Interviewee: Virginia Webb
Date: May 22, 2008
Location: National Food Service Management Institute
Description: Virginia Webb is currently working as an independent consultant. Her previous employment includes several positions at the National Food Service Management Institute, culminating as director of education and training in 2007. A registered dietitian, Virginia has worked as food service director at Rapides Regional Medical Center and Natchitoches Parish Hospital in Louisiana. Virginia completed her bachelor’s degree in dietetics at Louisiana Tech University and her master’s in food service management from Colorado State University. She is a certified ServSafe instructor, certified director Level III with the School Nutrition Association, and has numerous training experiences. She served on the School Meals Initiative National Task Force and has reviewed numerous training resources.
Jeffrey Boyce: This is Jeffrey Boyce and it is May 22, 2008, and I am here at the National Food Service Institute with Virginia Webb. Thank you Virginia for taking the time to share your story with me.
Virginia Webb: Oh, I am happy to be here.
JB: Could we begin today with you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and grew up?
VW: I was born in Shreveport and grew up in Red River Parish, which is in northwest Louisiana. The parish seat was Coushatta and that was our mailing address, but I actually grew up on a farm a few miles outside of town. I am one of seven children so I joke and say that I got my start in quantity foods by cooking at home. And so I grew up in a large family and we raised a lot of the foods that we ate. I have always enjoyed cooking and to this day I cannot cook for one or two people. I have to cook for at least eight or ten.
JB: So that is one of the reasons why you share a lot of these things with the people at the Institute.
VW: That’s right.
JB: What are some of your earliest recollections of child nutrition programs?
VW: Well, I have some very vivid memories of eating lunch at school, at the elementary school.
JB: So there was school lunch when you were going to school?
VW: Absolutely! And with seven children my mother did not pack lunches at all. We all participated in the lunch program at the school. And you know, I still remember Ms. Bobbie Brown. I remember some of the lunch ladies that worked in the lunch program, and some I don’t remember their names but I can see their faces. My memories always involve the smell of those yeast rolls that they made and served every day. And in my particular situation our teachers made us taste everything. We did not have to clean our plate, but our teachers did expect us to taste the food, whether or not we ate all of it. And this was, I was in elementary school in the 1960s, and we did not have choices. We went through the line and we took what we were served – no choices. I think that that might be why the teachers did not make us clean our plate, because you took all of the products. They did make us drink all of our milk, but I love milk so that was not a problem for me.
JB: So this was before Offer vs. Serve?
VW: This was before Offer vs. Serve, right!
JB: What were some of your favorite items during those schoolday lunches?
VW: Well, other than the rolls I remember of course having the jello salads, and I don’t remember a lot about the meats, but I know that we did have some casserole types of dishes. But I guess one of my more vivid memories is not about a food that I liked, but about a food that I did not like. I remember hiding the stewed prunes in the empty milk carton, and there were quite a few people who became very skilled at doing that, and the teachers, it did not faze them, because they did not see those pits to the prunes so they knew that we had not eaten the prunes.
JB: Do you still have an aversion to stewed prunes?
VW: Oh, not now. I eat a variety of food items now than I did not eat as a child.
JB: I think that we all do.
VW: But milk was one of my very favorite things and to this day I am a big milk drinker. When you go and have your bone density scans done and you are at the upper level you can say that’s good.
JB: That’s very good.
JB: Good for that milk. Was there a breakfast program at your elementary school?
VW: No, we had no breakfast. We had breakfast at home, and in fact we had oatmeal for breakfast most mornings. My mother would prepare the oatmeal. She worked part-time at the post office, but had to be at work before seven in the morning so she would prepare the big pot of oatmeal and leave it and then we would get up and eat the oatmeal before we went to school.
JB: That was a good, healthy breakfast!
JB: How did you become involved in child nutrition as a profession?
VW: As a dietitian, my first contact with the USDA Child Nutrition Programs was actually a Child and Adult Care Food Program. When I worked in healthcare our medical center did provide food to a childcare operation and we also provided contract meals to an adult daycare center, so my first connection to the USDA programs as a professional was actually through CACFP rather than through school lunch or school breakfast. Then I did have contact with other dietitians, particularly in Alexandria, Louisiana, where I worked for thirteen years, and the dietitians who worked in Rapides Parish school system had a very strong program and they were active in our dietetic association. Coming to NFSMI was my first real direct contact with the school programs …
JB: Well let’s pause and talk about your educational background first.
JB: You studied dietetics?
VW: Yes, dietetics.
JB: Where did you go to school?
