Interviewee: Sylvia Dunn

Interviewer: Melba Hollingsworth

Date: May 19, 2010

Location: National Food Service Management Institute

Description: Sylvia Dunn was a school food service director in Louisiana for over twenty-nine years.

Melba Hollingsworth: This is Wednesday May 19, 2010, and I’m Melba Hollingsworth. I’m the Education and Training Specialist at NFSMI, and I’m here with Sylvia Dunn. Sylvia, you’re a Food Service Director at St. Tammany’s Parish. Would you tell me a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?

Sylvia Dunn: I’m from a very small south Louisiana town called Denham Springs. My family has lived there all its life. I’m actually the only one in my family who’s ever left Louisiana, ventured out. My father was a high school principal. My mom was a Home Economics teacher. And I could say that faith and family was probably the anchor for my life as a child. And some if my interests included 4-H, music, sports. In fact just because of 4-H and my beef projects I was able to pay my way through undergraduate school at LSU. And it’s also where I met my husband – at livestock shows. I met him at the International Livestock Show in Chicago in the ninth grade. So, I owe 4-H a lot.

MH: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs? And tell me also about your school lunch, if you went to a school where there were lunch and breakfast programs at your school?

SD: I attended the same school system first grade through twelfth in Denham Strings; ate school lunch every day. At the high school level my mom was the Home Ec teacher, so she was actually responsible for the school lunch program. But I can tell you that’s not the reason I ate school lunch every day. It was because of a lady named Mrs. Willkie, who was probably the most energetic, youthful seventy-year-old I’ve ever known. She drove her Hudson automobile from Port Vincent every day to cook the meals at Denham Springs High School. And my memories of Mrs. Willkie’s meals were the homemade rolls, the gumbos, the jambalayas, red beans and rice. Back in that day all the children ate because there weren’t any other options, but the food was very good.

MH: Tell me about your educational background. What schools did you attend and what degrees did you earn.

SD: OK. I attended first grade through twelfth in the public school system. Public school is very important in my family since my father were both public educators. From there I went to LSU, majored in Dietetics, thought I wanted to be a Dietitian until I worked in a hospital one summer between my junior and senior year, then decided “This is probably not where you need to be” and then went to graduate school at Purdue. I got a Master’s in Nutrition from Purdue University. And then after that my husband actually was drafted, so we had to interrupt our college educations, our post-graduate studies. He went into the Army during the Vietnam War era and then when we came back out of the Army we went back to the University of Georgia and I finished a degree in Health Education at the University of Georgia.

MH: So how did you become involved in child nutrition programs?

SD: I kind of fell backwards into it because I thought I wanted to be a teacher at the college level, and when we moved back to Louisiana when my husband finished his degree at Georgia there were no openings at the college level or even at the public school level. There happened to be an opening at the State Department of Education in Nutrition Education and Training, and with my background in Nutrition and Health Education it was a perfect fit, and so I went to work at the Department of Education in Louisiana, and that was how I got my start.

MH: How long were you there?

SD: Four and a half years.

MH: And then?

SD: And then I left there, had an opportunity to apply for the position at St. Tammany Parish, and was very excited to have that opportunity to go into a system. Because at the state level – I liked working at the state level – but when I would go into the districts and I would see the projects and the programs that the schools were doing, especially with the Nutrition Education and Training, I just thought that I wanted to be in the trenches if you will, to see that immediate feedback of what a director/supervisor does, and you get that immediate feedback in terms of program.

MH: Was there someone – a mentor – tell me about that.

SD: I had two, Ms. Nell Brouette and Ms. Marcelle Landry. They were both at the State Department of Education when I went there. And the thing that impressed me the most about both of those ladies was that they had come from the ranks of the school level or district level and had worked their way up until the top level at the State Department of Education. But what they taught me, and what I learned from them was how important it was to have a grasp of what’s going on at the school level, and especially if you were going to work at the state level and if you really wanted to help people you had to understand what was happening at that school, with that technician, with that manager. And so I would say that I owe a great deal to Ms. Marcelle and Ms. Nell.

MH: Would you tell me about the positions that you’ve held.

SD: OK. I started off as a teacher in graduate school doing teaching at the University of Georgia, Purdue University. Then when my husband was finishing up his doctoral program I actually got involved in teaching in the public school system in Georgia, taught Health Education. And then we moved to Texas for a while and I taught health again there. And then back to Louisiana; eventually taught science before joining the Department of Education.

MH: Then how did you decide to become a school food service director?

SD: I had the opportunity after working as a science teacher when we first moved back to Louisiana to move on to that opportunity at the Department of Education, was there for four and a half years and then had the opportunity to apply at St. Tammany Parish, and I’ve been there twenty-nine years.

MH: As a school food service director?

SD: Right.

MH: So you really feel that your educational background helped prepare you for that position.

