Interviewee: Ruth Jonen
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: September 11, 2007

Description: A Wisconsin native, Ruth Jonen earned a degree in Dietetics at the University of Wisconsin – Stout, and then moved to Chicago. She has worked in school nutrition programs for almost 30 years, 27 of them in the suburban Cook County community in which she lives. Ruth served as School Nutrition Association President in 2005-2006.

JB: This is Jeffrey Boyce and I am here at the National Food Service Management Institute. It is September 11, 2007, and I’m here with Ruth Jonen. Thank you so much Ruth for joining me today.

RJ: Thank you for the invitation. It’s wonderful to be here.

JB: And we’re so glad that you’ve agreed to share your history with us for the Child Nutrition Archives.

RJ: My pleasure.

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

RJ: Absolutely. I was born and raised in northwestern Wisconsin, in a small dairy-farming community; lived in town, not a farm girl.

JB: Not a farm girl?

RJ: Not a farm girl. Grew up with my mom, dad, brother and sister in this wonderful, small town; great way to grow up; went to school in what at that time was K-12, all in one series of buildings. So you went to school from the time you were in kindergarten until you graduated from high school with all the kids from town and from the surrounding community. So it was a wonderful, charming place to grow up.

JB: Sounds lovely; what was the name of the town?

RJ: Amery, Wisconsin.

JB: What are your earliest recollections of child nutrition programs? Was there a school lunch at the school that you attended?

RJ: Yes, there was a school lunch program in the school that I went to and I’m probably one of those people who were the first kids to go through the National School Lunch Program because I started school probably in 1947-48, something like that, and we did have a school lunch program in my hometown. And one of the people who worked in that program, in fact she was the head cook for many years, was the grandmother of the kids who lived next door to me. And at the time I thought, “Oh goodness, Elsie must be like a hundred years old.” And at the time I suppose she was maybe forty. She was sort of like the grandma figure that we would all know when we went to have lunch. All of us had lunch. You would start with the first-graders and the seniors in high school were the last to eat. But we all went to the same cafeteria, through the same lunch line, had the same menu, which was whatever was on the menu that day. There were no choices. We were expected to eat everything on our plate whether we liked it or not. Sometimes we didn’t like it. But we ate lunch at school almost every day because we lived about maybe ¾ of a mile from my home to the school. But it was just easier for us to eat lunch at school than it was for my mom to make lunch when we came home, although we did that occasionally. But really, it was I think a convenience for my mom. I think we probably paid a quarter or forty cents maybe. It was very cheap. But what I remember about it was they made home-made rolls; turkey and gravy was one of my favorites, and macaroni and cheese, which to this day is one of my favorite meals. But I had a very positive school lunch experience when I was in school; never in a million years thought I would end up being Elsie Peterson, but I became my childhood lunch lady I guess. Only now I’m one of those old ladies in the school lunch program.

JB: Oh no, no, no. So speaking of Mrs. Peterson, how did you become involved in the child nutrition profession?

RJ: I got involved by accident. After I got out of college I worked for a couple of years for a business and industry operation. I worked for the telephone company in Chicago, in corporate feeding. I developed their executive dining room, and it was a really wonderful experience, but at that time in the late ’60s, moms stayed home with kids, so I “retired”. When it came time for me to think, “Oh, I want to go back to work again” I saw an ad in the paper and it had that same phone number that I had had at the company. So I called, applied for that job, it was offered to me. However, that would have meant traveling from the northwest suburbs of Chicago into the city, and that’s a good hour or more. I decided it was not a good opportunity for me. The operation was being run by a food service management company. I told them that if ever there was anything in the northwest suburbs, a little bit closer to home, I’d be interested in coming to work for them. About a month later they called and said they had a school food service program in a nearby suburb and they were looking for someone to run that program and would I be interested? So I got into it really by accident, never thinking in a million years that I would be in school food service. I started out working for a food service contractor and worked for them for two years and then had the opportunity of a lifetime to come to my own school district. I have been in school nutrition programs for almost 30 years, 27 of them in the community in which I live.

JB: Okay. What did you major in, in college?

RJ: Dietetics. That was my background. I went to the University of Wisconsin – Stout, which is the home school of a couple of other presidents of the School Nutrition Association; Phyllis Griffith is a graduate of Stout and Katie Wilson, who is going to be president in another year or so is also a graduate, so we have a history in Wisconsin.

JB: How did this educational background prepare you for your career in child nutrition?

RJ: I don’t know that anything, this is an awful thing to say in a college town, but I don’t know that there’s anything in college that prepares you for a career, other than it gives you book learning, yes it does. But more than anything it tells you where to go to get answers to your questions. I think particularly in school lunch programs, until you’ve worked in them, it’s such a unique, specialized kind of food service operation that until you work in it – I suppose my educational background, yes, you have the nutrition and you have the purchasing and all that kind of thing, but how did the program work? You don’t know that until you do it.

