Interviewee: Tommy Ramey
Interviewer: Beverly Cross
Date: March 4, 2010
Description: Mr. Ramey worked for 34 years in the State of Alabama beginning as a teacher/coach and retiring in 2000 as State Director of the Child Nutrition Programs for the Alabama State Department of Education. His major accomplishments include developing and instituting a commodity processing program that saved local education agencies (LEAs) $1.5 annually; being recognized by the USDA for having the most efficient method for delivery of USDA donated food; initiating the development of the State Nutrition Policies and Procedures Handbook; and initiating and assisting in the development and passage by the State Board of Education, certification standards for local child nutrition directors. Since his retirement, he has continued to be active in the child nutrition field by presenting programs on a variety of subjects throughout the nation.
Beverly Cross: Good Morning. I’m Beverly Cross, Coordinator of Site Training at the National Food Service Management Institute. Today is March 4, 2010, and I’m interviewing Mr. Thomas Ramey from the state of Alabama. Good morning Mr. Ramey. Would you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?
Tommy Ramey: I grew up on a farm over in west Alabama about thirty miles south of Tuscaloosa and stayed in the same town, grew up in the same house. We never did move, didn’t go anywhere much; most farmers didn’t. So I learned a lot of things in a rural setting I think that helped me throughout my career. You learn some things. You learn to appreciate animals. You learn to appreciate the land around you. A farmer and his land are intertwined. My father never referred to our farm as his, it was ours. And he never said, “I’m going to do this” it’s “We’re going to do this”. And I was very much involved in the ‘We’ process. I worked on the farm and really enjoyed it. I would have liked for my children to have grown up in the same type setting. Unfortunately they grew up in a city, which was not that bad, but still I think growing up in a rural setting is very beneficial to children.
BC: Now, what was the town where you grew up?
TR: A little town called Akron, Alabama. It’s spelled just like Akron, Ohio. There are five Akrons in the United States and Akron, Alabama is one of them; a little town of about five hundred, not very large.
BC: That is a small town. What is your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs?
TR: My earliest recollection of child nutrition programs – when I went to school I ate in the cafeteria, and it was in a classroom in a corner of the school. That’s where it was first set up, and of course it was called the lunchroom back then, and so I ate there for a while, and then they built a new agricultural building and it was very nice. So the old agricultural building, which was an old wood-frame building, became available so they moved the lunchroom out to that. Of course the building was not good enough for the agricultural department but it was good enough for the lunchroom. That’s the way things kind of went. So we went out there, and it was a pretty rough looking building, but that’s where the cafeteria was then. And so I ate there all the time. It was rather unique in that it had some holes in the floor where the knotholes had fallen out. And these dogs kind of caught on that if they would come up there around lunchtime, if the teachers weren’t watching we would drop things down through the knotholes and the dogs would eat under the building. I’m sure the health department would probably not have passed that had they known that, but that was a long time ago. So that was a little bit different than things now.
BC: That’s a good story. Do you remember some of your favorite menu items? Do you have any special memories about foods you had in your school lunch
TR: Yes, one of the things I liked real well, they had vegetable soup and they had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I don’t know how they did it but it was real good. Of course I may not think it’s as good now as I did then, but ate that, and then of course we had hotdogs and hamburgers back then too, and that was always real good. But I always participated in the school lunch program, and my mother and daddy thought that was a good thing for me to do. Unfortunately, in my senior year, they put me out of the lunchroom the last six weeks of school. And it was not my fault. There were eight boys at the table, and we had the little milk cartons that had the cardboard stoppers in the top. And one boy sitting at the end of the table threw his top in the next boy’s plate. Well, he took his out and threw it in the next boy’s plate. Well, this went all the way around the table. So it came into my plate; I just took it out and kept it going. Unfortunately the teacher saw this and didn’t think it was real cute and told the principal, so he just put us all out of the lunchroom for the rest of the year. Now that was all we did; now today they wouldn’t think much about that, but then, that’s what they did. So I got put out of the lunchroom the last six weeks of my senior year. I lived in town so I’d just hop on my bicycle and ride home and eat real quick and come back. My mother and daddy didn’t think that was real cute either but you know, when you’re seventeen years old you do a lot of things that aren’t too cute.
BC: Well, times are different now. Could you tell us a little bit about your educational background, where you went to school and the degrees that you earned?
TR: I, of course, went to Akron High School. It was called Akron High School even though all twelve grades were included; didn’t have kindergarten in those days. So I went all through school at the same school building that my parents attended. The same building is there today. It’s been renovated and seems much better. So the school building itself is quite old. I have not been in it in years, but they say it’s right nice. Of course I got my diploma from there; went to that same building all twelve years. And then I went to the University of Alabama and got my BS degree in Social Studies, and then I went back a little later and got my Master’s degree in Educational Administration. So that’s my formal education.