SD: Interestingly, I would say that the Nutrition Education part of my master’s and my undergraduate degree is an important part, and probably why my passion is the nutrition component of the meal, and that’s what I really what I feel like my mission is as a food service supervisor, and always has been, to provide that nutritionally balanced meal for the students. But I can also say that probably the influence that my grandmother had on me as a child in Louisiana growing up – my grandmother Eupora – she taught me a very valuable lesson, because she had not completed her education because she had had to drop out of school. She had thirteen brothers and sisters, and when her mother died she took the responsibility of raising her siblings. And out of all the adversity that she went through as a child and as she grew into an adult, she was the most loving, caring person. She always taught us that we should respect everyone no matter how educated they were or how uneducated; whatever their circumstances, that everybody has an important part to play, and that you should always respect everyone and that you should always treat people fairly. And so I think I probably learned more important lessons from my grandmother than I learned from all the degrees hanging on my wall.

MH: Is there anything unique about child nutrition programs in your state?

SD: Let me start with St. Tammany Parish. Part of what is unique about our parish is we have tremendous support, and have had. We’ve always had tremendous support from our superintendents, from our school boards. They support our efforts; they’ve supported our mission. They were on board when we implemented our nutrition education program twenty-five years ago. They were supportive of us when we implemented the Gold Standard menus and went about the process of getting that documented in 2005, and especially supportive when we were able to get our schools back up and running within two months of the devastation of the hurricane in ’05.

MH: Is this Katrina?

SD: Yes. You notice I say the hurricane because my daughter-in-law is named Katrina, so out of deference to my daughter-in-law I say “the hurricane”. But as far as the state of Louisiana, I think we’re very fortunate in Louisiana because we do not have a-la-carte, which allows us to focus on the reimbursable meal, which is the most important thing we should be about as directors. We also have a very strong concession policy in the state of Louisiana, and that protects our programs, which is also another very important thing. But we have an outstanding State Department where we have tremendous technical assistance that comes from our directors and from our supervisors, and also from the commodity program, which in our state is housed under the Department of Agriculture, and we get a tremendous amount of support from all of the state level employees.

MH: So what’s a typical day?

SD: Haaaa! A typical day, there’s never a typical day. You probably get that answer every time, and you know what, I think that’s one of the most exciting things about this job is that there is a different challenge every day, and it’s our job to turn those challenges into interesting adventures instead of letting them become problems. But when you work with the kind of employees that we work with in the food service program – they’re a tremendous group of women, and a few good men – they work hard every day and I tell them all the time I chase their dust, because they’re the ones out there making it happen as we feed 35,000 meals every day. It’s a tremendous responsibility that they have and they take really great pride in the job that they do.

MH: Name at least one big challenge.

SD: Big challenge – there are lots of challenges. I would say currently that the biggest challenge that all of us are facing are the financial difficulties that so many districts are facing with the cost of insurance and retirement going up substantially every year. And then there’s the pressure to continue to maintain the quality of the meal and the quality of your staff. That’s always a challenge, but then at the same time it’s a blessing, because I can tell you that currently we have a tremendous group of employees who get their mission. They want to be a part of the education team. They don’t feel like they’re outside the bubble. And so although it could be construed as a challenge I look at it more as a blessing.

MH: So what changes have you seen in the child nutrition programs since you’ve been there?

SD: Well, as I look around me – we have pretty much stayed on course in terms of we continue to cook from scratch – but then as I look around at some of my cohorts, they are faced with reductions in staff, reductions in financial support. We enjoy a level of financial support. We also enjoy a level of highly trained people, so I can tell you that we still continue to try to make that nutritional meal happen every day, to maintain those trained employees, and to maintain the type of staff that is going to be dedicated to the mission that we have in St. Tammany Parish. But it’s not to say that there haven’t been changes, but I don’t think the changes in our district have been as dramatic, because we’re still doing the cooking from scratch. We still cook our bread every day from scratch. We do the greaseless roux gumbo that won the Clarion Award. We won the Clarion Award for that because it was a pretty interesting concept – to be able to feed 35,000 meals of gumbo and to figure out a way to do it and you’re eliminating a majority of the fat. We do have some processed foods, but we’ve always had that. And I don’t know if I’m answering your question to the extent that you would like, but I see lots of changes but I also know that we have been able, and we’ve been very fortunate, to continue running a program that exemplifies the USDA Gold Standards. We were the first district in the nation to document at one of our elementary schools, Cypress Cove Elementary in 2005 – they were the first school. And we were able to not only document the Gold Standards, but we validated what we had been doing for 28 years plus. And if I say that wasn’t a gradual process – we like where we are, and so it’s been an evolution towards Gold Standards. So when you talk about the changes, the changes are just the financial struggles I guess we all go through, and just as directors trying to figure out a way to continue to offer a quality meal. Now I would also like to say that we’re in the process now of submitting documentation for the USDA Gold Award with Distinction. And we’ve submitted that information so we’re awaiting word on that and hoping we’ll be able to receive that distinction for our schools as well.

