Interviewee: Esther Izaak
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: June 27, 2016
Description: Esther Izaak was a child nutrition director in the Virgin Islands, and now works with the state agency.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is June 27, 2016. I’m here in Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas with Esther Izaak. Welcome Esther and thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
Esther Izaak: You’re most welcome.
JB: Could we begin by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?
EI: I was born on the island of Montserrat. I went to elementary, high school in Montserrat. I studied at the University of the Virgin Islands. I also studied in England at East Sussex College. I came to the Virgin Islands because of the volcanic eruption in Montserrat. I lived in England for three years and then I came back to the Virgin Islands in 2000. So I’ve been in the classroom from 2000 until 2009, when I actually moved from the classroom to being the director of the School Food Authority for St. Thomas and St. John. I spent six years in that position until last July, when I was moved to be a training manager for not only St. Thomas/St. John, but for St. Croix as well.
JB: So you’re covering all of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
EI: Yes sir.
JB: You said you were in the classroom. What were you teaching?
EI: I taught initially, prior to going to college, I did English. Then having gone to college I did English, history, and food and nutrition. And my concentration for the latter part of my years was in food and nutrition. I actually created a hotel and restaurant program at Eudora Kean when I came here, because of tourism being one of the major forms of income. That school didn’t have a culinary class, and I started one when I came in 2000. I started the class in 2001 in fact. So I did have Beginning Foods, Advanced Foods, and a culinary program that I taught for the last five years at Eudora Kean.
JB: And what about your time in England? You studied there you said?
EI: I did. I went to East Sussex College. That was in my early twenties. And I went back after the volcano. This time I didn’t work in the classroom. I actually worked with a company that was assisting Montserratians to settle on England. So that’s where I worked for approximately two and a half years.
JB: And you said Montserrat is where you’re from. That’s in the British Virgin Islands?
EI: That’s a British territory.
JB: OK. Was there a school feeding program on the island?
EI: Yes. I actually was part of the group of persons who developed the program, and our initial funding came from PAHO and WHO, and then the government eventually took it over. So we were able to feed – we actually begun by feeding those children that we felt were the most needy. And to not make it become stigmatized we charged a dollar a week per child. But eventually any child could have come and have a lunch, a meal. We only did lunch. We didn’t do breakfast nor snacks. After the initial assistance from PAHO and WHO the government ran the program, and I did that program from 2003 until I left.
JB: OK. Has there been a mentor or someone who kind of helped guide your career as you took the different paths?
EI: Initially I just wanted to get something that would challenge me, and because from school I was very good at memorizing stuff I thought I would have done history and maybe go into the social sciences because I always wanted to work with kids. But the Department of Education saw where my strength was and so I was told I had to do nutrition. That was not the initial choice of mine, but I’ve grown to like it and it has become almost life, because I grew up in a home where my mother catered. We had to assist her, so it was not a challenge to me and that’s why I didn’t choose it initially, because I didn’t think it was going to create any challenge, but it was one of my strongest areas when I went to school. And so I ended up doing that based on the guidance from the persons who would have fitted into the system as either a commissioner or the superintendents. They were called different names, but they were people in those same job positions.
JB: And then you said then you became the director for St. Thomas and St. John?
EI: Well, I was the director at home too for the school lunch program, because when the other lady who was the initial person, I worked under her, and I still used to teach, but we used to do community work after the fact, and so I used to do work with her. And so when she passed I got the position to actually be the director of the program.
JB: On Montserrat?
EI: On Montserrat prior to coming here, and then I came here and I went back to the classroom because I couldn’t get a job in that same area. And having gone back to the classroom I was removed from the classroom again, but this time I actually applied. There were several other applicants, but having done the interview I ended up getting the position.
JB: And this was as director?
EI: That was the director of St. Thomas/St. John.
JB: And tell me about that time. What was a typical day like, or was there such a thing?
EI: OK. I came to the program just prior to all of the changes that were being made, because I came in ’09.
JB: So just before the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act.