BC: So how did you become involved with the child nutrition profession?
TR: I taught school for two years and I coached, and of course I participated in child nutrition programs there, as a teacher I ate. But then I had an opportunity to go to the School for Deaf and Blind in administration, and they put me in charge of all of procurement, plus I was in charge of the federal programs. Back then it was Title I, Title II, Title III, monies for the American Printing House for the Blind, so they had specific money for that. And then we applied for a special grant and were able to get that. We had a school farm and so they put me over that because I had a farm background. And then the gentleman who was over the child nutrition program was getting up in years, and got sick and had to retire. I kind of laughed when I said getting up in years because he was younger then than I am now. But I was twenty-five years old, so at that time I thought he was pretty old. So the president said, “Well, I’m just going to put you over child nutrition too. You’re doing all the procurement and everything else, and then I’ll just put you over the whole thing.” Didn’t know very much about it of course. In fact I like to say I didn’t know the difference between a pea and a doughnut when buying things, and that’s pretty much the case. But what I did is, we had two young Home Economics teachers; one was about twenty-seven and one was about thirty, both older than I at that time. And so I got with them and we reworked the menus. I’d have to say no on some things because of the price, but they had young children so they kind of understood things, and the Deaf and Blind was a residential school so we had from the first grade through high school. So we had all ages, but we fed twenty-one meals a week. About 750 children were there, but feeding twenty-one meals a week, it was a pretty large operation. We did some things that were different from a regular school because these children – if we didn’t feed them they didn’t get it. We had a special bakery and we had a warehouse, [we] brought the food in and distributed it to the individual schools; we had five different campuses there and so we would monitor the things they were doing. Of course even back then we had to file the forms for reimbursement and the things that all the public schools had to do. But it was a different situation and I learned a whole lot there. But that’s the way I got into child nutrition, sort of fell into it, and then I liked it. So of my thirty-six years of employment I worked with child nutrition for thirty-four years. And since I retired ten years ago I’ve done a good bit of training and consulting work, and so if you add my thirty-four and my ten I’ve really worked with child nutrition for forty-four years in one way or another. I guess I must like it because I’ve done it a whole long time, different parts and different responsibilities, but I’ve worked a long time in the program.
BC: Now what was the location of the Deaf and Blind school?
TR: It’s in Talladega, Alabama.
BC: OK. And tell me just a little bit more about the farm at that school. You said you were in charge of that. Tell me a little bit about what you grew and how it was used.
TR: The farm – we grew chickens, beef, and pork, and that was slaughtered and used in the school. And they had a vocational school also. And so what they did was they slaughtered the beef and the pork and chickens, and then that was run through the vocational school, and boys learned to cut meat, deaf boys, and so they went out and got jobs as butchers, and so it was a training facility, but also we raised those three animals, and then we raised the feed to feed them. They finally phased it out; it got to the point that it was not paying for itself. [It] had been there for quite some time, and I sort of inherited that also, because the gentleman who had that job decided to move on to another area. Once I left the School for the Deaf and Blind they hired two and a half people to take my place. I don’t think I was that efficient. I’m sure they did a better job but it got to be rather full. So what I was initially hired for, I continued to do that, but I got the farm and I got the child nutrition, so people who’ve been in education understand that, because they know they just keep adding things to you.
BC: Right. So this farm was not to grow the food products that you used. It was more about the animals? Did you have gardens? You said you grew the feed but did you for example grow the vegetables?
TR: We did not grow the vegetables.
BC: It wasn’t a garden type?
TR: No. It was strictly for beef and pork and poultry – and eggs too. So we had laying chickens [as well]. But we phased the chickens out for consumption because that was not very efficient. We were not set up to do that, and so it mainly was for eggs. In fact by the time I took over it was for eggs only, so it was beef and pork and eggs.
BC: Farm fresh eggs.
BC: Was there someone who was influential in directing you into the child nutrition field, like maybe a mentor? I mean you really kind of gave your history already of how you got into it, but do you have any people that you would consider a mentor?
TR: Not really. It was one of those things to where the gentleman who I had to replace, when he got sick he had to leave. So today I was not doing that; tomorrow I was. So it was kind of learning on the job. But I learned a lot from the managers and one of the things I’ve done a lot in my career is listen, and try to listen to the people who are already doing things. And so as far as there being an individual to follow that helped me or to work with me, or that maybe pushed me into this area, there was really not. It just sort of fell in my lap and it was one of those sink or swim kind of things, and so you have to learn to do it because it’s now yours, and the administration or the boss that is above you is looking for you to perform and take care of the job. So you have to get in there and work pretty hard and learn a lot pretty quick.
BC: Now you started with how you began in child nutrition. Could you tell us about the other positions that you have held in child nutrition? Just kind of take us through your history in the profession if you could to that please.
