Interviewee: Thelma Becker
Interviewer: Theresa Stretch
Date: March 22, 2006
Location: National Food Service Management Institute
Description: Thelma Becker, a native Pennsylvanian, grew up in Philadelphia. Becker served as a school food service director in Pennsylvania and as president of the American School Food Service Association, now the School Nutrition Association.
Theresa Stretch: I am Theresa Stretch from the National Food Service Management Institute and today is March 22, 2006, and it is my privilege to have this opportunity to interview Thelma Becker. Thelma, would you tell me a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?
Thelma Becker: Good morning Theresa. It is nice to be with you and I would be glad to tell you where I grew up. I was born in Mays, in Philadelphia, northeast Philadelphia. I was educated in the Philadelphia school system during my primary years. I lived with my mother, dad, sister, and grandmother.
TS: What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs or school meals?
TB: My earliest recollection of school meals was when I was in primary grade school. No food was offered to students because we all walked home. We lived in the neighborhood school system where we traveled or walked to school in the morning, home, lunchtime, and then back again in the afternoon. My mother, grandmother, and my sister would wait for me at lunch and I would have lunch with them and then I would walk back to school.
TS: How did you become involved in the child nutrition profession?
TB: When I had finished college and I was looking for a position my grandparents had a restaurant and during the college years the restaurant was closed because of the Depression. They were pleased when I went to college that I was interested in going into the food business. It was really in my years of college and when I came out I was looking for a position. I found out that there was a school system nearby that had a school meal program. The director at that time needed an assistant, or someone who could work part-time. I went with her and I began to work in the schools part-time as a food person and I enjoyed it immensely.
TS: Was there someone, a mentor, who has influenced you to work in the child nutrition program?
TB: Yes, this director. She suggested that I pursue my profession in schools. She thought that my degree in Home Economics would be beneficial to me going into the child nutrition programs. At the time it wasn’t called child nutrition programs, it was called school food service. It was a hands-on position that I had the opportunity of working with my mentor to see what was needed in schools for children. Everything was done from scratch and all of our menus were not pre-prepared; prepared foods were not available. We made our own rolls and our own bread. It was a learning experience.
TS: Would you tell us a little bit about your educational background and how that prepared you for child nutrition programs? I know you mentioned you have a background in home economics.
TB: Yes, my degree is in home economics and business, because as I went through college my goal was really to become involved in the restaurant as my grandparents had. My goal was to emphasize nutrition. So really going into school nutrition and feeding programs was a free outlet for me to go in and become involved in school nutrition, and the foods that were being offered to children in school.
TS: Would you tell us about your career and the positions you have held in this profession?
TB: My career began, as I said, in a school system with a lady I said was my mentor in child nutrition. From there I had the opportunity, I was raising a family, so part-time work was excellent; it was just what I needed. Then I had the opportunity of going to a neighboring school, which was in the growth period of population. They asked if I would come in and direct their program and I was there for about five years being the director of food service. Then I had the opportunity of going to another school. They called and asked if I would consider going to a school further up into more of the upper area of where I was living, upper region. I went there and it was just what I wanted to do because they were in the midst of coordinating all the schools in one school district. There were eleven schools that were going to be in one school district. That was a tremendous opportunity for me to exercise my business aspect as well as my interest in feeding children.
TS: Now these eleven schools, were they preparing meals onsite or did you transport food?
TB: There were some schools that were preparing meals onsite. Others had a milk program. Others were schools that had a very limited vending program where they would have milk and maybe juices. It was a challenge. It was the opportunity for me to go in and work with those folks that had been in the schools for many years and to see if we could coordinate my efforts and my goals and objectives with what the school system needed and was ready to accept. Working in a school system you must realize it’s not only a one-person operation; it’s every person that works in all schools. They have to understand what your goals are and where we are heading; of course we work together.
TS: So it’s important to get that buy in and get everyone involved in the school.
TB: Yes, absolutely.
TS: Would you tell me about your time as president of the American School Food Services Association, now called School Nutrition Association?
TB: I would be pleased to do that, but before I do that I would like to say that I had the opportunity when I was in Pennsylvania, I became involved with the chapters in the area where I was located; very involved, and then I became president of the chapter. After that I was president and shortly after I was given the opportunity for my name to be put on the ballot for regional director of the chapter of Pennsylvania. Shortly after that they asked if my name could be put up as president-elect of Pennsylvania. So it kind of is a stepping process. You don’t just, you know, go right into the top job. You go through the state, and it was fun. It was a good learning experience. Then when I was asked to allow my name to be on the ballot for a regional director for the American School Food Services Association and that was quite an honor. I had always looked at the people involved with the association as really the leaders of child nutrition. They were always one step ahead of us back in the states and they gave us good guidance. So that was an honor for me to be asked to be a regional director. And from regional director I served two years and came back to my school system – not that I was away all the time, but you are away a good bit when you are involved in the Association. And then Clarice Higgins, who was a past-president also of ASFSA, she asked if I would consider allowing my name to go on the ballot for president-elect, and what an honor. It was a tremendous honor for me to be asked to be run for office, and I did and I was fortunate to win. So I became president-elect in 1985, and at the time I was co-chairman of the national conference. Mary Nix was involved in the conference, and Betty Bender; they were all past-presidents of our association, so indeed it was an honor to be asked to be on the ballot. I believe in the association. I think our goals and our objectives are for the children, and that’s what I have always wanted to be part of and fortunately I was able to be part of it as an elective officer.
