Interviewee: Violet Roefs
Interviewer: Beth King
Date: July 9, 2004

Description: Violet Roefs is a California native who began her career in 1946 teaching Home Economics and managing the cafeteria at the school where she taught. She went on to earn a master’s at Pennsylvania State University in Institutional Administration. She worked for eighteen years as a child nutrition consultant with the California Department of Education. She continues to work with the Department emphasizing professional education and training.

Beth King: Would you tell us a little bit about yourself, about where you’re from and where you grew up?

Violet Roefs: Yes, I’m a native Californian, and so were my parents. And I say that because, as unusual as it may seem, there still aren’t that many native Californians it seems, at least when you’re in a group. So anyway, I did grow up on a ranch in central California, and I learned how to drive using a stick shift, driving around the oval driveway on my parents ranch. And so now that stick shifts are back, that hasn’t been a challenge. And my jewels are my twin sons, who are both physicians, but I have no grandchildren yet, so that’s something I’m waiting for.

BK: Would you tell us about your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs and school lunch programs?

VR: Yes, in my high school we didn’t have a child nutrition program or school lunch program, and so either my mother packed my lunch, or when I got to be a junior or senior we went to the local restaurant. And unfortunately, my menu was the same most of the time, and it was a hamburger and a soft drink. And that was the pattern, and I suppose that that was not unusual. Well, it still can be a pattern, unfortunately, but that was the story at that time. I became familiar with the child nutrition program with my first teaching job, and as you know, in 1946 was the passage of the National School Lunch Act, and my career and National School Lunch have been somewhat on the same path ever since. So, that was, that was my first exposure was when I started teaching and I was asked by the principal in 1946 if I would not only teach Home Economics, but also manage a small cafeteria.

BK: Had you been teaching long when you started to work at the, to start this program in the cafeteria?

VR: No, it was just the second year. And the teacher who had been in charge of the food service before moved on to another position, and so that was the reason they asked me to take it over. And we used mostly student help with just a little bit of paid help, and some volunteers, but our participation just seemed to be very good, and so that was the first, first step as far, in my knowledge, of the child nutrition program. And the standard as far as references at that time was Mary De Garmo Bryan’s The School Cafeteria and Food for Fifty, and that really, those were the resources that I had available at that time.

BK: Those were very good resources to have available weren’t they?

VR: Correct, they really were, definitely. And I remember later on, when I started working for the state of California, that I took one of the recipes from Food for Fifty, a roll recipe, and it had a high percentage of egg in it and I used the powdered eggs that we were getting at that time, and so converted it into something really quite, quite good using powdered eggs. But, Food for Fifty is still with us.

BK: Did you learn about that as you were, when you were going through college?

VR: Yes.

BK: Tell us a little bit about your educational background and how that prepared you for child nutrition programs.

VR: Yes, well, first of all my family had definite plans for me, at least one faction that wanted me to be a nurse, and another faction that was interested in my being a teacher. And, the latter won out, and so I attended the University of California at Santa Barbara, and so I did start out in the path of a Home Economics teacher, and so I had the educational background and left with the credential. I also attended summer school so I could receive, so I had enough credits to also qualify to go into Dietetics. So I had both and I think that has been a very good arrangement as far as my work with the state is concerned. Plus, when I received my master’s from Penn State University, and there I majored in Institutional Administration with a minor in Evaluation, and so all of those different tangents seem to work well, because it gave me a broader background than, you know, Clinical Dietetics or just one area that, particularly with this program as it was expanding into many different avenues.

BK: Was there someone, a mentor perhaps, who was influential in directing you in child nutrition programs?

