Interviewee: Tom Powers
Interviewer: Meredith Johnston
Date: May, 20 2004

Description: Tom Powers is a native of Roanoke, Virginia, where he now serves as Director of School Food Services for the city school system. He has been involved in the School Food Service Profession since the early 1970s, working his way up from student cafeteria worker to his present position.

Meredith Johnston: Thank you very much for being with me today. Would you tell me a little about yourself, where you were born, and where you grew up?

Tom Powers: Well, actually I’m a Roanoke native. I grew up in this area. My father had a farm just down the road from here. I grew up on the farm and actually I got my start in the food business when Dad had the farm. We raised chickens, believe it or not, on contract for a TV dinner company. And, at that time Firestone Rubber was in the TV dinner business so I actually got my start there, and learned a little bit from that end about contracts and contract feeding, and the food business from that end. So that’s my first beginnings in school feeding.

MJ: What is your earliest memory of child nutrition programs?

TP: I remember, even as a child in elementary school of course, I obviously remember going through lunch lines and that sort of thing. I participated in school feeding even at the elementary level at the elementary schools. My first involvement with school feeding was in the high school. Believe it or not, back then it was sort of funny. We had study halls, and they would come to the study halls, to the auditorium, to get people to help clean up after lunch, and to get out of study hall I would certainly volunteer to go to the cafeteria, and we worked in the cafeteria in high school. So that was my first experience, and little did I know that I would still be here today.

MJ: Can you tell me a little bit about the cafeteria at that time? What time would this have been?

TP: This was 1970 to ’72, along that time. It’s changed a lot since then. I went to Weber High School, and at that time we had three cafeteria lines, two were just your typical. Back then it was a Type A meal where you went through and you got your meat and vegetables, and your bread and your milk, and so forth. There was one other line where you could, it was called the sandwich line. You bought your sandwich and you could get potato chips and a few other a-la-carte items like cakes and cookies and so forth. That was the extent of school food back then, in the early ’70s at the high school.

MJ: How about the organization of the cafeteria then or, I mean, could you tell me a little bit about that? Or what you would have observed while you were doing that at school?

TP: Well, I can remember, I remember back at that time as far as the food service itself, the organization, lunch lines were your typical serving line. Or the ladies stood there and you came through and they served you on, you know, your standard six-compartment green tray, and you would go through, I’ll have this and I’ll have that and I’ll have this. And they literally served you at that point in time from that station as you made your requests when you came into the lunch line. I can’t remember the lunch prices back then, but I know they’ve always been pretty reasonable. There weren’t choices; the choices weren’t there. And, of course, meal pattern requirements have certainly changed a whole lot from my high school days and early days here running City from now. It’s to the point to when I first began we were required to use butter and we, you know, we had to document how much we used. We were required to use a certain amount per meal, average amount per meal. We were required, we had to include milk on the lunch tray, and that was a problem, especially if the child didn’t want it. And so those regulations were certainly in effect when I was in high school, even back then.

MJ: Would you tell me about your educational background?

TP: I finished high school here in Roanoke. I graduated from a local two-year business college with my degree in Management; I have an accounting background. I attended Upper Iowa University and received a degree from Upper Iowa University that was also Management. Also on the community college level I took some food prep courses and quantity food courses and some other courses that directly apply to this position. I have a background in restaurant work. I’ve worked in restaurants since age 13. My dad sold the farm; I’ve worked in restaurants basically, with the exception of two years, since that time. So I have a background in restaurants, and country clubs, and nightclubs and bars. And I interned for one summer with a real French chef, which was very beneficial.

MJ: How did you become involved in the child nutrition profession?

TP: Well, actually I started in school lunch officially to receive a paycheck. It was in between, college at that time was on the quarter system, and in between quarters, during the break, I just applied and worked part-time for the Roanoke City Schools in between the quarter, and started out, and that was 1975, working in the school lunch cafeterias. I started out serving lunch as a part-time substitute cafeteria worker. I served lunch, washed pots and pans, drove a delivery truck when needed, swept the floors when needed, so that’s how I got started. I hadn’t intended at that time, when I was in school, like I said, I was an Accounting major and I was going to be a CPA. And I had intended on pursuing that in that direction, or being in the accounting department of some large food company hopefully, but as I went through my studies and neared my, got closer to my CPA exam, I changed my mind and decided I didn’t want to be punching a machine all day long sitting in a cubicle somewhere, so that’s what changed my mind.