TS: What changes have you noticed over the years in child nutrition?
TB: Let me go back in my little file here. What changes? Let me tell you first of all a little bit about my year as president, because they were many changes that transpired at that time and were on the horizon. President Reagan was in office at the time. Not he per se, but the administration tried to cut deeply again into the association, into the funding. They had a grant-in-aid to support the basic structure of the School Lunch Program, but they wanted to cut the funding by about $85,000,000 over $85,000,000 that they wanted to cut or it was $850,000,000, that was it, $850,000,000, and that was going to be devastating to programs that were depending on this funding to feed children, children that truly needed nutrition. So that was a big challenge. Then in the Commodity Distribution Program was another challenging avenue, because The National Frozen Food Association, they wanted us to offer a ‘cash in lieu of commodities’. That would have been devastating if the Commodity Program had faltered along the way, simply because it’s a farm support program. It began as a support for farmers during the Depression years. No, it wouldn’t be during the Depression years, it would be more into the fifties. So we had some uphill battles. We as an association, we opposed those block grants and I must say at this time or I would be very remiss, those who had been past-presidents, they were a tremendous resource to seek out some guidance for how to handle all these situations that kept just popping up. Our Marshall Matz who is, I believe he is our government attorney; he was such an ally and such a support person. So I really was very fortunate during my year as being president. I had many obstacles but I had many guidance and many allies within our association that I could seek some of my guidance as to if I was going the right route. Just because I thought I was didn’t always mean to say that that was the route I should be taking. One of the goals that we had, or I had, was Marshall Matz, we had talked about an institute and the beginning of the coordinated efforts of having this Institute developed with my year as president. I felt very strongly about education and training and something in the higher educational field that could support those people that were in schools, very busy doing the day-to-day business, and that this would be an area for the Institute, where they could come and learn, or seek information that they could use in their programs. So that was some of my goals.
TS: By the Institute, the National Food Service Management Institute?
TS: And is this the Vision of Vail that you are referring to?
TS: Could you elaborate a little bit more about what happened during the Vision of Vail, and your role as president at the American School Food Services Association and how it relates to The National Food Service Management Institute?
TB: Indeed my goal was to have continue with the Vision of Vail, that many years past had been, that goal of having further education and an institute for it, [a] location where you could have higher education training. I had the opportunity because of Marshall Matz, who was our legislative attorney. He gave us the opportunity because he believed in further education and his idea was an institute. We met and discussed this. I met with Jane Wynn, who at that time was the president-elect, and Shirley Watkins, who was the vice-president. We met with a person from USDA to discuss the institute. And we all agreed at the time to take that step and further investigate how we could pursue to get an institute for the child nutrition programs. Naturally it would have to be something that would go through legislation in order for that to become a reality because it was obvious that money was needed to begin, just to begin the endeavors to find out how we would go about getting an institute of further education.
TS: What changes have you seen in the child nutrition profession over the years?
TB: Changes I have seen is that – and they’re all plusses – that we’re more aware of the nutritional value that we offer to children on a daily basis. The majority of school systems are now looking at obesity, and how we can become an integral part of overcoming this problem, particularly for young children. Also I find that the emphasis is more on the financial stability. School nutrition programs in the past have had to opportunity of having some support from schools. That is waning simply because the money is just not there to offer in support to child nutrition. I’m not saying that they don’t care about child nutrition, but I do believe that their financial situation is stretched.
TS: What do you think has been your most significant contribution to the child nutrition profession so far?
TB: I think my continuous emphasis on nutrition. I believe that throughout the years I have always been a strong proponent of nutritious food for children. These are the future leaders of our country and we have to look upon them now. We have to help train them and introduce them to foods that will help to provide strong minds and bodies so they can be the leaders of tomorrow, which we are cultivating in schools. So that was always one if my goals, and it shall continue to be one of my goals, even with my own family, my grandchildren.
TS: Do any memorable stories come to mind when you think about your years in the child nutrition profession?
TB: Well, I’m going to tell you of a story that I felt very honored, and that was I had visited the state of Massachusetts and had done a training program as AFSFA President, and we had a very nice banquet following the day that I had done the program. And at the end of the day there was a young lady who was very young, very pregnant, and she came up to me and she said, “I just would like for you to know that if my baby is a girl her name’s going to be Thelma.” And that to me was a humbling experience because I thought I have reached out to someone and she believes in my beliefs, that nutrition is the key to stability, and also the growth of our country. I don’t know whether she had a girl. [Laughter]
TS: Thank you.