Interviewee: Wanda Shockey
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: November 3, 2012
Location: Hot Springs, Arkansas
Description: Wanda Shockey, a native of Monroe, Louisiana, began her child nutrition career in Bastrop, Louisiana, first as the home economics teacher and then becoming the child nutrition director. After moving to Arkansas, Shockey was child nutrition director for Little Rock School District for nine years and had fifty schools. Later she moved to the Arkansas Department of Education where she has been director of child nutrition for the past fifteen years.
Jeffrey Boyce: I am Jeffrey Boyce and it is November 3, 2012, and I am here in Hot Springs, Arkansas, at the Arkansas School Nutrition Conference with Ms. Wanda Shockey. Welcome Wanda, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
JB: Could we begin today by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?
WS: I was born in Monroe, Louisiana, and grew up there until I married a young man who had a farm about 17 miles from the Arkansas line, at Mer Rouge, Louisiana.
JB: OK. A Louisiana, girl; I didn’t know that.
JB: What are your earliest recollections of child nutrition programs? Was there a lunch or breakfast program when you were going to school?
WS: The breakfast programs were not a part of the National School Lunch Program at that time, but I do remember the ladies and how wonderful they were to us, and I remember –
JB: This was at lunch?
WS: This was at lunch, and I remember participating in lunch. I also remember I had never eaten stewed tomatoes, and we had stewed tomatoes, and I looked at them and I thought, “I don’t think I’ve ever had this”, but I did try a little taste and they were really actually really good. And so it was really interesting because I remember the ladies saying these foods were donated, and evidently it was commodities at the time. But Louisiana has always had a very strong child nutrition program, so we were very fortunate at my elementary and high schools to have those programs.
JB: And so did stewed tomatoes become a favorite menu item –
WS: No, no! [Laughter]
JB: – or what other things did you like?
WS: I can remember of course the hot rolls, and cobblers. My mother always cooked at home, so those were the same foods that we were used to. It’s not like today; because when I was growing up they did not have a McDonald’s and they didn’t have fast food, so in that generation you had to prepare what you were going to eat. You didn’t just go to the grocery store or fast food place and automatically be able to purchase something that you could go ahead and eat.
JB: Tell me about your educational background. Where did you go to school?
WS: Well, I went to Northeast Louisiana State University, which is now called Louisiana University at Monroe, and I received my bachelor’s degree there in family and consumer sciences, which was at that time called home economics. And then I went back and actually completed my master’s and had a graduate assistantship, and worked on the requirements to meet the entry level requirements for a dietetic internship experience.
JB: What was your master’s in?
WS: Master’s in secondary education.
JB: And so then how did you become involved in child nutrition?
WS: Well, I was a home economics, or family and consumer science teacher at Bastrop High School for two years, and one day I received a call just before school was going to start from the superintendent, who said that their child nutrition director had quit, and he needed a child nutrition director. So for a year I worked as a teacher a half day, had twenty schools and a part-time bookkeeper, and I was part-time as a child nutrition director, and that was an experience. I think when you’re young you don’t really understand that you can’t do something, and what I would attribute any success to was the fact that the managers of those schools each shared with me and helped me, and actually helped me help them, which was my primary purpose. And at the end of that year I looked at the superintendent and said, “I can’t do both of these jobs and do them well.” And he said, “Well, you choose which one you want to do.” And I thought long and hard about that, but I had an experience, and it was a life-changing experience, because as the child nutrition director and a part-time instructor, or teacher, we had a – I guess you’d call it a flu epidemic – and so on the half-day that I’d be in the administrative offices I went to keep a study hall at Delta High School, which is no longer in existence. It’s been merged into one high school in that parish. But I saw a young man and he had his head down on his desk, and I went over to him, and you could tell that he was extremely – he was SICK, and probably should have been at home. And I very quietly whispered to him, “Why are you at school?” And he said to me, “There’s no food in our home. There’s no food at home, so my mother sent me to school.” And that was a pretty life-changing experience, so I chose child nutrition.
JB: Wow, what a story. Has there been anyone special, a mentor perhaps along that way that kind of helped you guide your career?
WS: Well, I’ve had many child nutrition directors – child nutrition directors help each other tremendously. Nell Odom in Ouachita Parish School District helped me. I worked in Morehouse Parish. When I moved to Arkansas Sadie Booker was a tremendous mentor. She worked as a child nutrition director in El Dorado. Ernestine Camp of course is just an icon for child nutrition, who’s dedicated basically almost her entire professional career, and then her retirement, to child nutrition. And I was also blessed to work with Dorothy Caldwell, who served as the national president for the School Nutrition Association, and with Barbara Smith. When you come to a state agency it’s a little bit different than when you’re actually operating your own program, and I did that in Little Rock School District for nine years and had fifty schools at that time. So it was a change, but Barbara Smith did a wonderful job, and I worked as a breakfast specialist, as an area specialist, and worked as assistant director for education and training, and then for the last fifteen years I’ve worked as state agency director.