VR: Well, not really, other than this other Home Economics teacher who told me that she was visited one day by some, by a nutritionist from the state, and all she did was come in and look at your menus, and she had an opportunity to go visit different areas of the state and so on. And I thought, hhmmm, that’s something that I’ll just file in the back of my mind. Then, when I went to Penn State, I went there on a teaching assistantship and that, again, the National School Lunch Act was just started, and Penn State I think always is kind of on the top of things. And so, after I received my master’s, they asked me, asked me to stay on to teach a course in School Nutrition, I think, is what they called it. And so, I know that many colleges and universities now have people on their staff who have backgrounds in child nutrition, and so with my limited knowledge at least it was a start, and so that’s how it, how it evolved. And so, when I came back to California, I decided that I would contact the State Department of Education and see if they had any positions, and fortunately they did, and so that’s how I started, I started at the state. And I started with the state working in Southern California as a Regional Child Nutrition Consultant, and then about two years after that I became a Supervising Child Nutrition Consultant and worked in that capacity for eighteen years. And so, during that time we, the program was growing, expanding, and so, in the early seventies, the USDA sponsored a grant program, one in each of the regions, of the USDA regions. And California applied and someone else wrote the proposal and we were funded, and so I was then switched out of Child Nutrition to Curriculum Services, and we implemented the grant or the, the grant out of Curriculum Services through the school health program. Then, three or four years after that there was a move on to have state funding for nutrition education and training. And Gene White was very instrumental in getting the legislation through to provide the funding for state programs in nutrition education in the classroom, and I was the one who implemented the program at the state level. And so, that was another part of my, even though I had been with the Department of Education for many, many years, actually I’ve done some different things along the way. And after that, my primary focus has been on professional education and training, professional development, and so that essentially is what I’m doing right now.

BK: In professional development of whom? Is that people who work in schools, or professional development in the state department, or?

VR: It’s professional, we have, we’re responsible for both, what the term being used is external and internal training.

BK: So it’s both.

VR: So we are responsible for training school personnel, school sponsors, and also child care, family day care, Summer Food Service Program, Adult Day Care Program, so it’s a long list, and so that’s the external. And we’re also responsible for internal training. Our focus has been more on external training than internal for the reason that we simply don’t have the funding. And so we have secured along the way the assistance of a college and two universities to assist us with implementing this instruction. And the California Training Centers, the California Professional Nutrition Education and Training Centers, and they have some similar characteristics to the Institute, only they, well they’re not as well funded. But otherwise their responsibility is to, we work with them, they have contracts with us and they assist us in implementing training throughout California.

BK: Over the years, you’ve been doing training for many years and you’ve been doing professional development for many years. What kinds of changes have you seen that are related to training issues in this time period that you’ve been doing it?

VR: Well, when I first came we started out offering workshops, and these might be for two hours to a whole day. And I think that over the years, and particularly since we’ve had the three colleges and universities working with us, we not only do workshops and meetings, we also, we do courses, both credit and noncredit courses. And right now we are working on a series of workshops that would, one that would be focusing on regulatory issues but would be offered in ten locations throughout California. One that would be focused on management issues, another series of ten, and another that would focus on nutrition education and training issues. Now this all comes under the area of professional development. As we have been working in the past year on a reorganization plan for this office, we’ve been trying to develop the concept that we would have a professional development, let me just call it that for the time being, and we would also have a nutrition education unit. There would be two separate units, not the same unit. So I had recommended that it be a professional education and training unit rather than professional development, because I feel rather strongly we need to be promoting not only professional development, but we need to be promoting pre-service of child nutrition personnel. And I think with the changes in the child nutrition program and the different areas that child nutrition directors and their staff must, that they must be engaged in, I believe that they need to come, we need to be working toward their coming, the districts or child care centers with the qualifications for the child care position rather than trying to meet and improve their competencies by way of professional development.

BK: So are the schools, the universities helping with this? Are they offering courses that would prepare the child nutrition personnel?

VR: They’re doing some. In my estimation, we haven’t come along fast enough, but we’re moving in that direction, yes. And we feel that, in conjunction with this, that there is a need for the state of California to provide at least guidance, if not actual legislation that would specify what these qualifications should be for the major position levels within child nutrition: the director, the dutrition ed specialist, the site manager, the production level people. And so, we have an education and training strategic plan that we have developed, and through that strategic plan, one of the pathways deals with qualifications of child nutrition personnel. And so, we hope as we move along that we can make some headway in terms of getting something specified in the way of qualifications. I know that some states already have some qualifications, and I think that California always likes to be a leader, and I think it’s time that we be a leader in this particular area.

BK: In terms of changes, have their been any changes in delivery of instruction to professional development over the years, over your years?