TR: Well, I worked for the School for Deaf and Blind for six years, so the longer I stayed the more I knew about it and dealt with people and was in charge of the procurement, in charge of the menus, seeing that the food was in the various kitchens, and people were in place to take care of it. We had to schedule people because being a seven day a week operation they were [involved in] all aspects of the program. All of that fell under my responsibility to take care of that. I left the School for Deaf and Blind and went to the State Department of Education and my responsibility there was the USDA Commodities, which I did that for fifteen years. Then at the end of fifteen years my supervisor wanted to put me over the School Lunch Program. We had had a review and it was not quite as good as he thought it ought to be in that aspect, and he said, “I want you to take that part and I’ve got someone else I’ll put over the Commodities section. That one looks real good.” So I did that for a number of years and then we had some changes in the department and then I was named State Director, and so I did that. I did the Commodities for a while, for fifteen years, and then I was over what we called the School Lunch Section, and that was where we did all the training, we did the evaluations, we did the audits out of that area and provided in-service. We provided technical assistance. We came up with programs and things to help the locals. And then after having done that for a number of years my supervisor retired and I became State Director, and I did that until I retired.
BC: You have already alluded to the fact that growing up on a farm had an influence on your profession, and I’m just wondering how did your educational background help prepare you for what you ultimately did in your professional life?
TR: I think one of the things, probably as much as anything, graduate school helped me a lot from the standpoint – I for my graduate degree in Educational Administration, and there you had, they called it a Leadership Team, and you learned how to work with people, and during my career I had several people that I worked with that were responsible to me, and then also you learn something about school finance, because there’s a lot of money involved and you’re buying all the time. And since I was in charge of procurement we had budgets that we had to live within. One of those things also you learn that the child nutrition program, and I always considered it a part of the educational process, my philosophy always was ‘If we don’t feed them the teachers don’t teach them’, because the old saying [is] ‘a hungry child can’t learn’. And that was one of the points I always made to my people and that is ‘Let’s us do a good job of trying to feed the children so the teachers can do a good job teaching them’. Having been in the classroom early on I kind of knew both sides, and anyway we all like to eat. We all know that when it’s time to eat and we can’t eat, that’s all that we’re thinking about. So we did our best to try to get as many children in the program as we possibly could, and I think we did a pretty good job of that.
BC: Great. Is there anything unique about your state with regard to child nutrition programs?
TR: One of the things that we did – my philosophy always was ‘Let’s don’t be satisfied with the status quo. Let’s try to do something different. Can we make it better?’, and it didn’t make any difference where I was, I never did just like to roll with the flow. You don’t improve by doing that. And so one of the things I noticed on our Commodity Program was back in the old days when a railcar would come in we’d notify all the school districts. One of the local districts would be in charge of that particular car, and in that geographic area, everybody from their school districts would send a truck and actually back up to the railcar and they would get chicken and ground beef and flour and cornmeal and grits and all the things that USDA sent us. Well, on any given day some school districts, because you had no control over when the railcars would come in, they may have to pick up at four different sites with four different kinds of commodities. Sometimes they didn’t have enough trucks, so they’d send school buses. It was probably not the most – let me take the probably out – it was not the most recommended kind of way to do it, because you know in the South it gets rather hot. So if you got chicken, and it came in and you were hauling it in a school bus and it was 90 degrees outside, by the time you got that chicken delivered back home and into the individual schools, a lot of water would probably have run out into the school bus and the trucks and whatever else it was hauled in – but we had no control over when it would arrive. One of the things that I did is I got to be good friends with a fellow named Jerry Stein, who was in Washington. Jerry was in the Child Nutrition Program for many, many years and I told him, I said, “Jerry, we’ve got a problem with this. It doesn’t work well. It’s inefficient. We have damage. It is costly to the locals because they are running so many vehicles.” And the thing is they had to pull people off of other jobs to come get this. So, most of the time they’d find out one afternoon to be somewhere at 7 o’clock the next morning. So I told Jerry, I said, “I’d like for you to come down and look at what we’re doing.” And he did, he came down and spent a week with me and we went out and met railcars and let him see how you go through the process and saw what the local people had to do and how they were having to haul it – no refrigerated trucks. School buses of course are not refrigerated, and I saw them hauled in everything from school buses, pickup trucks, dump trucks, people’s cars – and so every kind of way in the world to get it back home. Jerry went back to Washington and put together the plan and hired a fellow who was – he was not versed in USDA Commodities – but he was versed in warehouse efficiency, the receiving and storing and movement of [perishable food products]. He was an efficiency expert in that area and he came down and we spent a lot of time together. So we put a program together where he and I went and visited every food distributor in the state of Alabama and told them what we would like to do is to bring USDA Commodities into their facilities and they deliver out to the schools. Of course it had to be bid. And most of them were interested in this. And it took some time to put it together, but we got it put together and bid, and then selected the people that would do it to cover all the state. So then the distributors received the product; they received product anyway. Some of them had railcars that actually went into their warehouses and they unloaded them. And then they had trucks, to where they could receive the trucks; as time moved along, got more and more truck delivery and less railcar delivery. So we put that in place, and we were the first state to do that. In fact, at one point we had about twenty states that came and visited us to look at this type of operation and it became the recommended way of receiving, storing, and delivering commodities, and that’s what Washington was pushing, that everybody look at doing it that way. Today we are still doing it. It is coming into the state, going into regular food distribution facilities where people buy their normal food, and they deliver the commodities along with the food that they’re purchasing. And that was unique that we had not done that before, had not been done anywhere before. Of course Alabama and Mississippi at this time have what they call statewide procurement where locals don’t have to do their own bidding; it’s done on a statewide basis, with local input, because we at the state level did not make the decision on the products. The locals make the decisions on the products that go on the bid list and products are brought in and they are ordered from their local distributors, but the state coordinates the overall operation of it. Mississippi did this first and then Alabama copied what they were doing. It’s very efficient; we have been very pleased. I’ve been retired about ten years and we did that about three years prior to my retirement, so it’s been in place for a while. Mississippi has done it about sixteen years I think. So, anytime you can learn from others, that’s the thing to do. You don’t have to invent the wheel on everything.
