Interviewees: Sylvia Elam and Paul McElwain
Interviewer: Meredith Johnston
Date: December 2, 2004
Location: Frankfort, Kentucky
Description: Sylvia Elam’s involvement with the child nutrition profession goes back over thirty years. She is a native Kentuckian and holds an undergraduate degree in Home Economics from Morehead State University, with graduate work in Education. As a home economist she has worked in business and also taught at the secondary level. In the early 1970s she began work for the Kentucky Department of Education as a consultant in child nutrition. Since that time she has held various positions within the department from consultant all the way up to Assistant Director of Nutrition Services. She is now retired.
Paul McElwain has been involved with the child nutrition profession for over 20 years. He too is a native Kentuckian and holds an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Morehead State University and also a law degree from Northern Kentucky University. He has held various positions within the Kentucky Department of Education and has been the Director of Nutrition Services since 1987. He served on ASFSA’s Public Policy and Legislative Committee for seven years. He is a past recipient of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy School Hero Award.
MJ: We are here in Frankfort, Kentucky, with Sylvia Elam and Paul McElwain. Thank you both for giving us the opportunity to interview you. First of all could each of you tell us a little bit about yourself and really, maybe what your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs would be?
SE: Well, I am a Kentuckian. I was born in Kentucky, always lived here, so, traveled, don’t want you to think I don’t know anything but Kentucky, but I do. Native Kentuckian. A little bit about my background: my undergraduate degree, remarkably, is from the same place that Paul graduated from. We have that in common. Morehead State University, and then my graduate work is in Education.
MJ: What would your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs be?
SE: Earliest recollection. Probably it was called school lunch when I was in school. We weren’t sophisticated enough yet to call it child nutrition. The earliest recollection that I have is that the manager came into the classrooms every Monday morning and for a dollar you could eat five days. That means lunches were 20 cents. I went to a small independent school where we could also go home for lunch, but a lot of kids ate in the lunchroom and one of the things that was really exciting to me was when you got to be junior high, if your grades were good, you could volunteer. You could go down and help serve the food. That was exciting probably to me then because I got out of class. Those are my earliest recollections of school lunch.
PM: I am a native Kentuckian as well. I was born locally and lived all over the country: Georgia, New Mexico, Arizona, Maryland, Oklahoma, outside of D.C., and then back here. I graduated from Morehead State University with a degree in Political Science and I have a law degree from Northern Kentucky University. I guess my earliest recollection would be in the second and third grade. I went to school then on the Navajo Indian Reservation out in Gallup, New Mexico, and Fort Defiance, Arizona. [Fort Defiance, Arizona is a U. S. Army base on the eastern state line of Arizona, 24 miles from Gallup, New Mexico, and overseeing the Navajo Indian Reservation there] There were lunch programs. The population in the classrooms as I recall was very heavily Navajo Indian and not as many Caucasian American kids, I guess we refer to them now, in those classrooms. But that was a big event, lunch was, because a lot of those Navajo kids came from families that were very poor and to go down to lunch and for it to be ready and milk and all that available was great. I think the next thing that strikes me is that when we moved out to Baltimore, Maryland, I remember you could buy ice cream sandwiches a- la-carte and they were a dime and that was a big deal after being on the Indian Reservation to be able to buy ice cream sandwiches a-la-carte. That was cool. It had to be a-la-carte at that time.
MJ: What time period would that have been when you were attending the schools?
PM: It would have been early ’60s, ’61, ’62, ’63.
MJ: Could you each tell us how you became involved in the child nutrition profession?
SE: I don’t want to say accidentally, but my husband relocated to Frankfort. Prior to that I had been a home economist in business and had taught Home Economics at the secondary level. And when he relocated here to Frankfort I put in an application at several places including the schools, but as it turned out, child nutrition had a vacancy for a consultant, and, kind of interesting how that came about. Different, perhaps, than how we staff programs today, but the director at the time, C. E. Bevins knew that a consultant who had been with the program since the mid-’40s which is when it started in Kentucky, and, I am told, was run by three people out of the state capital, which is hard to believe when we see what the program has grown to today. But a consultant in the office by the name of Annie Marie Botts was getting ready to retire in a couple of years. And Mr. Bevins was seeking someone to literally share an office with her and learn what she knew. I won’t tell you that I learned everything that she knew, but it was a tremendous asset just to have your desk there and to literally get to hear her response to questions, her interpretation of the regulations. One of the particular jobs that she had that he particularly wanted someone to learn was the reviewing of the cafeteria plans. By law the entire school plans come through the State Department of Education and our division is afforded an opportunity to review the cafeteria and the lunchroom plans, and that was one of the things that she did, worked with architects. So I got to learn that sitting in her office.
MJ: And what time period would this have been?
SE: That would have been the early ’70s.
MJ: Well, was there someone, maybe a mentor, who was influential in directing you, then, maybe the person you were talking about?
SE: Well, obviously, the name Annie Marie Botts comes up as the consultant. She was the first person that I actually rubbed elbows with on a daily basis in child nutrition. I came to have many mentors, people I respected in the program, through my 30 years of being with it. But as I say it was almost an accident that I got started that way but it turned out to be a wonderful career.
MJ: How did you become involved in the profession?
SE: More accidentally?
PM: More accidentally than Sylvia. I was appointed as the Division Director in June of 1987. At the time we still had an elected Chief State School Officer. And she had made a bit of a mess of the division, is a nice way to put it. But the woman is still living, and I still have some respect for her. But there had been some directors appointed who had other agendas, and did not pay attention to the staff. They did not pay attention to what the staff was doing. They did not try to help the staff do what the staff was trying to do. They did not pay attention to the relationship with the federal cognizant agency. We have a very close relationship with the Southeast Regional Office of the USDA’s Food Nutrition Service and they had let that relationship slide, which had resulted in a series of bad management evaluations. And I had gotten to know Sylvia in the course of trying to address those when I was working other places within the department. And then those directors had let the relationship with the state association slide. The director that I replaced wanted to go back under the merit system, and what you’ve got is basically you have a protected class of employees and then you have another class of employees in state government who are not protected under the civil service rules. And this, the director wanted to go back under, into that system where he would be protected by the civil service rules because a new Chief State School Officer had been nominated in the primary and was going to win the election in November, and we are talking about June here. And so Alice asked me to come in and head the division and I initially said, “No.” And she said, “Yes.” And I thought that I would be there for six months until the next elected Chief State School Officer came in and appointed new division directors, and [I would] turn it down. There was not a different appointment made; I’ve been here basically ever since. It was not something that I expected to do. You don’t go to law school with the idea that one of these days you are going to be the State Director of the Child Nutrition Program. Anybody tells you they were doing that they’re either under the influence of something or just an outright liar. But it’s turned out pretty well and keep in mind, there were some things that I knew as a result of trying to settle the management evaluation, trying to do that, but there was a lot, most, about the program that I did not know. In terms of mentors, you are looking at the main one here sitting to my right. A couple of others, maybe Jo Martin and Gene White. Jay Caton, who for a number of years was the Director of Food Service with the Jefferson County Schools, which is Louisville, Kentucky, and was the main author of the book A Pinch of Love, which is a history of the American School Food Service Association; Helen Davis, who was just a great lady. I used to tell people that I loved Helen Davis. I still love Helen Davis and if I ever grow up I want to be just like Helen Davis was. She was the food service director in Todd County for 48 years maybe, something like that. I think it was 2002 when she retired, maybe 2001, and she went there in something like 1954, which was the year before I was born. She was the national treasurer of ASFSA, Southeast Membership Chair for the Association, and she lived in Todd County. I know you haven’t ever been there to that birthplace of Robert Penn Warren, who is as far as I’m concerned the second most famous person to be from Todd County, behind Helen Davis. And getting anywhere, I used to hear Helen talking about it, getting anywhere was just a complete struggle, because if you wanted to fly, it was years before you could fly out of Nashville. And so you had to get to Louisville somehow and then when you could fly out of Nashville, it was still a trip to get to Nashville and she managed to be involved in the national association and the state association back in the days when she and Manthus McAtee from Trigg County would go, they would meet each other someplace and they would drive together so they felt safer. But individuals like that have been, were a great help to me. And I can remember the first meeting I went to and when the meeting was over Helen came up to me and said, “Well, I am glad to see you stayed for the whole meeting.” And I knew right then that we had a bad relationship with the state association and with the local directors if that was the first reaction she had. To me those were great people. I miss Jay and I miss Helen tremendously. Of course Jo Martin is still alive and I talk to her, and Gertrude Applebaum, Dot Martin, Gene White, and Betty Bender, who I talked to the other day. Those are great people.
