Interviewee: Sadie Booker

Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce

Date: November 1, 2006

Location: National Food Service Management Institute 

Description: Sadie Gilmore Booker has been actively involved in the education process since graduation from Louisiana Tech University in 1945 with a BSE in home economics followed by an MS-R.D. in 1969. Her first job was as an extension home economist teaching nutrition to 4-H and Home Demonstration Club women. After a 10 year hiatus during which she married and had three children, she returned to her career from 1959 to 1995. She taught elementary school, Jr. High Home Economics and science and high school Home Economics for the El Dorado School District #15. She taught the first Occupational Home Economics class in the state of Arkansas and continued to do so while being School Food Service Director for 25 years. At the college level she taught Catering for Special Occasions for Southern Arkansas University, Nutrition Education for University of Arkansas, and Occupational Home Economics for the University of Southern Mississippi. Mrs. Booker was actively involved in professional organizations serving as President of Home Economics section of Arkansas Education Association in 1968; President of Arkansas Vocational Association in 1969 and President of Arkansas School Food Service Association in 1980-81. She served on the legislative committees of Arkansas School Food Service Association in Washington, D.C.

Jeffrey Boyce: My name is Jeffrey Boyce. This is November 1, 2006. I am here at The National Food Service Management Institute with Mrs. Sadie Booker. Welcome Mrs. Booker.

Sadie Booker: Thank you.

JB: We are thrilled to have you with us here today. Could you tell us a little about yourself Mrs. Booker, where you grew up and things of that nature?

SB: Jeffrey, I grew up in south Arkansas. My father owned a sawmill and so we lived just outside the city limits. It was during the 1920s and 30s. The Depression was on, which was just tough, but we had plenty to eat and we always had good school lunches. We had a car all this time, which was unusual for some families, but we shared many, many things with our cousins who had less than we did.

JB: That’s nice. Could you tell us about your earliest recollections about the child nutrition programs?

SB: Actually, we had no child nutrition programs when I was in school, elementary, but my mother fixed us good school lunches. We had a cow and she had little bottles and she sent milk to school with us and she would cut a little round circle out of a shoebox lid and put our name on the top and we could take it to the milk box at school.

During this time there was a WPA program and my mother would volunteer on Wednesdays, one day a week, to prepare, we called it the soup kitchen, and she would go and work at the school, but we never ate there because she had food prepared for us so she only cooked for people who didn’t have any food.

JB: Uh-huh.

SB: And that was fine. But my really first recollection being concerned with food, I think when I was in the third grade and my younger brother was in the first, and he came to school only in the afternoon. So my father had to come from the sawmill and bring him to school. And one day my mother instead of packing me a lunch, she sent my lunchbox. And it was a rainy day, and when I opened that lunchbox, you could smell the turnip greens just all over the room. So my teacher – I thought, “Oh, no, you know I just knew she was going to kill me for having turnip greens.” I was so embarrassed because I had just told her in October was my birthday and I had told her it was my birthday. And she was a large lady and she turned me over her knee and used a ruler and just gave me a good spanking.

JB: For your birthday?

SB: I was scared to death. It wasn’t a love pat. So I thought “My! She’s going to get me for having turnip greens.” And she sniffed around and said, “I smell turnip greens in the room”. And she came back and sat down by me and ate all of my turnip greens.

JB: [Laughing]

SB: So from then on I thought “You know when I grow up I’m going to see that every child has a nutritious lunch”. Now that was when I was only ten years old or so.

JB: How did you become involved in Child Nutrition as a profession?

SB: Well, I went to college. I went to Louisiana Tech and majored in Home Ec because I had a cousin who was a junior and I was a freshman. And I had been in 4H Club, so really and truly, one of my mentors was the home economist and then the other one was my cousin who was just older than I. So, we both majored in Home Ec. And she made a dietitian and went on to Hawaii and then is back and we still communicate. She lives in Knoxville and I talk to her often. But she went on in the field of dietetics. But I went to Tech and then I decided I would become a home demonstration agent. So, I applied for a job and was sent to Craighead Co., Arkansas, which is up in the northeast quarter and it’s a large farming community. And, oh, they raise cotton and soybeans and rice. And I was accustomed to pine trees and oil wells. So, you know, that was a very wonderful learning experience for me.

JB: Now, what would a home demonstration agent do?