BC: That’s quite an accomplishment to have begun a system that was adopted by other states and sort of became the model for how to manage those deliveries.
TR: It’s been very successful, and you just have to look for different ways to do things. There’s always a better way and you can’t stand still. You have to continue to evolve and make things better.
BC: What was a typical day like during your career, or was there a typical day?
TR: I don’t think there was a typical day. Of course when I was teaching it would be more typical because you schedule, you had your classes set up. When I went to the School for the Deaf and Blind, having already mentioned some of my responsibilities I had with all the federal programs, the farm, the child nutrition program, there were just things that you had to do. A lot of things you reacted to what occurred. If the delivery truck broke down and was not running that day you still had to get food out there, so you had to take care of that. If the hot water heater went off in a school, which is just typical operations today, you had to do that. If we had a problem at the farm, sometimes I’d have to stop and go to the farm. If the tractor ran over a stump and burst a tire, you had to have a tire. I didn’t change the tire, but I had to make arrangements to buy a new tire and get it taken care of. So, I don’t think I had a typical day, and then [when I] got with the state, same thing. You have a day planned, but most of the time you didn’t do exactly all of the things that you had planned. You would work with the local people, you answered telephone calls. We had in-service. We had training there in the facility. We went out and provided training; so I don’t thing there was a typical day. Some jobs such as teaching are more typical, more scheduled, but every day is somewhat different; but ours, I never knew exactly what we would do. I knew what I had planned to do that day. Sometimes in never did any of what I had planned to do; I ended up doing other things.
BC: Can you talk about some of the biggest challenges that you faced as you reflect on the different phases of your career?
TR: I think some of the main challenges, and I think that’s still true today, is people get in a comfort zone and don’t want to change. The want to keep it going like it is. I think the biggest challenge I ever had, or the challenges that continue to come up, was convincing superiors that we needed to change this, and to give us the opportunity to try. Some superiors will allow you to go forward and do things like that. Others are more reluctant and afraid that you will rock the boat, create problems. I never was comfortable with continuing to do the same thing. I was always out there and I think I got some bosses to say, “Well just go ahead, if you’ll just quit worrying me about it, and try, but I don’t think it’s going to work.” And when they said they didn’t think it would work that’d make me more determined to see that it would. In fact the commodity – changing it from car-side delivery to getting it in the warehouses, I heard that more than once – ‘It won’t work’, and so we worked hard to make it work, and then it did and became the model for the country, and that worked. But yes, I continue to have challenges on things and getting people to agree to let us move forward. One of the things in the last several years of my employment, I had the best supervisor I ever had, and he was an Assistant Superintendent of Education. His name was Dr. Kenneth Wilson, and he had been a local Superintendent of Education. He was Assistant Superintendent in the State Department of Education, and he was very pro-child nutrition. His philosophy always was what I stated while ago – ‘If we don’t feed the children well the teachers can’t teach them well’ – and he said it also gets into discipline and everything else. I’d go in to present an idea, I’d say, “I got something I’d like to do.” He says, “OK. Why?” Now, I learned early on when you went in and had an idea, then you needed to have the why already taken care of. Don’t just go in there and say, “I think we need to change something.” Don’t go that way. He was not real responsive to that. He was always available. I don’t know how he was available to so many people, but you could see him. And one thing I liked about him is that I could disagree with him. Now I knew how to disagree with him. I would say, “Can I disagree with you on that?” He would say, “Yea, why?” And I would tell him, and most of the time he would go along with me. But every now and then he would say, “No, I don’t want to do that.” and I didn’t argue with him. But him being so supportive, he came to child nutrition meetings, and he was an Assistant Superintendent, but he would come to our State Directors’ meetings. When he went into schools he would eat in the cafeteria. He was just very supportive. In fact, it was just fun to go to work when he was there. I just looked forward to doing things. He was the most influential administrator at a high level in allowing us to do things that we thought needed to be done.