JB: On the job training.

RJ: Yes, unfortunately, sink or swim.

JB: Was anyone, a mentor perhaps, someone special in your career, who kind of guided you or gave you some useful information in the field?

RJ: One of the people would be the woman who had been the director in my district before I came, a wonderful mentor in terms of giving me a great program to continue to run, which was a good part of that. In terms of individual mentors I think what was helpful to me when I went to District 211, which is where I’ve been for all these years, we have had an informal group of food service directors who get together and share problems, solutions, experiences, and so forth, and it’s that group of food service directors that mentored me. And now I find that I’m doing the same thing for other people. So more than one particular person I think it has been a group of people over the years who have been willing to share their expertise and I guess the longer you’re in this business the more you get from probably every person you meet, every meeting you go to.

JB: And so this was a more informal group in the area that you lived than like a state association?

RJ: Yes. I guess because Chicago is such a large area and there are lots and lots of schools there –

JB: How many school districts are there in Chicago?

RJ: I don’t know but there are over 800 school districts in Illinois. For example in our particular area, I live in Cook County, which is Chicago, and we have five high schools. It’s only high schools; we have no elementary or junior high schools. Our school district is those high schools only, and we have 13,000 kids in those five schools. That group had about 25 or 30 people; some folks had high schools, others had unit districts, K-12; some maybe just had elementary and junior-high schools. We would get together and talk about issues. Sometimes there were issues that just pertained to high schools and then only the high school directors would get together and talk about them. It was that kind of mentoring that was really important for many of us. It is that kind of sharing of expertise and knowledge, and sometimes more than anything it was just a place to go and bang your hand on the table and say if I have one more problem like (fill in the blank) I’m not going to be able to do this anymore. It was really helpful. You get a lot of camaraderie. You build, really, relationships. We are much more than just people who run school food service programs. Another interesting thing and I think it’s true of school nutrition programs generally, we are not competitors. I am not competing with the person in the school district next to me for kids. They’re going to go to that school district because that’s where they live. So this business is different than if you were in the restaurant business or working in another part of the industry; we’re not trying to take one another’s customers.

JB: So, you can only benefit from helping each other.

RJ: Exactly. The more I can help someone else develop their program and the more they can help me, the better we all are. It’s that non-competitive, more collegial atmosphere that I think is very helpful.

JB: So in your entire career you’ve fed only high school students?

RJ: In school food service my first couple of years was in an elementary, junior-high school district.

JB: Oh, that’s right.

RJ: So I saw that end of it first, and I really prefer high school to be truthful. I think it’s easier. Sometimes people say, “How can you do that?” To me that split between high schools and elementary/junior-high schools gives me the opportunity to focus on that age group. It’s very different than what you would want to do for someone who was in first or second grade. It allows you to really specialize and do some things that are a little bit different than if you have to deal with all the age groups. The downside is if someone were to ask me about the meal pattern requirement for K-3 I would probably have to look that up. I can tell you what it is for high schools but I probably couldn’t tell you what it is for K-3.

JB: Is there anything unique about Illinois in regard to child nutrition, any special rules or anything. I know I have interviewed people from different states and different states have different ways of doing things.

RJ: I suppose the thing that makes us a little bit unique it what I just described to you, the fact that we have districts that have only high schools or only elementary/junior-highs. The other thing is we have a lot of school districts, over 800 school districts, and for a state that size, many of them are very small. There are small rural districts in southern Illinois. We have some concern about, “Gee, wouldn’t it be better if we had some consolidation of school districts?”, but people are very protective of their schools. In many cases the school is the identity of the community, so there is a resistance to that. In terms of the state we have had some wonderful support from our state agency with regard to our food distribution system. It was a long time in coming, but they were able to work with us on the food distribution program side so that we have been able to do a lot with commodity reprocessing. And where we used to be years ago, we were just struggling. We didn’t do any processing. Now I think we are one of the most progressive of the states in terms of the kinds of things that we are able to do with commodity processing. We’re not at all like states in the Southeast. I know a lot of people from this part of the country where you have, generally speaking, county-wide school systems and very restrictive competitive food regulations. We don’t have that. We have lots of little school districts; very lax in terms of competitive foods. You can sell anything that isn’t on the USDA prohibited list, and we do.

JB: What do you mean by commodity processing for those that don’t know?

RJ: Ok, for those that don’t understand commodity reprocessing, the federal government makes available to us foods through the food distribution program. Years ago when we would get chicken, and this is a perfect example, and this is the one where we started, we used to get wonderful big cases; a case would be maybe half the size of the surface of this table [app. 3×3 feet] a 40 lb. case of cut-up, frozen, raw chicken.