EI: Right. And so when I came into the program lots of things, the way they were for umpteen years, and having to make changes, it was a challenge, not necessarily for me, but for all the staff who were accustomed to doing things for so many years differently, and now they’re being asked to change. The kids also up to now have not yet accepted the whole grain pasta fully. The rice, the initial brown rice we got wasn’t a good quality. Eventually we got a better quality, because I insisted on changing the brand. So the rice is not so much of an issue, but the pasta, whether it’s macaroni or rotini or spaghetti is totally whole grain, and that decision was made by the director at the state level, because she never made us a way that we could have done a lower percentage of grain. So we have to take what she agreed upon when she went to USDA. And so our numbers just began falling. They really fell and they continue to fall over time, because our kids have not yet accepted to the level that we want them to. And because their parents don’t prepare it at home, so the only place they get it is at school, so we don’t get a lot of support from their parents and other persons in the community. As a director I did some parent classes, but still the group of parents you really want to catch aren’t coming. It’s the younger parents who we really want to catch, because they themselves don’t cook a lot. They basically give their kids fast food, or if they buy, because a lot of them are on what we call the Government Income Support System, if they do buy they buy partially prepared food, which would go in the microwave or that sort of thing. They don’t really do scratch cooking at home, and so our kids, having only to eat that at school, they’re not really accepting it.
JB: Have you seen any improvement?
EI: Not recently. Well, with the rice, yes. We’ve gotten better rice, so they’re doing better with the rice. And also, one of our major issues for us to really do better is our equipment in the schools. We are so short of real good equipment that sometimes the staff, it’s really a burden for them to prepare properly based on what they have to work with.
JB: Do you feel your educational background helped prepare you for what you’re doing now?
EI: Trust me. Having come this far I didn’t expect that I would have been working for anybody. Initially I actually had started my own business because I was catering at home and my intention was to leave the government system and go on my own. I actually over the four years of study, I did some research on herbs and stuff and I was going to create a book. I started a book but never got to finish it because of the volcanic eruption. I didn’t get to move my stuff. When the volcano decided it was going on our end I had to stay to work to move the hospital staff and the patients, so I never got back to my end to take anything of great things. Then the roads got blocked off, so most of the stuff just stayed in the house.
JB: So you lost everything.
EI: I lost that, so all the material for the book that I started, because I was doing it during my four years at the university here, because my intention was to do partial natural as well as do regular foods.
JB: Is there anything unique about the Virgin Islands regarding the federal child nutrition programs?
EI: Well, we would have loved to have been able to have either take more time going into the full grain, because that for us our kids are not accustomed to, so we would have needed a little bit more time, or else we should have asked to allow us to do not one hundred percent grain, but a smaller portion. And then eventually once we got them acclimatized to it they would have accepted it better. For the Virgin Islands, the students, most, not all, but a great percent of our students depend on the meal. And our fresh fruits that we would have loved to have been able to incorporate into our meals, by the time they get here they aren’t fresh, because we have to import them. St. Croix can do a little better because they have the ability to grow a lot more. But fresh fruits and vegetables, at the quantities that we need, most times we have to import them, so when they get here, just like depending in the States you have seasonal fruits, we don’t have that option unless we’re going to buy it from the vendor off-island. It’s not always good quality when it shows up in our warehouses. So that’s basically the greatest challenge with regards to us having a greater variety for our students, especially with the fruits. We grow mangos, but mangos are seasonal, and then with the stone in the mango we would have to destone the thing, or find somewhere where you can incorporate it into maybe a smoothie, but those require more research and more work done in that area. And then the mangos are most popular during the summer, so it’s only the summer school will benefit from it in a fresh form, or we will have to find a way to freeze it to do them for the regular school year.
JB: Tell me about what you’re doing now.
EI: I started this in October of last year. I’m actually trying to help the kitchen staff, as well as the entire program, but I’m really concentrating on the kitchen staff right now to improve on presentation and also on ensuring that the foods are prepared with as little as possible of the nutrients being lost, because depending on how all the vegetables, how they prepare them, after a while they don’t look good, and like every one of us, our guide to food, of eating, is our eyes, and I keep saying, “If it doesn’t look good, it may taste good, but a child don’t want to try it.” So it’s challenging going from school to school many days. I do very little office work sometimes because I tend to have to go in – if I’m doing a breakfast I always have to start working five or six o’clock. And then I may stay for breakfast and part of lunch and then move on, but then the challenge I have, almost thirty schools on St. Thomas. Some are base, some are satellites, and we have some parochial ones that actually prepare their own meals. And then St. Croix, we have about the same number on St. Croix, so it’s being able to cover all of those as efficiently as I would like to. What we are planning to do for the new school year is to incorporate more staff members. I will do more spot checks, so it will not just be myself alone. So we would do spot checks using staff from the state, staff from the district, and then where is the need to really retrain. And so what I did this end of school year to ensure that everybody got the basic was to request the training that just happened last week for both districts, so we did the same thing on St. Croix. And every participant was supposed to have showed up either for food safety – well that was just basically for the cooks, food service workers, warehouse drivers and laborers, and then we had a trucking session, and then we had a financial for the managers and the director. So hopefully with that initial training it will be easier. We are hoping that people would take what they’ve learned back to work and try to do better when it comes to making the kids feel more welcome and making the food look and taste better, because like I say, some kids depend on this as the means of them getting their nutrition.
