Interviewee: Wanda Grant
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: August 15, 2013
Location: National Food Service Management Institute
Description: Wanda Grant served as a school food service director in Washington and California.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is August 15, 2013, and I’m here at the National Food Service Management Institute with Wanda Grant. Welcome Wanda and thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.
Wanda Grant: Thank you.
JB: Could we begin today by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?
WG: I was born in Nampa, Idaho, and I grew up in Spokane, Washington. And my father was a nature path who believed in alternative medicine. So I grew up with nutrition, and pediatrics, and all about good food my whole life.
JB: How interesting. You said a nature path?
WG: Nature path, that’s right. He had an international medical degree, so he could practice medicine internationally, but in the United States he practiced naturopathy.
JB: Where did he study?
WG: He studied in China, he studied in Russia, and he studied in Portland, Oregon.
JB: Interesting. What languages did he speak? Did he speak Chinese and Russian?
WG: He spoke German and Russian fluently, and he learned to be fairly good at Chinese.
JB: Interesting. So I suppose that would be your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs then, the tutelage of your father?
WG: That’s right. When I grew up I never ate a school lunch. It was there, but oh no, we made homemade whole wheat bread and we packed our lunches and it was completely healthy, and all the kids were very envious of what I packed in my school lunch.
JB: What were some of the other items besides the whole wheat bread?
WG: You know, we did everything. We made our own yogurt. We made our own cottage cheese. Twice a year they would go to a local ranch and we would butcher a cow and a pig and we’d have it smoked. And so we kept a freezer and a locker and we never, ever hardly bought anything at a grocery store. I know that at one time my mother had a five pound bag of sugar, and when I graduated from high school she still had that five pound bag of sugar. So we used a little bit of honey, a little bit of dextrose, but never sugar, never a refined product in our house.
JB: Oh wow, that’s amazing. Tell me a little bit about your education. Where did you go to secondary?
WG: Well, I started in this career path a little different. I was actually a music major.
JB: But even before that – where did you go to elementary and high school?
WG: Mead, Washington, which is north of Spokane. I went all twelve years in the same school district. And I was a music major – symphony – and I played the oboe and many woodwinds. And I went to college at Washington State University on a full ride music scholarship. And I was going to be a musician, and got a couple of years into the mission and found out I was very good in chemistry. So I became a chemistry major, and then realized that chemists really don’t have fun careers, that they get stuck in laboratories, so I looked around, and I had been taking nutrition classes, and it just fell into place. I became a dietitian. But my focus was not on being a dietitian. My focus was being on institutional management, because I was going to change the world. I was going to become a hospital administrator and fix hospital food. And then when I finished my undergraduate work I went to the University of Washington and did a fellowship through what they called CDMRC, which was Child Development Mental Retardation Center, and was working for a community hospital in Edmonds, Washington, and I did six months at the Shriner Children’s Hospital. And with CDMRC and Shriner’s Children we were focusing on not only the mentally disadvantaged children, but the physically disadvantaged children, and that was the point in time when thalidomide was on the market, and we had hundreds of babies with thalidomide birth defects. And so there was a lot of study going on, and that’s how I really got into pediatric nutrition. And when I was in that, back in 1970, I started working, through the hospitals, with the Seattle School Nutrition Department, and we developed handicapped feeding for those kids, age appropriate feeding for the children suffering from thalidomide malformations during birth. And that’s where I really started working with Seattle School District. And then the assistant took a job with the State of Washington and I became the assistant director at Seattle School District at a very young age. And then I became a food service director at the age of twenty-six of Federal Way, Washington, Federal Way School District. There were about twenty-six schools there, 25,000 students. So I might have been one of the youngest food service directors in the nation at that time.
JB: What part of the state was that in?
