Interviewee: Renée A. Hanks

Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce

Date: March 6, 2011

Location: Washington, DC

Description: Renee A. Hanks is a school food service director in New York.





Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it’s March 6, 2011. I am at the LAC conference in Washington, DC with Renée Hanks of –

Renée Hanks: South Colonie School District located in Albany, New York.

JB: Welcome Renée and thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.

RH: You’re welcome; glad to be here.

JB: Can we begin today by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born, where you grew up?

RH: I was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, and grew up in New Jersey up until about going into the third grade and then we moved to upstate New York, and I’ve lived in upstate New York ever since. My hometown was Morris, New York in Otsego County, right near Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now I live up near Lake Falls, New York, the Glens Falls area, and I commute down to Albany every day.

JB: How far is that?

RH: About fifty-five miles each way.

JB: I feel your pain. Mine’s fifty-seven and a half. What’s your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs? Were there school lunch or breakfast programs when you were in elementary?

RH: There wasn’t a breakfast program but there was a lunch program. I went to a K-12 school where I only had thirty-one in my graduating class. Most classes were around fifty, but it was small – one building, two stories, a little cafeteria. I loved the cafeteria. I loved the food. I loved the women who worked there. It was my girlfriend’s grandmother, Mrs. Jameson, who ran the cafeteria. I loved the food. I remember scalloped potatoes and ham. I don’t know if they were getting dehydrated government potatoes then. I don’t know if the ham was commodity. Whatever they did with it they made it so wonderful. And I always tell parents now – I’m dating myself – but I tell parents that I loved the scalloped potatoes and ham and I loved the Spanish rice, but if we tried to serve that to kids now we’d be wearing it, because they wouldn’t tolerate those entrées, but I loved them.

JB: Tell me about your educational background. After high school where did you go to school and what degrees did you earn?

RH: I went to Plattsburgh State. It’s part of the SUNY system, State University of New York system in New York State, and Plattsburgh’s way up by the northern part of New York State, by the border, probably less than an hour from Montreal. I got a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Food Service Management and Nutrition.

JB: And how did you become involved in child nutrition as a profession?

RH: I was fifteen years in health care working in hospitals and nursing homes. And my personal life then, I was married, and I was always commuting to Glens Falls, and the lunch lady job came open in Salem, New York, where I was living at the time, and that was a K-12 school, one cafeteria, one building, two floors, same size that I grew up in, and that woman was retiring. It was a ten-month position. That meant I would have summers off, and I thought I was ready for a change. I wanted to get out of healthcare. So I applied and they gave it to me.

JB: How long were you there?

RH: I was at that school ’93 to ’98. Then I went to another small school – a little bit bigger. With school lunch directors there’s only one of us in each district, so you wait for jobs to become open. We don’t have big county school districts in New York State. Every town, city, municipality has their own school district. So it could be enrollment of 500 kids, or it could be city of Albany with maybe 10,000 – I don’t know how many there are. From there I went to Whitehall, New York and I was there about 1998-2001, and the job at South Colonie School District became open down in Albany, and that’s a much larger school district and a bigger job, and a pay increase, so I applied and I got that job.

JB: Have you had any mentors along the way that helped guide your career as you advanced through child nutrition?

RH: Yes I have. I just kind of went into child nutrition on my own, but once I got there I had a rude awakening. I thought food service is food service, but healthcare food service and school nutrition food service are two different things. So Kay Powers, a woman that is a very good friend of mine, she was in a school district ten miles away, so at night I would go down after school and sit there and say, “What does this mean? What does this mean? What does this mean? What does this mean?” My first set of paperwork, she got me through it. I have a lot of other good friends. What really helped me was becoming a member of my local chapter of the New York School Nutrition Association, and we would hold managers’ meetings every month, and I would go to those. And that helped me immensely because whether you had 500 kids or 5,000, you still had the same papers to fill out. You still had to try to get kids to eat broccoli. You still had to do the same things, just on a different scale, so that really helped me, because I could get to those meetings and I would realize that I was not the only one who was having problems. Then, when I was new, I could ask all those women who had been in school food service for a while ‘What’s this? How do I do this?’

JB: It seems like this profession really lends itself to that. So many people tell me how other people have lent a helping hand.

RH: Right.

JB: Do you feel like your educational background helped prepare you for a career in child nutrition?

RH: Oh sure, especially the management side. My degree was in Food Management in Nutrition. The nutrition part of course does prepare you, but the food management part, those courses really did because that’s the hands-on, the management part of what we do, the operations part. But you always learn on the job. I was fifteen years in healthcare, so I put my nutrition to use, and then when I came to school lunch, like I said, you have the basics, the foundation, and you have to learn – sort of walking the walk and talking the talk.

JB: Is there anything unique about New York State in regard to child nutrition?