BC: You already have talked about being a person who likes to implement change when it’s needed, and so that sort of leads to this next question. What changes have you seen in the child nutrition profession over the years? Can you think about that a little bit?
TR: One of the things I think is many years ago we just hired people. They may be local cooks at the local level that everybody thought you needed to eat at this person’s house, you know. But they had no background in quantity food preparation. So sometimes those people when brought in, when they could feed ten or fifteen people and do a good job, they couldn’t prepare of 600 people and do a very good job. And so one of the things I think we see is our people are better qualified than they once were. They’ve been trained better. The program as it has evolved, equipment that they [use to] prepare meals is different. Food in the way it comes to us – a lot more processed kinds of foods – that’s different, and computers have come into play – that’s different. And our school plants [are] laid out different than they once were. So there’s a lot more planning goes in. It takes a person with a better education than it once did. You don’t just prepare meals now. You have to do other kinds of things such as you have to know how to operate sophisticated kinds of equipment. You need to know how to operate computers. You have to deal with the children. You’ve got to be a PR person. You’ve got to make the children WANT to come in to the facility. And so those are some of the things that I think have evolved. The food itself, the people, so we change just like everything else. Not many of us drive a 1949 Plymouth anymore, and so we don’t operate the child nutrition program in that manner either. We used to have a lot more people. We have fewer people than we once had, but we’re feeding more children than we ever did, and the reason is that we’ve got different kinds of equipment that we prepare meals in. People are not in there peeling potatoes anymore, as once they were. We just can’t afford it. And if you go to your restaurants and things, they don’t do that either. They have to rely on things that are prepared to some degree already.
BC: What do you think has been your most significant contribution to the field of child nutrition?
TR: I think – I don’t know if there’s any one thing – I think one of the things, maybe one of my good traits is listening to people to find out what their needs are and then responding to the needs. One of the things I mentioned earlier is changing the Commodity Program. And then, even though I didn’t finish the statewide procurement, I kind of was there when we got that started. And so I won’t take credit for that because others did most of that. Another thing – we did a lot of training programs. We got into nutrition. We hired people. I found a funding source one time to where we could do programs that were new, had not been done before, that were innovative. So I applied for those funds and got over $200,000.00 and we developed a document on feeding children with special needs, and [how] the food had to be prepared, because that’s one of the requirements, that you have to feed the children regardless of whatever their limitations might be, whether they have allergies, whether they have swallowing problems, whatever, and we had that document put together. We did a school plant planning document; worked with a school of architecture at one of the colleges, and put together a layout and design situation where we make our kitchens more efficient, and took things out. For instance, they would put docks at all the kitchens to where you could back a truck up to unload. Well, people in the industry know now that all trucks have three doors. You’ve got a dry-storage area, a refrigerated storage area, and a freezer storage area, in these trucks that deliver your food – all the distributors. Well, two of those doors are on the side of the truck, so you can back up to the dock, but you can only unload the back. Well, then you’ve got to get the food on the side and get it in. So, we need things a ground level, so we put that in. We also got obstacles out of the way. Architects like sometimes to hide hot water heaters in the storage room. Well, if you get your storage rooms hot, then your grain products have weevils, so we tried to get the hot water heaters out of the storage areas. We got schools to where we started air-conditioning the kitchens and the dining areas. Many times schools were air-conditioned, but they didn’t think the cafeterias needed to be air-conditioned, and that was where you generated the most heat. Some of these ladies worked under some very tough conditions. One of the things that we did that I thought was the best – we noticed participation was beginning to lag some, so we contracted with this lady from Arizona who was just a fireball, and we did a PR kind of thing. We got Bo Jackson involved and had a little slogan. He said, “Do lunch at school. I did.” And we had posters of all sizes; and he made a little video for us, and he also did some radio spots. We were able to use some of the funds to put billboards just like you see on the highways, and got some publicity that way. We also had a young man who was named Kevin Turner [who] had played football at the University of Alabama and was very successful in the pros; Bo Jackson was from Auburn; had both of them. But then there was also a lady astronaut that was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, and she flew in space, and so we contacted NASA and she agreed to do this, so we had posters of her also.
BC: Do you remember her name?
