Interviewee: Saundra Isabelle
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: November 5, 2010

Description: Saundra Isabelle served as a child nutrition manger and director in Mississippi.

Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce, and it is November 5, 2010. I’m at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino with Mrs. Saundra Isabelle, who is down here for the Mississippi School Nutrition Association Conference. Welcome Saundra and thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

Saundra Isabelle: Thank you.

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

SI: I was born in El Centro, California, and I was raised in Pass Christian, Mississippi.

JB: How did you get from Point A to Point B?

SI: My parents traveled a lot and my mother was originally from Pass Christian. She was born and raised there. So when they sort of went their separate ways we ended up back in Pass Christian.

JB: OK. What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs? Was there a lunch or breakfast program where you went to school?

SI: Yes. We had the lunch program and it eventually led to the breakfast program.

JB: And where was this where you were going to school?

SI: Pass Christian.

JB: OK. So you started first grade there?

SI: Yes I did.

JB: So you ate school lunch then?

SI: Yes I did, and I enjoyed it. But then we didn’t have Offer vs. Serve. It was just the one-plate meal.
JB: What were some of your favorite menu items?

SI: I think it was spaghetti; spaghetti was my favorite.

JB: Tell me a little bit about your educational background. Where did you go to school? Did you go to high school in Pass Christian?

SI: I went to high school in Pass Christian. I went on to college – I went to Phillips College and I graduated with a degree in Medical Administrative Assistance.

JB: Where is Phillips College?

SI: It was on the Coast, but it’s no longer here. It was a school that has shut down. I went on to Jefferson Davis College and continued my education there. Also how I got into child nutrition is kind of spooky. I just started subbing in the cafeteria. I got married and didn’t really want to work. My children were just entering into school, so I was a stay-at-home mom and I said, “When they go to school I’ll get me a part-time job”. What better than the school? So I started there and I loved it from the beginning.

JB: And that was at what school?

SI: I actually started at Pass Christian Elementary School, substituting in the cafeteria. And Wanda Salley, bless her heart, she actually gave me the job, and she also encouraged me to move forward into being a manager, and from there with the push of Dr. Phillip Terrell, who wanted me to be a director.

JB: OK. So, where were you a manager?

SI: I was a manager at Pass Christian Elementary School, Pass Christian High School, and Pass Christian Middle School.

JB: How many years was that?

SI: Five. That was in a five year span.

JB: And now you’re a director?

SI: Yes, and I love it.

JB: And you’re director where?

SI: Pass Christian School District. So I’ve been at home all of this time.

JB: You’ve just mentioned a couple of names. Were these people mentors, or influential in directing you in the field?

SI: Yes. When I first started Wanda Salley was the director at Pass Christian, and her biggest thing is for us to always to move forward and to do better than what we were doing. To think outside the box is her philosophy, and we did. We did so many things; and that’s when Offer vs. Serve came up, choices, and Mississippi Cycles. And I was at Pass High when we were the only school at that time doing Mississippi Cycles. We introduced the high school kids to it and it just became a competition with the workers. At school board meetings she would bring a small meal for them, for the school board members during the school board session.

JB: So they could see what the children were eating?

SI: Yes. So we would have a competition on the trays. The trays were never the same. It just became – that’s when I fell in love with the idea of school lunch.

JB: Is there anything unique about Mississippi regarding child nutrition?

SI: We always try to do better than we did before. How can we change the children’s lifestyles, their eating habits? And not only the children, but how do we change for the children to take home to the family? So it’s just been an ongoing process, and I’m happy to see where we are right now.

JB: What are some of the things you’ve done to further this process?

SI: The biggest thing that I’ve done in our district is the introduction of more fruits and vegetables. We’ve taking out the fryers. We have no fryers in our district right now. We have combination ovens. We bake everything. It’s a different taste for the kids, yes, but then you hear kids say that they don’t eat as much fried food anymore. Everybody loves fried chicken. Of course you’re going to go get the fried chicken.

JB: Fat has flavor.

SI: Of course you’re going to be more willing to go get that fried chicken, but we see that the kids eating habits have changed for the better, and I think that all directors on the coast in Mississippi are very proud of that fact.

JB: Do you have a wellness policy also?

SI: Yes we do. Every school district in Mississippi I’m sure has a wellness policy. Every school has their own wellness policy along with the district wellness policy.