MJ: Okay. Well, you’ve both spoken about this a little bit, but would you like to say more about your educational background and how that prepared you for the child nutrition profession?
SE: I think my background in Home Economics gave me a good foundation, but the way you learn child nutrition is by cutting your teeth on it. I think that is particularly true because it is heavily regulated; you’ve got to understand and it is federally regulated. My recollection is that it is, what, about 96 percent federally funded and about 4 percent state funds. So you’ve got a whole body of the law and regulations and instructions so I think just a good general background and open mind prepares you. I really don’t know that there is a college course that absolutely, or a field of study that prepares you to do that. Obviously you have to enjoy education, because that is the background against which the program operates. The Child Care Program may be close on its heels. At least in Kentucky it is really an expanding program. But I think having some knowledge of education and appreciation of what goes on in a school. We think we are one of the most important things, but we know that we operate in concert with everything else that goes on. From something like a six-hour day which happens to be a state requirement that you have to spend six hours on task and what that does for scheduling breakfast and lunch. So I think having an education background and having taught in the schools, that helped me somewhat. But you really learn this job by cutting your teeth on those regs and jumping in and working at the local level and getting to understand what it’s all about. What about you?
PM: Well, the Political Science degree helped. Sylvia mentioned that these programs are heavily regulated at the congressional level and at the federal agency level, and understanding how you, how and who you have to influence, who you have to get to, who you have to see, and who you have to convince. How the process of reg. writing and commenting and all that stuff works. The law degree has helped quite a bit. You get into procurement situations. You get into personnel situations. All those things you get involved with, so the law degree has helped quite a bit. Sylvia is right. You can’t; we could put together a college course syllabus and we could go out and teach it. And they would be just as prepared to do food service as teachers are prepared to teach when they get out of school. Until you’ve been in there and rolled up your sleeves and had your hands in a three-compartment sink, or you’re down stirring in a jacketed steam kettle or you’re whatever it is, measuring out 50 pounds of flour, picking up a five-pound block of cheese or a 50-pound block of ground beef or you don’t know what, what is going on. There are things that I think you could do to help yourself get ready and the staff we have here now, we have early childhood education people. We have people with degrees in Physical Education. One of the branch managers has a degree in Music. The other one has a degree in Marketing with a minor in Music. We’ve got Home Ec backgrounds. We’ve got four Registered Dieticians on the staff. There are people with accounting backgrounds. And what they’ve all done is they bring all those strengths to the program, but they get out there and they learn the program. Most of them understand the how and then also most of them I think, and this is what makes the staff as strong as it is I think, this is the best staff in the department. They understand the why, and the why is always more important than the how. You can teach the how to a lot of people, but it is fewer people that are going to understand the significance of the why and get to where they learn the why. And that is one of the things that we have to do here, we have to understand the why.
MJ: Would each of you tell us more about your career and the positions that you’ve held? A bit more about that?
SE: I came in as a consultant to the division. You know over the years titles change, but basically being a consultant, actually having an assignment, counties assigned to work, all the way up to assistant director, every job title that we’ve had, at one time or another, I was called that. I wore that hat. But actually I think that’s what, if I had to reflect and look back, that’s probably a strength I brought to the program, that I had experienced those different levels and had worked with different sponsors. As Paul says, other partners. We are not in this alone. You do have to know how to get along with the building principal, the superintendent, sometimes board members. There’s just a whole cadre of folks that it takes in order to make the programs successful, so I’m, I’ve been fortunate I think in my 30 years with the program that I got to serve in multiple ways. I would just pick up on something that Paul said, how important it is to get your hands dirty. And by that, he means being in the kitchen, but beyond that it means full involvement with the locals and the federals. Truly, if the programs are going to be great, and we in Kentucky pride ourselves on having a high number, a high percent of participation. If I am not wrong every public school in the state participates in the child nutrition program and not every state can say that. Our breakfast participation…
PM: Only 10 schools don’t in the whole state participate in the Breakfast Program.
SE: In the whole state! We have private schools that participate, but I digress. The point is that I think that in having all those different positions, it allowed me to work with all different folks. I mean, sometimes, like, the business official is one of the most important people, because, you know, you are trying to get them to prorate utilities or something so you can identify indirect costs if there is not a percentage which we were later approved to have. So I think that working all those different positions, it really doesn’t matter what you are called if you are contributing. But I guess I was fortunate. I got an opportunity to pretty well wear all the hats in the division. By the time I retired I think that was a strength that I had, that I could appreciate all the different levels and hopefully could talk with each of them. Not talk down, not talk up, just being open communication, and as Paul said, being able to explain the why; that we are about feeding kids. That yes we have to do these papers and we have to, you know, keep track of how many cans we serve, how many are free, and we have to do all of these things. But the most important thing is that we have to keep the emphasis on the child. The fact is that you can’t teach a hungry child.
MJ: Would you like to add some more about the positions you have had?
PM: Well, before I went to law school I spent one session with the legislature and that was a big help. I served as an aid to the President pro tem of the Senate, the State Senate. When I came to the department I started out as a grade two clerk, and this may sound corny. I went to undergraduate school, half of it on athletic scholarship, believe it or not looking at me now. I went to graduate school, I went to law school on a scholarship, and I felt, to some extent, like I had a debt because the people of Kentucky paid for parts of my education. I had uh, I still haven’t finished it, but I had started a master’s in Higher Ed, so I thought, well, I will come to work in the department, and I had a friend who worked in the department. So I called him and I asked him and he said, “Yeah, they had a position, it was a grade two clerk.” I started out making $625 a month and this was in 1984 and like so many other places, the people end up working just sort of have to get your foot in the door and then things opened up. Things progressed. And then I worked in the legal office, and I worked in the budget office and then the finance office, which are separate, and then I worked directly for the Chief State School Officer and so I got to do a lot of different things. And I got a feeling, a little bit of a feeling for how things in the department worked, which was helpful with when we had to settle some things with the USDA on occasion and with, we had to talk to other people in the department about what was happening out in the school districts, particular staff people about the school districts. There were other parts of the department that I was familiar with and that was helpful. I’ve spent, after law school that’s where I have been. I’ve spent 20-plus years.
