Watkins, Shirley R. 1938–
Shirley R. Watkins 1938–
Director of Nutrition Services in Memphis
Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services
Shirley Watkins is the first African American to head the US Department of Agriculture’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Agency. Her years of experience and dedication have afforded her positions and opportunity to make a difference in the lives of millions of Americans. Presiding over a $43 billion budget in the 1997 fiscal year, Watkins oversaw the Food Stamp Program, the School Lunch Program, and many other systems by which the Federal Government feeds lower-income American citizens.
A forthright woman with 30 years of experience in the nutrition field, Watkins sees food education as one of her top priorities. For this reason, each program serves a healthy portion of education along with its assistance, in an effort to emphasize the link between nutritious food and a healthy lifestyle. Another urgent issue is food recovery-finding ways in which fresh produce can be gleaned and sent to food pantries and community kitchens serving the poor and the hungry.
Her road to the stewardship of American School Food Service Association began with a popular degree with female college students in the 1950s—a bachelor’s in home economics, which she earned from the University of Arkansas. But unlike many other young post-graduate women of the era, she did not simply direct her knowledge into running her own home efficiently and economically. Instead, she decided to learn to teach others about food, cookery, and the importance of good nutrition.
Educated the Rural Public
Shirley Watkins’ first job, as a “home demonstration agent” with the University of Arkansas Extension Service, gave her the opportunity to pass her knowledge on to black women living in rural areas. Among other things, she showed them how freezers could preserve food safely, and relieved them of the need to stand over their stoves during the scorching days of summer.
Next, armed with a master’s degree from the University of Memphis, Watkins took her first step on the career path which she was to follow for the next 20 years. Initially she taught elementary classes in the Memphis City School system, then moved on to teaching home economics in the higher grades. In 1969, switching tracks slightly, she became one of five supervisors working with the school lunch staff. She enjoyed this work so much that she stayed for the next seven years.
Director of Nutrition Services in Memphis
In 1976, Watkins became director of nutrition services for the Memphis City Schools. With more than ten years of experience in the classroom, she thoroughly understood
At a Glance…
Born Shirley Robinson Watkins, January 7, 1938, in Hope, Arkansas; married George R. Watkins; two children; Education: University of Arkansas, B.S., Home Economics; University of Memphis, M.A., Education.
Career: Home demonstration agent, University of Arkansas Extension Service, 1960-62; teacher, 1963-69, service supervisor, school lunch program, 1969-76, Director, Nutrition Services, Memphis City Schools, 1976-93; Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, United States Department of Agriculture, 1993-95; Deputy Deputy Secretary, Marketing and Regulatory Programs, USDA, 1995-97; Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, USDA, 1997-.
Organizations: Past president, American School Food Service Association.
Awards: Silver Plate Award, 1983, 1985.
Addresses: Office -The Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, c/o US Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Avenue SW, Suite 240E, Washington, DC 20250.
her students’ physical needs, and she found it distressing that so many of them were unable to concentrate fully on their lessons because they had come to school without eating breakfast. She was quoted in Nation’s Restaurant News as saying, “You can’t teach a hungry child.” To add to the problem, the school cafeterias then offered only one breakfast option—a confection called Astrocake, which she banished and replaced with a choice of several nutritious entrees. Next, despite the $500,000 they were bringing in annually, she outlawed the soft drinks, chips and candy bars that had always been available during school hours from vending machines. In their place came 12-ounce cans of fruit juice for 50 cents each.
Now Watkins started on the mammoth task of revamping Memphis’ entire school-food system. Treating it as a business obliged to pay its own way, she began by taking a long, hard look at her competition, which she pinpointed as the fast-food restaurants beloved of most school-age children. Then, believing devoutly in the business principle “give the customer what he wants” she had low-fat versions of the hamburgers, pizzas and chicken nuggets test cooked in the school district kitchens. Once the culinary teams had assured her that the low-cholesterol fare needed neither special handling nor extra preparation time, Watkins deemed continued with her campaign. She enlisted the students to assist in menu-planning efforts by drafting taste-testing panels. None of the tasters detected the lowered fat content, and most of them had only good things to say about the improved health benefits of their cafeteria lunches. Watkins then began to push for a wide variety of salads, low-fat deli foods and sandwiches in her school cafeterias, in an effort to stave off culinary boredom and promote sensible nutrition.