JB: It was cut up?

RJ: Oh yes. But that’s about as far as it went. We’d get that 40 lb. case of chicken and then you’d have to wash it and trim off all the little fat and feathers and all this other stuff and then you’d have to thaw it out. It would take you a couple of days to thaw it out and clean it, and then you’d have to cook it. And then the ultimate thing: kids didn’t like it, because we don’t know how to fry chicken. So we would have this product that came in and it was very large, took up a lot of space in the freezer, took a lot of work just to cook it, and then the kids didn’t like it. So we went to the state agency and said, “We know there are states where, instead of us getting that raw, cut-up chicken we can divert that to a processor.” Tyson is a name a lot of people would recognize. We finally went to the state and said, “If you would let us,” and we had put together a little consortium of school districts, and said “let us see if we can make this work.” And they agreed to let us divert our chicken to a processor and it came back to us in the form of chicken patties, or chicken nuggets, etc. So now that product is coming back to us and it’s cooked. We don’t have the bones, we don’t have the feathers, we don’t have the raw chicken food safety issues. So we started with chicken; then we went to turkey, because we used to get these two to four turkeys, 40 lb. case of birds. And we’d have to cook those, and it just sort of went on and on. Over the years we have worked with the state so that we process almost everything. You select the commodities that you want, and then you can say to the state, we want to divert so many dollars worth of beef to this person, so many pounds of pork to this guy, so many pounds of eggs to this person and it comes back in the food product that is easier for us to prepare; the kids like it better. And over the years we have found that people coming to work for us now don’t know how to cook. And if you go into the grocery store, if you look at the grocery store from the perspective of what do you see when you walk down those aisles, when you walk into a grocery store how many aisles do you have of snack foods and beverage, all kinds of convenience foods? But how many aisles do you see of meat that is going to take some kind of preparation? You’ve got AISLES of frozen foods, so that all you have to do is pull it off the shelf and microwave it. As a result you’ve got people that don’t know how to cook. And what we’re looking at with that processed product is the people who don’t know how to cook, if we told them they were going to have to cook turkey, my goodness, they probably wouldn’t know how to do that. So the great thing about reprocessed commodities is that it gives us product that kids like to eat, we have avoided almost completely the raw meat, raw eggs, raw poultry food safety issues. It’s a wonderful, wonderful situation, so I am very grateful to the state agency folks who helped us to make that happen. It wasn’t easy though, but it did happen.

JB: Sounds like a win-win situation. Other than the commodities program what are some of the other major changes you’ve seen, thinking back over your career?

RJ: Major changes, I think, have been in the area of food choices. The variety of foods we have available to kids is phenomenal. The other things that I have seen are the reduction in the amount of fat, and sugar, and salt in many of the things that we buy. Some people would say, “No, the reverse is true. Raw chicken doesn’t have any added fat; it doesn’t have any added salt.” You do get that when it’s processed. The other side of that though is when I came into school nutrition programs we served almost exclusively whole milk. We haven’t purchased whole milk in my program for years. It’s almost all skim or 1%. We don’t add butter as much – that used to be wonderful, you know, buttered vegetables. We don’t do that. We don’t salt them any longer. So many things that we are providing to kids today – no trans-fats, reduced fat, portion sizes controlled – those kinds of things are so different than what they were before. So as much as we have an obesity issue, I think we have made great strides in trying to modify what we provide to kids to try to address some of those issues. It’s going to be a long time before we solve that issue but we’re making progress.

JB: And it’s going to take more than just school lunch to solve this problem.

RJ: Oh, absolutely.

JB: Tell us some more about your career. Were you ever president of the state association?

RJ: I was President of the state association and President of the School Nutrition Association from 2005-2006. That happened to be the year that we were getting ready to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the passage of the School Lunch Act. During the course of that year we spent a lot of time and energy reminding folks who are part of the association to take a look back at where we’ve been and where we want to go, so we don’t make the same mistakes we’ve made in the past, not that they made a lot. One of the high points of that year for me was our Legislative Action Conference in March of 2006. We asked Dr. Josephine Martin, who has a long history here at the Institute, if she would tell us from her own personal perspective what it was like in the early days of child nutrition programs, particularly back at the time when free and reduced meal programs were being developed, that whole part of the program. At the time we thought, “Gee, are people going to want to sit still and listen to that?” You are in these meetings and people get a little bit antsy. Jo spoke at the opening General Session of that meeting and I had the advantage of sitting at the head table. Dr. Martin was standing next to me making her presentation as I sit there looking out at the audience. There wasn’t a single person who was getting up to move toward the door. You could have heard a pin drop. The only complaint we heard about that meeting was that she didn’t have a long enough time to talk.

