Interviewee: Susan Greene

Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce

Date: February 17, 2016

Location: Anchorage, Alaska

Description: Susan Green is a school food service director in Alaska.

Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is February 17, 2016, and I’m here in Anchorage at the Alaska SNA conference talking this morning with Susan Greene. Welcome Susan and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

Susan Greene: Thank you, sir.

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

SG: OK. I’m originally from the state of Virginia, southwestern Virginia, in the little corner next to Tennessee and North Carolina, close to the Smokey Mountains. And that is where I grew up.

JB: What was the name of the town?

SG: The name of the town is Snowflake, believe it or not, is the name of the town. It’s a very rural area, which is very much like the area that I serve now in Mountain Village, Alaska. Of course we’ve progressed, but Mountain Village is very much like my area was fifty or sixty years ago as far as the heating and the housing and the water supply and that sort of thing. I spent thirty years teaching and administrative work with the state of Virginia in that area and retired. I was a culinary arts teacher. I was the elementary school principal, and then moved to the district office as district supervisor.

JB: Wow, you have had a career. Before we get into your work life tell me about your early education and your earliest recollections of child nutrition programs. Was there a program in your elementary school?

SG: You know, actually the program opened the year I was in the first grade. I remember well them creating the kitchen. It was just a given that we all took our lunch. That’s what we did. And I remember them building the area, digging down – it was a basement cafeteria – digging down and opening that cafeteria. I guess I was in the first grade when it actually opened. And the ironic thing about that is my first principalship was at the school where I began school. And the first year that I moved there as principal they closed that cafeteria and opened a brand new one upstairs. That used to be our playground that we played on, so that’s just a bit of nutrition that goes way back.

JB: What an amazing story. So you participated when they built the cafeteria?

SG: Yes.

JB: Do you remember some of your favorite menu items?

SG: You know, I really don’t remember the menus that well. I remember the wonderful government cheese that we always had, and the clump of brown sugar that they would put on top of it when they served it with soup. And to this day I have never really figured out why they put brown sugar on top of a grilled cheese sandwich, but that’s what they did when I was younger.

JB: That’s an interesting combination.

SG: I don’t know. I know they put cheese on apple pies. That’s sort of a traditional thing. But nowhere else have I ever come across brown sugar on cheese.

JB: Someone mentioned their favorite yesterday is chili and cinnamon rolls together.

SG: Oh really?

JB: I found that one interesting too. Tell me a little bit about your educational background. Where did you go after high school?

SG: I went to college at a small college in East Tennessee and majored in what we called at that time home economics – it’s called consumer and family living now – and began my career as a home ec teacher, and then moved into a position at a career and technical center as a culinary arts instructor.

JB: OK. What was the college?

SG: Carson-Newman in Jefferson City, Tennessee.

JB: OK. And then you became a culinary instructor?

SG: Um-hum, culinary arts, yes.

JB: And what did you teach?

SG: I taught primarily special education students, and I taught them food preparation skills. But in addition to that we taught a lot of life skills and we taught employability skills, entrepreneur skills, and they actually ran a restaurant there at the school. We had the restaurant open on Wednesdays and Thursdays and then on Fridays we sold baked goods out of our bakery.

JB: Wonderful. And you said you were a principal also?

SG: Yes. After that position I was certified in educational leadership, and like I say, became a principal at the school where I began school, and then later moved to the career technical center to be principal and career director there, and then moved in to Title 1 director and food services.

JB: So how did you get involved in food service?

SG: Well like I say, being a home ec major and then teaching culinary arts it just seemed to be a natural evolution. That would be where I would end up in the school system.

JB: Have you had any mentors along the way that sort of helped guide your career when you got into child nutrition, or were you active in the state association in Virginia?

SG: No, I will have to say I was not. I was not active in that state association. We were set up a little bit different in the state of Virginia. We were divided into nine regions and each region had a state director. And that state director was the one that helped to guide me.

JB: So it was more local.

SG: Um-hum.

JB: Did you find that beneficial?

SG: Oh, very much so, very much so. I was a little bit nervous. That was one of the questions I asked when I first accepted the position up here, “One state director for the whole state?” But they’ve been very, very supportive in Alaska, and with the student population and the number of schools it works, it works.

JB: Did your educational background do you feel help prepare you for this career in child nutrition?