VR: Yes, there has, we have tried some things. For example, we tried teleconferences, the teleconference, distance education in terms of offering some of our programs. But we, this is professional development programs, but we found that the personnel really were not that enthusiastic about the distance education. If there wasn’t going to be a person there, although we had a person in the room, of course, who was there to answer questions afterwards. The feeling that we obtained, the evaluation indicated that they preferred having a videotape to having to go to a point and not have a real live person interact with them, and so that is what we found about, in that. Now our new and current director is very much in favor of our moving into more online courses, and so we are contemplating doing that in the area of food safety. We also are interested in a mentoring, a mentoring program, but as yet we haven’t, it’s a part of our strategic plan, but as yet we haven’t been able to move forward with that. So, it’s essentially then, I would say that we are still more traditional than we are in terms of using new technology and that sort of thing, in terms of delivery. And we, we do use, I might mention this, we use, have a, an instructional cadre and we have a program for providing training to some of our outstanding child nutrition directors, and they, in turn, assist us in offering courses and workshops, and so that has worked out very well.

BK: Is that kind of a Train-the-Trainer model?

VR: Yes, it’s a Train-the-Trainer model. Yes, we just had, we had a food safety course that the Fresno City College offered here in Sacramento about two weeks ago, and the person teaching it was the assistant director from the Oakland Unified School District. And she not only has a very excellent background in the principles of food safety, but she also can relate these principles so well to an actual school situation. Not that some of our environmental health specialists don’t do a good job, they do, but I think she had both the knowledge and then the background to really relate well to the people in her class.

BK: Over the years, when you’ve been doing training, have the, have the topics changed any? Have there been changes in emphasis in any of the topics that you might be training on?

VR: Well, I think that we do, incidentally, we do offer a course on effective teaching strategies. That we have some, again, that are trainers; we strongly urge that they participate in that. And we have, and this might be considered a different kind of delivery system in a way, in that we do train trainers then, and they, in turn, go out and train their own staff, not only assist us in offering, in offering courses.

BK: Have you, you mentioned food safety, and it seems like food safety has really been a hot topic lately. Are there other, is that, is that taught more now than it was, say ten or fifteen years ago?

VR: Oh very definitely, and of course now we have HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points] also that we offer with the curriculum from the Institute, and so, and now, due to the reauthorization and the fact that HACCP is going to be mandated it appears to me, then certainly that’s going to be a course that will be offered, offered more. I would say that we have had less emphasis on food preparation from this because of their, of the students, the adult students actually going into the classroom and doing food preparation. And I think this has come about due to the fact that many school districts now buy so much of their food already either pre-cleaned or pre-cooked and so on. And I have mixed feelings about this, and I wish that we did have a little more focus on on-site food preparation. On the other hand, I understand that because of the tremendous growth that we have had in the state, that there would be no way that we could get meals to children if we didn’t do some type of transported meals. And so it’s more of a challenge to have that food look more attractive, I think, than when you’re doing it on site. I think that we also tried to place focus on fiscal management, now maybe more so than in the past. In the past there was more funding coming to the child nutrition program from the school districts, but now that’s almost, that almost doesn’t happen, other than possibly in some of the smaller, rural districts. And so we do place emphasis on fiscal management, analysis of profit and loss statements, and so on. And so that is an area that we will continue to place focus on. And when we’re talking about the training of child nutrition personnel, now we’ve got the emphasis on wellness and nutrition, which is certainly coming into focus right now. And so this is, I’m just repeating this because I feel so strongly about the need for qualified personnel coming to the district, not training them after they come to the district. And so I think that the nutrition and wellness, I wish we could focus more on serving healthy meals rather than using the term preventing childhood obesity. But, at any rate, that is one area certainly we need qualified personnel if they’re going to do, accomplish this, serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, etc. And also, then, nutrition education in the classroom, the matter of cost effectiveness, and also the matter of legislation, legislation and policy. And that has come, has come very strongly into, into focus, and we have quite a number of school districts right now that are working on developing a nutrition policy. And so, the director’s of those districts need to be in tune with, you know, what is the policy, for example. And what is policy, how does it differ from legislation, and so on. So I think that more and more, as we go into these specialized areas, that it points to the need to have competent individuals that meet some qualifications.

BK: All of these that you’ve described really point out the complexity of being a school food service director.