SB: All right, as an assistant I went into the rural schools and had the 4H Club. So we taught nutrition and I became acquainted with the young people that way, the school students. But the other women had the Home Demonstration Club. There were 44 clubs in that county. So, you know I traveled, it was right after World War II and my job required a car but I had my name on several lists. One at El Dorado and one for Jonesboro, but no cars were available so I would ride either with the Home Demonstration agent. I was her assistant. Or with a County Agent or his assistant. Or sometimes the Health Department had a command car they were using from the used war equipment.

JB: War surplus?

SB: This was a ready-made audience. Because at this time in that area they had drainage ditches after having had a flood earlier in that area from the river. So, he wanted to tell the people about the Quadra macalita mosquito that gave them malaria. So I would ride with him into the Home Demonstration clubs so he could talk to our people about DDT spray. But even then I could see the types of food that they were having in their area and I was just very interested in the food service.

JB: How did your studies prepare you for your career?

SB: Well, we of course had a background in science, which was great, and then I worked in the cafeteria and the dining hall.

JB: While you were in college?

SB: In college. And that was when my father said “You can go to school without having to work. And you know you might take the job that somebody else would need”. But when I went back to talk to my professor about that he said “You tell your daddy there’s a war on and everybody is gone and we don’t have anybody to work and we need some help.” So I worked for my room, board, and laundry. I never saw the money but it was $26.75 a month. So I worked those three years in the dining hall and got acquainted with the dieticians and helped them type their menus that they planned. And then of course we were in the quality food service practice. I enjoyed it.

JB: What sort of equipment did you have to prepare the food?

SB: Well it was very different from what we have today. But we did have some modern equipment; large mixers and no electric knives or slicers that I remember. We had regular ones and we kept them sharp. It was a wonderful experience and I enjoyed it.

JB: Where did you get your food supplies? Where did they come from?

SB: We had regular wholesale houses that delivered the food. I think in Ruston most of them came from Monroe or larger cities, but we just had food service supplies and nothing that had to be brought in and used from home.

JB: You mentioned a mentor or two. How were they influential in your career choice?

SB: Well, I love to think that they taught us in our 4H club and also in my classes, Home Ec classes. My Home Ec teacher was Miss Nesbitt, and I thought I would just grow up and be an old maid Home Demonstration agent for the rest of my life. And guess what. I went to my first job. It was just at the end of World War II and, you know, I was having a good time enjoying all of this work and all of a sudden I met a young man who was tall, dark, and handsome, and had been a Captain in the Air Force, had flown 28 missions in the South Pacific. And one year from the day I went to Craighead Co., we were married. That was good. But I always had an interest in food. We have three wonderful children and six grandchildren, all of which have degrees and do wonderful things. I worked our 60 years we had together.

JB: Is there anything unique about Arkansas with regards to the Child Nutrition Programs?

SB: Yes. Arkansas was a needs state, so that we didn’t have Child Nutrition Programs when I was growing up. Nor even when I was in college I think. But in my college class the last year I was at Louisiana Tech we were told about this program that the government was going to start, putting in food service for the elementary and the high schools. And I took a two-hour course and we had a school on campus that had elementary children in it. So I took that class. And we had a textbook, the first one that was written for school lunch. And we tested those recipes and we served the food to the elementary children. So, that really was my first professional experience working with that. I very definitely remember that our professor said, “We’re not going to prepare soup”. I thought that was a very nutritious meal but she said that they had to drink too much water to get all the vitamins so she wouldn’t let us serve them soup. But anyway though it was a good program. And then President Truman signed it into a law.

JB: 1946.

SB: Right.

JB: What are some of the major changes you have seen during your career in the Child Nutrition Programs?

SB: Oh! My goodness, it, in the first place, it’s a wonderful experience, I think, for anyone because those people are really sincere and I love them all. Though I, later, was a busy mother doing work inside my home for ten years because we had three children. And then I was back in El Dorado. We moved thirteen times in thirteen years. My husband made a pharmacist. Anyway, we came back and I was teaching sixth grade in the same elementary school where I was when the lady ate my turnip greens. Thirty years later she was in the same classroom and taught my little boy. I taught her son the same year in the 6th grade.

JB: Oh, she was still there?

