An iconic figure in school nutrition speaks to how school nutrition programs have evolved over the past five decades
Josephine Martin, PhD, RD, LD, has been one of the true movers and shakers in school nutrition for over half a century. On November 6th, she received the American Dietetic Association's highest honor, its Marjorie Hulsizer Copher Award, recognizing her lifetime of service to child nutrition, to advancing public nutrition policy and for mentoring others in the field.
Martin is known for her 40 year career with the Georgia Department of Education, where she administered the state's school food and nutrition program and served as associate state superintendant. A key player in the establishment of the National Food Service Management Institute at the University of Mississippi, she served as its first executive director. Martin has edited or co-authored four books including the widely used Managing Child Nutrition Programs: Leadership for Excellence.
Martin is a past president of the American School Food Service Association (now the School Nutrition Association), a past IFMA Silver Plate winner and a long time member of Food Management's editorial advisory board. She is also a long-standing member of three dietetic practice groups and a founding member of both the Food & Culinary Professionals DPG and the School Nutrition Services DPG.
Over the years, she was frequently called upon to testify before Congress and to advise it on policy matters related to child nutrition and USDA's school meal programs. Today, Martin continues to show the infectious enthusiasm for the future of child nutrition that has long marked her career. She remains active in her consulting practice and in working on new programs to advance child nutrition goals in today's age of rock star chefs, culinary demands and tighter nutritional standards for schools.
Recently, FM Editor John Lawn interviewed Dr. Martin about how she first became associated with child nutrition, for her perspective on how the field has evolved, and to tell our readers the direction she sees it moving in the future. Here are some key excerpts:
You began your career just about the time the National School Lunch Act was passed. Do you remember it's passage?
Martin: I was in college when it became law but I wasn't aware of it at the time — I was focused on clinical dietetics. My first job was as an assistant dietitian in a small county hospital.
It was about 18 months later that I joined the Georgia Department of Education and became active in school nutrition. Even though the NSLA was passed in 1946, state departments of education had begun receiving federal money for such programs in 1943. That's when school lunch offices at the state agencies were established. They were funded year to year with appropriations.
What was your job like then?
Martin: I began as an area consultant in North Georgia. I provided oversight and direction to programs in 34 counties and 434 schools. My job was to build good relationships with school administrators, principals, local school board members and people in the nutrition and dietetics profession. We also worked with industry. I learned early on that carrying out the responsibility of education involves partnerships and the ability to develop collaboration among different groups.
I was also responsible for helping the state approve the plans of architects and engineers as it moved to building a large number of new schools. Up to then, many schools were built without food preparation facilities but our legislature in its wisdom had written into law that all new schools would be built with kitchens. The state Board of Education upheld that position when local school administrators would run short of money [and try to submit plans without kitchen facilities]. Later, in the 1960s, when there was a national movement to offer school meals to all children, Georgia had the facilities to do so while many other states did not.
How political was the NSLA at the time?
Martin: Richard Russell was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He and two other representatives — Sen. Allen Ellender from Louisiana, a Democrat, and Senator George Aiken from Vermont, a Republican — recognized the importance of nutrition and authored the original NSLA legislation. At that moment, bi-partisan support for the feeding of children was established. It was felt that child nutrition programs should never become a partisan issue, that children are hungry regardless of politics.
What is the biggest difference when you compare today's child nutrition programs to those of 30 years ago?
Martin: The biggest single change came in the 1970's when the method of financing them changed from an appropriations system, in which programs frequently ran out of money at the beginning of a calendar year, to a method based on performance, with a uniform way to determine eligibility and need and a way to assure financing all year long. At the same time, programs began to recognize that needy children did not only need assistance at lunchtime, but that they needed food all day long, all year long.
You've had a longstanding interest in the culinary aspects of school food as well…
Martin: Back in the early 1990s I received the ADA Medallion award the same year that [Culinary Institute of America President] Ferdinand Metz received an honorary membership in ADA. Cathy Powers was the CIA's nutritionist at the time and together we began talking about a program that might bring chefs from the CIA and people from school nutrition together to collaborate on culinary train-the-trainer programs for schools.
Some of that brainstorming eventually became a seed in the development of several training programs at the National Food Service Management Institute.
More recently, as the obesity issue became more prominent in the public eye. I was delighted to work with the NFSMI team on the program Cooks for Kids. The result was an award-winning, three-season series of training videos you can view on the NFSMI web site.
They feature chefs and school food management personnel and focus on healthful food and cooking techniques that can be used not only in schools but also in homes and in restaurants. They emphasize that child nutrition is a shared responsibility.
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Is there one person whom you would identify as having had the biggest influence on your career?
Martin: It would be impossible for me to answer that. Certainly, Mary deGarmo Bryan and Emma Smedley [both pioneers in child nutrition and dietetics] had great influence on me through their books. Someone who very strongly influenced me in person early on was Thelma Flanagan, state director in Florida.
Thelma and my state director worked together very closely and I had the privilege of co-chairing one of the Southern states' work conferences with her. She taught me a great deal about how to look at many resources and possibilities and to ways of developing partnerships to make the most of them.
Looking ahead, where do you think child nutrition programs will go in the future?
Martin: In recent years we've recognized that dietary goals need to look beyond nutrients to the total picture that affects the nutritional needs of children. That means seeing that the environment in which meals are served needs to be less institutional if we also want to emphasize health and education.
One of the greatest impacts today's programs are having is that they're helping society recognize that child nutrition makes a difference in the health of children for their lifetimes, not just for the time they are in school.
It is a lifetime proposition. It involves what children eat in school, what they eat at home and what they eat away-from-home. That is a shared responsibility and it requires a partnership between school, home and the foodservice industry if we are to improve the health and well-being of our future citizens.
To view video clips of Dr. Martin's interview and some of her recollections of early days in the school nutrition movement.