TR: Her name was Jan, and I cannot remember her last name. We’re probably looking at 15-18 years ago. We didn’t want it to all be about ball. We wanted it to be something else too. I never talked to Bo Jackson in the whole thing. I dealt with his people, his company. The lady with whom I worked arranged everything, but we never talked with him. I did talk to Kevin Turner. One reason I was able to talk to him [was] his aunt was one of the secretaries in our office. We were able to do that and we got a lot of good things from that. Some other states took our idea and brought in some of their people, but we got our participation up. We did things in schools from that. Some of the ladies would have Astronaut Week. They would use pictures of Jan and put those up, and maybe the ladies on the serving line would dress up in space suits. We played with the children some, where it was a fun place to come. Another thing with that – some of the cafeterias were sort of drab-looking and we would encourage people to get away from what we used to call the school greens and school browns and get in some bright colors and things of that nature – a little paint – worked on doing those kinds of things. And so it’s a process where a lot of people have to get involved – but you’ve got to sell that. And if you don’t show enthusiasm yourself, then don’t expect it back from the people. And so we did those kinds of things and I think it paid dividends. We tried to make the cafeteria a place where the children would want to come. It’s a place where they can be kind of social – get out of the structure of the classroom some – a little social time for them, but also a fun time. Now you’ve got to have good food too, so we worked on that also where we needed to improve our menus and have things that children would like to eat and things that are good for children. And one of the things that I always told the people, “Let’s listen to the children some; remember they’re the customer. We as adults don’t need to make all decisions without having first listened to our customer base some. ” So we did that some. We would try to evaluate products, but do it with children. Don’t do it with adults. Again, we’re not the customer. We’re customers too, but a very small percentage of the customer base. But let’s involve the children and get their ideas. Now some of the things we couldn’t do. If they wanted T-bone stakes, we never were able to fulfill that request, but they’d understand that and they played with us some too. Again, have good atmospheres; greet the children with a smile instead of being grumpy. One of my favorite stories – years ago I went into a school and both lines were the same; they came from two different directions. One line had about fifty children in it and the other one had five, and I looked on the serving lines and it was the exact same food. And I wondered why they would stand in line so long over there when they can just go over here and get served almost immediately. So I asked one of the children, and you know they will tell you what they think, and I said, “Why are ya’ll over here in this long line when you can go over there?” And they said, “Wilma the Witch works over there!” So we needed to get away from Wilma the Witches. Now they had named her, and I looked over there and I picked her out right away. You could just see the expression on her face. So I think she made things unpleasant, so they’d rather stand in line and wait a while than go by her. There were a few brave souls over there but…We tried to work with our people and they liked it too once we got it going. So we would do crazy things and I tried to be involved with the locals. I know one time we had the State Directors’ Conference, and it was the ASFSA meeting at that time, the American School Food Service Association, School Nutrition Association now, same organization but a little bit different name. Anyway, the lady in charge called me and said, “I’m going to ask you to do something and you listen to what I say before you say no.” And I said, “OK, I’ll let you finish before I say no.” She says, “What I’d like to do is we have a little entertainment section every year, and I’ve go this thing from South Pacific where one of the people dresses up as a sailor person, and that’s a female. And then we have one that dresses up like a hula dancer, and that’s usually a male.” And I said, “Well, I know you don’t want me to be the sailor do you?” “No.” So I agreed to do that, and they had the song and the music was playing. So I came out with a grass skirt on and had the top on with the cocoanuts, long blonde wig. It was a big hit with the ladies and they laughed – I’ve never seen so many flashing cameras. They had a real good time. So I think when you do those kinds of things then you – some people automatically put a big gap between you and the people in the kitchens that have to do the work – and they’re the ones that do the work – I think when you do that you just sort of pull it down to where you feel like ‘We’re all in this together. We’ve got different responsibilities, but we’re still trying to do the same thing – that’s feed as many children as we possibly can a good meal as often as we can’.
BC: Absolutely. Well Mr. Ramey, I know you are a great storyteller and we could spend the rest of the day recording your stories, and you’ve given us a couple of memorable stories already. Can you think of anything else maybe related to children that you served or people that you worked with through the years as you think back? Do you have another story or two that you could share with us?
TR: You know, one of the greatest rewards of my career occurred early on in my career, and it’s something I’ll always remember. You remember earlier I said that at the School for Deaf and Blind we changed the menus and got the young ladies, Home Economics teachers, and we reworked the menus. And what we had there, we were feeding the children more of a rural, which I thought was good food, still think so today, but we had a lot of peas and cornbread and turnip greens and things of that nature. Well, children were coming from homes where they actually were doing things like pizza and tacos and things of that nature. So they’d get that and then they’d come to school and that would not be available to them. So we changed the menus and brought those things in and started serving those also. And one day, and I didn’t know this was getting ready to occur, I heard a knock on the door and looked up, and there were twenty-five little deaf children [that] came to the office. And one of the little girls had speech, because at that time I hadn’t been there too long, and I never was very good at sign language, and that wanted to know could they come in. And they all filed in the office and she was the spokesperson and she said, “Mr. Ramey we want to thank you for changing the menus and getting all of these nice foods, and we really are enjoying it.” And I don’t remember all of the little presentation, but it came from the heart, and I looked behind them and there were my two secretaries, and they were wiping tears out of their eyes – and I wanted to – but that was genuine and it was something that I will always treasure. So some things stick with you and it makes you feel like maybe we did some things right. That was one of my favorite things to ever happen.