SE: You are going to catch my 30 years.
PM: Oh, I am. I am. I’d like to work 10 more years and then retire at 30 years. My daughter will be 17 and ready to go to college. I’ll be 59 and then it will be time to go. I think if all the slots line up then that is what I am going to do. But being in other places of the department was a help. Then they could bring that experience to bear.
MJ: How is Kentucky unique from other states with regards to child nutrition programs?
SE: Well, of course, I’ll say we are unique and special, but in all actuality, we are probably pretty typical in terms of most of our schools are what would be considered small School Food Authorities. We have one of the largest School Food Authorities. What is Jefferson County, in the top 10 or 15 in the nation?
PM: Fifteen, I think.
SE: Our next largest is Lexington, Fayette County. When you get outside that, we are basically rural school districts, and again I think that is pretty typical. But there is one thing that I just have to brag about Kentucky on, particularly in the public school arena, if you will. To my knowledge, there has never been a serious debate when we were building the school, whether it is elementary, middle, or high, of whether or not we’ll have a cafeteria. It is just that feeding kids, having the food program is considered part of the building and just like you wouldn’t not put a gym, that’s important in Kentucky, you also just wouldn’t not put a feeding facility. And as Paul says, we have every public school district participating in the program and the last one that I know to get a cafeteria, it is on the agenda for next year, as I understand because of course Shawn works in that district so I am familiar with that. And right now, those students, the high school level, can walk down to an elementary school. But they are going to get their own cafeteria. I know every state can’t stand tall and say, “Every public school in our state participates.” So I’d have to say that that is one thing that makes Kentucky unique. Maybe that doesn’t surprise me. Representative Carl Perkins was kind of the father of the program. He was a Kentucky Representative and certainly one of the pioneers in the child nutrition program. I am told that we had one of the first programs beginning in the mid-40s right here in Kentucky. That predates even me. If there is anything else that makes us unique, it is the fact that child nutrition, particularly at the public school level, is considered an integral part, at least to whether or not you have it or not. And I think that the Child Care Program is just growing by leaps and bounds, but that is probably true again, isn’t it, Paul, all over the country. Research just yearly comes out supporting the fact that you cannot teach a hungry child. Absent good nutrition, the brain is not going to grow, the body is not going to grow. The tummy is not going to be quiet. The attention level is not going to be the same. So I think that is something that we in Kentucky feel very, very proud of.
PM: The other thing, I guess, well, there’s two other things, I guess. The participation rates are just incredible when compared to the national average. We’ll have 73 percent of the kids in attendance every day eat lunch at school. The national average is somewhere in the low 50s. It’s about 30 percent of the kids in average attendance, in average daily attendance every day, that’s attendance every day. Thirty percent of them eat breakfast at school. The national average is in the middle teens, 17, 18, something like that. And that percentage for lunch has been constant throughout the years. It has not gone down. It has stayed, you know, that a little more than seven out of ten kids eat lunch every day. The participation in breakfast, on the other hand; I think 18 years ago, it was probably in the 17 percent range. It has grown as the number of schools has, that participate in the program and offer the program have grown, it has had, and as individuals have taken advantage of that service and as building administrators and classroom teachers have come to understand the value of having a child with a full stomach sitting in your classroom first thing in the morning as opposed to the opposite. Nothing will disrupt what you are doing any faster, so we indicated that some child who doesn’t like to eat first thing in the morning, has a long bus ride and then gets there to school and is hungry and all they are focused on is, “When is it going to be 10:45? When’s 10:45?” That’s all they are asking. So I think those participation rates put us in the top five in both categories among states across the country. As a matter of fact, in terms of the children who are approved for free and reduced price meals and who eat lunch every day and then eat breakfast every day, we are second in the country. We are now tied with West Virginia, 56 out of a hundred. Only Oregon is ahead of us, with I think about 58 out of a hundred. Oregon has had a huge statewide push for breakfast participation and I think they threw in money from the state legislature. Understand that we’ve done all that, in terms of breakfast participation without state reimbursement for breakfast, without state mandate for breakfast. We don’t have a state mandate in Kentucky that schools have to participate in the Breakfast Program. We have a statute that says that if they don’t they have to report to the State Board of Education why they are not. But we don’t have a state mandate that says that they have to. So that is one of the things that makes us a little bit different. I guess one of the other things that used to make us more unique than it does now, I guess, is the situation with regard to competitive foods. For a long time, starting in the 1990s, for a long time we had the strongest competitive foods rules in the country, with the exception of Louisiana. They had a statute, we have a state board regulation that prohibited foods being sold or served in competition with breakfast or lunch until a half hour after lunch. And the state board took quite a beating when they passed that regulation, because vending machine revenues are important to building administrators and I don’t fault them for that at all. Should we be funding public education to the extent or to the degree that school principals don’t have to worry about how many kids bought a Pepsi today? Yes, we should. But we don’t. And so vending machines picked up the slack. And I tell people they are not out there having their Jaguars painted with those vending machine revenues. That’s not what was happening. They were paving parking lots that had been gravel. They were buying pencils and paper for kids who didn’t have it. You know, musical instruments for kids. Nobody’s parents are going to rent him a Sousaphone for goodness sakes. The way you get a Sousaphone for the marching band was, you sold Pepsi. That’s how you did it. They bought band uniforms and football uniforms. They did things that should have been done with those revenues but we just got to the point where we had to see if we couldn’t level the playing field. And the state board to their credit stood up and said, “This shouldn’t be happening.” And they tried to stop it. Not all the principals always followed the rule, but the rule has been out there now for about 15 years. And I think it has made at least, made a difference in terms of leveling the playing field and I still on occasion get questions. Particularly when one of the scorecards comes out from F. R. A. C. [Food Research and Action Center] that talks about who’s got what competitive foods rules, then some state director, from another state, calls in and says, “How did you get that again?” And it wasn’t us. It was the state board. We made a case for it. The state association came in and backed us up when we made a case for it, and the state board decided, “Well, this is in the best interest of the children.” I think we are going to see it in the next two or three years, another thing that I hope Kentucky is going to be unique for, and that is the approach that our schools and districts are taking to coordinated school health and the child nutrition program as a part of that. We’ve got some things going in this next session that I think are going to require schools and districts to look at their policies and programs with regard to the eight components of the Coordinated School Health model and see where they are and adopt policies to get them to where they think they need to be. I think that’s going to be, right now, we are out on the front of Coordinated School Health efforts. I hope we will stay there. The state association has done a unique thing here. It is a very strong, a very vibrant one, a very vital one, and plays a big part in everything we do in child nutrition.
MJ: What changes have you seen in the profession over the years?
SE: Well, it is like going from the horse and buggy to the moon. When I started the program had just started the free and reduced price meals. Someone who has been in the program 10 years can’t imagine. They just think we always had free and reduced price meals. But that was not true. Certainly that was a big change. In fact such a big change that a lot of people use those statistics now for everything about a school from Title I to well, just all kinds of programs. Certainly that was revolutionary for its time and when you look back it was just left up to the local districts to take care of the kids who perhaps could not afford to eat and to have a national mandate like that was certainly a very large initiative. And coming right on the heels of that was something we call Full Cost Accounting, and that was in the mid-70s. That was Federal Instruction 796-1. Some things are just in your brain.
