, I only had a secretary, so it was hard. The school system was not centralized, if you know what I mean there.

JB: They were each autonomous?

PH: They were each autonomous and the principals took care of the lunchrooms.

JB: So you had thirty-two principals to deal with?

PH: I did. And a lot of my training with the Extension Service helped me there too. There were a few principals that were hard to deal with. I had to sort of step back and think about, “How do I deal with this one?” They did not want the schools to be centralized. And the superintendent had had complaints about menus, what was being served in different places.

JB: Who was making those decisions?

PH: The principal was making those decisions.

JB: The menu plans?

PH: They did the menu planning. They knew nothing about it. They were not using the funds properly either. If they wanted to use school lunch funds someplace else they did. That was a real problem for me. But the superintendent was very much behind me and he said, “When you have a problem you just come to me.” That was really good. I’ve known some food service people that have not had that kind of support. But he had hired me and he wanted it to be centralized and he wanted things to be done right. The commodity distribution was not being done right. I found that out after I went to work and I had a chore to fix that. We centralized all the funds. We did not do it in that first year. I really just visited all the schools and learned the people. I think that’s real important, to learn the food service employees. I think if you don’t get them behind you, you really are lost as a supervisor or director either.

JB: That support is important.

PH: Oh yes, and so I visited the schools and got to know them, and ate lunch with them when they had lunch, and helped them to see where it was important that we changed our menus to a central menu. And I had a lot of rebuff on that.

JB: So you went from thirty-two different ones to they were all serving the same?

PH: Yes.

JB: Did that help a lot with cost?

PH: It helped a lot with cost. Also, many of the schools were not meeting requirements. After I learned what the nutritional requirements from the Department of Agriculture were I was able to help the workers see that we needed to give a good, nutritional lunch.

JB: What about the workers; were there any training programs?

PH: Nothing. And I started training programs for them. I started the certification program with them.

JB: Tell us a little about that.

PH: I was able to do the sanitation. We started with that because that’s where I thought there was a need. I had to think about what were the most drastic needs for this school division, and I was able to look at those things and see what needed done. I had classes for the workers. We were able to bring the Health Department in. They were scared to death of the Health Department and I told them the Health Department was there to help us; they are a friendly help. We were able to accomplish a whole lot. I don’t remember the numbers, but we had all the managers certified, and probably half of the workers certified by the time I left. I started a local food service organization, and we were the largest one in southwest Virginia. We had about 120 people in our Roanoke County School Food Service Association.

JB: Roanoke County itself had 120 members?

PH: Yes. Actually, we were one of the largest in the state. I designed mine so that managers and employees could be members, but they had to be a member of the district, state, and national associations in order to belong to Roanoke County. And they have never changed that because they have seen that if people belong to local, they will not join state and national. And it’s very important that people know what’s going on at state level and national level, and get the magazine. I just felt it was very important. Several times I was approached by people asking me why they had to be a member of the state and national. And I told them it was very important that they kept those contacts.

JB: And once they understood that they were probably willing to go along with that.

PH: They were.

JB: What were some of the biggest changes you saw over your career in child nutrition in general?

PH: The free lunch program came into being after I came to work. The free lunch program came into being in the early 1970s and that was hard to initiate. We went to a lot of meetings. Roanoke County is not a high free lunch school division like our neighboring Roanoke City, which is inner core and has higher free lunch. We did not have that many, but I thought it was a good thing for those students that qualified. Also, I was able to offer choices long before Offer vs. Serve. I saw a big change with this. Students did not throw their lunch away when they had a choice, and I thought that was really good.

JB: And did participation go up?

PH: Yes. We always had good participation. I always involved managers in menu planning because I felt that they knew their students. That was a help, and sort of brought them along with me so that they took an interest in menu planning; since they didn’t have to do it, now they could be invested in the process.

JB: How long did you work?

PH: I started in 1966 and retired in 2000. I had thirty-four years. I was the first Cafeteria Supervisor for Roanoke County Schools and I was able to keep peace with the superintendent and the principals.

JB: There are a lot of people skills involved.

PH: Yes there are. With my degree in Home Economics there were a lot of courses I took like Psychology that you really do use as a supervisor.

JB: Did you all participate in the Breakfast or the Summer Feeding Programs? PH: We participated in both of those. We did not have a real large Breakfast Program. What I decided to do was to take the number of the people in the Title 1 schools and that’s where I developed breakfast programs. I think I had eight or ten, so you can see it was a small percentage. I think now they are doing more breakfast programs. I don’t know how successful those are, but I felt like we really accomplished a whole lot by feeding the students that were in those Title 1 schools.

JB: It’s easier to learn when your stomach’s not growling.

