Interviewee: Wendy Mangiaracina
Interviewer: Melba Hollingsworth
Date: January 29, 2009
Description: Wendy Mangiaracina is a New Orleans native with thirty-three years of experience in child nutrition programs. She chose Southwest Louisiana University for her post-secondary education, where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Dietetics. She later attended Tulane University and obtained a Master of Public Health degree. After a long and dedicated career Wendy retired in the summer of 2009. Melba Hollingsworth interviewed Wendy in January 2009.
Melba Hollingsworth: This is January 29th, 2009 and I am at the New Orleans Archdiocese in beautiful New Orleans, Louisiana, and I am here with my guest, Wendy Mangiaracina and you are at what parish?
MH: Right, Jefferson Parish. Well, would you tell me a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?
WM: Oh my goodness! Well, let’s start with the name. It actually means grape eater in Italian.
MH: Oh, grape eater.
WM: And so what a great business to be in when your name talks about or relates to food. But I grew up in New Orleans and I am a New Orleans native and attended parochial schools and high schools and then went on to Southwest Louisiana University and received a B.S. in Dietetics and after I went to work actually received a M.P.H. from Tulane.
MH: Wow! Well tell me, what was your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs?
WM: Oh my God! Probably at St. Rita Elementary School, receiving lunch there, and of course milk in milk bottles with the little cardboard lid on the top and realizing what those ladies really did, because we all assumed that they were moms and some just happened to work there so you know it had to be like home cooking. It was an interesting experience back then because the nuns made you eat everything that was on your plate.
MH: We heard about that from Barbara Songy.
WM: Right! And when they finally switched to milk cartons we learned how to stick food into the milk carton. [Laughing]
MH: Then you would put the food into the milk cartons. [Laughing]
WM: Right, because you always drank the milk.
MH: So, what were some of your favorite menu items; do you recall?
WM: I don’t know why, and of course every kid says this when they are growing up, “when they cut the grass they serve spinach,” was always our thought as a child. Probably the home cooked spaghetti, meatloaf, mashed potatoes; unfortunately, those things that we do not do anymore today much of.
MH: So how did you become involved with the child nutrition program?
WM: Oh, that’s a long story…
MH: And you had mentors along the way?
WM: Yes, that’s true. To be honest with you, I graduated from Southeastern and I did not know what I was going to do with my life because I did not do an internship at that time and I did not know what to do with myself. So I started working doing residential kitchen design, which was a lot of fun, and I learned about kitchen appliances, layout drawings, and so on, which will ultimately lend itself later on to doing commercial kitchens. But I ran into a girlfriend who had just been hired, Denise Geshard, who had just been hired by Pat Comstock to work in Orleans Parish and she said, “Girl, what are you doing?” I said, “It’s a holiday? Why are you home? Why are you out in the street? I’m working! What are you doing?” And sure enough she said, “Well, you need to go apply,” and so I did. I sat with Pat Comstock and she hired me and I didn’t even realize that I had been hired because it was such a pleasant interview, and I started then. And Ethel Ott as well as Pat were wonderful mentors way back then.
MH: So what was your position?
WM: I was hired as a Cafeteria Manager and here I am with a degree and the first place they sent me to was McMain High School.
MH: Where was this?
WM: In New Orleans. And McMain at that time was feeding 3,000 children using a pre-cook, cook-chill conveyer method. And so here I am because I have a college degree I know how to do this and so they put me on the conveyer line and my first day I came home with spaghetti sauce all over because I was doing the Lucy and Ethel candy pick up [Laughing] and I would have to yell, “Please stop the line” because I missed a plate or two! [Laughter] And of course those ladies would just laugh at me and I just thought that I knew everything because I had a college degree. And I went home that evening and I was full of tomato sauce and my husband said to me, “I thought that you were going to be a manager?” I said, “Well, you have to learn and this is where they put me and this is a good experience.” So I went back to work the next day and they had me cutting twenty lugs of tomatoes by hand and I thought that I would die and the next day I was washing dishes and the next day I still had that college degree and “What am I doing this for?” But I ultimately realized, as I think that every kid who graduates from college and thinks that they are going to be the CEO, that this was valuable experience that I could never replace with any thing else or any book learning that I had. And so it all began there and then I became a manager/instructor for Ethel and taught training classes. I think what I enjoyed most about that was putting things on a level that the technician could understand. Or realizing in some cases, that the ladies that we hired back then couldn’t read, and to teach them how to read or to teach them how to do math was really rewarding. And it was comical because I had to put measurements in terms of things that they could understand. And I was talking about two thirds of something and they couldn’t understand it so I said, “Ok, we got a six pack of beer y’all [laughter], so what is two thirds of a six pack of beer?” [Snaps fingers] They got it! [Laughter] It was an easy fix for them and then we went on, “Ok, if you have three bars of soap and you buy one bar, how much is that?” So by putting it on things at a realistic level could grasp it really quickly so that was fun that was a lot of fun.