PM: It is in a 3-ring binder on the bookshelf next to my desk.
SE: That’s the federal instruction that required schools to, if you will, come up with an accounting system. And actually as a taxpayer, I am for it. To come up with an accounting system that says, “Don’t just give me, give me, give me.” And Paul tells me it is $163,000,000 that Kentucky received in the last fiscal year in federal funds. So if you will, this kind of justifies, “Okay, how much did you spend on food and labor?”, and makes us a big business, because that is what we are as a program and on the local level. But Kentucky led again. Our director at the time, Redwood Taylor, really got on the bandwagon in concert with the federal agency, ours being in Atlanta, and did develop a full cost accounting system. And many states across the nation have adopted Kentucky’s model. I am sure they tweaked it, but it remains to this day pretty well as it was established back in the mid-70s. But that was a change and it was an exciting change when I look back. I am glad I was younger. But we, they, the team that was put together to do this, I mean, we just did a dog and pony show all over this state, and even to other states. That was exciting. Again from my reflection looking back, the times that I think about, it is not the daily grind but the things that stand out were the times that you were working on a project, you had a good team spirit, and you had something to show for it at the end of the day, because so often with just administrative things, what you have at the end of the day is a headache. But there are other times when you can see things. So, free and reduced, full cost accounting comes to mind. Then in the early ’80s we had the terrific budget cuts under President Reagan. And they were quite severe and in fact, are we back on par yet?
PM: No, we’ve never gotten back to the same levels as before.
SE: I knew it was that way when I retired, that for part of the meals, the program has not recovered and this was 25 years ago. So that was a big change, again, to give that out to administrators to say, “You know, we’ve still got to keep doing what we are doing. We’ve still got to keep feeding kids and to try to help direct where can you cut and still maintain a high level, if you will, of service to boys and girls.” Then the Offer Versus Serve comes to mind as a change in the program. I never have understood why it was named that. It is confusing. It is confusing to students. It is confusing to parents. It’s certainly confusing very often to cafeteria staffs. And as I am sure you are aware of the five components, that’s the five, you have to offer all five, but the kids may choose to take as few as three. The goal is noble. Let’s not have plate waste. If the kid absolutely is not going to eat greens, let’s not put it on the plate because the greens might touch something else, and we know how kids are about that! It might contaminate the whole plate. But that was, that became a challenge to try to get the different levels to understand that. Let me think. Back to the ’90s, would there have been a change? Of course, the continuing of tightening your belt. In Kentucky we had KERA, which was the Kentucky Education Reform Act, which was revolutionary, if you will, at least for our schools. There were lots of standards across the whole spectrum of education and measured by things like test scores. But those, all those things had implications to our program. One thing that comes to mind, Paul, was the pre-school program. All of a sudden in one year we added like 10,000 kids to the program because we had these at-risk three and four year olds, who were not in day care settings, but they were absolutely integrated into public school systems. So we had all these new kids. I know we often had to call the feds because they wanted to know why we were spending more money. And we would say, “Let us tell you why we are spending more money.” So it was an interesting problem to have. And then you just mix all that up and you put technology on top of it. Remembering that we are dealing with all levels of folks in child nutrition programs, and so it really has been a challenge. Two-fold. First of all to get our own staff and our own office and to integrate with, to be able to turn around, to get the numbers in, to get the money out. The technology internally, which any time you are working with a bureaucracy is not easy. That’s enough said about that. But then, the different levels that you need to do to bring along the locals. I mean going from keeping money in the proverbial cigar box to going to a counter, to going to a cash register computer if you will, that actually allows the child to prepay, mom to prepay like $50 at the beginning of the semester and they just deduct from the account each day. And then to come up with accounting procedures at the end of the day that made them think they were bank tellers. We said we were over and under. Nobody’s perfect, you know. So that whole technology realm I think was the real challenge of, of these last years, and probably continues to be. I know when I left the division, public schools were all filing their claims on-line, completely out of the paper process, which is wonderful to say until you have a breakdown. But again, communicating, using those people skills to as we have both said before, to keep in mind that what we are all about is feeding kids. But boy it takes a world of things to do, from educating them about keeping the paper tracks of the free and reduced, to collecting on-line, to filing the claim if you will. So just running the gamut from free and reduced price starting which it was just as I joined the program, to just the explosion of technology and the other things I mentioned in between are just some of the highlights that come to my mind.
Leslie White: Let me ask one question. Are the payment methods throughout the state standardized?
LW: Pretty much?
PM: Yes. Pretty much.
SE: They collect daily or weekly or monthly.
LW: I was just wondering.
PM: Yes, it is pretty much in the schools, and it is getting that way in the child care. So. I think it is the biggest change I have seen in 10 years; and preparation techniques.
SE: Yes. You are right.
PM: Well, talk to Betty and ask her about commodities. When you talk to Betty ask her about commodities. Because if you talk to some of the people who were operating these programs locally in the ’40s and ’50s, and even into the ’60s, they would have to get their husband’s pick-up truck and drive to the rail station and where they’d unload the commodities from the train car. The train stopped and Joe the conductor, who they all knew, would pull the train to a stop and they would get up in that pick-up truck and load commodities. We don’t, we don’t see. I told somebody the other day. Katie Stine asked me about menu planning, said there was time to learn about menu planning again. I said there is nowhere in the school that more closely reflects what is happening in society than what is happening in the cafeteria. Ward and June don’t sit down with Wally and the Beave and have dinner, much less breakfast. So what is on the cafeteria lines in the schools reflects what kids are eating when they are not at school. And not only the menu items, but the serving techniques. We now have more high schools with scattered systems, with food court systems, with station-by-station-by-station systems. We don’t have any public schools that use a food service management company, which is, I guess is becoming more and more unique, if you are looking for something unique. But more and more schools are using value added items. I mean, the carrots come in cleaned and washed, sliced and packaged. So does the lettuce. I mean, the produce just comes in that way. You know, we’ve always had the canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, we are getting more of those now. But I mean, to watch the menu items change over the years has been one of the interesting things. One of the other things that has changed over the years is starting to really to bother all of us here, that a number of the people associated with the state association is to watch the frequency now with which the food service director, who is if not a certified person, meaning they have a teaching certificate, at least they are a degreed person with some type of background in terms of their degree. They retire and they are replaced by their assistant or their clerk or their bookkeeper. Somebody who doesn’t have the degree; now, knows the paperwork, but as we said before they might understand the how but they don’t understand the why. And without a degree, education is one of those fields where a degree is everything because for so long, it is a profession that has been held in very low esteem. So to have a degree, I am a certified teacher. Well, if you are the food service director and you don’t have a degree, it is very difficult for you to communicate with the building administrator, and the classroom teachers, and the other central office people because, well, you don’t, “She doesn’t have a degree. She can be absolutely right, well, yeah, I understand that but she doesn’t have a degree; she never did get her degree.” And so it is really starting to bother us to see the frequency with which that is happening. That didn’t use to be the case. It was individuals, male and female, with business degrees, accounting degrees, you know, Home Ec, or what do they call it now? Family and Consumer Science degrees, and you can, they could deal with the other people in the district on an equal basis because they have the degree. So I am hoping that that change, that somehow or another we are going to be able to convince the legislature or the state board or maybe even districts themselves that it is in their best interests to have a food service director who has proved their qualifications on some scale or another, whether it is ASF… SNA certification. I hate that by the way and please don’t cut this part out of this. The name change was a terrible mistake. But they need to have certification or in the occasions when they do have a degree, they need to get that credential, that School Food Service and Nutrition Specialist credential because that, I think that shows to the public and to the other people in the school district that they do know what they are doing, and they do know what they are talking about.