JB: And you have to cover St. John also?
JB: How many schools are there?
EI: St. John has one public school and they have one satellite school that participate. There’s a private school but they don’t participate in the program.
JB: Oh, OK. What changes have you seen in the program over the years? You mentioned the whole wheat and fresh fruits and vegetables. Are there other changes you’ve seen?
EI: Changes tend to fall from one to the third. We did changes in the meal pattern so you also have changes in paperwork. And we even have changes with regards to regulations because USDA is now requiring that everyone do a certain number of hours of training. Years ago I think people were just hired based on who knew who. Now they’re trying to maintain a certain level of literacy and professionalism because some people, without them being able to read it’s going to be difficult for them to perform at the level that you need them to perform at. And some of that is really still a challenge because we do have people in the system that we can’t just get rid of like that. It will require us either to work with them or provide support for them on a daily basis, or doing things differently. Where they can’t read you may have to color code some things for them to know that this is what you use to serve this, and so forth. And I think USDA is holding us to a higher level or a higher degree of responsibility, because over the years a lot of stuff has happened we could have done better, or could have been done better. But with changes in whatever form, you find that you don’t always go forward. You go backwards, then you try to come forwards again. So, I think if we can get some of the things we are trying to do, we are trying to bring our Nutrikids program to actually have inventory, shopping, and all those things done for the next school year. If we eliminate a lot of the paperwork it will force people to become more responsible or more accountable. And those are the things that will really help to bring this program up to a higher level.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the program so far?
EI: For me, when I came onboard initially, we did have, I’ll give you one school that had a very low participation, a major high school. It was over four hundred. And then I introduced a grab-and-go, which brought it to, depending on what was cooked, from eight hundred to twelve hundred, on some days. That was before the implementation of the whole grain. We still do it, but not as many kids come. I think I was also able to influence a lot of the managers with regards to getting them to be more responsible with their paperwork. And we’ve had other people at the training prior to me being there, and so at this point in time a lot of our managers, or most of them I should say, are able to do their paperwork. Even though it’s not electronic they can do it on paper so we can do it faster and we cannot have our claims being late, because we have deadlines to send to the state and then state has to send it to USDA. So I think we’ve had some improvement in menu prior to the old way, and even at this point we still try to get them to prepare. I also think a lot of people had very – and it’s not their fault – they don’t look at the program, they don’t feel very valued, because their pay is very, very low. And we’ve been trying to hopefully get the unions to do something about that fault, because we’re not going to usually capture people with qualifications in this job if our pay rates remain very sad for people actually to work in the kitchens.
JB: Have you got any memorable stories about maybe special children you’ve served or people you’ve worked with over the years?
EI: Well, in the actual school where I taught, everybody, even if they see me now, they will always ask the question, “What’s in the bag?” because people associate food and having food on me. Adults do it. And I think for most of the kitchen staff I was able to help them appreciate what they do or see themselves as being more valuable, never mind that they have daily struggles. But I think my greatest challenge – the thing that makes me happy is I was able to take some of our managers from where they were and they’re much better today with what they do. I used to actually go to the schools as a director and assist in the preparation, and I remember one day we were trying to encourage students to eat more vegetables. Macaroni and cheese is a very favorite dish in the islands, so I said, “OK, if we cook the pumpkin and give it to them they’re not going to – at least some may try it but they never want to eat as much of it.” So we cooked it and we mashed it and we incorporated that into the cheese sauce, and then we added our macaroni, and those kids ate and came back for more. So during that time I walked around and I questioned them about what the food tasted like and they were all very excited. “It tastes so good.” And I said, “If I told you what you ate today would you be surprised?” Some of them said, “WHAT?” Because for them that’s something they don’t ever eat. But at the end they said, “It STILL tasted good” because they didn’t see it as what it was, and it actually enhanced the color of the macaroni and cheese, because the bright orange brought it to a different level. And so my take on it is that I made sure I got into every kitchen and actually worked with staff, whether it was preparing, prepping, whatever, because that way they can feel that you value what they do. So I never stuck myself in an office every day. I made sure I was down there with them, and when you go they can actually see the result of how you cook the broccoli today versus how they cook it. And if it looks better then you know you need to do that. I actually got them from emulsing the vegetables in water to now just steaming it. Although we don’t have a steamer we just put a little water in the bottom of the pot, put the vegetables in, and then you cover, and you take it out quickly. So I’ve gotten that green color up to a level that most schools still do, because broccoli is one vegetable the kids will eat.