VW: I went to Louisiana Tech University and received a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and institution management. That was the terminology used at the time. After I graduated from Louisiana Tech I went straight to a master’s program at Colorado State. At the time I received my bachelor’s degree dietetics students could apply to a maximum of two internship programs. Today they can apply to as many as they wish to pay the fee for. But we were limited and could only apply to two programs. I had reasonably good grades, a strong B average and loads of activities, but I only received an alternate internship appointment. Since no one dropped out I did go on and complete my master’s degree. With a master’s degree and six months work experience I was eligible to sit for the RD exam. When I received my master’s degree I had been in school straight through undergraduate and graduate school and said, “I am never going back to school.” And I say never say never because when I did start working at the Institute I had the opportunity to take classes with tuition paid. The years have passed and I have to say that I have enjoyed my PhD classes even more than I enjoyed my undergraduate and graduate classes.
JB: And your PhD is in?
VW: I am not through with my PhD. I have completed my coursework for a PhD in higher education/educational leadership.
JB: So after your CACFP experience you said that you came to NSFMI?
VW: Right! I came to NSFMI in March of 1996 as a school meal specialist. At that time the Helpdesk had been launched and Patty Craig had been working with the Helpdesk. They were getting busy enough that they needed to expand the staff. At that time the Helpdesk was housed under what was called technology transfer division of NFSMI. When I came here the Institute was housed across campus here at Ole Miss and the administrative offices were located in what we called the big house. It was a two-story brick house that at one time was used for the home management courses that were taught in home economics. They phased that out. I don’t really know what date, but Dr. Oakley could tell us I’m sure. It was a two-story building and they had changed the building purposes and it became offices. As the Institute grew they had to have more rooms, and addressed that by adding a portable building. When I came to NFSMI there were three portable buildings kind of behind and to the right of that two-story house. The offices were located at the intersection of Old Taylor Road and University Avenue here on campus.
JB: Where the Gertrude Ford Center now stands?
VW: Yes, the Gertrude Ford Center is currently there. I started out working with the Helpdesk and I came at a great time because the legislation – in 1994 and 1995 legislation was passed that gave the opportunity for schools to use some different types of menu planning systems. I came in and immediately attended one of the last training sessions on the new meal patterns and meal planning systems. I was able to get in on the ground floor with that and was exposed to the nutrient analysis software that’s used in the school programs now. This was an advantage, because I was really able to get on track with new things in the program without having to unlearn some of the history that other people had as part of their practice with the school lunch programs.
JB: What were some of the other positions that you have held while at NFSMI?
VW: I have worked as school meal specialist, and then the Institute began a new program that was called Hands-On Team that involved sending child nutrition professionals out to school districts or schools to provide technical assistance. The name evolved over the years and is now called technical assistance. I think that I moved to that in 1997 when a position opened as coordinator of that service and worked in that capacity from ’97 until 2005. In 2005 I moved to director of education and training, and worked there until the end of 2007. But getting back to the Hands-On Team, that was a project that took off really fast, because with this new legislation that I mentioned the implementation part of it was somewhat of a challenge to some schools. Funding was provided for NFSMI to provide support to the local school districts. The state agency had to recommend the districts. The local director then had someone from NFSMI come to help you with your problems or your challenges right there in your own office. You didn’t have to go to a training session; it was more one-on-one, “Here is what I am dealing with. Let’s plan some strategies that will help me face some of the issues that I have been facing.” I worked with that project and we ended up orienting several dozen consultants. The consultants had the skills and experience needed to assist the school programs. NFSMI sent them forth and completed several hundred on-site technical assistance consultations to help these people who are out in the trenches to try and meet challenges of the program. That was a very rewarding part of one of the jobs that I have had here at the Institute. Another big project that I became involved with was developing a network for training and food safety in HACCP and we worked with some –
JB: And HACCP is – for those that don’t know?
VW: HACCP is Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. You focus on points and the flow of food where there is a risk of problems occurring. During the time that I worked with that project we completed eleven or twelve orientations where we would bring about thirty people in and train those people in the materials that had been developed for the Institute. They would take these materials back and complete training within their own state, or some within their own school district.
JB: So these were best practices in food safety that you were implementing?
JB: What are some of the major changes that you have seen over the years in child nutrition?
VW: Well, I guess the first thing that comes to mind is that legislation in 1995 really opened the door for nutrient analysis to be a part of the school programs, and of course to do that computers are needed. I think that regardless of what anyone feels about evaluating the menus strictly based on nutrients, it really brought computers into a lot of school districts that might not have had that opportunity to bring that technology into their operations. That’s one big thing. You know, this is actually pretty recent history, I mean we are talking mid-90s. Then the other thing that has happened is the advent of HACCP and people using HACCP in the school programs. A lot of the focus on food safety has been, again, in the last ten to twelve years. It has become more and more of a focus. And you know, there are some things that I can see that don’t change. I have really enjoyed getting to know so many child nutrition professionals all across this country. The people who work in these programs care about children, they want to nurture and be of service to the children in their schools, and that has kind of been a recurring theme that I have seen throughout my career in working in child nutrition. They just really care about those children.