MJ: What about in training, then, some of the changes that you have seen in that?
PM: Well, I think part of it may have been the degree to which the staff really takes ownership in it. I mean, that’s one of the things that I think maybe has always set this staff apart. At least from, to the extent that I have been familiar with what they are doing. There was an ownership aspect to the training because for so long we had those regions. Everybody had their little region. And you were concerned with what was going on in your region and then what else was going on really didn’t matter all that much. But you were concerned with what was going on in your region. And you did a review of a school district in your region, and if they didn’t do very well that was your fault. At least the staffer would care about it. Every once in a while you’d have a staffer say, “Well, that wasn’t my fault.” But there was an ownership aspect to that. And I think there still is. Our training is a little bit different because we tend to silo the training. We tend to train off this, then we tend to train on that. We don’t meet as much as we used to. The bureaucracy makes it harder to do that. So we try to piggy-back off meetings as opposed to calling meetings. And then all the technology changes to the training. If I see another PowerPoint presentation I am going to scream, I’ll just tell you that now. But at the same time, I don’t know. There is nothing out there to replace it. It is better than overheads. If somebody up there, and I’d always put mine on upside down you know. You’d start writing and you would run out of page and you are writing on the screen, so it is better than that. But if I see another PowerPoint, especially one you know with hands clapping, or some kind of graphic image. Oh, Lord! But a lot of our training lately has been about, it’s been about costs. We did that whole series with Dot and Gertrude on controlling costs and making sure that they understood that, you know, labor has a cost, and purchased food has a cost, and at the same time they both have a value. Where do you put those together and make sure that you come out to where you could break even, because that is what we want them to do. It is nice to have six or seven of them operating with balances in the bank but the fact of the matter is what you want to do is break even. Most of our training in the last few years has been on that.
MJ: Do you have anything else to add?
SE: That sounds very familiar of the training as I knew it and I think that is true, particularly at the local level to get them to understand that they are part of something bigger, if you will, than, serving the food daily is important, but truly they are part of a business. A business in an educational setting. And just trying to get a whole gamut of folks to appreciate that. I guess that is why they started working in schools because the hours were good, but there is much more to it than that. Again that delicate balance of trying to keep the focus on feeding the children but then again you have to take care of the details, so that the end result will be balanced. And that is where in-service training just automatically takes you.
PM: You know, it struck me, when I first started, one of the big changes has been in centralization. A lot of our school district operations were operated school by school by school by school. And you had a principal who was real proud of the macaroni and cheese recipe they had at his school. It was better than the macaroni and cheese recipe they had at that other school. Kids in this end of the county would eat hot dogs and kids in that end of the county wouldn’t. Kids in this end of the county would eat brown beans and kids in this end had to have white beans. And everybody’s chili recipe was different. The whole idea that you could continue to function that way in the face of a Section Four cut first by Jimmy Carter, then by Ronald Reagan that amounted to 33 percent basically, went 16 cents to 10 cents in Section Four reimbursable. If we had ever gotten it back it would now be something on the order of 39 and a half cents. It is 21. We’ve never gotten back. But people, there was a lot of work done before I came here, and there has been work done since, on training local managers and food service directors to understand how important it is to run their operation on a district-wide basis. If you’ve got seven schools and you’ve got seven different chili recipes, get everybody together, have them make their chili, get the kids in there and decide whose got the most approved chili. Not the best chili, but the one the most of them liked. Standardize the recipe. Everybody make it and serve it. Well, oh my goodness, you would have just thought, you know, fly the…
SE: A revolution here.
PM: Yeah, you know. Fly the United States flag in Jackson, Mississippi. It didn’t go over well at first. But it was a real cost saver and I think that they came around to see that it was. And then when we had nutrient analysis brought in by the famous Ellen Haas, who will forever, as far as I am concerned, be famous for standing next to Monica Lewinsky in the grope line for President Clinton. I love that she was there. But I mean we had to start doing nutrient analysis. You can’t do nutrient analysis in the absence of standardized recipes, so to the extent that the staff had already been talking to local directors about centralizing and standardizing recipes, we were a little bit ahead. We had already done some work on standardizing recipes so we were caught up there. We had to centralize in here. When I first came, every year when school districts renewed their application and agreement to participate in the program, we did an application on every school. Remember that yellow piece of paper, legal size?
SE: Fills many filing cabinets.
PM: I had to sign every one of them. And they would bring Jefferson County in to me that at the time had 120, high 120s in terms of the number of schools. And I had to sign my name to them, 120 times. Well, that didn’t, didn’t take me too long to do that, to try and figure out, ‘Is there some way that we can do that just for the district? And we could just sign one for the district?’ We were still letting schools send in claims for reimbursement, but we stopped that and told them, “Okay, we will be glad to have your claims for reimbursement, but each district is just going to send one a month.” And that didn’t go over very well at first. There were some of them that didn’t want anything to do with that, because they had always sent theirs in and their principal signed it and they wanted to know when their money came in and how much was it.
SE: Their money.
PM: Yeah. Their money. And state accounting systems. We put, the department put state accounting systems in, in what? The early 1990s? Mid-1990s? And so we had food service directors who were way ahead of the curve of these accounting systems. They had to keep track, because they had to break even. The school district is just out there. If something happened to it, you know, either the legislature would give us some more money or they would just raise the property taxes or something. But the food service director couldn’t do that. He or she had to know where the money was. So they had accounting systems that were far more sophisticated than these state mandated systems. And we had some pretty good back and forth with the Division of Finance and that division director, who had come down to meetings of the locals and they would scream and holler at her, “I don’t want to go to this; this is way behind what I have now.” And we still have directors who keep two sets of books. They keep one of their own and then they keep, they submit the other one to the district finance officer for the statewide accounting system. But they’ve got theirs over here, and that’s the one they go to first if you ask them how they are doing. They want to go to that one, they don’t want to go to the one they’ve turned in. But technology has forced all of that. Forced all of it, and at the same time facilitated it. We couldn’t have done it without the technology.
Leslie White: What time frame did they go to the standardized recipes? What year was that?
PM: Well, we started going in the ’90s.
SE: Nutrient analysis.
PM: When we had the nutrient analysis, but the staff was talking to directors about it in the late ’80s. You can’t. You are spending too much money. You’ve got a pot on the stove, and everybody comes by and starts dropping something in it, and pretty soon you don’t know what it costs. How are you going to know? If somebody, wooden spoon, oh, it needs a little salt. Somebody else comes by, wooden spoon, oh, it needs a little pepper. Somebody, wooden spoon, oh, it needs a little sugar. So by the time this thing is finished, you’ve got, well, it tasted fine, but you didn’t have any idea what was in it and as a result you didn’t have any idea what it costs to fix it. And so, we really started hitting them with standardized recipes.