SG: You know I really think that just experiences and observation and personal interest prepared me for that, because you’ve got to remember my educational experience was a LONG time ago. I’ve just always had a personal interest in nutrition, how what we eat affects our bodies and our health and our energy level and our mental stability. I took the nutrition classes as a natural part of the evolution of it, and just always been very interested in that.

JB: I usually ask everyone if the state they work in has anything unique about child nutrition programs, but you’ve got a perspective of working in two different states. Could you compare and contrast the two?

SG: Well, Alaska definitely, and bush Alaska definitely was a whole new learning experience as far as ordering the food. It has been a real challenge. And the fact that we cannot get the fresh fruits and vegetables has been a challenge to figure out a way around that. This year I have been able to add baked potatoes and salads and tomatoes, the little cherry tomatoes, to our menu for most of the year. We don’t do that during January and February because of it. But the bypass shipping, having to order six weeks ahead of time to fill your pantry until the next six week order comes in. What happens when a freezer goes down and they have no alternative place to put their food when that freezer goes down? You’re calling the AC store and say “Can we put our food with you?” Some schools don’t have stores in their villages. So all of those challenges have been very, very unique; the fact that sometimes there are not consistent supplies of water. In Mountain Village where I live we have a distiller in our kitchen because we are on a boil water notice continuously, because we don’t have a sanitary source of water. So they distill all their water. And they’ve become the distribution point for classroom water, for hallway water, for gym class water. That’s just become part of their food service thing, is to provide potable water to the whole school. And there will be times that water will not be available in some of the villages so they will have to boil all their water. And the main thing is dishwashing and that sort of thing. Most of our food does not require water. And they keep stockpiles of water in their stockroom in case water is not available at the time. So that’s very unique, the lack of fresh vegetables, having to order four to six weeks ahead of time, and the water situation.

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

SG: You know, it is very much like any other food service. You’re looking at your production records. You’re making sure the ladies have the production records in. You’re looking at your menus. Such and such didn’t come in in our shipment, or it got left off on the tarmac, so it thawed and then it re-froze and of course it’s not food safe anymore, so you’re looking at things like that. And I’m constantly looking at training. We do a monthly video VTC with the cooks, because I have ten schools. I have to fly to each. And when you fly to them just doing the annual reviews – I looked at my schedule when I turned in the paper that was due in February – from the first of October to the week before Thanksgiving I was visiting schools and doing school reviews, because it’s a two to three day process. Very seldom can I get to a school, observe breakfast and lunch, and leave that afternoon. I get to a school, I may observe lunch, spend the night in the school, watch breakfast and lunch the next day, and then hopefully the weather’s still good enough to fly back to the next school or to Mountain Village.

JB: So these communities are so small you have to stay at the school? There’s no other accommodation?

SG: Yes. There are no accommodations. When you leave, whether you’re planning on spending the night or not, when you visit a school you take your sleeping bag, your sleeping cot, and your toothbrush with you – and a change of clothes. That’s what you do. That’s how you have to travel, because you may get back as you’re scheduled, or you may get back a week later. You may have to spend the night in the school that weekend. You may have to spend the weekend. It’s very interesting visiting the schools and working with our staff. The education level is not maybe what a lot of people would expect. A lot of our people are still Yupik speaking people. It’s amazing, I have said continuously, it’s amazing that we have achieved anything, because when they spoke, and I spoke with my Southern accent we did well to understand every fifth word someone said. But we’ve made progress and we’ve covered a lot of territory, and we’ve developed a bond, because when they talk about subsistence living I say, “Yea, I know what that is because when I was a child if you didn’t grow it or kill it you didn’t eat it.” So we’ve just developed a bond in that way.

JB: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced over your career, either in Virginia or Alaska?

SG: Probably these here in Alaska are some of the biggest ones that I have faced. I don’t know if you call it challenges. That’s a hard one for me to answer because I’m a person that doesn’t really see things as a deterrent or challenge. It’s just a situation that you deal with and then you move on. But I guess changing regulations are the biggest ones, and then getting acceptance. Let’s face it, when a child can’t put salt and ketchup, and syrup on their pancakes every morning, and ketchup in their french fries, that’s hard. So you’re trying to blend a lifestyle that’s not just unique to Alaska, but all over the country, with healthy nutritional regulations and you’re saying, “We’re going to feed your child two meals a day,” but yet the children aren’t enjoying or liking the two meals a day. And the portion sizes are much smaller than what the children are accustomed to. Those are probably the hardest – meeting those federal regulations in a way that students will still participate in the program.

JB: What brought you to Alaska from Virginia?