VR: This is right; it is a very complex position, and I often have heard in the past about, oh well, you know, it’s one meal a day, five days a week. Well, it just has grown a great deal beyond that, and so I think that this is being recognized now. I might also say that, way back when, when I started with the program, I would have some directors say that, oh we have a lot of parent volunteers and they drive in here, this was in Burbank which is just north of Los Angeles, and the director then would say, “Oh they drive in with their Cadillacs and they come in here and volunteer and work.” And she was very pleased with it, but I think over the years and as we have expanded, I think there hasn’t been, maybe, that emphasis in bringing, to bring in parents to have them a little more involved. And I think now then, however, that this focus on wellness and with the drive on to have nutritious foods in vending machines, if they’re going to have vending machines. I just feel that there has been developed a little more interest on the part of parents, and I think when I, I think we need parents of all socio-economic levels to be participants in this child nutrition program in some way, because the program should be for all children.

BK: Have there been changes in issues over the time that you have worked? Issues in child nutrition programs?

VR: Changes in issues?

BK: Well you mentioned that there’s, now there’s this emphasis on obesity where there used to be some different kind of emphasis in child nutrition programs.

VR: I, I think that, I think that maybe, I mentioned that matter of quality food, and I think that there was a time when there may have been more emphasis on the preparation of the food, and maybe with our needing to get out the meals, and get them out via prepackaged or whatever means is available, that maybe we have not perhaps focused on that as well. I don’t mean to say that we don’t have a outstanding child nutrition programs in California, we do. And I think the, the addition of some chefs here and there has also helped in terms of focusing on the attractiveness and, and the taste of the food. And so, but I think that those are two areas that continually need to have focus. And the issues are, I mean where we didn’t have the matter of soft drinks and that type of thing, so maybe we didn’t have that as an issue as being served in vending machines and so on, and that certainly is an issue now.

BK: When did that, at what time did that really come to the forefront, this issue of competitive foods and vending machines?

VR: Well, I think it was kind of, you know, really building up in the nineties and I think in the last few years has really – I think the carbonated beverage issue has really, really come forward during this last few years as a concern.

BK: Are you seeing that more as because of the demand of the customers or more as the demand of the administration, or is it a balance? To what would you attribute that?

VR: Well, I think that, I think that the fact that school districts are so short of money at this point. They have a difficult time operating not just the child nutrition program, but the entire school district. I think they, that the districts have been looking for ways that they can make money, and that has been one of them. And then there has been considerable pressure, I think, from industry also. And whether the children have placed, or the students have placed greater emphasis, I really don’t feel I can answer that question, I really don’t know if there is a difference. But I certainly know that there is a difference in terms of district need for finances, and that that is a definite factor.

BK: I’d like to back up to one of your comments about when you began to work with curriculum services and you were doing training. In the seventies, did you start out with, when you got grant money, was that NET money or was that before they had the Nutrition Education and Training Program?

VR: That was before the NET money. Actually, we received the grant in 1972 and we had that for, up through 1975, federal funds to do nutrition education. And then, in 1975 was state funds, the Child Nutrition Facilities Act here in California that Gene worked on came into effect and so then for three years we had that. And then in ’78 and ’79, that’s when the Nutrition Education, federal Nutrition Education and Training Program came into being. And actually the data that we collected during those six or seven years and we, prior to NET, that information was, of course, made available to the USDA and they in turn. Anyway, the GAO became aware of what we had done, and fortunately I had an excellent evaluator here with the Department that worked with me in the collection of the data for, during that period of time. And so, that information was used then to promote the concept of a Nutrition Education and Training Program, and it came from what we had accomplished here in California. And then also, during that period, we started the curriculum for all the grade levels, and then it was finalized here in California when the federal NET Program came into effect. And so then that resulted in our Choose Well, Be Well curriculum and for, in Nutrition Education. And the curriculum that, the curriculum series for professional development and professional education, that’s our step series. And we also use the Institute curriculum, because curriculum is a time consuming, expensive activity which you must accomplish in order to have an instructional program, and so we are appreciative of the materials that the Institute has prepared. I wish that under this new reauthorization that there had been a little more focus on funds specifically earmarked for education and training as compared. I don’t mean it that way, but I mean we have a good representation of wellness activities that were passed, but I wish that we could have had something that would have emphasized, allowed us to provide more emphasis really on the instruction of child nutrition personnel. Because you just can’t accomplish some of these other things that are going to be expected unless you have adequately trained people.

BK: Has there been a change in the labor force in child nutrition programs over the years? Has there been more turnover or have you seen, have you seen changes that would be reflected in how you train, or?