JB: Were any of those people a special mentor that guided you in the child nutrition programs.
VW: Well, when I came to the Institute Dr. Josephine Martin was the executive director and Dr. Jeanette Phillips was the associate executive director. Both of those ladies were just wonderful leaders and so well respected across this whole nation. I really appreciated the opportunity of working for them. I worked with a number of consultants over the years, many who had worked in local school programs. I hate to start naming them but Betty Bender was a special person who retired as director in Dayton, Ohio. I knew Betty Bender through the American Dietetic Association before I ever worked directly in child nutrition. She just had such a wonderful grasp on the management of the programs, and I appreciated Betty. Betty was forthright and direct and I appreciate that because she could assess a situation and put her finger right on the key to solving whatever challenge was being faced. She would cut to the chase. And of course Beverly Lowe, because I loved Beverly’s love of life, and she has been wonderful to work with through the years. Beverly has been such a wonderful advocate for NFSMI. When she was a local director she used some material the Institute developed to train her staff. When she retired she began working as a consultant. She believes in the school nutrition program and really wants to provide assistance that will help people to continue to improve those programs. So those are just two besides the management here at NFSMI. I really did enjoy working with the executive directors. And actually you know after Dr. Martin retired, Dr. Phillips filled in as executive director, and then I worked under Dr. Jane Logan and also under Dr. Charlotte Oakley, and so I guess that I am kind of dating myself here being through four executive director. The Institute is such a unique place. In my former jobs one of the things that I really liked about them was being of service to people, and that is what the Institute is all about. We want to provide materials, and we don’t have to support ourselves by selling materials because of the grant that USDA provides. We are able to develop and distribute materials that will help the people that are out there in the trenches trying to provide good food that children will like, that is healthy for them; and that is kind of a unique situation to be in with an organization.
JB: Thinking back over your career so far what would you say has been your most significant contribution to child nutrition?
VW: Oh gosh, I haven’t thought about that one. Well, probably the networking that I have been able to do over the years. When I worked with the technical assistance service I know Dr. Logan at the time said that deciding which consultant to send to which district was more of an art than a science. I am a people person and I like helping people and so in working with that service let you help local districts be more successful, being able to provide some of that one-on-one service that would equip local directors and managers to do some things that would carry forth over some years. Even though you only went there once, the impact that came across could last for years and years and make such a positive impact on the program. The other thing is that I think that I have been a good ambassador for NSFMI. With the advent of the web there are more things that are now available via technology, but I don’t think that people ever lose the face-to-face, person-to-person work that really makes a difference in people’s lives.
JB: It builds a connection.
VW: That’s right, that’s right. The past few years that I was at the Institute I was traveling twenty to twenty-five trips a year, going to different places across the nation. I would like to think that I made a difference in some lives through the messages that I took from NSFMI, and by educating people about what NSFMI has to offer for them.
JB: Any memorable stories from all of those travels?
VW: Let’s see. I went several places that I said that the next time I go there I am not going for work, but I am going for fun. But you know, I met such wonderful people and such leaders in the profession. Some of the people that you meet are just getting started. It was very rewarding to think, “Ok, this person is just getting started and they are seeing so many things that the Institute has to offer,” and knowing that person is going to continue with their relationship with NSFMI even though I may never see them again. I have to think about any particular events. I am really just thinking about how many people that I was able to meet, because to me it was always about the people rather than the places. I think that I could sit here and name at least two or three people in every state in the nation that I know from either going to that state or from communicating with them via email or telephone. Those working relationships that were developed over the years have made a big difference to me and I hope that it made a big difference to the people on the other end.
JB: Oh, I am sure that it did. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
VW: You asked me the question about what changes have occurred – I think that in a lot of ways it has become harder and harder to operate child nutrition programs. There continues to be more challenges and more requirements that are put on child nutrition programs. I think that it will continue to take people who care to operate these programs and be successful in operating these programs. And a lot of times I think that we in child nutrition feel like we are the only ones that that is happening to. But it is happening to everyone. Everyone you talk to, regardless of their career, has their own set of challenges that they have to deal with. Child nutrition professionals have more requirements and more things to do without additional funding. I wish that I could come back in five or ten years and say, “Oh, now we have universal feeding, where every child is fed.” You know, we are not there yet. The leaders in child nutrition programs are continuing to work towards that. It just seems like something like that would totally revolutionize child nutrition programs as we know them. So I will have to keep putting my two cents worth in to support that also.
JB: Keep up the good work Virginia.
VW: Ok, thanks.
JB: Thanks for being here with me today.
VW: Ok, thank you!