Watkins set her sights on winning vital backing from parents and other members of the community, in hopes that her efforts to promote sensible nutrition would find a solid backing in students’ homes. Well aware that parents needed information about her program, its goals and its administration, she formed advisory committees. Many parents found themselves receiving invitations to serve on the school-food service, and those most familiar with the free and reduced-price meals available in the system were pressed into service distributing this information to the less aware. To reenforce the solid information she was offering, in 1978 Watkins also set up the Memphis City Schools’ Nutrition Information and Training Center, a resource listing 550 publications on nutrition-a list far longer than the public library could offer.
Another creative innovation of Watkins’ was the Nutri-Duck, a cartoon character developed in admiring imitation of a song called “Disco-Duck,” which had also been composed in Memphis. Dressed in an outfit designed by the company responsible for the Disney character costumes, the Nutri-Duck made its debut in 1978, and thereafter appeared frequently at parents’ meetings, senior citizens’ homes and child care centers, and other community venues where health and exercise were being promoted.
In 1981, under Watkins’ innovative stewardship, the Memphis schools’ Division of Nutrition Services started a catering service. Using the same supplies bought for the students’ consumption, special staff teams first began to cater food for school functions, then more elaborate menus for parties, receptions and banquets. Instead of the pasta and tacos that the public usually associates with school lunches, this party fare featured such delicacies as mushrooms stuffed with seafood, and chicken brochettes Hawaiian. By 1992, the Memphis City Schools’ Nutrition Service had added festive touches to many celebrations, including a holiday open house for 50 at the school superintendent’s home, a farewell reception for 350 for retiring Assistant Superintendent Ray Holt and even a wedding cake for a school official’s daughter.
By the mid-1980s Watkins’ school nutrition program was widely recognized as one of the country’s finest. In 1983 and again in 1985, the International Food Service Manufacturers’ Association honored her with the coveted Silver Plate Award, a prize bestowed annually on eight food service managers working in restaurants hotels, resorts, hospitals, corporations, schools, universities and colleges.
Entered Government Service
By 1993 Shirley Watkins had been with the Memphis school system for 17 years, and was ready for a complete change of scene. She left Tennessee for Washington, D.C., where she began to work as the Deputy Under Secretary for the Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Agency. The FNCS operates within the US Department of Agriculture. Its overarching functions are to make sure that nourishing food is always available for people threatened with starvation, to see that farmers receive fair prices for their produce, and also to see that any surplus crops are used to feed the hungry, rather than being thrown away.
The CNS runs 16 programs, which provide assistance with food. The Food Stamp Program offers a monthly allowance of redeemable coupons based on income as well as family size. Probably the best-known of all the food assistance programs, it was first introduced in 1961, and proved such a relief to the poor that it became a permanent service in 1964. Thirty years later, the Food Stamp Program was judged to be in dire need of streamlining. So, targeting the year 2002 for nationwide completion of the project, the US Department of Agriculture began to phase out the actual coupons in the mid 1990s, replacing them with plastic cards like credit cards, by which an allowance could be transferred from a food stamp client’s account directly to a grocery store’s bank account.
The National School Lunch Program is almost as familiar to most Americans. It feeds 26 million children every school day, providing free or reduced-price lunches for those with lower-income parents. The government runs this program by providing cash reimbursements and ingredients to non-profit cafeterias operating in public schools and child care facilities. In addition, the School Breakfast Program fed about 6.9 million children in 1997 alone. In Nation’s Restaurant News Watkins was quoted as stating, “The correlation between a healthy breakfast and increased learning capacity is not a new discovery…but you’d be amazed at how many administrations remain inflexible regarding a breakfast program.” To ensure that children using these programs are adequately fed during vacation times, the Federal Government runs the Summer Food Service Program and the Special Milk Program, which give children milk if they are enrolled in schools, summer camps and child care institutions without federally supported meals.