SB: Still there, and you know I had a first grader and a third grader and a sixth grader in that school, and I taught the sixth grade. I was just appalled. Every Monday morning we had a lunch. We had white beans that had been put to soak in an aluminum dishpan with water over them in an old walk-in that they had bought from a grocery store that had gone out of business. They put beans in on Friday and we had white beans, a white slice of light bread, a white glass of milk, a white onion ring, and a slice of white apple pie. And so you know, I thought, Oh, my goodness, and my first grader just really refused to eat this. She had a kidney infection and was in the hospital for a week or so. And I decided well I had better fix her lunch, so anyway I thought I got to know the principal really well. I had gone to the superintendent earlier when I was applying for a job and he said he didn’t have a Home Ec vacancy. And I said, “What about a School Food Service Director?” And he said, ” Oh, we don’t need one. We have all these schools,” (there were twelve schools, junior high and senior high), and he said, “We have the principals and their cooks plan their own menus; they buy the food and they prepare it.” Well, I found out, you know, why he didn’t think he needed one. So I thought, “He does need one. Somebody that has a Home Ec background.” But I got to be a good friend of the principal and she was a nice lady. She had been an only child. She had no children and she and the ladies didn’t really know what children wanted to eat or how they would accept it. And so in that sixth grade classroom I found a chapter in the health book that had a chapter on nutrition and they talked about the Basic 7. Now it was an old book and they were not even up to the Basic 4, which I had known about. Anyway, I convinced her to let my students and me plan a week’s menus and we planned them and she bought the material and we had the lunches. And after that I had my foot in the door. The kids wouldn’t eat the other stuff.

JB: What an innovative idea!

SB: Well, see, it was really a personal thing with me because I had three children that I wanted to eat that food. So, we went from there and then I was transferred; there was a vacancy in the Home Ec Department. My superintendent, who was new in El Dorado, came from Blytheville, and the one who didn’t need a Food Service Director had retired, and this new superintendent came from where they had a good program over in northeastern Arkansas, at Blytheville. And so he asked me first to take an occupational Home Ec class, which was mandated, I think, from 1968, and he needed a Home Ec teacher who would teach boys and girls; they worked a half a day and went to school a half a day. Alright, I worked on that; was the first one in the state of Arkansas to do that class and enjoyed it. So I had been with the Extention and now this was with the state of Arkansas Home Ec Department. And I worked with those students and we had class in the morning. It was third period, between eleven and twelve, and then I had a class the last period in the afternoon. So I had to get jobs for them and I surveyed, but we didn’t have as many restaurants as we have today. But there was the hospital and we knew they had a kitchen that would work some students. And we had one nursing home at that time. I was their dietary consultant. They would hire some of them. And then I got the students working. And then the superintendent called me back and said, “You know, I need a School Food Service Director. Every time I go to a meeting Ms. Camp and Ms. Ruth Powell get on to me about not having a central food supply.” See, they were still buying all this food, each individual school.

JB: Oh, each school was doing their own purchasing.

SB: So I said, you know, I wanted to do what he wanted me to do. He was a very nice gentleman, and I said finally after he got somebody else to take it for a while, I said, “Well, which do you want me to do, occupational or School Food Service?” And he said, “Well, I’ll let somebody else do it.” And they worked for a while, but she needed help. You see, I still had a selfish motive. My three children who were in that first, third, and sixth grade were now in high school and I thought, well, those menus were terrible. So, I volunteered for about three years and I met with her at least once a week to plan the menus. We were down at the central office and got those menus planned. And then when this lady retired, well, Mr. Tommy asked me again if I would please take this, and I said, actually, he had his assistant come to the door and ask me. I was taking my final class to get my masters. I had gone back to Louisiana Tech and had my masters in Nutrition. And I decided, well, I’ll just take all the classes that I need to be a Registered Dietitian while I’m doing that, so I took that. Had to take Human Anatomy by correspondence from the University of Arkansas. Was taking that final exam, and Jim Riley, who was my Assistant Superintendent, came and said, “Sadie, Mr. Tommy wants you to take the School Food Service Program over. Will you do that?” And I said, “I want to do what Mr. Tommy wants me to, so I’ll try to take it.” Mr. Tommy was standing behind me and Jim turned to him and said, “There’s your answer.” So, from then on I worked for the School Food Service because I was going with the lady and her workers on the bus on Saturdays some to district meetings and I joined their organization and I went to their workshops in the summertime. We went back to Jonesboro to visit my in-laws. The elementary school was in the next block. And on Saturday I would see cars parked over there. I had taught third grade in that school earlier. And they were teaching de-bonding a turkey or whatever and I just loved the way School Food Service personnel taught. They taught their people the correct way and taught them nutrition education really. So that was great, I started working with our people. And one of my main thrusts was, because of being in vocational education, I went back to the University of Arkansas and to other schools for the education, and they had started a program of training these people, and I knew that my managers needed their training.