MH: So how long were you there?
WM: I was in Orleans Parish for fourteen years and decided…well, let’s back up. Right after I started, Ethel Ott asked the question, because she realized that there weren’t people who could replace her when she retired, because we needed a Master’s Degree and of course I did not have the RD and I didn’t have the Master’s Degree, “Who would be interested in going back to school?” So I took the opportunity to do that so she allowed me to go to school during the day and come back to work so that was a wonderful opportunity that I could not afford to pass up.
MH: Now where did you say that you went for your Master’s?
WM: Tulane. So I would go to work in the morning, get breakfast ready, get lunch rolling, leave and go to class, come back depending upon what time of day the class was, and close out for the day. And so it took me three years to get a Master’s, and in the meantime after the work study program with the dietetic association, the two things kind of fell in line so I had the Master’s as well as the RD at the same time.
MH: So your Master’s was in what again?
WM: Public Health Nutrition.
MH: Now do you feel like your educational background really helped you?
WM: Honestly No!
MH: I was wondering if someone would say something…
WM: Honestly no, because what we do at this level, although it involves nutrition, is really not our main focus. Our main focus is we’re running a business and the business is nutrition and so how do we make ends meet; how do we market what we do to the kids; how do we get them involved? It’s not nutrition. You know, so often I have done or thought that in years gone by when nutrition wasn’t the focus of parents as it is today that we would do back door nutrition. You know, that we would buy low-fat hamburgers or low-fat doughnuts and sneak those in and once the kids realized that they were eating something good, and that it wasn’t the typical fast food high-fat product, we had them hooked. But you couldn’t advertise that this is good for you or that it was a typical soy burger, which it wasn’t, you know so we would try to sneak that in. So business, marketing, finance, accounting…all of those things are really what we do and nutrition just happens to be the outcome of that business.
MH: There is still a bottom line, huh? Very much a bottom line…
WM: Unfortunately there is. And every time you get to that bottom line it keeps getting raised and the bar keeps getting raised.
MH: What is something unique that you find from the state of Louisiana with regard to child nutrition programs?
WM: You know it is funny that you should say that because I’m sure after working in the state that there is a north Louisiana and a south Louisiana and there are the more rural parishes and the more urban parishes and there are two methods of approaching children and us being in such an urban area we need to really focus on servicing those kids. We all know that if a child does not eat what you give them then what was the use in preparing the meal? So we need to look at, and I know that à la carte is a bad word in Louisiana, but if the child is not going to eat the meal then what do we do? And so those à la carte items do not have to be something that is of poor nutrition and so that is what is so hard about Louisiana. We have protected school lunch for so long in the way that it was initially created, but you know what, we used to cut wood with a handsaw and now we use power tools. So we need to become more progressive with the informed consumer that we have, and I don’t think that we have done that in this industry here in this state. And so that’s where I think that we falter.
MH: So you are in favor for à la carte?
WM: Well, not necessarily for à la carte.
MH: It will bring extra sales.
WM: And certainly we do have extra sales, but why can’t the child go in and decide I want to eat X. Now, we can package X so that it meets all of his nutrients in that one product, you know. It might be a pizza or it might be whatever. Certainly there are so many products on the market today that we can manipulate what we sell to that child or what we offer to that child to meet their nutritional needs in that one item. Again, backdoor nutrition where they’re thinking that they’re getting what they want but we’re fortifying it, if you will, with other items that meet their needs.
MH: What have been some of the biggest challenges that you have faced?
WM: I think probably budget now for us. Post-Katrina – we were hit tremendously by the storm. Granted we were not under water like Orleans Parish or the archdiocese…
MH: But see now you went from manager to… and how did you get to be…
WM: We skipped all of that didn’t we? [Laughter]
MH: We skipped that. Let’s back up and see where…
WM: Well what happened was that I became a manager with Orleans Parish. From there I was a manager/instructor where I was teaching and then I was promoted to supervisor within that district. And it was at that time, around my tenth or eleventh year that I was promoted there. Ultimately left there and became the director of Saint Bernard Parish.