RH: We’re a very active state. We’re a very large state because of how many kids we feed because of New York City. And then we have Buffalo City Schools, Syracuse City Schools, Rochester, and the Albany City Schools. We have a lot of kids and some kids qualify for free meals across the United States with a certain income level, and some qualify for what is called reduced-price meals. Across the nation a reduced-price meal is forty cents to the child and the government reimburses us the rest, but the family has to put up forty cents. In New York State for years our reduced kids have only had to pay a quarter and New York State has bumped in the other fifteen cents. We hope that can continue. With all the budget cuts we’re not sure, but that does make us very unique.

JB: What’s a typical day like for you?

RH: A typical day never usually ends up being the day that I think it’s going to be. Lots of times it’s putting out fires. At the end of one day you make out a list of what you’ve got to get accomplished the next day, what papers are due, what else is due, and then you get there and you have all these messages, and then the school head cooks start calling in, and I might have to leave and run something to another building. Basically I always tell people my starts at 2 o’clock when all my employees go home, and then I can – but it’s putting out fires, visiting schools, doing the basic ordering, things like that, but it’s never a dull moment. I’ve always told people when I interview people for jobs, I say, especially if you’re coming around the lunch hour, you hit the floor running, it’s a lot different. If people are coming from healthcare – I used to watch the clock when I was in healthcare. The days were so long – and busy, and boring. In school lunch you just look at the clock and wish you had four more hours on it because you need to get things done. It’s very fast-paced. And very hard workers – my staff, no matter what school I’ve been at. I always say they’re mothers and grandmothers. We do have a lot of females that work for us, mothers and grandmothers, and I think it’s a very nurturing profession, and I tell my staff that ‘You’re one of the few people in the school that sees just about every student every day. The art teacher doesn’t see every student every day. The music teacher, the homeroom teacher, sees their kids, but pretty much you see everybody every day and so that’s a good thing.’

JB: What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced?

RH: Learning to adapt to all the – Geez, I tell people that I came into school lunch just when it became hard, because the women that have been in school lunch before me, at school meals I should say, there always was a school lunch program. When I came to school meals in 1993 our then governor Mario Cuomo, because now we have Andrew Cuomo, his son, he had just mandated the Breakfast Program, and you had to work really hard to opt out if you didn’t need one in your community. So where you had people who could come in at eight and they could leave at two o’clock, and all you had to worry about was lunch, all of a sudden you’re worrying about breakfast and all that comes with it. And I think we’re just more highly regulated than we were before, the School Meals Initiative, and analyzing our meals, the childhood obesity thing and parents, student allergies. A lot of changes have happened and a lot more are coming.

JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution so far to the field?

RH: I like to think that I contribute every day I’ve been on the job at the school district that I’m in. Otherwise I wouldn’t have any satisfaction or have any success. I was the past-president of the New York School Food Service Association. We ask everybody to step up to the plate. It’s a three-year commitment, second vice-president, first vice-president, and then president. The year I was president we had a very small director’s staff in our headquarters, and we had an employee who we discovered had embezzled money, so my year was spent trying to keep the association together, going to a lot of court dates and things. It upset a lot of people, and I had a lot of people upset with me. They might not have liked the way I handled it, but I had to handle it the way that I see fit, and to know that at the end of the year or two we had an association left to stand, because it really rocked our boat.

JB: That was a challenge! Any memorable stories of special children, or people that you’ve worked with over the years?

RH: I’ve had a lot of great employees. I tell you – they all work so hard. But kids, I mean we always say we could write a book. One cute story I love, when I was in Salem my first school, very small, little first-graders were coming in, and we had one cashier, one server, one serving line, and I was always out and about helping in the kitchen and about, and a little boy came in. He was new to the class, and so they had asked another first-grader to mentor him and show him the way. So they came in and he was telling him, “This is how you get your tray, this is how you go through the line, pick up your carton of milk.” And he walks over, “Ms. Terry, she serves us the meals, and Ms. Dianne, we pay this lady.” And he looks at me and he goes, “She owns the place.” It was so cute; a lot of cute stories.

JB: What advice would you give someone today who was considering child nutrition as a profession?

RH: To do it – I think when we get out of college, when you’re twenty-one or twenty-two years old, you don’t think of going into working in a school cafeteria as a profession. You remember the lunch ladies. I keep saying ladies, but it is ladies. A lot more men are coming into the profession now. But you, whether you go on to be a Registered Dietitian, or you have a four-year or a two-year, people think mothers work there, it’s not for them. It’s a public job in the public sector. It’s very rewarding feeding kids, if you like kids. If you like kids, if you like the school environment, but teaching wasn’t for you – as far as being a teacher, it’s a great profession. You make a difference in kids’ lives, and we feed education every day. And I would say a hungry child can’t learn. If you have that passion, and you have to have a certain passion about it, and you might start out in healthcare, you might start out in another profession but you might end there. And of course there’s also the benefit side. Most of us have pensions, where we don’t have pensions any more in a lot of places. I am a twelve-month employee, but many are ten-month employees. So you have school vacations, which is a good profession for someone raising children. Take a shot at it. It’s not something that’s usually on your radar screen when you’re twenty-two years old, but I tell you, you won’t regret it.

JB: Thank you for taking the time today.

RH: You’re welcome.