JB: What are some of the highlights of yours?

SI: Some of the highlights, our biggest highlight that we were harping on was taking the fryers out of the schools. It introduced them also to vegetables. It introduced them to more exercise, not only with the children, but with the employees. So right now we have the Biggest Loser competition in our district. Everybody’s getting on board. It’s not just for the kids; it’s for all of us. We’re the role models, so what we do is going to effect what they do.

JB: What’s a typical day like for you, or is there a typical day?

SI: There’s no typical day in school food service. Every day is totally different. You may go into work and you may have your phone ringing as soon as you walk into the office and ring all day. Then you may have parents lined up at your door with their issues to discuss. You have to be a mother and a father and a social worker – everything, everything to everybody. You’re not only giving them the nutrition side, but we’re everything to everybody.

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

SI: Support; support.

JB: From?

SI: From not only throughout the district but throughout the state of Mississippi. You know, they come down on the State of Mississippi and our children. You open the newspaper and you see something about our kids being the most obese in the country, but yet we come in with all these guidelines, but are they giving us the financial support to make these things happen, to make these changes, because Combi ovens aren’t cheap. That money has to come from somewhere. Where we’re trying to make all these changes for the betterment of our kids, we’re not getting the financial support that we need. I’m not just saying that for me. These fryers have to be out of the schools by 2010-2011 and the Combi ovens have to be in, and they’re not telling us how to do that. There are grants out there, but how many of us are actually going to get the grant? How many school districts are there in Mississippi? How many of us are actually going to get that grant?

JB: What do you consider your most significant contribution to the field so far?

SI: Wow. I guess just always willing to do what it takes, no matter what it is. I’m often put on the line and asked to do certain things in an untimely manner, and I make things happen. It could be for our kids. The teachers could come up with an event for the kids. “How could we give them a nutritious meal with this amount of money?” And we can make it happen. We’re always put on the line to do a lot of things for our children, and I don’t mind. I don’t mind staying late. We have so many events in our school that I’ll stay ’til 9 o’clock at night. It just doesn’t matter. Whatever I can do for the kids in our community is what I’ll do.

JB: So, you were here during Katrina. Tell me about that.

SI: That was something I will never forget in my life. It started off that Thursday. It was like that morning, you know, in the office all the TVs were on and everybody was looking, and Dr. Matheson happened to walk in, she’s the Superintendent, and she said, “Are y’all ready and prepared, because I have a bad feeling about this?” Friday I went to the schools and I prepared them in our normal procedures in emergency hurricane preparedness. We put everything away and I got everybody’s number and told everybody to be safe and let me know where they were going. A lot of our workers lived north of Pass Christian – they call it the country because it is country. So they were going to be safe. They might be without power, but they were going to basically be safe from the water. Well, that Saturday, me personally, I could never wrap myself around the whole deal. It was hard for me to prepare my family, and I also had a sick brother that I had to prepare him and my family. That Saturday we were trying to get a generator, and my phone was ringing in the district, and we had to go in and cover computers and go back to the schools and make sure everything was taken care of. Sunday – I don’t remember much – and Monday was a nightmare.

JB: The hurricane actually hit on Monday morning?

SI: Yes. I just remember leaving out Sunday, and my husband kept saying, “Do you have everything? Do you have everything?” And I was like, “I have my little lockbox – the insurance papers.” The kids’ birth records or Social Security cards – I had nothing. I couldn’t think. “What do you want me to take?” He was packing pictures, all the things that – when we were younger we had Camille – so he was remembering those times and what they lost. I could not make myself think. It was like I was just walking through the process and whatever would happen would happen.

JB: So did you all evacuate on Sunday?

SI: Yes, we evacuated on Sunday to some very dear friends, whose parents were out of town, and we went to their house in the country, and we rode the storm out.

JB: Tough?

SI: Yes, very tough. Tornados – it was everything that you couldn’t even imagine. I watched trees – like it was God just reached over and touched them, and they just fell over – oak trees, huge oak trees. The biggest issue I had that day – we were standing on the porch, and it was raining hard – the power had gone off and it was so hot inside everybody was standing on the porch, and I licked my lips, and it tasted of salt.

JB: Wow.