MH: Saint Bernard Parish!
WM: So I jokingly say that I am the regional food service director. [Laughter] Because having worked in Orleans, and Orleans being the largest district in the state, then going to such a small district and cutting your teeth there as a director. They were in such need, and still are. They had had Les Sharpenstein there who left and they then were being run by the man who was the business manager and he didn’t know anything about nutrition and he didn’t know anything about food service and those poor people were doing things so backwards and they were so willing to learn and so willing to try something new. And then the position in Jefferson became available.
MH: So how long were you in Saint Bernard?
WM: Just two years.
MH: Two years?
WM: Just two years.
MH: And that was a small district wasn’t it?
WM: It had eleven schools.
MH: They had eleven schools and were feeding about how many?
WM: About three thousand at the time. But you know what people don’t realize is a larger district, to me, is easier to manage than a smaller district because you are doing it all yourself. So what a great place to learn because you’re doing your own free lunch applications, you’re doing your own reviews, you’re doing your own accounting, you’re doing your own order. I mean it was all done with three people in the office. And you know, a good successful director is only as good as the people who work with them.
WM: And so I was fortunate enough to have a great staff.
MH: So what year did you move to Jefferson Parish?
MH: Oh, ok.
WM: So I have been there since ninety-two.
MH: So you have been there now for how long?
WM: Just about fifteen years.
MH: Fifteen years! Now tell me how big is Jefferson Parish?
WM: Right now we are at forty thousand, forty-six thousand students and we probably feed only about twenty-four for lunch and probably twelve to fifteen thousand for breakfast. And of course we just started participating in the snack program within the last few years so we have that in about twenty schools.
MH: I see. So now tell me what happened with Katrina and Jefferson Parish. You were probably hit there weren’t you?
WM: We were hit tremendously. Although we didn’t have the massive feet of water that Orleans Parish had of course because the pumping stations were turned off in Jefferson Parish, there were many homes that had water in them; the majority of homes had water in them. And so it was out task, we knew as a school system, that the only way to get the community back was to open schools because parents wanted to come back if they knew that they had a place to put their child, they would come back to the district. And so we started doing that and building the system back up. Of course, we’re talking weeks later when we were able to get back into the parish so that meant that every freezer was full of rotten food that had been sitting for weeks. And then of course getting vendors who were open, who would be able to deliver and clean. Well, first cleaning the freezers out, contacting all of your employees to come back into town. And one of the other tasks that I was assigned in the middle of all of this was housing for our employees. So not only was I responsible for school lunch and getting that off the ground, but I also became a landlord to one hundred employees be they teachers or be they custodians or cafeteria workers. So I also ran a trailer park at the same time, or two. So, it was quite interesting to do that and then juggle meals and try to get our employees back. People came back slowly and vendors were extremely helpful in trying to get food into the schools, and being creative with meals and just ensuring that the schools were ready to open when we were going to open because of course the health department had to come out and do inspections and that was a hurdle.
MH: So how many months were you down?
WM: Actually the hurricane was August twenty-eight, and I guess that I will never forget that, and we opened up October 1st. So we were just down a little over a month.
WM: So it was a fast recovery. And people don’t realize that we were the first school district to open in the area. Orleans was still down, the Archdiocese was still down and so what happened was we then had people who, we had the first responders, who were here in the city with their families living on cruise ships and so we brought those children in to our school district and educated them, and housed them, and fed them and so on and so forth. So it was quite a new challenge because not only did we have our children back, but now we have children from other school districts who obviously were on free lunch programs from their original district, so how did we handle that!
MH: So you had an influx of children coming in?
MH: Because that was the school that was already going on.
WM: Exactly, exactly. So we were actually running tour buses over to the ships to pick up the kids [and] bring them to school.
MH: To the ships?
WM: From the ships.
WM: We actually picked up children on the dock because that also was a part of my responsibility at the time; picking up those children, bringing them to school, and then obviously educating them, feeding them, and then bringing them back in the afternoon. So to say that my focus has just been on school food service for the last thirty-something years is a misnomer by far because we became transportation, we became housing, and of course feeding. So it has been an interesting ride.