WG: That’s right between Seattle and Tacoma, right about where the airport is. And when I took that job, the young man that hired me said to me, “You know, all of your employees are quite a bit older than you are. How on earth are you going to get along with them?” And I told him, I said, “There shouldn’t be a problem.” I said, “I’ve never won an argument with my mother, and I don’t expect I’ll ever win one with them.” So what happened was I learned at an early age that if an employee was doing something they were probably doing it for a reason. And if I wanted them to change I better figure out why they’re doing the way they’re doing it, and if my way’s really better or not. So it led to a lot of good discussion and usually you know, as a leader you always try to lead, but I learned that you have to listen before you can lead, and you have to give them the ability to do the job, and the reason to make the change. So I have always been very successful with all of my employees in advancing the food service program through change when necessary, and mostly by serving them up what they need to make the change.
JB: And how long did you stay in that school district?
WG: I was at Seattle School District for four years, and then I was at Federal Way I believe for twelve years, eleven or twelve years. I was in the Washington School Food Service Association, it’s now the Washington School Nutrition Association, and I was their president in ’86-87, ’87-88, and then in left Washington and did one year in Anchorage, Alaska.
JB: As a food service director?
WG: Actually, assistant director, because Dennis Barrett, who’s now at New York was the official director. But he wasn’t there so I was there, but my title was the assistant. And I did one year there. I had a one-year contract, and then I became the nutrition services director at El Monte City School District, which is East L.A. It’s a very Hispanic district. I always joked that it’s 2-percent Caucasian and I was always looking for the two blonde kids. But that’s just joking around. It’s a very ethnic group, and great employees, and just a great school district. I was there twenty years and did a lot with grants and nutrition education, and took them to the silver level with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, and was actually one of the first to get them on board at bronze level with the U.S. Healthy Meals Choice. So, twenty years there, and then I did the last four years at Palm Springs Unified School District, and took 16 of the elementaries there to bronze with the U.S. Healthy Schools.
JB: And so you retired after Palm Springs?
WG: I retired from Palm Springs last May. It took me over 40 years to get out of school and now I’m failing retirement.
JB: Was there a mentor, someone that sort of directed you, or maybe it was just the college professors, to point you towards nutrition, or did you find that on your own?
WG: I found schools on my own. Actually my husband will say he found schools for me, but I was working with Seattle School District, then he heard on the radio that they were advertising for an assistant, at 2 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, so I made the application by 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and I got the job. And I’ve never looked back. It’s the greatest place on Earth to work, it really is. Now I did have mentors. I’ve had several very important mentors in my life. The first mentor was a dietitian, and she was at Edmonds Hospital, and she was a dynamic woman. She was in her mid-60s at the time and still working. And she took me under her wing and got me through the RD test and actually introduced me to the School Nutrition Association.
JB: What was her name?
WG: Mary Ellen Paine, registered dietitian, and she had a master’s degree and she was fabulous. She got me through a lot of the bureaucracy and she essentially – when I left Edmonds Hospital I was the head therapeutic dietitian at the age of about 21 – so she did a lot for me. And my next one was Gene White, because I met Gene White very early in my career.
JB: A super lady.
WG: Just awesome. And then believe it or not Gertrude Applebaum and Dot Pannell. And I met Gertrude through my director at Seattle, whose name was Ken Baer – he was an awesome guy – and met her and she took me under her wing, and at every national conference she would call me two months ahead of time and say, “Now, you’re going to be there, right?” And she’ll say, “Ok, I want to meet you here, and these are the sessions I want you to attend.” And she just would point me in the right direction and introduce me to the people that made a difference, people like Jane Wynn, who was national president, and just about every person of importance in school nutrition I’ve been associated with through those mentors that worked with me at a very early age.
JB: Those are some great ladies. I think we have all of their oral histories except Jane Wynn, and I’m trying to get that taken care of. So you’ve always been an assistant director or director when you went into the field?
WG: I’ve always been an assistant director or director.
JB: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years in the profession?