SE: And as an adjunct to that, the local food vendors, too, got to the point that they did not want to bid five different kinds of green peas for a district.
PM: Different brands of hot dogs.
SE: So I guess the timing was right, kind of. So all of that went hand in glove to centralize the menu planning and then the recipes, and that made buying much easier, which means that you can get competitive bids. Because if you put a bid out there, and it might be, you know, a vendor might win just one little part. It is not worthwhile to get off your route and go over there and deliver it. So, that and the department’s accounting thing. I think it just all went together to help the programs become more centralized.
PM: And then we threw cycled menus. Cycled menus helped.
MJ: What are those?
PM: Cycled menus, where you have a week’s worth, and then another week’s worth and what happens is, you can forecast. Once you have been through the cycle one time, take your menu and production records, and you keep those, extensively, and the next time you go through that particular cycle you pull those out and you look. “Okay, I served this many of this and this many of this, so I know what I need to order and I know how many I need to fix.” The other thing about it is the kids get used to it. I firmly believe that kids like routine. They act like they don’t like it, but they need it and it helps them thrive and so they know, pizza day. As James Carville said to us that one time in D.C., “Fish stick day. You are the ones who made me eat all those fish sticks on Friday.” But they get used to that. There is something comforting about it, particularly for those children who come from households that are maybe food insecure or the parents are not exactly the role model caregivers that all of us would like to think that they are. There is some security in that routine. I mean, it is nice for the cafeteria ladies. They come in, they know what they are going to fix. They know how much, you know, how to get it out there, where to put it on the line. All those sorts of things that we have been able to do as a result of standardizing and centralizing.
MJ: I’ve got one more question about changes. What changes have you seen in the labor force?
SE: They are lean and mean. The whole cost issue has caused school districts to, as one of us referenced earlier, to kind of see it as a business and to understand that there is a value to coming to work, but you also have to produce, and this standing around or having lots of time to prepare the meal and then sit down and chat just doesn’t get the work done. So I am sure we still do meals per labor hour. We have standards established based on the participation, that determines how many hours you can have. Now school districts are free to decide how many four-hour people, how many five-hour people. They can set the schedule to help the rush hours, the serving times. But there’s been a real change, plus the fact that they have to be more sophisticated. You can’t just be a good cook and love children. That’s important and we will take that initially. But you have to fully understand and appreciate record keeping. I am thinking about the cook that gets something out of the stockroom; she’s got to write that down, she’s got to record it. She’s got to be able to read sufficiently and follow a recipe sufficiently so that the product turns out the same way. So we have seen changes and sometimes it is hard to get employees because you want them less than four hours. In Kentucky, if you are a four-hour person in a 20-hour week you are considered full time. And that’s a big issue because you get benefits.
SE: But, you just cannot have employees just because you want to be nice to them and give them benefits. Again, just like any other private industry which has standards, based on the number of meals, or meal equivalents you produce. There is an x number of hours that you can have. That’s a real change. Plus the fact that the state has mandated some increases, haven’t they, for some classified, or at least the school district…
PM: School staff.
SE: The state maybe mandates certain increases for certified staff and at the local level they also want to give the classified food service staff, which means the non-college degreed person, the same benefits and the same raise as well as the same benefits, so that has caused school districts to become much leaner. Much leaner. We require much more of staffs than was true even ten years ago.
PM: And health insurance is the other big factor. I mean, we’ve had to, we’ve had the situations where the former governors have said, “Well, from now on, any employee who is paid out of ‘federal funds’, the district must use those same federal funds to pay the district’s share of the health insurance and we go to the governor’s office and the school food service directors and say, “Look, you know, you are going to bankrupt us if that is the case.” We have staff, we have cafeteria staff who pay, at the end of every month, they write a check to the board office, $10, $12, $13 dollars, to cover the cost of the family plan premium, because what they made that month doesn’t cover it. But that’s the reason they are working, because their spouse is self-employed and that’s how they get health insurance for their family. So as Sylvia said, you are the director and you want to give this individual enough hours so they can qualify for county employees retirement so they have a pension. It is not great but it is a pension. And then they can qualify for health insurance, but at the same time, if lunch starts at 10:40 you do not want to show up in your cafeteria at 9:30 and lunch all be ready to go. That’s the only thing left that makes me mad when I go out there, is if I show up in a school at 9:30 and lunch is ready, but lunch doesn’t start until 10:40. I did it not too long ago. And I just told them, the manager was not there, she had something she had to do that morning, and the staff came in and fixed lunch.
PM: I got them all together back in the storeroom and I said, “Now, ladies, how long is it until lunch?” “An hour.” “And lunch is…” “Yeah. Were we not supposed to do that?” And then I talked to the manager when she came in, and she said, “I just told them three days ago.” That’s one of the things we really have to watch, is not getting lunch all ready and letting it sit there, because the quality of it suffers as a result. So they really have to watch that now. We don’t have a lot of hangers-on in the school kitchens any more. We can’t afford it.
MJ: What do you think, so far, has been your most important or most significant contribution to the child nutrition field?
SE: Maybe someone else should answer that. I don’t know. I think having a historical perspective of the growth of the program for as long as I was in the program, and I like to think, perhaps the ability I have to work with people to help them to see the change or whatever the issue is. I would think that the historical perspective and the people skills would be what I have contributed. Paul maybe would be a better one to answer that, maybe even about me. I don’t tend to think about what I do. But I know that there were many nights that when I went to bed I felt very good, because I’d helped people that day, and I felt very good about that. And of course there were the days, too, when you felt frustrated because maybe you couldn’t get a point across or maybe there was some technology glitch and someone was screaming in your ear, “But I need my reimbursement today to make my payroll tomorrow.” You know, you tend to kind of take those things personally when they are not. But I would hope that my contribution was again, that I understood the program, I understood the why, and that I was able to embrace changes and situations, and adapt but to do that in such a way that I still honored the why of the program, that we were basically about feeding children.
PM: Repairing the situation. Federal cognizant agency, we have a good relationship with them, and we’ve had it now for a number of years, and we didn’t. And that was not the fault of the staff, it was the fault of the leadership in the division. Repairing the relationship with the state association. We have a good, and again it was not the fault of the staff, it was the fault of the leadership in the division just didn’t, not only didn’t pay attention to it but actively worked against it for reasons that I’ll never fully understand. Pushing the technology issues, and when I say that I mean to some extent what the director ought to do is get the right people, get them the resources they need to do what they know how to do and then get out of their way and take care of the other stuff. I mean, there is always going to be stuff because you are part of the bureaucracy, you can’t get out of the stuff. So the director needs to do the stuff and let the staff go do what they are supposed to and I hope I got out of their way, after giving them the tools they needed. And then in terms of the association I was the, this is going to sound bad if certain people hear it, but anyway, I was the last in a line of fairly strong state agency representatives on the ASFSA Executive Board. That I served, what, seven years on the PP & L [ASFSA Public Policy and Legislative] committee. Some nonsense like that, it seemed like forever to me. But I think to some extent, I had a role in bringing the state agency directors more into the process of the ASFSA and that has, we have dropped that in the last few years. But I think that’s a shame. My successor was a nice lady who was a Summer Program expert, didn’t know much about lunch and breakfast, didn’t know anything about child care. And then a couple after that weren’t the strongest state directors that we had in that position. But I think that bringing the state director’s voice a little better in the ASFSA Public Policy and Legislative arena was one of the things that I did, I hope. And then I’ve got that Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy School Hero.