MH: Jack of all trades…
WM: Absolutely! [Laughter]
MH: Well, you have already said some of your biggest challenges so what are just some of your common challenges that you have faced?
WM: I think the biggest common challenge that we all encounter is that every child goes home to parents and we all know even as food service professionals that there are old wives’ tales about eating and trying to overcome those old wives’ tales or those uneducated responses regarding nutrition that families have. Everyone’s mother cooks and so how do you overcome ‘My momma always puts in two pounds of butter in her red beans’? That’s common and so what do you do because we only have them for a brief time during the day so how do we change their eating habits because we are in Louisiana and ‘My momma always did it this way…my momma and ‘nem…always did it this way…’ [Laughter] To give you a funny story, when I was teaching in Orleans Parish and the lady said that she used to always buy a chuck roast and she would cut off the right side and I asked her, “Why did you do that?” and she said, “I don’t know, my momma always did it that way.” I said, “Would you do me a favor and go home and ask her?” And so she did and she came back and said, “Well, I never had a pot that was big enough to fit the roast.” [Laughter] So, she would go home and cut off the right side and it would fit. [Laughter] You know silly, silly things like that. Or here is one for you using cooking terms. My mother, we were cooking a holiday meal, and she said to me, “Scramble an egg.” So I reached under the cabinet and pulled out a skillet and I was going to scramble an egg. And she looked at me like I was the dumbest thing on earth, actually she said to me, “I spent all of that money for you to go to school and you’re going to scramble an egg in a skillet?” I said, “Well that’s what you said to do.” But what she meant was to beat and egg or whip the egg, she didn’t mean to scramble an egg. And so those kinds of things…reeducating our employees, reeducating the children; shallots are not those green things that grow in the garden that everybody grows at home. It is a completely different vegetable but our folks think that it is that long green thing; it’s a green onion and not a shallot so, welcome to New Orleans. [Laughter]
MH: So what do you think has been your most significant contribution to the field?
WM: Oh my! I think realizing that you can actually impact a child’s life. I had, and I could cry when I tell you this, but I had a child who…you see [tearing up]…I had a child who came to me and he said, “Why do you do this?” Because at that time we dressed in white and we had uniforms and I said, “Well, let me ask you something. I am a dietitian. If I worked in a hospital would you respect me more?” and his first response was “Yes”. So I said, “Well, you don’t understand what we’re doing.” I said, “In a hospital you have a captive audience and those poor folks just eat whatever you send to them because they are stuck there.” And I said that there was a little bit of education that goes on but I said, “When we’re here we are trying to provide you with a good meal because we know that at night and at weekends there are many children who don’t get to eat.” And he looked at me and he said, “You know,” and then he went away. He came back to me a couple of days later and said, “You know, I did talk to a friend who said ‘my mom wasn’t home for Christmas holidays’.” She had left the family alone and he said, “I guess you really are doing something that really counts.” People just don’t realize that it’s not just a school lunch program; it’s actually taking care of some needs of children that may not have food at home and so making sure that that occurs. Oftentimes we’d go home on a holiday and we’d wonder, “I know little Johnny comes to school a little shabby every day, is he going to eat, how is he going to manage?” And so when you have that close contact with kids – we often would send things home with them on holidays. We would become a surrogate mother or an aunt, or auntie as they would say here, and so those things are really significant.
MH: You always feel good when you stop and think about it.
WM: Oh yes, absolutely; all the advantages that you’ve had and you hope that every child that is there has the opportunities that you were given so that they can rise above. And you’re hoping that in doing so that they’re healthy, that they’re able and physically fit to do what they need to do in life.
MH: Going back, were you affected by Gustav at all?
WM: Actually I was. What happened is because of Katrina one of my responsibilities became alternate housing for the school district and so we established a trailer park in the big town of Ventress, Louisiana, which is right outside of New Roads, and we have trailers there. Well, in doing so I knew that I didn’t want to live in a trailer if that ever happened again, so I was fortunate enough to be able to buy a home in New Roads. Well, of course that was hit. But here in the city we experienced power outages, and of course, here we go again, eight-four schools had to throw away all of our food. And of course we had some custodians that said, “Our power never did go out.” And what’s the old adage? When in doubt, throw it out! And so we cleaned out every freezer again and started from scratch again so I was affected both personally as well as in the business realm again. So we started again.
MH: So how did you handle the financial end of it? Were you able to get…?