JB: Was there a certification program for the managers?

SB: That’s right. So we started to get El Dorado School District Managers certified. The first person I hired was a manager to go back to that same school, Southside, where I had been in the third grade and I had taught. And I said the first thing you have to do you must go to the University of Arkansas and take the managers training course. So I was there that summer doing a vocational class and three of my women went with me. And they took Ms. Camp’s classes to become certified. So it was really a program they had to go through. And one of my wonderful ladies who didn’t understand exactly what she was supposed to do, rode a bus from El Dorado and got into Fayetteville after dark in the nighttime and spent the rest of the night in the bus station; met me the next day as I was going to my class in vocational education. And she needed help because she didn’t have the money to register like all the rest of us had. So I called my superintendent and told him what a bind I was in and he said, “We’ll take care of it. We’ll send the money right on up.” So from then on as somebody would leave and I’d say, “I’ll make you the manager, but you’ll have to start the program.” And those managers worked for thirty years or longer in each school and we’d keep it going. It’s been going ever since.

JB: And you said it took them three years to become certified?

SB: It does. They take the first year, and then the second, and then a third year. And then they become certified managers. And at the state level at our state conference we have all those people who receive their certification, their names are called and they go up and get a certificate, and it’s a big thing.

JB: Oh, that’s nice that they are recognized.

SB: Yes, it is. They are recognized.

JB: What do you see as your most significant contribution to Child Nutrition Programs?

SB: Well, I love working with people, and they respected the idea of wanting to learn. And so I thought, in the first place, the students that I had you see, I was teaching Home Ec, those two occupational classes, so I needed some two-hour workers, so they had jobs in food service. By this time we had other food service places and they were working at some of them. But I could fix their schedules so that they would work in the morning after breakfast programs and they came in and worked in the cafeteria, and then they came in and went to school in the afternoon. Then they would leave my class then, the other group, at 12 o’clock and go work in the cafeteria at lunch time. They’d been in school in the morning. And they’d work at lunchtime and then come back to my sixth-period class. So I think that it worked well actually. I thought at first you know, “He’s just trying to get me to do two jobs for one salary.” But my husband said, “You know, he’s in a bind and needs some help. So, if you do him a favor now, you’ll have a friend for life.” And that’s the way it was. Actually, they were both very compatible. I think you can decide to do most anything you want to do. I had been the president of the Arkansas Home Ec Teachers Association. And went to Denver, and to Boston, I believe. And then was president of the Arkansas Vocational Association, the state president. At that time we were not integrated.

And so, when I was on the program, and we had had board meetings, and I had worked out what to say, this was at the state meeting in Little Rock, and I said, “I recommend that we accept the Negro Teachers Association.” Now this was 1968. And my friend who was the director of the vocation school in El Dorado, as soon as I would say “I recommend that we accept this group” he would stand and say, “I so move” and his assistant was by his side and he stood and said, “I second the motion.” Well, I would come up with the next thing we had to do for combining and the assistant would stand and say, “I so move” and his director would say “I second the motion.” And you know it went smoothly. And we’ve worked together for many years and have been good friends of the nutrition people. I think the school food service people are the best people in the world. They’re wonderful to work with. And they’re willing to learn and improve themselves. And that’s what it’s all about.

JB: Any other memorable stories or particular highlights of your career that you’d like to share with us?

SB: Well, we’ve had quite a few, but some are more interesting than others. I didn’t have anything that really happened badly, except that I wanted to try to help those people help themselves. I believe in helping people but you don’t just hand it to them. You teach people and then they can help themselves. And they do that. Now when I retired, my daughter who had taught kindergarten, in the El Dorado schools for twenty-five years, and who still lives with me – Mr. Watson said to his principal, “Well, you’re going to hear that Sadie Booker’s retiring.” Of course it was time. I was seventy years old. He said, “We’re not posting that vacancy. We’re going to slip Sara right in there.” In the seventies I worked with Ernestine McCloud, who was in the state department with Ms. Camp, and she was a very nutrition education person. And she got me to teach nutrition education for college credit from the University of Arkansas, to teachers and principals. Our school district, El Dorado, had a school district policy that you had to earn six college hours every five years. Well, it didn’t stipulate that it had to be in your area, just so it was six college hours. So, Ms. McCloud worked I it out with the University of Arkansas, and I taught that class in my Home Ec Department for five years or more, at least one night a week for every semester from then on. And those teachers and principals I reached with nutrition education. And it was a good thing. And they took it back to their classrooms because they had learned about nutrition. When my daughter came back home from being principal in Mobile I asked my superintendent if I could hire her as the nutrition education person. And she worked with kindergarten children in our system for about three years and they loved it. Those little children would tell their parents when they’d go through the line at McDonalds or someplace, “Oh, you know you can’t have French fries because they have this much fat, or you can’t have a Coca-Cola because, you know she had the little vials, it has this much sugar in it.

