Interviewee: Sophie Hoover
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: March 6, 2011

Description: Sophie Hoover is a child nutrition director in Maryland.

Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeff Boyce and I’m at the LAC conference with Sophie Hoover. Welcome Sophie, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Could we begin by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, where you grew up?

Sophie Hoover: Well, I was born in New York, in Brooklyn, New York. I was raised in Puerto Rico, in Caguas, a city of the central valley of the island. I went to school all the way through my third year in college in Puerto Rico, and then thanks to disruption at the university I transferred to the University of Florida to finish my degree in Nutrition and Dietetics, and met my husband, got married, and moved to Maryland, because that’s where the job was.

JB: Tell me about your college background. You said you studied first in Puerto Rico and then at the University of –

SH: Florida, at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I studied Nutrition and Dietetics, and also Food Technology at the University of Florida.

JB: Well, first let’s talk about when you were in Puerto Rico. You went to secondary school there. Was there a school lunch or breakfast program in Puerto Rico?

SH: Well, there was in the public school, yes – very minor – mostly sandwiches, not real big hot lunches. And of course they were only for the poor kids. There was nothing for the ones who did not qualify for the free and reduced program to obtain meals. In my private high school we did not have school lunch. We would go home, and they gave us an hour to go home and have lunch and then come back to school – a long day, because we were there at 7:30 in the morning and we didn’t get out until four because we had the hour break.

JB: So, how did you get involved in the child nutrition profession?

SH: Well, it was one of these things – I first started like most people started in Dietetics, in hospitals, nursing homes, or any type of healthcare industry. And when I had my son I decided that I couldn’t really do that type of job because it involved very long hours, and I needed to find a job where I didn’t have to work that length of time. So at the time, once I had our son, I decided to start looking, because I knew I was going to stay home for a few years, but that when I went back to work I wanted to make sure I had something that was going to fit in, and during an exercise class I met this young lady that became very good friends with me, Cindy, and Cindy was working for school food service, and had a similar background as I had. And I said to her, “Well you know, that’s going to be my job next time a go back to work.” And lo and behold, she had remarried and decided to leave with her husband to New York State, and I got her job.

JB: And it’s at Anne Arundel?

SH: Anne Arundel twenty-seven years ago.

JB: I started to ask about a mentor, but it sounds like Cindy may have been a mentor.

SH: Yes, Cindy was my mentor.

JB: Have there been other mentors who guided you along the way in child nutrition?

SH: Yes. I have to say my former boss and my now boss, Renee Kohler and Jodi Risse. But along the way you meet a lot of people in this industry that kind of guide you to being able to be better at what you do. Gene White has been a great inspiration – Barbara Belmont has been. She’s got tenacity in her that I wish I could emulate. So I think you pick up little things from everyone along the way.

JB: Tell me about the positions that you’ve held.

SH: I’ve been Specialist in Food and Nutrition with Anne Arundel County for twenty-seven years, and that’s basically what I’ve done. I’ve moved up from just a regular area person to a senior specialist. Before that I worked as a director in a nursing home.

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

SH: I think so. When I was in Puerto Rico and I started in Nutrition and Dietetics the coursework went through being a Home Ec type education teacher. So the emphasis was in teaching nutrition even though you were going into a Dietetics degree because you were going to be in essence a teacher in a hospital for these patients, or in a nursing home or any kind of healthcare facility. So the emphasis there was mostly on teaching. When I went to the University of Florida in Gainesville the emphasis there was mostly research. Now you research, you analyze the foods, how they were constructed chemically, how they interacted in the body, and so I saw a little bit of both sides of the industry itself. Florida also had a big Food Technology program, so they prepared of for if we wanted to go into industry formulating new products, helping in agriculture situations. It was quite diverse. I think that’s where I got my intrigue in wanting to know from other countries – what they do in other countries as far as agriculture, as far as food service and everything, and when I had the opportunity with SNA I joined their Global Child Nutrition [Foundation] and became a delegate for them, and started working with them. We went to Chile to form the Latin American School Nutrition Association. That was my first thing working with Global Child Nutrition. Then I went to Cancun with them for their second Latin American network.

JB: I’m guessing because you are bilingual?

SH: Yes. That’s why I went with them. It blossomed from there. We went to Recife, Brazil, and my last trip with them was to South Africa.

JB: It sounds like a wonderful program.

SH: It is. It’s a wonderful program and I highly recommend it to anybody who hasn’t done it, to go and experience what other countries do with their child nutrition programs.

JB: There’s nothing like travel for an education.

SH: I believe firmly in that.

JB: Is there anything unique about Maryland in regard to child nutrition programs?

SH: I think Maryland has always been on the forefront. Our proximity to DC has always made us some kind of a pilot state for many of the programs that USDA wants to implement or wants to see implemented. So we’ve had those opportunities. Not always our county because our county tends to be a little bit more affluent than some other of the closer counties to DC, but we’ve been successful in implementing certain pilots for the association or for the USDA programs.