SI: And I told my brother, ” I licked my lips and it tasted of salt. There’s nothing left of Pass Christian. If we can taste the salt water all the way out here, there’s nothing left.

JB: And what was Pass Christian like when you got back?

SI: Nothing. It was gone. There was nothing left. It was complete devastation. The schools that we had in Pass Christian – we had one we could come back into after we gutted it out, but the others were completely gone. When I got back in there I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

JB: And you got back in the day after the storm?

SI: My husband got in that evening; I got in the next day.

JB: They were allowing people back in?

SI: If you could fight the trees and the houses that were in the road you could get back in. On my street I had to go over trees, under trees, over trees, under trees, just to get to my house.

JB: Did you rebuild?

SI: Yes I did.

JB: Same lot?

SI: Yes I did.

JB: And what about the schools; how long did that take?

SI: We went into our first high school – the one that we were able to gut and redo – we went in that one a year and a half after Katrina. The K-8 school, which houses the middle school and Pass Elementary School, we got in last year. And Delisle campus, we’re working on it now. We were all there, and I remember we were registering the kids, the thought process was nobody was going to come back because there was nothing to come back to – and we had 168 kids on our first registration – 168 kids, where was everybody at? Then it came down to keeping the registration open and pushing back the date, and getting with the media and Dr. Matheson getting on television and saying, “We’re opening schools.” Robin Roberts was a godsend. She was getting the word out over Good Morning America that we were going to be open, that we were going to come back. And we did, and I’m so happy.

JB: Wonderful.

SI: Eventually we were back at Delisle, which houses about 325 children, and when we opened up we had sixty-eight children. At the beginning of the following year we moved up to about eight hundred.

JB: And how many were there before the storm?

SI: Over two thousand. And the sad part about it, these kids were really wanting to come back, especially the high school kids. We had that actually left their parents wherever they were at and slept in their cars, to graduate with their class; they wanted to graduate with their class. And when we came back I was often wondering ‘How am I going to feed these kids in this little place?’

JB: How did you do it? What about your employees? How many came back?

SI: I had twenty-two and all but four came back, and those four had to relocate to other places. We had our first meeting, and I had to put one strong person to be the manager of that site, even though I had four managers sitting there in front of me I needed one strong manager to help me make this work. And I prayed about it; I never told somebody my decision, and the day we had our meeting I said, “Mary, I’m sorry to put this on your shoulders, but you’re going to have to take this.” And she said, “Not a problem.” She said, “Not a problem.” And we started off and we had a gymnasium. And we had trailers on top of trailers, on top of trailers on this campus. We had the elementary school where the buildings were, no trailers, because it was Pass Elementary and Delisle Elementary – we had about 250 kids between the two of them. And we took those kids and fed them in the cafeteria. The other kids we had to feed in the gym. We had no serving line, we had nothing. I had an old mobile warmer. And I looked at them -I said, “We’re going to make this work.” Cold or warm sandwiches in the gym – Delisle happened to have two milk boxes at that time, and we took one of their milk boxes and we put it down there. We just made it work.

JB: Where did you get your food?

SI: I got my food from the purchasing department. We went back to our regular ordering process. I had a small, small freezer and a small, small cooler, so I had to be careful what I was ordering and how I fixed the menus. I was doing a full scale menu for the elementary school children, but a scaled down menu for the kids at the gym – sandwiches, baked chips, fruit, whatever I could get. And one of the managers told me, “I’m not giving these kids those sandwiches.” She said, “We’re going to figure it out.” I said, “I’m telling you what I have. I’m telling you how I think this will work. Now y’all tell me what you think.” I had ordered another mobile warming unit. I said, “I’m not sure when it’s coming, but I think it may come next week. So we’re going to give it time, but we’re going to feed these kids a hot meal.” And the day that unit came in – the unit came in at about 9o’clock that morning – and I said, “[inaudible], tomorrow we’re going to feed them a hot meal”, and that’s how it happened, that’s how it happened. And that first hot meal was spaghetti, and those kids were happy that day just to get a hot meal from school. And we moved forward; we were able to set a serving line up eventually, but we struggled for a long time I tell you.

JB: What about housing? Where did you and your workers live?