MJ: What positions have you held in the profession?

TP: School lunch, I’ve held almost every position except for secretary. I started out as a part-time cafeteria substitute where I washed dishes and pots and pans. I’ve been a truck driver and a delivery person. I’ve been a full-time cafeteria assistant. I’ve been an assistant cafeteria manager. I’ve been a cafeteria manager. I’ve been an assistant director, and, of course, now I’m the director. So, like I said, the only thing I haven’t done was the secretary and that was, and they, I’ve done some of the, done some of the duties and they don’t want me to do that anymore.

MJ: Okay.

TP: They, they’re not interested in me doing secretary clerical work.

MJ: Tell us about your position as director of food services for the Roanoke City Public Schools.

TP: Well as director, you know, we oversee the operation of all twenty-nine school cafeterias. In the director’s position, you not only staff twenty-nine kitchens – we have approximately one hundred and fifty employees – you not only staff the kitchens, but you manage and develop the budget for all of the schools, and we’re centralized so we can take care of that for all twenty-nine schools. Budget, we do a lot of budget work for that. We purchase equipment and I’m in the process now of writing specs and purchasing equipment for next year. We operate a Summer Feeding Program which serves between two and three thousand per day during the summer months, so we have that. And we also manage some vending services; we also cater. Catering is probably our largest growing aspect of the job now, is managing catering.

MJ: Could you explain the catering aspect a little bit more? Like, who would you cater for?

TP: Well, over the last ten years it has evolved. In the early days it was basically no more than set up a coffee pot and some drinks for superintendents having a meeting or that sort of thing. Now we cater after school programs, we cater school activities, clubs, groups, organizations within the school division. Anything from the PTA to the football team, to just basically any event that needs to be taken care of. We’re busy; we have a person, a courier, we have a courier’s position and over fifty percent of her time is spent for catering.

MJ: What are, will you elaborate on this a little bit, about your responsibilities? Anything else you would like to add to that?

TP: Well, basically, my main responsibilities, and it’s changed over the years too. I began, when I first began, I was an assistant director and I was in charge of all the cost accounting. With my accounting background, the director had me take care of all the cost accounting and purchasing, and so forth. As the former director retired, I took over as the director and the first thing that happened was they eliminated the systems director’s position, so I carried all the duties. So, fortunately, as time evolves, I was able to hire a nutritionist who handled nutritional aspects, which have become a discipline all in itself. And our nutritionist handles all of the nutrition aspects, menu planning, nutritional analysis, special diets, and so forth. That whole area has grown so much that it takes, it literally takes someone with that expertise. And we’ve had registered dieticians assume those positions and so forth, and its just evolved and become so complicated that I’m happy to have someone to handle those duties. Now I personally focus on budget, finance, personnel, equipment, and that sort of thing.

MJ: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your job?

TP: Well, without a doubt the most challenging aspect is working with people, and it’s obviously the most rewarding as well. You, you have customers that you have to please, obviously the students. That is job number one, regardless of things such as you work with budgets and you, you hire people, and you buy equipment, and you work with food, and that sort of thing. Obviously the most challenging aspect is the people, is the human interaction. When you talk about dealing with, you know, you deal with parents and you deal with the superintendent’s office, and you deal with other professional organizations and professionals, and then you deal with the students. So, it runs the gamut of the human aspect of the job. Most challenging in that sometimes you, maybe it’s a challenge to try to please everyone and do the best job that you can. And obviously it’s the most rewarding too, in that you deal with such good people. And over the years, the ladies in the kitchens made the job worthwhile, and the students made the job worthwhile. As I mentioned before, there are certain stigmas attached with school lunch, and when you can overcome those stigmas that are attached to school lunch, that’s the most rewarding thing. When the child will actually say, “The food was good,” and “I love your lunch today,” and that just makes it all worthwhile. And working with the cafeteria staff, some of the ladies out there over the years are just so professional and they take their job seriously, and yet they’re so lighthearted and they’re, they’re so easy to work with. That’s the reward for me, the most fulfilling of the job.

MJ: What about the most rewarding? Would that also be the same thing?