BC: That’s a great story.
TR: And I’ve had some other things to where we felt like we had success. We had some failures too. My philosophy always was ‘Let’s try it and if it fails we know it doesn’t work, so we won’t do it again.’
BC: Mr. Ramey you have worked for the Institute teaching scores of people about procurement and I would like for you just to comment just a little bit about procurement and maybe the importance and why you’ve had such a strong interest. If you could spend a little bit of time talking about your experiences there, maybe some things that you have come across as you have traveled throughout the country, some things that have stayed in your mind, maybe some things that you have been amazed about as you have talked to people throughout the country and learned about the different ways that people have run their procurement programs. I know that is a long question, but if you would just talk a little bit about that since that has become your specialty area.
TR: One of the things many years ago – I determined we were not doing a very good job at procurement, and I found out we were not by ourselves. Unfortunately, today a lot of people are still not doing a very good job in procurement. It’s complex. It’s hard work. It’s an ongoing kind of thing and so you have to continue working on it. Products change and so you have to change with it. You can’t continue to buy the same things that you used to. If you just look at what you buy at home you determine it’s not what we bought twenty years ago. Things are changing. As I’ve talked of course and moved around the country I find that people have some problems. They don’t understand food. They don’t understand how food moves from one point to another. They don’t understand how they can change some things. And a lot of people don’t understand how to develop product descriptions. They don’t understand that there’s such a great discrepancy between good-quality food and low-quality food. You have to teach people that they will be taken advantage of if they will allow it to occur. Sometimes they don’t know they’re being taken advantage of. People will sell them things that they don’t want, that they don’t need. You have to teach them how the distribution industry works. You have to allow time for certain things to occur. All items are not stocked in all of the distributors’ warehouses. They have to bring that product in. If there’s not a market for it they don’t bring it in. So we don’t just contact them today and expect it to be there tomorrow. There are ethical issues involved. We don’t take gifts from people trying to sell us things. That is an ethical issue. We don’t do those kinds of things. We have to learn that there are federal rules and regulations that must be followed. We have to bid items. We don’t just go buy from somebody that we might like. We take bids and we do a good job of trying to develop descriptions, and then we award to the lowest responsible bidders. The other thing that I think is important that people need to understand is that volume drives prices down, so if I buy five cases of something I’m not going to get as good a bargain as if I buy fifty cases of items, and I’m talking about the same thing. So a lot of years ago we bought more of what we call line items, meaning that we would buy a few items from this vendor, a few from that vendor, a few from another vendor. None of them made much money and a lot of them didn’t want to deal with us anymore. Today I think we’ve got to look at more of a bottom line kind of thing. It’s an all-or-nothing, in other words, if the distributor gets the entire bid, he’s got enough volume to make it pay for him. If he can’t make money he’s not interested, and we expect them to make some money. That’s the way they stay in business. Another problem we have is that when I was buying for the School for the Deaf and Blind I had about ten vendors that would call on me to sell me food; today in that geographic area there are two, and so we don’t have the competition that we once had. So that’s a tremendous change. We need to work hard to try to seek other vendors, and sometimes no matter how hard we work, they just aren’t there. So we have to deal with those kinds of things. In some parts of the country that’s much worse than others. You get in some of the large western states, a lot of your population centers are in cities, but then you’ve got so much rural area and there’s many, many miles between the schools, and the schools are not very large because the population is so small. So they have different problems than the major cities where your vendors are located. And sometimes those people can’t even get deliveries. Sometimes they actually have to go pick up their own food. So as you move around the country you see different problems, but then you see a lot of the same problems too. And a lot of it is due to geography; some of it is due to population, but overall programs pretty much operate the same. Sometimes some of the food that’s served is a little bit different. We’ve got some of the ethnic kinds of things. In Louisiana you’ve got things that are unique to there. You go into the Northeast, you’ve got more Italian kinds of things. You’ve got more Mexican now that’s going everywhere, and so it’s different from some of the things we buy, but then a lot of the things are basic. But then we also, regardless of what we are trying to serve, we’ve got certain things that we have to do – we comply with rules and regulations, we have timeframes that we have, we have to bid, and we have to have good documentation, because we will be audited and held accountable, as we should be, because we’re spending taxpayer dollars, and so we need to be aware of that at all times.
BC: I’ve heard you talk a little bit about when you’re teaching and you can almost see the looks on some of the students’ faces when they sort of realize that maybe in some areas they have been successful, but in some other areas it’s like the light bulb has come on, and I guess I would just like to hear you talk a little bit about your teaching and how you feel you have influenced school nutrition professionals in the area of procurement.