JB: Well, my next question was going to be about some of the positions you’ve held, but since we’ve heard those tell me about some of the things you did in those different positions.
WS: Well, one of the most challenging was when I was the director of the Little Rock School District we went through a number of – Little Rock of course you remember is where Eisenhower sent in the troops for a full integration, and even years after that we were the target of all kinds of news articles and that kind of thing, and desegregation issues were – in nine years I had eight superintendents believe it or not. Some of them stayed longer than others – two or three years. But we had to annex 14 of the county schools into our district, and I think while it was challenging it was one of the most rewarding experiences I had, which was to incorporate the personnel and the managers in those 14 schools with our existing schools to have 50 schools in the Little Rock School District. Child nutrition personnel are very flexible and adaptable and it worked out very well. Another experience that I had that was really interesting is I actually managed two hundred breakfast grants in 1990, and those were grants in order for school districts to get additional equipment in order to implement breakfast. When I was director at Little Rock School District there were only three breakfast programs in 1979 in Arkansas. And in the 1979-80 school year my staff and I implemented 34 breakfast programs in Little Rock School District, because I had a superintendent who was extremely supportive, and happened to be in graduate school and saw some research about how breakfast impacts education. He got all the principals together and said, “We’re going to implement 34 breakfast programs and Ms. Shockey is going to tell you how we’re going to do this”, and left the room, and Jeffrey, that was an experience, because the ones that were very negative ended up the next year calling me and asking me, “Well, why can’t we implement sooner than two weeks after school?” So people do turn around when there are changes being made, and that was a tremendous experience.
JB: Wow, that’s a lot of schools in one year to open up. How do you feel your educational background helped prepare you for your different positions, or did it?
WS: Well, it certainly did. I think, to use the old term, home economics teachers, or family and consumer science teachers are as one superintendent put it in testimony at one time, we’re kind of a multi-tasking, multi-subject area teachers that could do a lot, in terms of either teach biology, teach science, teach math, teach chemistry, some of those other areas that people don’t think of in terms of the preparation for family and consumer science majors, but that, along with my master’s in secondary education, and the emphasis that nutrition brings and the importance that it brings to education itself, because when children are hungry they won’t learn. It’s not only just lunch, but it is breakfast, and they’re both very important to the wellbeing of children as well as to their education.
JB: What’s a typical day like for you, or is there such a thing as a typical day?
WS: Well one thing that’s always interested me about child nutrition is I never know – I may plan to do a number of things, but to be responsive to the schools, to be responsive to parents and principals and teachers at the local level and to the students, you never know what one day is going to bring. And I think people in dietetics in management really can appreciate and are stimulated by the fact that every day is different, the problems that you address, the people that you come in contact with, the variety of challenges and opportunities that are presented from day to day, week to week, and year to year keeps you stimulated.
JB: Is there anything unique about Arkansas in regard to child nutrition programs?
WS: Well, it’s really interesting. I worked in Louisiana as a child nutrition director for a brief period of time, and in Louisiana it was very structured. You had to have certain qualifications in order for your district to pay your salary. There are 68 public school districts, or were at the time that I worked. There were 64 parishes and then four city school districts. And so when our superintendents went to Baton Rouge they had a tremendous voice. When we moved to Arkansas one of the first things that was really interesting to me, I never will forget coming up the first time in order to look for homes, there were these Bill Clinton signs as you cross the state line, and I said, “Who in the world is this young man?” But one of the things that I think has been really important in Arkansas is we had at that time 425 school districts, and one of the things both Clintons, Hillary and Bill, wanted to do was to actually establish education standards so that no child in Arkansas would be turned away from a I guess you would say a Harvard or a Yale for lack of preparation, if they had the ability. And so Ms. Clinton led a very big effort to establish education standards that would if the school district could meet those standards then they would merge and consolidate with other districts. That was back in 1978, and today we have 254 school districts.
JB: That’s quite a consolidation. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your career?
WS: I think probably as I look back I’ve always had the attitude that if we divide something up into smaller tasks or into steps then we can get it done. Some of the biggest challenges were of course the annexation of 14 schools and combining those staffs, but what we did was we had a plan and we worked the plan. I actually within two years of coming to Little Rock did 13 renovations for kitchens, because what had happened is one of the challenges that I had was to change a food transport system into a system that would be acceptable to grades K-6. And that of course was a big undertaking, but we did it with a plan, and then we staged the implementation of each one of those changes, and we did bulk transport. That was a big challenge – food delivery system change.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution so far during your career?