TP: Yes, that’s without a doubt. I don’t think people get into school lunch for the money, because I don’t know of too many wealthy people working in school lunch. The reward is actually doing a job, and the rewards are more emotional and mental than they are physical. Like I said, the ladies that you work with, they’re so dedicated to the job, and you, sometimes you’re amazed at why they’re dedicated. But it’s just, it’s something inside them, they are special people that work in this whole department.

MJ: Did you have a mentor or someone who really inspired you?

TP: Well, if I had to give one person, it would probably be Ms. Pauline Howell, who was the director when I first started as a substitute worker. And she inspired me to literally give up my major, or influence me to the point where I decided to give up, to change my major from Accounting and stay in school lunch. She impressed me with her professionalism, and she was quite a business person. And I was so impressed with her, and when she retired she encouraged me to stay in school lunch and at that time there were very few males in school lunch. You would think, you wouldn’t normally thing that, but she encouraged me to stay in the profession, that it was a good profession for a young male to stay in. And she helped me along the way, and she most inspired me. But, I will still have to go back, once again, to those ladies working in the kitchens who inspired me too, with their dedication. They were just such sweet ladies and they were so professional. They would come in and they made sure their uniforms were starched and pressed and, you know, the manual says that they, you know, they were supposed to be neat and clean, and they took it to heart and they lived by that, by that code. Those, the ladies still, they influenced me so, to make me want to stay.

MJ: Who, in your opinion, has made a difference in child nutrition programs and why? Now this could be someone, you know, locally or nationally.

TP: Yeah, well it would be hard for me to pick out one person, because as I go to national conferences and you hear speakers who are legislators who try to pass legislation to support school lunch, and you have these legislators who are truly influential. And you have the national leaders who inspire and make a real difference; they do a wonderful job. You have people like the National School Food Service Institute in Mississippi, who, you know, provides training and professional development; they make a tremendous difference. But, you know, I still think on the local level, those people that actually care so much about kids. They make, they are your grassroots people who do truly make a difference. When you have a child who comes through and is hungry and hasn’t had anything at home. As a cafeteria manager years ago, we used to have a few children, and we didn’t have a Breakfast Program then. We used to have a few children that would come in in the mornings, and their faces weren’t washed and their hair wasn’t combed, and you could tell they slept in the clothes that they came in. And they would come in and there was no Breakfast Program, but yet we would still feed them breakfast anyway. We had something that we’d feed them, now whether it be a hot roll that had just come out of the oven or, or, you know, a carton of milk to go with it. People that perform that duty, perform those services, they’re the ones that make a difference. As I’ve gone to conferences and heard keynote speakers, and these are people that are, you know, CEOs of this company or presidents of that company, truly influential people, talk about how they grew up. And how, as a child, they were poor and how the cafeteria lady looked after them and took care of them. They knew, and anyone who has been in this business for a long time will know that the people who truly make a difference are those that render the service. It’s not some director who sits in an office and develops the budget, it’s not, you know, a clerical person and it’s not some keynote speaker. It’s the person that’s in the kitchen that truly makes the difference.

MJ: How have the programs changed since you’ve been in the profession?