VR: I think, of course, being a very diverse state, we have, we have people who are now working who have some problem with English. And so we have not, again, had the funds to be able to do very much, doing anything in the way of Spanish or in any kind of an Asian curriculum. But, that is, that is a bit of a problem. Because of that, I mean it makes the training more difficult. And in terms of the caliber of the personnel, however, I think that, I mean really through the years I think we have had some very dedicated, dedicated people all along the way, and I think it’s, it would be a little difficult to say that they are any more or any less dedicated now than they were before.

BK: Are you seeing people who entered the profession now remaining in the profession, or do you, have you noticed whether there are people who are; we hear in the rest of the labor market that this younger generation is more likely to change jobs more frequently. Are you seeing that in child nutrition programs?

VR: It’s interesting that you ask that question because just in the last couple of weeks I heard of one of our younger directors who has an excellent program going, both from a management standpoint and from a nutrition education standpoint, and she is leaving the state and going on to another position. And there have been some of those, and I think that as it becomes very difficult really, to really manage a program with such limited funding, that it, I think it is possible that we could have more of that, yes. But it hasn’t been, I would say, a major trend at this point, but there are some that have changed to different positions. Some directors also have moved up the ladder, and they have become directors of business, of the business office or of food procurement, or all of the procurement for the district, so that has gone also, gone on also.

BK: I’ll ask this question; I may follow up with it. You’ve had a very long career in child nutrition programs; what do you think has been your most significant contribution to the programs?

VR: I had, someone said to me, said to me the other day, “Well, I think that you have remained focused on what you believe the needs are.” And this person was offering that as a compliment, and, by that, he was alluding to the fact that it has been somewhat of an upward battle to keep professional education and training at the forefront. And, but I have, have held that as a high priority and so I feel that I, I did make a contribution for sure toward the fact that in the reorganization that we will have, that we will have a separate unit for carrying out this education and training so that we can develop as an ongoing program. And also with the ultimate goal of having the funding available to make this possible, and I believe that is a contribution. I believe that I made a contribution in the nutrition education area, with getting nutrition education in the classroom really started here in California, even before NET. And also, we have a number of curricula, curriculum and, which we refer to as the Step Curriculum Series, and so I have been really pretty much responsible for, if not doing it all, at least providing the concept. And I think, probably, those are essentially the chief things that I might want to point out.

BK: I had heard from another, from someone else, that you had certainly served as a mentor to them, that you had been a very good mentor in terms of helping them in nutrition education.

VR: Thank you. Yes, I’ve heard a few of them say that too so that’s good to hear.

BK: You’re certainly an excellent example of someone who has remained focused and stayed, stayed in the position or in the same area for very long, quite a while. What keeps you involved in the profession, in child nutrition?

VR: Well, I mean, it does deal with children and so that certainly is the, is the real strong reason why I continue, and I would like them to have high quality meals. And that if we’re going to have a child nutrition program, that it should be the very best that we can make available. And I see my little part at this particular time and as long as I’m going to be here is to just see what we can do to get the strategic plan in motion, and particularly so that we can start some momentum towards some qualifications for child nutrition personnel.

BK: Backing up to your, the early years of your career. Did you start, at what point did you start in the California Department of Education? Or, you’re not in the Department, part of the Department of Education.

VR: Yes, yes, at what point? Well, I started in 1949.

BK: 1949.

VR: Yes, yes.

BK: That’s remarkable.

VR: And I believe I’ve been, I’ve been with child nutrition longer than Gene White has, I believe. And so, I have a feeling that I probably have been in child nutrition really longer, and still functioning longer than probably most people around.

BK: Most people for sure, most people for sure. Did the Department, it must have been very small when you started and now it’s much larger, or did it go up and down?

VR: Well, at that time when I started there were about ten field child nutrition consultants and supervising nutritionists and the director, and that was it. And at this point in time now we have about fifty of the field child nutrition consultants, and they have about five managers and an administrator. And then we will have the separate nutrition education unit and a separate professional education unit, and then we will have a separate school nutrition policy unit and a separate community base policy unit. And then we have a technology unit and data processing and all that sort of thing. Plus then, we also have the accounting section, which is actually not located within our office now but is located, of course, in the business office of the Department of Education. So the number of people on the staff are well over two hundred, so it’s a very large division.

BK: We really want to thank you for being with us and talking with us today. It’s just been very inspiring to hear.

VR: Thank you.

BK: Your commitment to child nutrition education especially.

VR: Thank you very much, and it’s nice having you here.