JB: That amazes me. I heard that earlier today.
EI: Yes. They will eat broccoli every day, and they will eat cauli. They will eat the lettuce and tomato and they will eat cucumber, but they will fight you with the beets. I had to take the beets off the menu, take the beets off the menu because it goes straight into the garbage. Take the beets off, and the cauli blend, of course they have a mix. They will eat some of that. Spinach. For me to get them to eat spinach I would have to add some of it to the rice. You can’t count it really, but you know they’re getting some vegetable in that. Now if we were able to cook what we call a callaloo, because a callaloo is a local dish where you have spinach, okra, you have some form of salted meat, and it’s like a soup. That is how they would have been able to eat it. But because of how our things are structured you’d have to be able to ensure that they’re getting the two ounces of protein, and then we can no longer cook anything that has salt – because salted meat creates a flavor that you don’t get if you use fresh meat in it. But I think we can do the callaloo as a vegetarian if we’re able to serve it as a soup. And then you’d serve a slice of bread, and then we’d have to find a way to give them their protein, if they want their protein, because they don’t necessarily have to take it. But you would not get the same flavor from it, because you no longer have the salted meat. I mean you soak it out really good, but that salted meat does really give flavor. And so maybe one of these days we’ll try the callaloo to see how the kids would like it. I don’t create the menus, but I do look at them, and we might do that for one of our special events. Just do some callaloo, serve some bread, and then you have some form of meat for those who may want it. We do a fish callaloo that’s local also, but then we have to be careful because you basically put shellfish, and not much of the actual fish. And then you have to make sure it’s deboned properly, so that the kids don’t ever get the bone. So that’s something that will be very technical if you were going to use fish, because you don’t want to give the children who can’t have shellfish that item to make them sick. We would love to try to do a little bit more of our local things on special days, because the kids are accustomed to fried, but we know that we can’t fry anymore, so we bake stuff. But on a day like we would maybe want something that’s a little soup, is chicken soup, which we did a couple of weeks ago, and I actually was in a school on one of those days and did the actual things. But we used to cook soup a lot. We have something called red pea soup, which has very little starch. You have the beans as the main, and the salted meat again, and then you have to serve bread as the grain. And these are some of the little things that we would want to really incorporate to make our children come to the cafeteria. When we did red pea soup we used to use flour and make what we call dumplings and add to the soup. But what is really technical is to make sure that we can provide them with the required portions of whether it’s grain or vegetable when we do those side dishes.
JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?
EI: I would say that it is a challenge, but if you really love kids and you like to work, it requires you to work hard. It’s not going to be an easy job because none of our stuff is really – we really do our own scratch cooking so we don’t get a lot of prepared items like pizza and nuggets and stuff, but I think it would be a great challenge for you to prepare a meal and see a child light up when he or she walks into the cafeteria, or they come back and say, “Can I have some more?” or “This was good,” because children are very honest. And I think just by the way you can make a child feel happy having eaten and feel satisfied, there’s nothing else that will pay you. The money you work for won’t pay you.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add?
EI: I would like to maybe see the territory, and I can only speak of this territory, meaning St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix, give more value to our staff in a sense of financial, but moneywise, because they do a lot of work, and I don’t think that people really understand what it takes to do all that work within a certain time, and take care of all those children. I wouldn’t, having ended up in this field, I doubt I would have been any happier anywhere else, because I do two things. I love to cook and I love to work with children. So I think those who were giving me guidance really knew better at the time than I did when I felt I wanted to do something different.
JB: Well thank you so much for talking with me today.
EI: OK Jeffrey. Thanks for your time too.