The Josephine Martin National Policy Fellow: A conversation with Dr. Martin and the 2013 Policy Fellow Sandi Walter, SNS

Has childhood nutrition ever been more in the spotlight than it is today? And now, more than ever, the role of school nutrition professionals in public policy demands engagement and leadership. In an effort to help support school nutrition professionals pursue their goals in the public policy arena, the Josephine Martin National Policy Fellow was created through the Dr. Josephine Martin Endowment Fund.

The endowment fund will provide funds each year for a School Nutrition Association member to attend the Legislative Action Conference (LAC) in Washington, D.C. for the first time. This year, the Josephine Martin National Policy Fellow is Sandi Walter, SNS, Cafeteria Manager at Coulter Grove Intermediate School in Maryville, Tennessee. Congratulations, Sandi, and thank you Dr. Martin for your hard work, dedication, and passion.

About Dr. Josephine Martin

Dr. Josephine Martin is an inspiration to us all. Her career in child nutrition began in 1950, with the Georgia Department of Education, and she has created an enduring legacy for her fellow school foodservice professionals; her commitment to child nutrition is equaled only by her passion for public policy. Dr. Martin is the living history of school nutrition: in the 1960s she accompanied then Senator Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) on a tour of hunger in Georgia, and she played an influential role in the passage of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966.

In 1976, during her tenure as national president of the School Nutrition Association (then the American School Food Service Association) Dr. Martin was instrumental in securing federal authorization for the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI); ten years later, she came out of retirement to become the first full-time director of NFSMI. When asked how she felt about being honored with this namesake award, Dr. Martin replied:

“This award is very humbling and a great honor, but it’s not about me—it’s about the role of advocacy and the importance of public policy, not only in the past but in the future of school nutrition. It’s about the need to recognize that we have potential leaders out there who have not been given the incentive, or have not been vested in their future role as advocates. It’s about being passionate in what you do, and the importance of nutrition in a child’s future; helping to eliminate hunger, and to help children reach one of the goals of education—to be ready to learn in the classroom. The future is being established for child nutrition programs. With this we recognize future leaders, and let them know they are special, that they are worth investing in.”

Dr. Martin credits her parents for instilling in her the importance of food, and a high school principal with inspiring her passion for public policy and helping the poor. “Food was important [to my parents]. Anyone who came to our door was greeted with the offer of a cup of coffee and something to eat; warmth and hospitality made people feel good about coming into our home. I graduated from a small high school, where the principal was very much interested in the poor and the hungry, and in public policy; he taught us how to be an advocate for the helpless people in our community and in our state.”

When asked about a few lessons she has learned along the way, Dr. Martin shared these words of wisdom with us:

  1. “You don’t always have to know everything, but you do have to know who does know and get them to go with you and get it done!” (After being asked to meet with a member of Congress, and in turn, asking a more experienced colleague to go with her.)
  2. “If you don’t know the answer, be right up-front and say ‘I don’t know’ and then go get the answer. That’s something we need to teach people in public policy: Be honest!” (After a senator asked her a question she didn’t know the answer to, she said “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you!”)
  3. “Think boldly and creatively, and ask the question.” (On the decision to ask for performance funding for school nutrition—no one had ever thought to ask for it before!)

Dr. Martin expressed her happiness and excitement to learn that the endowment had been created in her name, but she frequently stressed that child nutrition is a team effort that involves many players, over many decades. We asked Dr. Martin to look to the future of both child nutrition and the endowment, and to share some of her hopes with us; here are some of her thoughts:

  1. Encourage and empower recognition of potential school nutrition leaders to become public policy advocates at the local, state, and national level;
  2. Provide opportunities and incentives for child nutrition personnel at the district and local level to attend SNA’s public policy workshops, and grow public policy advocates and leaders. I recently read an article by Dr. Janey Thornton who said that, when she first started in school nutrition she attended LAC, and that it was an experience that motivated her to want to be a part of the program.
  3. As we grow new leaders through the endowment, that we also grow the funding for the endowment so we can grow new leaders, and provide opportunities for local people who have not been to LAC; that it will make those high-potential leaders realize that we think they are special, and worth investing in. It would be my dream that in future years there would be enough funding to select several SNA leaders to attend LAC each year.
  4. I hope the state associations will establish legislative awards to provide a stipend for leaders to attend state legislative workshops. That’s where we begin to grow our leaders when they become active in their associations.
  5. Through this, I hope we will be able to create a greater awareness among the school nutrition community about the role of public policy at the local level, working with principals, superintendents, parents, and teachers; at the state level, working with state government officers, legislative leaders, and state board members; and at the national level, working with Congress.

About Sandi Walter, SNS

Sandi Walter is the first Josephine Martin National Policy Fellow. Although she has been interested in attending the Legislative Action Conference for many years, the means to attend were not available until winning this award. “When I saw that there was an opportunity for people like me, managers, to apply for a fellowship, I was elated,” said Sandi. “I was hoping so badly that I could possibly have this opportunity so I am over the moon—my family is scraping me off the wall, I’m so excited! I am really looking forward to it.”

Her longtime interest in the political process and public policy came to a head in January of 2011, when the new USDA proposed rules came out and Sandi realized how many changes school nutrition professionals would be facing. “All of a sudden I found myself calling congressmen, emailing senators, and talking to anyone who would listen to me concerning the proposed new meal plans and my concerns about how it would affect my kitchen. I’ve always had a real political interest, but that is the event that made me decide I had to be more involved.”

School food service runs in Sandi’s family; her daughter is now working in the school nutrition field as well. When asked how she feels about the present state and future of child nutrition, and school foodservice, Sandi replied, “I think it’s wonderful that we are making progress in changing the way children eat in the schools, and hopefully help change them for a lifetime. I think in the course of the next twenty years or so we are going to have healthier children who are used to eating this way.”

Sandi went on to express her excitement over the support that the School Nutrition Association and School Nutrition Foundation offers members like herself, saying, “Any kind of change comes hard to people, it truly does, so we just have to hang in there. And the support we get from [SNA and SNF] is just amazing; we can’t say enough good things about it. They really look out for their members and for school nutrition; they are our advocate! On the political scene, SNA is what is going to help us get through all of [these changes]. As soon as I hire a new person I start working on them to become certified, and to become [an SNA] member. It’s important to me that people understand what an important group SNA is and how they look out for us, and help us in so many ways. School nutrition is a wonderful field to be in. It’s not a prestigious job, we don’t get a lot of recognition, and that’s okay—we are serving America’s children and I love the serving spirit I see among my fellow school nutrition colleagues.”

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