WM: Well, FEMA…God bless them you know, and having to work with them the first time from Katrina, we started the traditional FEMA claims again and they reimbursed us for all of the food that we lost AGAIN, and off we go. [Laughter] It’s becoming too routine actually. Actually we are beginning to say here in south Louisiana that there’s two seasons; there’s the winter and hurricanes, and that’s it and you prepare accordingly. [Laughter}
MH: So, I know that you have given us some memorable stories but what about memorable stories about your personnel? Do you have any of those?
WM: I had one lady, and God bless her heart, this was when I was a new cafeteria manager and I said to her, “I need you to prepare a buttermilk dressing.” And I gave her, you know at that time it was a dry packet of mix, and she came back to me and she said, “We don’t have any butter.” And at that point I realized that she couldn’t read. And so now I have a staff, and of course, I became very worried because if she can’t read are we putting bleach instead of vinegar in whatever we’re cooking. And then it also became a personal issue because how can I help this lady because she needs to know how to read and so we made recommendations for her to go to school and it worked out well. She now reads. I had another lady, she was the lady as a matter of fact who was teaching me how to cut twenty lugs of tomatoes at McMain, and I said to her because I saw that she had the potential of becoming a manager, I said to her, “Do you think that the lady in this cafeteria is smarter than you?” She rose up in her chair and she goes, “Well no, she’s not any smarter than I am.” I said, “Well what makes you think that you can’t be a manager like she is,” and she walked off. And she came back and she said, “You know, you have a point there, why can’t I do that?” And as of right now she is a cafeteria manager working for me. She went to school, she was in Orleans Parish, and of course when they closed all of the schools she needed a position and I recognized the name immediately and hired her and she is now working again for me as a cafeteria manager. So that was a wonderful success story. And I use that a lot with people because I think a lot of times our employees don’t realize what they can do and what their potential is and that leadership ability that they do have. And so just to use that phrase, ‘Do you think so and so is smarter than you?’ really hits home.
MH: A lot of emergent leaders aren’t they?
WM: Absolutely, absolutely. And yet you know the hardest part about being a manager, I mean everybody can handle the book work that we do or at least that’s the easy part, is ‘How do I get a group of ladies’ who in my case when I graduated from college were all older than I, ‘to follow this young whipper-snapper’s direction?’ “Why should I follow her?” …and getting in there and working with them. A funny story – I was a cafeteria manager at Kennedy and the school is now closed in Orleans, and the kids always complained that we always had chocolate or vanilla milkshakes and they wanted strawberry. And I thought, “I can make strawberry milkshakes.” So we mixed strawberry jello in the milkshake machine and boy they made the most wonderful milkshakes except at the end of the day, what happens to jello when it gets cold? It congealed and of course the lady who was cleaning the machine: “Do not ever touch my machine again! It was a good idea but don’t ever touch my machine again!” [Laughter] And of course then I asked Ethel if we could start buying strawberry mix and she started doing that but that lady at the end of the day was ready to kill me. “I can’t believe you did that!” [Laughter]
MH: So, what advice would you give someone today who was trying to go into that profession?
WM: Oh my goodness…you know, I often jokingly tell people congratulations and deepest sympathy when I hear that they got a job or that they’ve just been promoted. I think that what they need to understand is that yes, they are in a leadership role and yes, it’s a nice job but they got to get back to that child and realizing that everything I’m doing or everything that I do throughout the day, how does it impact that student that’s there? Can I not only educate him through nutrition education in the cafeteria? Can I feed him to make him a better person? Because what happens is that we often forget about the child. We become so involved in ‘I got a bid price because that was too high or I’m dealing with the milk mafia and they are trying to bamboozle us with the prices of milk.’ How do the products that I’m preparing affect that little person because that little person isn’t little for very long. Can I give him healthy eating habits that’ll stay with him for the rest of his life and go from there? So that’s a burden, and it is a burden. It’s a burden and a privilege to be able to have that responsibility.
MH: Can you think of anything else that you would like to add?
WM: Oh God! It’s difficult. How do you sum up thirty-three years in such a short time? We need to be progressive; we need to pay attention to our customer, our client, because that’s truly what they are. They are the reason why we are in the business and how can we impact them…and I think that’s the biggest burden that we all have…is how can I affect that student?
MH: Thank you Wendy for coming in today.
WM: You’re welcome.
MH: It was a privilege and good luck with Jefferson Parish.
WM: Oh its fun! [Laughter]