WG: You know, there are nutritional changes and then there are business changes, and let me tell you, when I started out we didn’t have fax machines, we didn’t have copy machines. We seriously did everything on carbon paper. And when I suggested to someone that they use a piece of carbon paper they didn’t know what it was. So I had to get it out and show it to the young people and explain what carbon paper was. So the whole system of doing business has changed, and the expectations have changed. The communication has changed. It used to be you wrote memos and you put them in the mail and you waited for answers, because long distance phone calls were too expensive. And now it’s pick up a phone, text, emails, and if you don’t get back on an email with a day they think you fell off the Earth. So, just the speed of communication, expectations, and speed of work, how much you have to do, and the expectations of your accuracy are so much more. It used to be we would just say, “Oh, send me 400 cases of U.S. food commodities.” Now we say, ok, I need 400 cases. But how do I know that? And I have to go through a whole bunch of research to figure out do I really need the 400 cases, because the money is so much more valuable now. And so everything you do drives the business plan. When we did it before we didn’t have all the management tools, so we were working by the seat of our pants, by knowledge based, and the communication between directors was ‘If you order 400 cases of peaches I’ll order 400 cases of pears and if we get stuck we can switch.’ That kind of camaraderie, even though we have co-ops, it’s not as personal, it’s more impersonal –
WG: Businesslike. It’s more business plans. I used to be able to go to an assistant superintendent and say, “The element’s out in my oven. I need to buy a new oven.” “How much does it cost?” “Ok, let’s get it through the board”, and it’s done. Now it’s like, ‘Ok, we need to write a specification and we better have people in to do a job walk, and let’s make sure the health department’s involved in the job walk.’ It just gets so much more complicated. So the whole business of doing business has gone from a very simple business to a very complicated business, and we see that same thing with the nutritional requirements. The meal pattern that we have right now is not that much different than it was really forty years ago. It is the same food component. Really, it is. The only difference is now that we have to do a little computer analysis for the fat. But back then we had to check off ‘Do you have a Vitamin C? Do you have a Vitamin A? How many times a week?’ We still had to do that. We still had to do a production guide. It was just hand-written. Now it’s the big computer, input everything and print it out. And what I see is everybody wants to go paperless. All that means is the person originating it doesn’t print the paper. They send it out to everybody else. Everybody still prints it and puts it in their file. So the whole idea of going paperless just creates an additional proof. Everybody is doing a kind of CYA and they keep proof of every correspondence. And to me that’s not paperless. All it’s doing is adding a whole lot more layers of documentation to the final result.
JB: So it’s a lot more bureaucratic?
WG: It’s a lot more bureaucratic, and a lot more proving.
JB: You’ve worked in three different states. Was there anything different from state to state, whether they were food preferences, or the way programs operated? Can you compare and contrast a little bit?
WG: Oh, I can compare and contrast. Let’s talk about the kids, let’s talk about the customers first. There’s a big difference in what kids eat, even between schools within a district. So if you’re looking at the difference between California and Alaska, oh my goodness, definitely a difference. When I went into school food service we didn’t have convenience food. We didn’t have commodity processing. We got the brown boxes and had to figure out what to do with them. And so the products that we were putting out were scratch. We made our own French bread. Everybody made their own French bread. We made our own pizza dough and we made our own pizza, because no one else did. And what we found through the transition is that if you kid tested a commercially prepared pizza and the one we made, they would pick the commercially prepared. And it wasn’t because it was a better product. It was because it was consistent. And I call it the trust factor of fast food. If you go to a fast food place it might not be the best food, but every time you go there it is the same hamburger, whether it’s cooked in California, Mississippi, Beijing, China, in London, England. That hamburger is the same. And that is the trust factor. When we made it ourselves one burrito doesn’t always look like the next burrito. So the kids are always saying, “I want the most consistent product.” They want the eye appeal. They want to get what they expect to get and they’re disappointed if they get something that looks different or tastes a little different. So when I was at Seattle School District – this is my student preference thing – there were five supervisors under me and a director above me, and they were taking the new kid out to show her what the food was in the schools. And they took me to a school, and I insisted on eating lunch there every – every time we went out I wanted to taste the food. So we were at a school and they had one of our favorite meals at the time – now realize this is back in the ’70s – we had chili, homemade chili with cornbread, one of the top sellers at the time. And I tasted that chili and it was by far the worst chili I’d tasted in my life. So I politically said to the woman, I said, “Can I see your recipe?” And she hands me the USDA recipe, and I’m thinking ‘This can’t be.’ So I get those supervisors back in the office, and I said, “Ok, next time chili’s on the menu I want every one of you, all five of you, to bring in two samples, from two different schools, and we’re going to set them down here and we’re going to test them. And I said, “One of them has to be this school.” So sure enough we get the ten in there, and I invited all the maintenance guys from down the hall to come in and test them. That one chili was by far the worst chili in the nation. And they all swore it was the same USDA recipe. And I would say about five on them were consistent and five of them were different and that one was awful. And so I said, “Ok supervisors, you tell me what they’re doing.” So the supervisor for that school went out and watched her make it. And at the time we had commodity orange juice. And we threw nothing away. So in that chili she used the orange juice as the liquid so she didn’t have to throw it away. And it made the worst chili in the world. But she followed the recipe all except for water became orange juice. And so there’s a reason I’m telling this story, is because when you have children and they expect a certain thing then they’re going to accept that. Believe it or not her participation on chili day was equal to all of the other schools’ participation. That’s because those kids knew no different and they expected that chili. So, when it comes down to student preferences I believe it’s what they’re taught to eat. So if you are eating sushi at home you’re going to expect a similar sushi at school. If you’re eating chicken nuggets down at McDonald’s you’re going to expect a similar chicken nugget at school. If we don’t provide them the expectations we’re going to lose participation.
And it comes home when you look at things like hamburger patties. Now you would think across the nation that the cheapest hamburger patty would be the one that we’d buy because the specifications on hamburger patties are so specific. USDA knows exactly to the tenth of a gram how much fat is in that patty. We used to put them on a little tester and test the fat content because we thought the companies were doing us wrong. When I started we smashed our own hamburger patties. So, when we go into it, if I took the hamburger patties from California and took them to Washington State, those kids wouldn’t like them. Same with bringing the Washington hamburger patties to California; they wouldn’t like them, because there is a different taste profile in the patty. And I have proved that between the two. So the difference is not a difference in the kids, it’s a difference in the taste profile that they are accustomed to eating. Plus I also believe that there is a developmental stage, and this is what I worked on with CDMRC. There’s a developmental stage in taste. Young kids cannot eat blue cheese dressing, cannot eat it. But by the time they get into high school or college, or become young adults, they have taste buds that can handle blue cheese. I believe – a little science behind it – that younger kids have the ability to taste more acutely than older kids. And so as you get older and the taste buds lose their ability to taste you’re able to handle stronger flavors, more bitters, more sours. But, talking about the other stakeholders in the whole thing and that is the administration; the administration really drives the focus of the school food service. So you will have school districts that the administration is onboard with nutrition education, and training the kids, and good food, and then you will have other administrations that look at school nutrition as an obligation, as an inconvenience. ‘My goodness, I’d rather have that 20-30 minutes so the kids are learning so my test scores are higher,’ not even recognizing that without good nutrition and good exercise those kids aren’t going to learn as well. So the challenge now – back in the ’70s and ’80s they got it, they knew that. All of the administrators understood that you had to have a well-balanced child to get a well-balanced education. But now you have to go in convincing them. And so when I interviewed for Palm Springs, that was my question to them. Do you embrace childhood wellness? Are you in tune with making sure that we’re providing the healthiest food possible and promoting that? Not just through the media, but through the principals, and the staff, and the teachers? And are you willing to put in a staff wellness program? And are you willing to write a wellness policy? So at my ripe age I went into it looking with the attitude ‘I don’t want to be there if they don’t have that in mind’ because I didn’t want to start over and have to train an entire another administration. I’d already done that a couple of times. So that’s the difference. There’s a big difference.
JB: What was a typical day like, or is there such an animal?