MJ: Tell us about that.
PM: Oh. [laughs]
SE: That and a dollar will get you, what?
PM: No kidding. No kidding. It is plastic. It is sitting on the bookcase in there. And it is the sole reason that responsibility for the coordinating of school health programs resides in this division, which is where it ought to be. But I was fighting it off when I got the award, then when they gave me the Healthy School Hero Award, how was I gonna be, I mean that was it. My boss said, “Okay. School health goes to you.” Apparently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation solicited nominations from a number of the advocacy groups involved in child nutrition, and named 27 different people Healthy School Heroes, when was it, two years ago, maybe three.
SE: I was gone by then.
PM: And unbeknownst to me I was nominated by ASFSA, and I am sure there is not a day goes by that there is not somebody up there that doesn’t wish that they had not submitted that nomination. But I was one of the people selected, and I think, I think, the reason they cited in their selection was the Competitive Food Rule. And I took a lot of grief from building principals about that Competitive Food Rule, just people wrote me letters and called me names. And I’ve saved the letters. I don’t know why. But I have the letters.
SE: We will read them at your retirement.
PM: There you go. Or read them over the graves of the people who wrote them. But I took a lot of grief for that and, but I am proud of that reward. But I think the thing I am proudest of is the relationship with the state association and with the local directors and the cafeteria managers. Because I can go and when I see them, not only in meetings but when I just see them out. I mean, it is that time of the year when I will be going over to Lexington or going to Louisville and doing shopping, and I will see, you know, cafeteria staff, and they will come up to me and they will say, “Paul, I am So-and-So and I work at Such-and-Such,” and sometimes I will know them; a lot of times I won’t. There’s so many of them. There’s about 7,000 of them out there, so I don’t pretend to know them all. But they will come up and they will say, well, they feel like they can do that. You know, they, with Sylvia they did that for years. Sylvia, during that three and a half years in that one administration, Sylvia was the only link that the association and the local directors had to anybody who was really trying to help, because the division director wasn’t, and that was sad, but that, they will tell you if you ask them. That is a big part of Sylvia’s legacy, is that during those three and a half years that there was somebody that they could pick up the phone and call and would try to help them.
MJ: Ms. Elam, could you tell us more about how you were involved with the state agency? What was your involvement?
SE: Are you talking about the state association?
MJ: Yes. The state association.
SE: Well, I think that both of us have indicated several times already today, we have had close working relationships with them. I think that just was forged because first of all they saw that we were sincere. We walked the talk. Whatever we said, we said the same thing from one end of the state to the other. We were willing to listen. We were approachable and that is some of what Paul has been alluding to. We had a time in our history as a division when the division director was not approachable and, so that was a real exception to the rule and the locals, they really see it as a team event.
SE: When we travel, I know some states, other agencies as well as locals that we talk to cannot believe that we had the kind of camaraderie, if you will, relationship with the local directors. But it’s never been, “I am here to get ya.” I may have to get ya ’cause you are not following a rule, but let’s talk about how we can resolve it, or how can we make it better, or how can I go to the principal with you or to the superintendent to make it better. So I think those people skills I guess, and the understanding that we are in this together. I think that’s been a real strength of our office, that we’ve seen it as a partnership and I am not here just to talk down to you and to tell you what you must do. But that we literally would do it with them, and I might add that it has been that way with our federal cognizant agency, USDA in Atlanta, too. And it was always strong, at least in my time, absent those three and a half years that he’s already alluded to, that again we have had a working relationship where we’ve never felt like we couldn’t just pick up the phone and call them or in person ask them questions. We might not like the answer but we remained colleagues and amicable and could talk about it rather than seeing them as ‘Big Brother’, who we dreaded to see walk in the door. It just hasn’t been that kind of partnership.
MJ: And what years were these, the three and a half years you were talking about?
SE: Help me, Paul. Early ’80s?
PM: ’84 to like ’87 something like that.
SE: Okay. He would definitely know. I kind of blur on that one.
PM: Yeah. I can understand why. I like to put that out of my mind. And one of the things that so many people don’t understand and for years did not understand, and it was not until, and it was not until about 1995 that we began to take a real serious look at why these programs work. It was after the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in November 1994 elections and started talking about block grants. And people are going, “Okay. Big deal. What is so bad about block grants?” And so we had to, we had to make people aware of how these programs work. As a part of doing that, I had to try to show, one of the things I did was work with Gene White to try to do that and I’ve still got that School Food Service 101 presentation and I still do it, and I still get requests for it. But the reason that the relationship between the state agency and the local districts and the state association has to be so strong, has to be strong, and the reason I like it to be as strong as it is in this state is, the administrative money we get here is based on the amount of reimbursement that we’ve paid out to the school districts. I get one percent of the reimbursements that we paid out to the school districts two years ago. That is what I am getting this year. So I want them to serve just as many reimbursable meals to kids and know when the kids are approved for free, reduced or paid, as they possibly legally can. Because the more of them that they serve, two years later the more administrative money we get to run the program at this level. So I’ve got every reason to go out there and help them, not to go out there and catch them. I mean, that doesn’t do anybody any good. In fact, sometimes that means that a kid doesn’t get fed, which is the last thing you want to do. You want to help, and you want to make them understand not only that you want to help but you have a vested interest in helping, which means that they probably ought to call you anytime they think they need help and I might not, we might not know it. So we tried to develop that kind of relationship where they are not afraid to pick up the phone and say, “Sylvia, I have this situation where…” See, Sylvia, she starts to take a note, you know, and then, “Okay.” And then they will call you and say, “Paul, I’ve got this situation where…” They’ve got to be able to do that, and there was a period of time where they felt like they couldn’t, at least in the person of the division director. And I think that we’ve gotten that fixed. The same way with Child Care. These kids in these child care centers where they are developing their eating habits, if we don’t get to them before they are five, they are pretty much a lost cause. It will be hard for us to change their habits when they get to school for kindergarten. But if we can have an impact on them in these child care centers, then we can contribute that way. The same way with Summer Feeding. Where do people think these hungry kids eat when school is out? They think they just keep going up there to the building and stand there and somebody brings them out something to eat? That is not the way it works. So pushing the Summer Feeding Program and increasing the Summer Feeding Program, growing it in this state, has been a focus of ours, and again, I get a percentage of the money. So the more meals they serve in child care centers and the more Summer Food Service Program meals that they serve, and the more reimbursement they get, two years later, I get this nice little note from the regional office, and I run into Anita’s office and I say, “Look what it is this year! What are we going to do with it?”
SE: And then that translates into being able to hire more staff…
PM: Sure does.
SE: … usually to help the people, so it is very symbiotic if you will.
PM: It is. It is great. Better computers. More training opportunities for locals. I mean, it just all flows and there’s, like Sylvia says, it amazes me that there are states where they don’t have that relationship between the state agencies and the state association. I mean, I love the state association. Those people serve meals. I get my money. I just have to wait a couple of years, but I get it, and then we can go do things with it. One of the, I think that one of the drawbacks to serving on PP and L all those years was they would, whenever we would go to the Legislative Action Conference they had this routine, the state association did, where they would go eat at different places. It was a big tradition. You go down to Holgate’s on Saturday night.