WS: In terms of contribution, that people will think that I as an administrator at a state agency level been fair, treated everyone as much as possible the same, applied the standards in a way, but provided the training that our local folks need, and the technical assistance, and also the tools many times that our small, local, rural school districts need. We in Arkansas, of the 254 school districts, we have 100 that have one serving site, and they may serve elementary, middle school, and high school, and those people wear many hats. They are small and they need more technical assistance and training, and we try to do that at the state agency level. I think it’s been helpful that we’ve had staff that have been at the school level and know that we really need to help those folks. So I hope that that’s one of the contributions that folks feel that I’ve contributed in terms of Arkansas schools. Probably the other is the establishment in rule and reg of a training program for managers – certification of managers, and certification of directors. We’ve worked very hard since 1962 for managers in a voluntary program, and in 2000 we implemented a voluntary directors program. But with the nutrition standards that Arkansas implemented in Act 1220 we were challenged to bring that to a different level, because the research shows that people who are well trained serve healthier meals. And that’s what we are about, is we’re trying to provide a healthy environment and healthier meals for children.
JB: Any memorable stories as you think back over your years in the profession?
WS: Well, my staff sometimes gets tired of memorable stories, but I think probably when we implemented the Arkansas Nutrition Standards in 2005 we experienced a great deal, maybe 20 to 30 calls a day to our office as a matter of fact, and we had one kindergarten teacher, because she didn’t understand the ruling, that called the White House, the White House called the governor, and the governor called me. And so we were able to explain to that kindergarten teacher that no, parents would not be allowed to bring candy and sweet treats anymore, that they would need to bring items that actually met the snack pattern for the CACFP program. I think that’s been a really important challenge, is to answer those kinds of questions. We had one teacher that wanted to teach her students and she wanted to have a ‘Mole Day’. Now you could consider that mole like in the ground, you could consider it mole you know, in terms of molé, which is an item ingredient used in Spanish cookery. We thought, “Yes, it’s a matter of measure”, but we couldn’t figure out how a gummy bear, Oreo cake would fit, so she called the governor’s office, and the governor’s office referred her to us, and what we actually ended up doing when we found out that her students – that was just kind of a celebration of – because what she was teaching the students was basically a mole as a measure basically in laboratory use. So we were able to help her meet the standards and comply with food as an educational manipulative in terms of viscosity of food, and to help her get some other examples that would be in compliance with the nutrition standards, so we have had some interesting calls and experience with the implementation of the Arkansas nutrition standards.
JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?
WS: I think that child nutrition offers professionals the opportunity to grow. You can always count on change. The program has not been stagnant. We’ve added many programs. As I look back when I became director in ’97, we only had the Lunch Program and the Breakfast Program. And since then we’ve added the After School Snack Program. We’ve added the Seamless Summer Program. We’ve added Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. And all of those programs are to support the children who need that integration of nutrition and education throughout their lifespan. I say to people that we can educate children – a student may end up as a Harvard graduate – but if they don’t have their health, if we don’t teach them how to properly eat and to know how important nutrition is to their body, then as educators we’ve actually failed them.
JB: Excellent point. Anything else you’d like to add?
WS: Just that I, having been at a local school district, I can remember giving testimony to Shirley Watkins and Blanche Lincoln – they actually came to Arkansas – and this was prior to the National Food Service Management Institute, which I believe has been one of the greatest things for the child nutrition profession that has ever been created by Congress to support these programs. One of the points I made to Ms. Watkins and to Senator Lincoln was the fact that 93,000 schools doing recalculation of recipes is not a good use of labor, and that we needed a centralized point beyond which would be regulatory, but for developing educational materials for converting recipes as the Food Buying Guide has changed, and to see that dream come true to meet the needs of the current child nutrition professionals has been a really great challenge. In fact I can remember calling Josephine Martin and asking her to get back involved in the child nutrition program, because we actually needed her to help us with the dietetic practice group for school nutrition in the American Dietetic Association at that time. That’s currently called the Academy of Dietetics – but all those things – the child nutrition professionals who have not had this kind of support sometimes cannot appreciate the National Food Service Management Institute, the research arm, or the educational and training arm, and I think that we are very blessed. I feel that I have been very blessed to be in this profession and I would hope more young people – I have actually now four of my staff that go out to the schools below the age of thirty, right now, and I believe that we’ve got to give them the opportunity to get the experiences that they need so that we can perpetuate this program, because it’s one of the most important programs for children.
JB: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
WS: Thank you, Jeffrey. I appreciate you being persistent.