WG: There is no typical day. A typical day is really untypical, because if you think you’re going to go to work and have a typical day you might as well just forget it, because – I call it the in basket – because when you walk in in the morning you do not know what’s going to be new in that in basket. And I tell all new directors – and I mentor quite a bit – I tell new directors; I said the first year you don’t know what’s coming. It’s the Martian year because everything will just fall from the sky and you’re just going to be putting out fires. You might know that it’s coming, but you don’t know the impact it’s going to have on you until it gets there. The second year you know it’s coming, you’re ready for it, but you’re still just flabbergasted at what it is. The third year you got it nailed because you have your files built and you know what you’re doing and you get it under control. But there are three major categories of stuff that goes on with a food service director. One is employees, all of the staff issues. One is procurement, all the food and supplies. And the third one’s equipment, and all of the utilities and operations. Just about the time you think you have one of them under control the other one’s out of control. And don’t think you’re ever going to have them all in place at one time. That just doesn’t happen. If that happened they wouldn’t need a food service director. So just think of it as job security and realize it’s coming at you , and no day is a typical day. But in every day I tried to touch every one of those three. I always tried to make sure each one of them was on target with how I was trying to move them forward. Now the funniest thing is my employees nicknamed me when I was as El Monte, and my nickname was The Eagle, because they would say, “Watch out. The Eagle’s soaring.” That means I was headed to their school. And what I would do – I have a very open management style. I would give people assignments and then I would check back to make sure that they would have all of the resources they needed, how were they doing. That’s why they would say I was soaring, because they knew I was coming to check on what they were doing. Some people thought that was a little derogatory, but I embraced it – because they needed to know – why would I assign them something if I didn’t care about it? And why would I check up on it and help them along if I didn’t care that if they needed resources to complete a project, or they couldn’t complete a project because they didn’t have the skills to, that was no big thing. We would just get the skills or resources and make it happen. I believe – now understand I went to school in the late ’60s, early ’70s – I honestly believe that every employee wants to be the very best employee that they can. They have to prove themselves different for me to believe anything else. So I will continue to give them resources and coach them and mentor them until they say, “No, I’m not going to be a good employee. I’m not coming to work.” Ok?
JB: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced throughout your career?
WG: Biggest challenges – probably the biggest challenges have to do with staffing and employee relations. At one time I was dealing with four different unions, with four different union contracts, with four different union representatives.
JB: In one school district?
WG: In one school district. So, when the union representatives started kind of arguing between themselves, then I was caught in the middle and there was no right or wrong way to do things. And no matter how you tried to do it the best way you could it was just kind of a no-win situation. And that was very difficult for me because I was always trying to not only do the right thing for the employee, but the right thing for the school district, and sometimes those two are at odds with each other. And so the employees are probably the most challenging aspect. The second most challenging aspect is the facilities, because the facilities were built to do one thing and we’re doing something else with them. The utilities aren’t there in order to use the new equipment to upgrade the process. I’ll give you an example. In the last couple of years we built a new middle school. The new middle school – beautiful new school – it was built to have three lunch lines. There are 300 kids in the school. The shelter for them to eat in houses 250 students. And they wanted to cut it from three lunches to one lunch. And the principal said to me, “We have a lot of the curbs. The kids can sit on the ground or on the curbs.” I looked at the superintendent and I said, “Do you really want to tell the population and all those parents and community that you built this new school so their kids can eat their lunch sitting on the ground?” We stayed with three lunches. I’ve been gone a few months – they’re now talking about one lunch at that school again. So the facilities – we build them according to state specifications. You cannot build a cafeteria any larger than X number of square feet because that’s what the building code for the school districts is in the State of California. And so when you build them for one thing and then the expectation becomes another it becomes impossible for us to do our job within the confines of the meals per labor hour and the system that was set up to use. So those are the two things that are the most difficult.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the field?