SE: Rum buns.
PM: Have fish and rum buns. Well, if you are on PP and L, and they meet all the time and they all go out to dinner all the time, and one of the things that I missed was going out to dinner with the state association people when I served on PP and L, and I got to where on PP and L, I would skip the meals with the PP and L and go eat with the state association people.
MJ: And what is PP and L?
PM: The Public Policy and Legislative Committee of ASF… SNA. And those relationships are pretty strong. Let’s see. What is the story? Oh, my grandfather died, my last grandparent died, I want to say it was 1993. He was buried in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It was Warren County. And we had a graveside service. So the family was there at the graveside, my dad, his sister and his brother, and then their children, and all that. And we were singing a song. And out of the corner of my eye, I saw a white utility looking van with a state seal on the side of it drive up and stop. I thought, “Oh, I wonder who that is?” The doors open and it was the food service director for Warren County and all of her cafeteria managers, had seen the notice in the paper that my grandfather had died and was going to be buried in that cemetery and we were going to have a graveside service, and the time and date. And they all came to that service. Now, we’ve been to funerals. We’ve been to weddings, showers. I mean, and that’s the way. I don’t know how you grow the programs in your state…
SE: … without those personal relationships.
PM: … if you don’t have those relationships.
SE: It is true.
PM: Because you can’t scream at each other unless you can laugh and cry with each other. You just can’t. And so we’ve had those situations where we’ve just had to holler at one another and say, “You know you can’t do… You don’t have any business doing…” “Well, I’m going to…” You know. And we’ve had to work those out and we’ve been able to do it and I think that’s been very helpful in growing these programs.
MJ: Ms. Elam, have you been involved in ASFSA, SNA, in any way?
SE: At the state level, I’ve been the, what did we call that? I was the liaison or something, I guess, from the division office. I have never held a national office. I have not.
MJ: One last question. Do you have any memorable stories, any more memorable stories that come to mind? Just some that really stick out?
PM: I don’t have any memory, must less memorable stories.
SE: Memorable stories? Let’s see. There’s got to be some.
PM: Adair County. 1988, I think it was. I, like I said, I didn’t know, and I knew that one of the things I had to do was go find out what goes on in the kitchen. I think the first visit I made was Adair County and John Adair Middle School. And I mean I had had on a pair of khakis or a pair of jeans, just a shirt, and I went in to, and I asked what can I do to help? So they gave me this bunch of carrots with the tops cut off and a scraper and they said, “It would help if you would clean these carrots.” Now this was before you bought them in the plastic bag already cleaned and washed and sliced. “So it would be nice if you would clean these carrots.” So I am standing there at the sink and I am rubbing that scraper on them, you know, and I am putting them over and running the water on them. And I’d been working on like five or six of them and a lady walks behind me, and I stopped her, and I said, “How do these look?” And she looked over at me and she looked down at the carrots, and she looked back at me and she said, “Well, it would probably help if you turned the scraper over.” Well, I had just been rubbing on those things, I hadn’t scraped a bit off of them, but I’d been rubbing them. And she was so sweet. And I can see myself in her place saying, “Well, I think it would be real helpful if you would go out and sit in the cafeteria until we had lunch ready, and you can come in and have something to eat.” But they were glad to have the help. And I remember I got a memo from a state board member. My picture had been in the paper some place. And I had on some short sleeve shirt and a pair of jeans or a pair of khakis, and something about me being at this particular school, and the state board member wrote me a note that said, “I thought we had a dress code for professional employees. How come you didn’t have a coat and tie on?” And I had to write back and say, “You don’t understand. I had been working in the kitchen all day and it was at the end of the day when they took that picture and I would’ve looked fairly silly in the kitchen with a coat and tie on.” And they were really nice about it, they wrote me back and said, “Oh, okay. I understand. I didn’t understand about the picture.” But those kinds. I love that carrot scraper story. My wife just gets the biggest kick out of that one.
SE: Did anybody ever make you wear a hairnet? Paul went through periods where his hair was longer.
PM: Yeah. It was longer. They did. They would ask me if I wanted to, but they never really made me. Now, the apron, I always made sure I had the apron on. They were real, they were real nice to me and granted this is a profession, and I use that term purposefully because it is, that is peopled mostly by women. There are not that many men. The national association has not had a man president since 1974, I think it was, when, oh, Norman something. I can’t remember his last name. He just recently passed away. But he was the last male president that we had. And I got on the ballot for vice president of ASFSA. You get elected vice president, then you serve a year as vice president, then president-elect, then president. Then, I will never know how I got on that ballot. I don’t understand how I got on that ballot.
SE: Short straw.
PM: I guess so. They must have had some really wild candidates. But I ran against Marcia Smith, who won, from Polk County, Florida, as I recall. And her husband was my campaign manager. He was tired of her being away from home so much, so he was my campaign manager. We didn’t do very good at all. The thing that irritated me about it, Sylvia, was finding out that only 169 members from Kentucky voted.
SE: They lost their ballots.
PM: They wouldn’t even tell me how many of them voted for me or against me. They would only tell me that they only got 169 ballots back from Kentucky. And there’s what, 1200 members? And I couldn’t get, I couldn’t get a third of them to vote and their state director was on the ballot. You talk about puncturing your balloon. That took care of me then right then. I am the first man on the ballot, “Oh, yeah. Big deal. [exaggerated yawn] What’s next?”
MJ: Any other stories?
SE: You know, I’m sure tonight I will think of one, and I promise not to call you. But two things quickly come to mind. I remember once we were out, I can’t even tell you the year, but it was, we were at a state director’s meeting and about 10:00 o’clock at night, somebody knocked on my hotel room door. And I peeked through and I recognized two local directors. I was ready for bed; I was sitting up reading in bed, and invited the two of them in. And they said, “Sylvia, we just got something we want to talk to you about, and we just didn’t want to ask you this question in front of everybody.” I said, “Have a seat.” So at 10:00 at night, I was in my pajamas. I was willing to listen to their concerns, and I really cannot, at this point, remember what their question was. It was not earth shattering, but it was something that they did not want to ask or did not want to have addressed in a public setting. And so it kind of made me feel good. They felt comfortable enough to come to my room. And the other story that I just think of right now had to do with the last state meeting that I was at. It is pretty hard to get very much past me, because I have antenna and eyes in the back of my head. At the last state meeting I was at in June before I retired at the end of August, I was up on the dais. I had to do something with the banquet. And I looked up and here came my husband, my daughter and my first and only grandchild. We were meeting in Owensboro and they had communicated behind my back and sneaked them in, literally. Doris Pruitt who was state president said, “Sylvia, after the last meeting, can you just come up, let’s just have a drink and chat. Come on up to my room.” And I thought well, you know, okay. The idea was to get me out to make sure I wasn’t in the lobby and all when my family came in. So that was kind of neat. A human interest story, but I think those are the kinds of things that stick with you when it is all said and done. It is not how many glorious reports you wrote, how many meetings you had. It’s the human side of it. Quite a career. It was fun.
PM: I am sneaking away in ten years. I am going to tell them, my last day is going to be two weeks from now.
SE: I didn’t do you that way.
PM: I know. But.