Other programs operated by the Food and Consumer Service are the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which provides education about nutrition and access to health services as well as supplemental foods for new mothers, babies and children under five years old; the Nutrition Program for the Elderly, and also the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations and the Trust Territories, which offers food to needy families in these areas. All the programs stressed the same underlying principle, the link between a healthy diet and a healthy life. Working closely with all aspects of food assistance programs, Watkins stayed in this post for two years before moving on to another position within the Department of Agriculture’s Marketing and Regulatory Programs.
The agency in charge of agricultural marketing and regulations is responsible for protecting American agriculture. It is this office which prevents diseases and harmful pests from entering the country’s borders; has responsibilities both within the country stretching far beyond the borders of the United States. Among other issues, the Agricultural Marketing Service is responsible for quality assurance of agricultural products, regulations concerning packaging and grading, and keeping farmers informed of new developments regarding scientific advances.
As Deputy Assistant Secretary, Watkins oversaw 80 domestic programs with 8,000 employees in the United States and the world. Among them were the “beagle brigade,” 37 teams of small dogs based in airports and post offices, whose official function was to sniff out evidence of food or fruit carried by travelers, so that diseases and pests were not brought into the country.
She enjoyed the work, but was not destined to stay in this department for long.
Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services
In May 1997, President Clinton nominated Watkins Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, thereby inviting her to head the agency which she had entered four years earlier. On July 31, 1997, she was confirmed without incident by the US Senate. She now bore the chief responsibility for food assistance programs totaling $40 billion.
Watkins spoke at her first official public engagement in August of 1997. Appearing a conference held by Blacks in Government, she tackled the issue of civil rights. The topic was a painful one, for the Department of Agriculture had been recognized for its discrimination for so many years that its attitude had earned the ugly term “plantation mentality.” This mind set had shown itself to black farmers seeking departmental loans, who had found high interest rates and a willingness to foreclose which was not experienced by their white colleagues. In the offices of the department itself, workers who were female or disabled were subjected to a hostile work environment in which they were often given inferior training by grudging managers.
Watkins acknowledged frankly that the department had been lax about these important issues. But the news was not all bad. She mentioned that a Civil Rights Information Report had been issued by the department earlier in the year, and that 92 specific recommendations for improvement had been specified. Progress was already being made, she noted—all members of the public were now to be treated with equal courtesy, no matter what their income or their racial heritage; all employees within the department were to be given equal opportunities for training. Furthermore, the department’s huge backlog of almost 2,300 civil rights complaints was to be dealt with as quickly and as fairly as possible. Watkins ended her speech on a hopeful note, with a quotation from leader Jesse Jackson: “America is not like a blanket-one piece of unbroken cloth…America is more like a quilt-many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread…”
A second program which gathered momentum with Watkins’ arrival was Food Recovery and Gleaning. The new agenda had its roots in a study conducted by the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, which found that in 1995 alone, about 96 billion pounds of food, or 27% of food produced, had gone to waste in America. Two-thirds of this waste came from fresh produce-grains, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and sweeteners-that could have fed about 450,000 people, as Watkins noted, remarking further on the fact farmers routinely plough back into the soil nutritious vegetables which are not attractive enough to be sold to supermarkets.
At a summit meeting held in September 1997, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced new measures to ensure that as little fresh produce as possible would henceforth be wasted. As a result, food banks across the country received more than 128,000 pounds of food collected by USDA employees in a ten day department-wide food drive, a new food recovery hotline (1-800-GLEAN-IT) was established by Watkins’ employees, and fields were gleaned at Parker Farms in Clinton, Maryland. By employing all these measures, she hoped to have the gleaning program up and running by the summer of 1998--a bountiful harvest for her first full year as Under Secretary of the Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Agency.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 21, 1997, p. 11A.; September 20, 1997, p. 1D, Chattanooga Free Press, August 17, 1997, p. A8.
Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1997, WOMANEWS, p.2.
Christian Science Monitor, December 31, 1996, p.3.
Commercial Appeal, August 15, 1991, p. C2; January 21, 1993, p. CE1.
Food and Nutrition, July, 1985, p. 14, October, 1985, p. 2.
Metropolitan Times, January 14, 1998, p. C4
Nation’s Restaurant News, February 6, 1989, p. 1.
US Department of Agriculture: Fact Sheets.
US Department of Agriculture: Web Site: http://www.usda.gov.
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