PH: Oh yes. It was hard to convince principals that they needed a breakfast program.

JB: Really?

PH: Yes, but I was able to say to them, “Do you have any children that are laying their heads on the desk in the morning? Maybe it’s because they didn’t have anything to eat.” So I think they started looking, and found students that did need the Breakfast Program.

JB: Not so much that they didn’t care then, they were just not aware of the need?

PH: I think that they were not aware. I think that’s probably it.

JB: Looking back, what are some of the highlights or the things that you are most proud of in your career, that you were able to accomplish? Or was there a special child; what are your memories when you think back on your career?

PH: I have a lot of real fond memories; I guess the training programs that I was able to do with the ladies. I felt like they really did appreciate being able to be trained. They had not had training before. They seemed to really appreciate me and what I was trying to do. I think that’s sort of the secret for me being able to work there for thirty-four years.

JB: Something must have been going right.

PH: We had food service banquets and they really participated. I tried to help develop leadership with the managers and employees so that they took offices in the Roanoke County Food Service Association. Many of those managers that became officers told me many times, “Mrs. Holloway, if you hadn’t made me do this I would never have been able to get up in front of people.” I just let them conduct the banquets and so forth. I just sort of stayed behind the scenes.

JB: These banquets were sort of an appreciation of the workers?

PH: Yes. And we were able to give certificates at that time and I ordered pins for them and gave them a tenure pin; a 15 and a 20 and many of the people earned 25 and 30 year pins while I was there.

JB: So these were dedicated professionals?

PH: Right. I guess one of the highlights would be that I was able to get all of our people on the retirement system, the Virginia retirement system. We were one of the first school systems that the cafeteria people were eligible. The reason I did that was because there was a lady at one of our schools who had worked thirty years before I came, and she had no retirement. And when I talked with her and I thought that was such a shame. I was able to get her on the retirement system for five years, which helped her to get vested, and she was able to get a little bit of retirement. I felt like those people worked very hard and they deserved to be retired with something. A lot of school divisions started retirement systems after we did.

JB: You were definitely a groundbreaker.

PH: Well, I was a groundbreaker in many ways. [Laughter]

JB: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the profession today?

PH: I guess I would say to them that the employees are really important, and they should never take those employees for granted. They need to make sure that they train them well, because they’re the key to your success. If those ladies hadn’t done a good job, I wouldn’t have been able to do a good job. I couldn’t have been in thirty-two different places at one time. Later on in my career the city of Salem took their schools from Roanoke County, so I ended up with twenty-six schools in the latter years. And of course I was able to add a secretary and a Field Manager. We tried to keep our lunch prices as low as we could because that seemed to me to keep our participation up too.

JB: What were the lunch priced if you remember, when you started and when you finished, roughly?

PH: It seems to me the lunch price when I started was about forty-five cents. When I ended up we were at about $1.10.

JB: Compared to other things that’s not too bad.

PH: For thirty-four years that’s not too bad. Our superintendent really wanted me to look at any way that we could use the commodities more efficiently, and I had training for the ladies to be able to use the commodities and research recipes.

JB: Was there anything unique about Virginia as compared to other states?

PH: I don’t know about other states, because I never worked anywhere except Virginia, but I felt that our State Department of Education in Virginia were most helpful to me. They did have training for new directors and I always attended everything that I could attend. I felt like the people in the State Department of Education were really helpful, and I would recommend that a new person coming in take advantage of ALL of the workshops that the state does. I knew nothing about the distribution of commodities, so I called the person in charge of commodities for southwest Virginia, at the Department of Agriculture, and he came and spent two or three days with me and showed me what was being done wrong. And then he actually trained me in what I needed to do and how I could properly do it. I found out by looking in the files that Roanoke County really had been threatened that if the commodity distribution was not improved, that they would cut the commodities off. So that was another reason that I think I was hired in 1966.

JB: To put out some of those fires?

PH: Right, to put out some of the fires.

JB: Anything else that you would like to add today?

PH: I just am very thankful that I was able to work as long as I worked. I don’t miss the work at all, but I miss a lot of the people because I’m a people person. I enjoyed working with the people on the state level. I enjoyed working with the directors all over the state. I was always able to go to meeting; I don’t think I ever missed a meeting. I went to a lot of national meetings; I haven’t been to any lately. I haven’t really been to state meetings. I’ve been really busy in the community. I do a lot of community service now.

JB: Enjoying your retirement?

PH: I’m enjoying my retirement. I’ve been retired for seven years now, and I’m really enjoying my retirement, enjoying being with my grandchildren and doing a lot church work, a lot of community work.

JB: Well thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It was a pleasure.

PH: Oh, thank you. I appreciate you coming all the way from Mississippi.

JB: Happy to do it.