MH: Very proactive, huh?

SD: Well, you know, instead of sitting around – and we discussed this as a team in our parish – instead of sitting around and trying to figure out why things can’t happen, we try to be proactive and we try to figure out a way to make it happen. And you can always find one thing to do better. You don’t have to find fifteen things, but if you can just focus on improving one aspect of your program every year. But again, it goes back to being blessed to have the support, the staff, and everyone buying in to the vision. You’ve got to have that.

MH: So what do you think has been your most significant contribution?

SD: Probably the thing that had the most dramatic effect on the program was 25 years ago, when I came from the State Department, and realizing that I came from the Nutrition Education and Training program, we developed a very simplistic Go Glow Grow nutrition education program, and we worked in conjunction with some of our elementary supervisors to make that happen. It’s a very simplistic program. We realized we could not do nutrition education K-12, so we decided to focus on kindergarten, first graders. And it involved tasting parties and activities and then reinforcing the concepts of what foods help your bodies go, glow, and grow, with line labels in our cafeteria. And the dramatic effect that we had in terms of our students accepting the fresh fruits and produce, the whole grain products, and the menu changes that we started to implement we accepted then by the students. But interestingly enough our high school students – we would try to put the fresh fruits and the whole grain products on for them at that time and they weren’t having any of it. And it wasn’t until those first graders became ninth graders that we began to see the acceptance K-12 of our menus. So you can make a difference. And it’s a shame we couldn’t do that K-12, but I’m sure that everyone realizes with the demands of the instructional minutes you pick and choose when you can, and try to make the most of the time you’re given. So I’d say the Go Glow Grow program was probably the thing that impacted our menus the most.

MH: Well, do you have any memorable stories, or special children that you’ve served, or people that you’ve worked with, that come to mind?

SD: Memorable stories would have to be the day after Hurricane Katrina when we lost five of our schools. On the Friday before the hurricane hit we had just fully stocked all of our coolers and freezers, and the following two weeks the National Guard was going around and removing all of that food from the freezers. And we were cleaning up and getting ready to restart and we were actually able to be back into our schools, with the exception of the five schools that we lost, on October 4th, which was an unbelievable testament to the resiliency of our people and our superintendent’s leadership at the time, because nobody gave us a shot at getting back into those schools in October. That’s probably one of the biggest challenges, but at the same time we had people who were coming back into the schools. They were living in church shelters, school shelters, eventually FEMA trailers. We had over ninety employees who lost everything. And one of the most inspiring stories that came from the staff, and that would be on the Slidell end of the parish where we had such devastation, would be that the employees would end their day by going to a local church and they would find clothes to wear the next day to work, because they had no clothes. And so when you think about it, you think about what they went through. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m still sitting here today, because I was supposed to retire in ’06. You don’t walk away from that. We were always a family. You know Melba. You’ve worked with food service employees. You’re a family. But when you go through something like that you can’t describe what it’s like. But to say that you admire employees who have that type of commitment and that type of commitment just goes without saying.

MH: What advice would you give someone who is considering child nutrition programs as a profession? We have all these new folks coming in.

SD: You better believe in what you’re doing. You better have a passion. You better be there for the kids. You better be ready to let your employees know how important they are – that they are a critical part of the nutrition team and the education team. They are the hardest working group of individuals I have ever had the pleasure of working with. And I tell them all the time – I tell the managers – I say, “You are CEOs of small businesses. You are running small companies. You are responsible for thousands and thousands of dollars worth of inventory and coordinating to feed the number of meals that you feed.” And you cannot cancel lunch. You can cancel a test, but you cannot cancel lunch. You’ve got to go on with the show. And so just be ready to fight for all the right reasons. Stay on the offence, stay on the offence, ’cause there’s lots of good things to take the offence on.

MH: Is there anything else you want to add?

SD: Do I get to edit? [Laughter] I think I’ve covered it all.

MH: It’s just a privilege to have you here. I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve heard from other folks when doing other oral histories talk about your mother and how she was a role model for them too.

SD: Absolutely. And she’s probably why I ended up – you know, there she was planning lunches at Denham Springs High School – I mean, can you imagine? The network that we have to help us do our jobs, and here were these Home Economics teachers out here running school lunch programs individually. And then little Miss Willkie in her little, antiquated Hudson automobile driving the winding roads from the depths of the Cajun land all the way into the “big city” of Denham Springs – just real heroes. My mom was very special – my dad too – and they certainly gave me an appreciation for public education, and that we all need to make a difference.

MH: Absolutely.

SD: And we all need to appreciate the people that we work with because they’re all – if it weren’t for the 400+ employees in St. Tammany Parish I wouldn’t be sitting here. You know your ladies made you look good too, right?

MH: Absolutely. Thank you. I appreciate it very much.