TR: I don’t think many people set out to do something wrong. They want to do it right. But a lot of times people will take someone’s place, and the person that left leaves today and they have the job tomorrow, so there’s no training prior to them getting the job. And so they take what’s there, whether it’s good, bad, or whatever, and they do the best they can with it. And I think as we go through the process of procurement you’ll see the looks of amazement on their face – things that they may be doing totally wrong – but they want to fix it. And you can tell those things because there are a lot of questions. There are some other things that you see that you present to them and they say, “Well, we can do that. I didn’t even know about that.” And that’s probably the best feeling of all, and when they get ready to leave, “We’re going to go back home and make a lot of changes. We’re going to do this. And we can do a lot better.” And I admire the people that come to the classes because they don’t have to come, but they’re coming because they want to improve. And so, having taught a lot for a long time I can just look at their faces and tell those…I also watch them take notes, listen to the questions they ask, and sometimes they don’t just ask a question, they follow that with another question and another question, and even during the break times they want to get clarification on things. And so you see that maybe you’re making some progress on those kinds of things, and then when you run into people later on they tell you, “Guess what. We’ve changed from what we were doing and now we’re doing this, and it is just working so much better and we’re pleased. We were being taken advantage of by people and now we’re in charge of the program” – as they should be – “And we’ve got more children involved, and it’s just working better altogether.” That’s the reason you like to do this, and that’s the reason you hopefully can help them improve their programs.
BC: What advice would you give to someone who is considering child nutrition as a profession today?
TR: I think you’ve got to be one of those people who wants to have service for people and be involved in that kind of thing; you like to feel like you are helping children to have a more healthy lifestyle, and you have got to make it a place that they want to come. So if you like to deal with people and feel like you can deal with children – you have to deal with adults too – and there’s definitely a difference there. You deal with adults from a more professional standpoint, you deal with children from ‘We’re providing you meals’. So if you enjoy working in that kind of atmosphere – it’s one of these things you kind of get hooked on. Like is said, now I have forty-four years, so I guess I’m kind of hooked on it. And I’ve been retired but I still enjoy teaching these things. So I think it’s a very rewarding job – you won’t get rich, but money’s not everything. It’s just a good area to be in and it’s a fun area to be in, and I think it’s something where you can grow your program, you can grow yourself, and at the end of the day you feel good about what you’ve done. You’ve got to have some feel for it to begin with. If you’re forced into a job I don’t think you’ll be that successful. If you choose it as a profession and then really apply yourself and work at it and learn, then I think you’ll be very successful, and I think you’ll enjoy what you’re doing. And as I move around the nation even today I see faces that I have seen before, which means that they have been in the business a long time, so they must like it or they would have changed and done something else.
BC: Can you think of anything that we have not covered that you’d like to comment on or anything you want to talk about?
TR: I think one thing that I would say is, “Do you like to do what you do?” And my philosophy always was, ‘Do you go to work to make a day or do you go to work to make a difference?’, and my philosophy, I like to go to work to make a difference. As I stated earlier, I never did like the status quo. I would always try things. Some of them were not very smart as I look back, but we tried them anyway. But a lot of them worked too, and so I think you’ve got to want to make a difference. It always requires more work, and if people wanted me to try something I’d try it. If I came up with an idea, sometimes folks would tell me why it wouldn’t work. If we knew it wouldn’t work we wouldn’t try it, but I think you’ve just got to want to make a difference and change things, and not change for change’s sake, change to improve. And I think we changed a whole lot of things for improvement during the time and involved a lot of good people. If you want to be successful surround yourself with good people and give them the tools to work. One thing I always did when I was State Director, if one of our people came up with an idea that was a very good idea it was never my idea. I would tell all the directors at the meeting that this individual came up with this idea, and so this was her idea, but we put it in place and it worked good, or he came up with this way of doing this and it works better than what we were doing; but give the individual the credit that came up with the idea, that put it together and don’t try to take credit for those things that you didn’t do. We’re a team, we’re not a group of individuals, we’re a team that works together, but I still like to give the individual recognition; then that makes those people feel like they have accomplished something, then they want to do something else. It keeps the moral up, and I think we did a pretty good job of that; tried not to make things overly formal and have a little fun. And you know me; I like to tell jokes and pick at people and still get the job done. But I think people do a better job with a smile on their face than a frown, and so that’s kind of been my philosophy, way of doing things. And I’ve been doing it for a long time – don’t know how much longer I’ll do it – we all have a point where we need to stop – but I’m still enjoying doing it now.
BC: Well, Mr. Ramey, we thank you for your contributions and we thank you for taking time to do this interview this morning.
TR: Well, I’ve enjoyed doing it and I appreciate the fact that you think that I might have had something that someone might be interested in looking at. A lot of people have been involved and a lot of people have helped this program grow through the years and have done many, many things more than I have, but we all I think have enjoyed doing what we did.