TP: Oh gosh, its changed so much since I first began. The meal patterns have changed; the way that we think about nutrition has changed. What’s to me one of the funniest parts, is when I first began, the meal pattern was such that we were required to serve so much butter, we were required to serve so much milk. And we would actually, when we were audited, we would be in trouble if we didn’t use x amount of milk and x amount of butter, and so forth. And through the years meal patterns have changed. We now try to reduce salt, reduce the amount of butter and so forth that we use in our cooking. We have different preparation methods; there’s different equipment now that prepares the food differently than the old days where we used to do. So, you know, the meal patterns have changed, and through the years I can remember the accounting methods. We, of course, it was all manual with the ten-key adding machine and so forth. And then I can remember cost-based accounting came through, and it was funny because everyone was so nervous and upset because there was a whole new accounting method to come through and we had to change our bookkeeping and so forth, and that went along the wayside. And one other aspect that, that I think is exciting is the technology advances. Our cafeteria managers now spend a lot less time keeping books because we have computerization now that generates reports. So, we have point-of-service cashiering systems now. Little Johnny no longer has to have a little lunch ticket; he can use a ten-key pad to key in his account, and people prepay for their meals now. And Little Johnny has an account now instead of just a little meal ticket. And where, next year we’re piloting fingerprints, where the child comes through and no longer gives his name or has to write down for a lunch ticket, or he doesn’t have to use a ten-key pad. He just puts his finger on there and reads, the computer reads who Johnny is and his account flashes up, and we know in an instant whether or not Johnny has any money or he’s approved for free meals, or whether or not Johnny cannot have certain food items because of allergies. And all this information is printed up on Little Johnny as soon as he puts his finger on the ten-key pad. And so, that’s exciting and it helps and saves lots of bookwork. But, being a person who has been here for upwards of thirty years, my only concern about all this technology and all the advances that we have now is that we lose, we don’t want to lose Johnny as a person. We want to make sure we continue to treat Johnny as a little fellow who needs love and attention, who needs nurturing, and he needs a good hot meal. And yet while we’re giving him that good hot meal, we want to make sure we don’t load him up with too much carbohydrate, too much sodium, and make sure that he eats properly. And so, it’s exciting times for school lunch. And one other thing too, obviously when we talk about advances that I think is exciting, in the old days, of course, there was your typical lunch line that a child would come through and they would fill out, they would fill a six-compartment tray. Now we’re, in our school’s division, a lot have moved on to food courts and self-serve bars, and our lunch lines look hardly anything like the old lunch line of yesterday. Children can pick up branded items we now contract through some of our food companies and food suppliers. We have big name items that children will recognize; they have the opportunity to pick those branded items. We have breakfast bars that will rival most any food establishment, where they can go through and pick up anything from eggs, sausage, and biscuits, and so forth any given day of the week they like. They can go the healthy route and have the yogurt and some of the other granola-type items, juices, and bagels, and so forth, and so we’re heading in that direction. Our newest high school renovation will feature just that; we’ll be open from basically seven in the morning ’til three in the afternoon. Scheduling will be an issue for the principal. If they so desire, we’ll be open from seven ’til ten, ten thirty in the morning for breakfast. The child can come in at any given time, have breakfast as if it was a restaurant. They can come through the buffet line and pick up what they want for breakfast; during break they can come through and do the same thing. Lunch and afternoon snacks will be available. We have vending services that now will allow the child to come from the media center where they’re doing work on the computer; they can come through and pick up a snack from the vending machine in the afternoon. So, it truly is exciting times because we’re not, we’re no longer eleven o’clock to one o’clock lunch period. It’s, we’re open for business, twenty-four seven literally with vending machines and so forth.

MJ: What kind of foods are in the vending machines?

TP: We are, you know, with the help of our nutritionist, and that’s another one of the wonderful benefits of having a nutritionist, someone who is trained. We are offering healthy snacks, a lot of milk and dairy items; foods that more than exceed the minimum nutrition requirements that the government has laid down for us. We at least double what they do, so we are having cheeses and whatever snacks that meet our guidelines, not just potato chips and candies and so forth anymore. So, you know, food vendors are responding to the call for more nutritional snacks, and they’re providing those. We’re not using soft drinks, we’re using juices and milks, and they’re all flavored milks and anything along that line for the afternoon snacks. It’s exciting.

MJ: Any other comments you’d like to make?

TP: For those who may be considering a career in school food, that it’s truly a worthwhile endeavor. We have interns that come here from several local colleges and universities and they have dietetics programs and so forth, and I encourage each and every person that comes through here to consider school lunch. So many are looking at the healthcare field and hospitals and so forth, but I encourage them to consider school lunch as an alternate, because there are so many advantages to the School Lunch Program. Child nutrition is growing and it’s, it’s a secure position. I don’t think child nutrition will ever go away. In fact, I see the need growing as an industry. It’s a big business, and you’re a part of a huge conglomerate of businesses. It’s not only a food business but there are equipment vendors and it’s huge. In the old days, I think child nutrition probably took, took root around the World War II era. I think they started out with some just, basically soup kitchens and soup and sandwiches for the children, and it’s grown into a huge, huge big business. They started out with malnutrition as the main focus for expanding the School Lunch Program, and we still have that, and it’s a different type in that obesity is our biggest problem now. And so our challenges are even greater than they were back in the ’40s. And, that’s why it’s such a good business to hang on to; it’s a profession that I think is truly rewarding.

MJ: Thank you very much for your time.

TP: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.