SI: The government was giving travel trailers, so the ones that could get a travel trailer received a travel trailer. A lot of people [doubled up] with family members. One day I came home and my husband had moved our trailer from Delisle to our land in Pass Christian, because he could not take not being on his property any more. He said, “People have to come back. If we don’t come back, if we don’t make an effort to comeback, they’re not going to worry about us.” All the infrastructure was gone – we had nothing. Nothing. There was nothing. Nothing, nothing, there was nothing.

JB: How long were you in that travel trailer?

SI: Two years.

JB: Wow.

SI: Two years. And I would have been in there longer, but it took me two years to get my brother’s house together. He lived right across the street from me, and all I had to do was go in and gut that and have it redone on the inside. And by the time I did that – we stayed there until house was completed. You still have people in cottages – not as many, because everybody by now honestly should be on their feet, even out of a Katrina Cottage. Not everybody’s able, but if they wanted to purchase a cottage it was their choice. But now I’m really proud of our little town. You don’t have enough businesses there, but we’re working on that too. We just don’t have that – we have a Wal-Mart.

JB: That’s an amazing story. What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?

SI: Step into it and be open-minded, because it’s ever-changing. You know, the things that we started off doing years ago, where things didn’t matter – not that it didn’t matter, but things were just so simple. The nutrition analysis is the greatest things that ever happened; Mississippi Cycles – I love them. I go off of them from time to time, just to give them something different.

JB: Tell us what Mississippi Cycles are, for those who don’t know.

SI: Mississippi Cycles gives you a cycle of menus that you can use –

JB: That the state department plans?

SI: Yes, that they plan – it’s a cycle of menus that you can use, and you can also customize out – they also have a customizing part – and it’s really – it does nutrition analysis; everything is done for you. You do not have to do anything. If you want to stick to Mississippi Cycles you’re good. You don’t have to do nutrition analysis. It is done for you. But if you want to step outside the box, which I think all of us are slowly doing, just trying to give them something different – because Mississippi Cycles, we’ve been on them for seven years –

JB: So more variety?

SI: Yes. To give them something different is really helpful. But Mississippi Cycles was a godsend, and when you come in, come in open and willing to learn, because it ever-changing. You learn something new every day. And never be afraid to ask. I sat in a corner and listened a lot and didn’t ask much, and I learned a lot that way, but I didn’t ask enough questions. So be willing to ask questions, to get involved, because this is an ever-changing industry.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add?

SI: I’d like to stop crying! [She has been tearing up since she started talking about Katrina] Child nutrition has been a pleasure to work with. I’m really serious. I’ve even had children from our district go into nutrition, and they have learned so much. I have children come to us and ask why we can’t have a particular item. We can have it. The thing about it is, just because one child wants it doesn’t mean all the kids want it, but we can try it. We have had times where I let the kids make their own menus, and then I’ll work around with what they created to make it work for the district. It’s always good to have the state department officials come into your school and look around to give you ideas. Kids are very open to anything, but everything we do has to teach them something, so they can take this information back home, because most of our kids – what we give them sometimes – the sad part about it, is after Katrina, and I learned it the hard way – being in a travel trailer, there’s not very much you can cook. I mean you could cook – you had a stove, you had a refrigerator, but it wasn’t what you would normally cook. This meal that we were giving the kids, be it hot or cold meals, was probably the most nutritious meal they would get all day. And right now, today, we have children – the meal they get at school is the only nutritious meal they’re going to get. We have kids that come home and there’re nobody there, and we have to nourish their bodies so they can learn, so that they can get out of their environment to have a different kind of life. But truly, honestly, in our district, and a lot of principals will tell you in my district, that’s the only meal that some of these kids are going to get in a day. You have to look at it like that. What meal am I going to offer you that you are going to take and consume, so that I know when you walk away from here I know that you’ve had one good meal today, be it breakfast or lunch? Even the snack program – What can I give you just to hold you over? That’s the biggest thing, and I learned that more so after Katrina, because we had kids that came back into my neighborhood, and I think it was just three or four of us then, and there was a couple of kids that I know that would say, “My mom’s not home and I’m afraid to turn the stove on – because it was propane gas, and if you didn’t light it right, it was just dangerous. If you had microwavable food then that was fine, but we didn’t have any food – that was it. So that’s when I learned that we had to give them a little bit more than was called for. We gave them a little bit more. That was something that we did for a lot of our children.

JB: They were lucky to have you. Thank you so much for talking with us today.