JB: Laughing Yes, ma’am.

SB: So I think the earlier we start teaching that the better off we will be. So, in the meantime, the occupational home economics program was a big one, and I taught for the University of Southern Mississippi ten summers between 1970 and 1980 in the summertime, their occupational program to their Home Ec teachers. And you know, I still say, “If you want to learn something, teach it.” You better not make a mistake in front of people; it’s terrible. The school food service with all the different people that I worked with, and I was president of school food service in 1980, I was state president, and attended many legislative conferences, and made some good friends in Washington. I had a good friend who was working in the Clinton Administration in Washington and I wrote her a note that I was coming up for a legislative conference in 1994 and I had a grandson who was in college at Georgetown. And he came in with me to have dinner and we were eating and he said, “I’ve got to run up to the room and check your messages.” And I don’t know how to do that on the television. And he said, “I’ll check them for you.” Well, he came flying back down in the hotel and said, “Big”, you have a message from The White House.” Thrilled him to death and well I told all the women I was with I had a message from The White House and when I answered it I was invited to lunch the next day.

JB: To The White House?

SB: The White House. And so that friend is still a good friend. I had lunch with her this past week. That year, our birthdays, what she wrote in my little book I had bought at The White House that day, about the story of The White House, so my birthday was October 13th, you had to put your birthday down, and she said, “Mine is the next day.” So we have been friends, and my son’s whose birthday was the day before mine, is her good buddy in Little Rock. Last year when we went on a little trip together for our birthdays, she was back in Little Rock and invited us to go to visit; we toured the apartment on top of the Clinton Library. Had a private tour up there, so we got to see all their living quarters in Little Rock. But in 2000, we were invited to come to The White House and we had a tour from 9 in the morning until 1 on that Sunday to see all the eight years Christmas decorations that they had out and she was our personal guide; made my picture in the President’s elevator. I was on a cane so I had to go up in it. And he came by. The President came by on his way to church and she introduced us to him. We shook hands with him. And do you know, we had been taking pictures of everything and nobody got a picture of anybody shaking hands with the President! We were so excited we just forgot about it.

JB: Laughing Sometimes excitement does that.

SB: So, School Food Services has given me many, many experiences and I’ve met so many wonderful people, Ms. McCloud and all of those directors of Home Economics. I traveled with my two lifetime friends Peggy and Sue, who were ASFSA directors. They were happy but I guess I was the only one who was foolish enough in later years to do two jobs! It worked all right . It was fine for me and I enjoyed it.

JB: I don’t believe a word about the selfish part.

SB: Oh, you’re kind, very kind.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add today.

SB: Well, I can’t really think. I’ve gotten off the subject, I know, as I usually do. But I still say that School Food Services are great, and it’s led me to greater heights, you know, just learning myself. You just have more experiences and work a great deal with them. I have seen many changes and even this time, now I’ve been away ten years, and I am amazed at this institute, and the great things that we are having, and the changes that have been made. I worked one year as a consultant to help my daughter and the secretary whom we had. They still work together, very compatible and do a great job. I haven’t done any consulting for a salary since then but I want you to know that I consult every day. She called me yesterday and was having a problem with a chocolate cake. And I was in Little Rock getting ready to come here and you know every day when she comes in from school at 3:30 I may hear about everything that happened all day long and I’ll say, “Oh, you know, it’ll be better tomorrow.” But it’s wonderful. And I think the students, my own and other children have very much better health. Now, I realize we still have some problems. Part if it is parents’ fault. Obesity could be cured.

JB: No, I think it is a much bigger thanks for the improvements to people like you.

SB: We have come a long way and I am so grateful for those people who helped us. And its’ been a pleasure, pleasure.

JB: Well, thank you so much for sharing your time with us today, and I hope you’ll come back.

SB: Thank you, thank you.

Added at Ms. Booker’s request:
“My cup runneth over.”