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

SH: My typical day – I go into the office, I check my emails, because that’s very important these days, and pick up phone calls from who knows at the time, both in Spanish and in English, because every phone call that comes in [from] any type of foreigner I get. Then I normally try to see what schools I have to go visit that particular day, either for new equipment, or just reviewing personnel issues, or just going to see how they’re implementing our fresh vegetables and fruit program, or going to a school for after-school snacks. It all depends on what the day brings, or if a piece of equipment doesn’t break down. Or like the other day, somebody’s water went out and they had to bring in water to bring the water pressure back up. So it’s different every day, and that’s what’s exciting about food service and why you go by and you think ‘Gosh, twenty-seven years already?’

JB: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in those twenty-seven years?

SH: Change. The challenges when there’s a change, trying to get everyone educated as to why the change has to happen.

JB: What have some of those changes been?

SH: Well, for us, we used to count milk for everything, because at one time you got reimbursed for meals by milk. You had to have it. So of course we structured all of our production records and our inventory records to be milk driven. Well, I think it’s been maybe ten years where we didn’t have to do that any longer, and trying to get people not to count that milk – it’s been a ten-year struggle. It’s like they have to count it, and I’m telling them ‘But you don’t anymore. It’s not in any of the paperwork. You just have to put it into your production records that you just served that item’, but it’s been a real struggle for them.

JB: Other big changes that you’ve seen over the years?

SH: Other changes – we started cooking everything from scratch – baking. I think we haven’t baked in twenty years, and we haven’t cooked from scratch in at least fifteen. And it’s coming all the way around again. I just came off one of the sessions where we’re back to scratch. I think it will be coming. How long it will take – again, it’s a change so it’s going to take a while to implement, mostly because we’re in a very high paid area. Our salaries start at $10.79. Scratch cooking entails a fulltime cook and that’s going to be a costly change for us, so we’ll have to start with one day or two days a week and then work our way back up – ‘How can we do this and still not break the bank?’ – and make to cost effective also for the child and their families, because if you price it out of the market for them you’re not going to sell anything.

JB: It seems like a sensible way to approach it. Some people think in black & white, you either scratch cook or you don’t, but maybe if you do it one or two days a week is a good way to reintroduce it.

SH: I think you have to first do it that way, because when we stopped we stopped with two days a week. We would have like Tuesdays and Thursdays would be our scratch days, and I think if we implement it back on that way it won’t be as much of a shock when you start it once again.

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

SH: I think that I am one of the cheerleaders for the whole program, and that I like not only cheerleading our nutrition programs here in the US, I like cheerleading our programs throughout the world. And I think that when we went out and worked with different countries on the school nutrition program it was always so passionate. You know implementing these programs was so important for the children, and we had to try to get over these different barriers in these different countries as to why they couldn’t help economically with these programs, as to ‘What could we do to help you set up these programs in your country?’

JB: Any special stories come to mind when you think of that?

SH: We had a gentleman from Ghana who was so inspired by his Global Child Nutrition Forum that he went back and found a way to ask money from – he got a grant from the Netherlands to implement a school feeding program, and within the year he was able to feed a million kids in Ghana.

JB: That’s amazing.

SH: And it might have been just a cookie and a milk, but it was a start, which was the biggest thing. And he’s now on the – Emmanuel Afoakwa is on the board for the Global Child Nutrition programs.

JB: That’s a wonderful story; so one person can make a difference.

SH: Absolutely. We went out there and really ‘Beat the bushes’, as they say, and did the job. He has a great success story.

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

SH: I would say, “Go. Come on in and help us start new and innovative programs”, because as the world changes so must the programs change. And there are still so many kids, both here in the US and well as around the world that need good, healthy meals, and they’re not available. And these days, with the community changing so much, you have people who never would have qualified five years ago who are qualifying today. And it’s scary to them, very scary to them. And talking to those families and saying, “It’s ok. Once you’re back on your feet and you don’t need us, that’s fine. Come and pay for the same meal that you got for free.” There is a need out there for these types of programs. It really warms the hearts of those of us who are in food service that come and say, “Oh, I’m only going to be working for a few years”, like I said when I started. “Oh, I’m only going to work a few years, because in need braces. So I’ll work until I get my braces done and then I’ll stop working.” Or have enough money to send my son to private school, or whatever your reason is for it, and then thirty or forty years later they’re still there. There’s something that keeps us there. We always say it’s the grease, but we’re not going to talk about that! It’s the kitchen, it’s the whole – it’s the kids – it’s the kids that you do it for.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add?

SH: I thank you for inviting me and Dr. Wilson for asking me to participate.

JB: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

SH: Thank you.