SG: Well, I applied for a job as Title 1 Director in the Virgin Islands, and I took a wrong turn somewhere. On the jobsite that I was using, when I put in that application for Director of Federal Programs it popped up that they were needing a Director of Federal Programs in Lower Yukon, Alaska. And over the years I had toyed with the idea of Alaska, just found it intriguing and interesting and looked at different jobs. And after my retirement I worked with the Department of Defense and a lot of the people that I worked with had lived in Alaska, and I was always asking about what it was like to live in Alaska. So anyway, that popped up that that position was available in Alaska and I said, “Well, all I have to do is go in and change the name on the application and send the same stuff in. And the HR director called and said, “That position’s been filled, but we desperately need a Director of Food Services. Would you be interested in that?” And two weeks later I was in Anchorage at the annual training. And I came with the attitude, not to be bad, but if it wasn’t for me, if I didn’t feel like I was doing the job justice, it was a plane ride home. And two years later I’m still here.

JB: You mentioned changing regulations. What other changes have you seen in the profession over the years?

SG: It’s always been an issue – when my children were little, before I went into the profession, the portions are not big enough, the portions are not big enough. They’re hungry by four o’clock. If they have basketball practice afterwards, or they have any school activity afterwards, these kids are hungry when they come home, or they’re hungry before they get home, and we need bigger portions. That has always been. And we need more home-cooked food; we need more home-cooked food. Everything doesn’t have to be processed. And then they took the saltshakers off the tables. That was a big thing. But I think the latest ones, where you have the sodium targets and the calorie targets – I don’t see the increase in fresh fruits and vegetable as a problem, but I do see that the target calories and sodium and trying to meet those with a food that the children will actually enjoy eating – I see that as the biggest challenge.

JB: What would you think would be your most significant contribution to the field over the years?

SG: Oh goodness. I think that it’s just the encouragement and the support that I give to the food service workers, and I think that feeds down to positive attitudes toward their job and their children, because I tell them they have the most important job in the school. There is no one else in the whole school that sees every child twice a day, and puts no demands on each one of those children. And I say they may come from a home – in my situation in rural Alaska I think it’s pretty common knowledge about the drug/alcohol issues that occur there – they may have come from a home where Mom and Dad have been, if they were even there, fussing and fighting all night long, and then they come to school and the teacher says, “You don’t have your pencil! You don’t have your homework!” And I said, “When they walk into that cafeteria line and you look at them and you say, ‘Would you like a cup or a half a cup of apricots?’ and smile at that child, that may be the first time in that child’s day that they’ve had a nice, friendly smile and nothing demanded of them, and you’re getting to feed them. And that I think, that type of attitude, you are unique, because nobody else has that opportunity. But you have that opportunity to help each and every child.”

JB: Do you have any memorable stories of special children you’ve served or people you’ve worked with during your career?

SG: I don’t think one stands out more than another. I know last year when we were doing a school review, we went for our annual review at one of our schools, I worked very, very closely with one of the cafeteria managers on the production records and on the preparation of the food and stuff, and she really just seemed to blossom. And I would take her with me when I would train other people. And that was the first thing, she called me this year and she said, “When are we going out training everybody? When are we going out training everybody?” And it just made me realize that you do give support and strength and people do grow through working with them and helping them. And I think, then again, I think that’s probably my best thing about it. Oh, I’ve got to tell you the table story too. We ordered a cafeteria table for one of our schools because they didn’t have enough. There were too many kids eating breakfast to have room to sit, so I said, “We’ve got to get them a table.” And weeks later when I was at that school a little boy came up to me and he said, “Are you the cafeteria lady?” You never know what’s going to come after that, and I said, “Yes honey, I am.” He said, “Were you the one that got us that table? I really like that table. I enjoy that table.” And I was just almost about in tears because I thought that table was so important to him. He appreciated it. And I mean he was not prompted to come up there and say that to me or anything. But we had gotten that cafeteria table, and it made me realize how the children notice things that you wouldn’t even think that they would. And they notice when you take a little extra care or you do something special for them.

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

SG: Two things – you have to love food and you have to love children, and if you don’t you might as well do something else, because you’re not going to survive, because it’s not worth it unless you love the children and you love food. You won’t have the patience. God will give you the rest if you have those two things.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add?

SG: I appreciate the interview. And I appreciate what everybody does. It’s not an easy challenge, it’s not an easy chore to feed our children, but it is the most important thing we do.

JB: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.

SG: Thank you.