WG: I believe my most significant contribution has been the nutrition education, and the promotion and marketing. And I believe none of us do enough to let the parents know how good our food is. The media spin out there is always bashing school food service and it has to end. The only people that know how good our food is is the food service director and the manufacturer that made it. And so we have fabulous food out there, but yet we get the crash and burn when it comes to the media. And the Huffington News – the competitive food regulation is going to come out and the Huffington News is going to say ‘Big government if telling you what snack foods you can serve your kid.’ That’s not the message that should be out there. The message that should be out there is ‘Your child is in fourth grade. In fourth grade they are learning to multiply by twelve and this is what they’re doing in English and science, blah, blah, blah, and in fourth grade your child should weigh approximately this much and be this height, and these are the calories, and this is the appropriate snack. And these appropriate snacks are now being served in your school.’ That’s the correct message. We don’t get that message out. My mission is to improve the image of school meals one meal at a time.
JB: Any special stories about kids that you’ve served or people that you’ve worked with over the years?
WG: Oh I have fabulous stories. Let me share just one. Here I was in the early ’70s working for Seattle School District, and it was a scary time because it was the time of racial unrest. So I was called out to a high school because my baker, my dishwasher – yes, we had dishwashers then – and my manager were fighting – top of their lungs, arguing with each other. And the principal called in, supervisors were all gone, so my boss sends me out there, but he calls security first and says, “Our new assistant director’s showing up. Will you meet her in the parking lot and escort her in?” So I’m a little scared, and I pull up in this parking lot and I see two guys hiding in the bushes, right, and I say, “I’m in trouble.” And I’m backing out and screeching out of that parking lot. They came out waving at me, “No, no, no. We’re security.” So they got me to pull back into the parking lot, adrenalin comes down, and I go into the school, right? And sure enough, the manager is yelling at the dishwasher, saying “I told you we had to have enough forks. If there are not enough forks I’m going to get you fired. Get those forks out here!” The dishwasher woman is saying, “I don’t have forks to wash. There are none here. You bring me the forks I’ll wash them.” And then she’s yelling at the baker – and we used to sell hot, fresh rolls like that [holding hands in a large circle] two for five cents, with butter slathered on them, oh my goodness they were good – two for five cents, and they came on the school lunch, two of them, and they ran out of rolls, and the manager’s saying, “I told you not to run out of rolls. We cannot sell these meals without rolls. How dare you run out of rolls?” So the three of them are in this kitchen shouting at each other, and so I figure I need some backup, so I’m going down the hall to get the principal. As soon as I walked in the hallway – dead silence. And there were 100 kids in that hallway so I thought ‘This is really odd’, so I just keep moving. So I get the principal and we come back and as soon as we get to that point in the hallway – dead silence. And I looked at the principal and he looked at me and we thought ‘What is going on here?’ And then a roll fell from the ceiling. The kids were taking the rolls and putting them on the handle of the fork and throwing them into the asbestos ceiling, and if you looked up there were 1000 rolls on the ends of forks stuck in the ceiling, and that was the game they were having. No wonder we didn’t have rolls and forks in the kitchen, and they were at each other trying to kill each other in the kitchen because the kids were playing a game with rolls and forks. But that’s the beauty of school food service because you end up with great stories like that.
JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering school nutrition as a profession today?
WG: My advice is get yourself mentored. Find out who your local food service directors are. Who is your CNC or child nutrition consultant for the state that you’re working in? There is a learning curve, but it’s not impossible, because everybody there is there to help you. It’s not a learning curve that you have to go out and figure out on your own. You really do have the support of the association, of the Institute, of your fellow directors, in order to learn this. And don’t be scared of it, but be honest. Honesty and integrity – if you don’t know something you ask. Don’t ever make it look like you know it what you don’t because when you don’t know something that’s when you’re going to get in trouble. Listen, listen, listen. Always listen more than you talk because everybody can help you through that learning curve. That’s my advice.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add today?
WG: I think the Institute is fabulous. I’m just so glad that I retired so I can come play with you guys.
JB: Well thank you. We’re glad to have you here.