JB: Dr. Martin is a wealth of information.

RJ: She is just absolutely fabulous. And that was personally a really high point for me. During that whole year I think one of the most memorable things for me was having her do that, and tell that story, because she lived it. Many of the people who are in child nutrition programs now don’t have that history; they don’t have that sense of “How did we get here?” The assumption is we’ve always had the National School Lunch Program, we’ve always had the Food Distribution Program, we’ve always had free and reduced price meals. That’s not true. And to have someone like Dr. Martin be able to talk about that from such a personal point of view was just fabulous, wonderful.

JB: Where was the convention?

RJ: Oh, it’s always in Washington, D.C. Our national conference was in Los Angeles. And that was our 60th anniversary, so there was a little bit of celebrating going on at that time, so that was fun. One of the things that, I don’t know if you were going to ask me this, but I’m going to tell you anyway –

JB: We’re here to hear your story.

RJ: One of the things that I want to be able to address a little bit is how we are coming to the discussion that we are having right now about nutrition standards. And that’s something that we’re hearing more and more about. That really kind of bubbled to the surface during the year that I was President of the association. We had people from our industry partners who came to us and said, “We have an unexpected consequence of the local wellness policy legislation. And the unexpected consequence is that everybody is deciding what they want to have as the nutrition standard, and it is driving us crazy.” It is a problem for our industry partners. It is a problem I believe for USDA. It is a problem for operators. At that same Legislative Action Conference in 2006, that really was the first time that we started talking very publicly about the issue of nutrition standards and do we need to have the federal government step in and talk about not only what are the nutrition standards for reimbursable meal, but are there standards that should be applied to all the foods and beverages that are sold in schools? And that issue is not going to go away anytime soon. It has the potential to be a wonderful plus for the program. It also is fraught from my personal perspective with some economic issues that we have yet to really address. So it’s one of those things that in that year ’05-’06, people started really talking about this whole issue of nutrition standards unlike we have talked about them in the preceding twenty years. So, you know, stay tuned for further developments. It’s going to be a while.

JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the child nutrition profession?

RJ: I hope it has been that I am running a really good program that is financially successful, that reaches thousands of kids, and that we do a good job with that. You know, you could say, “Oh, I did this wonderful thing.” The wonderful thing is if you have made a difference in the life of a kid, if the child who comes to school hungry and has breakfast and then has lunch, and succeeds at school, if we’ve done that for one student, that’s the most wonderful accomplishment that I can think that someone would have, you know, better than the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

JB: You mentioned the Breakfast Program. Do all your high schools have a breakfast program?

RJ: Yes we do. We joined the National School Breakfast Program, all of the schools back I believe in about 1990. We had had an a-la-carte breakfast program prior to that, doughnuts and juice basically. We realized that as the number of kids who came into our program who were eligible for free and reduced price meals was growing, we were not making breakfast available to those kids, so we decided to have all of our schools participate in National School Breakfast, as well as Lunch, and we are in a unique kind of situation, because when we open in the morning at 7 or 7:30, we don’t close until the end of our last lunch period, and that’s maybe 1:30 in the afternoon. So we have a very long serving day and we just go right from breakfast to lunch and we just keep adding things into that mix until we close up and go home at the end of the day. So it is really a very good day part for us. You know, people talk about breakfast or lunch, it isn’t breakfast or lunch, it’s day parts. When can you feed people? And we start early in the morning and we just go until about 1:30 in the afternoon, 2 o’clock, something like that, close up and go home.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add?

RJ: I guess just that the school nutrition part of food service business is the most wonderful part of the food service industry that anybody could ever be in. When we talk to people who are on the industry side, the people who sell us food and equipment, they’ll often say that people in school lunch programs, school food service programs, are the most wonderful people in the world. It is the greatest group of people. And I think it goes back to that idea that we’re not in competition with one another. We’re not competing for students; we’re not competing for market share. We are there because we want to do good things for kids, and it is just absolutely a fabulous career. It is also, oddly enough – you know when you’re a senior in high school and you say, “Oh, what are you going to do when you grow up?” I don’t know of very many people, there may be a few, but I don’t know of very many people that say, “Oh, I want to be the lunch lady!” I mean you’re a senior in high school. I don’t think people look at this as the wonderful career path that it is. I’m working with a young woman now who will hopefully take my job shortly, and she is finding that the school nutrition business is wonderful. It’s so much better to work with healthy kids than it is to work with sick ones. So for those folks who are in dietetic programs and trying to figure out what they want to do with their life, I would so much rather work with healthy kids and help them achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle than to try and cure them of whatever ailment they have.

JB: Well thank you so much for being with us today. It’s been a pleasure.

RJ: You’re welcome. Thank you so much.