is something in the name of the town where she was born -
Hope, Arkansas - a birthplace she shared with a future President,
who also came from humble beginnings. Their lives, like ascending
grapevines, each intertwine around the name of their small
to a young mother of 14 who wrapped her underweight baby in
a blanket and left her in a shoebox to a childless couple,
Shirley Watkins rose to become one of the highest ranking
women at the Department of Agriculture. As a young person,
she attended a segregated school in Arkansas and was teased
for being adopted. But, Watkins recalls that she "had a good
life…I didn't struggle." She attributes her success to the
optimistic attitude that she got from her father, "Though
I started rough and rocky, I learned that you can overcome
difficulty. There may be road blocks, but you can move them
to get what you want and get others to achieve success."
Watkins continues to reflect the name of her hometown as she
gives hope to so many people across the country. As Under Secretary
for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, Shirley Watkins administers
the food stamp program, the Women, Infants and Children Nutritional
Health Program (WIC), and the school lunch and breakfast programs.
She also commands a budget of $40 billion. "If this were an
industry, Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) would be a top grossing
firm in this nation," Watkins says. So, she treats it like a
business, --- the nation's children and poor are her customers.
For the Children (Video
Clip "Fighting Against Hunger")
clear that children are her passion. Under Secretary Watkins’
face lights up when she talks about them. "When I started working
in school food service in Memphis, I realized what a serious
problem families were having and children were
having. I decided that I needed to work on behalf of kids to
ensure that they are well nourished, that they enjoy the food,
and that it was nutritious. I saw my role as the real advocate
of children’s health and nutrition, and I still get a great
deal of joy seeing kids develop. We really do have a great role
to play in the lives of kids. Whether it is helping to get food
or working on a regulation for better service or expanding a
program to increase service, if kids get the right start, they
can avoid diabetes and coronary disease."
Watkins is proud of what she has been able to accomplish. "We
are now doing what we intended to do: addressing the nutrition
and health needs of children. Giving kids healthy school meals,
releasing the dietary guidelines and food pyramid for kids,
and offering lactose free milk to kids are all good, positive
changes to the school meals program."
gets a kick out of feedback from kids when she finds out that
they really enjoyed the lunches at school - - even though it’s
"cool" to say that school lunches are "gross." "It is great
to hear what they say about the program [when they aren’t talking
to their friends]!"
offers visitors a look at a special book in her office. It is
from a Creative Learning in a Unique Environment (CLUE) class
project, and it contains work from kids about nutrition.. She
shows it off like the mother of each young author. The words
of one fourth-grader seem especially profound:
is a phone without any numbers,
Disabled to hear anything but a dial tone
Monotonous and never-ending…
Attempting to call for help,
Until, finally becoming disconnected.
Butler, Grade 4
(Food for Thought, A Collection of Writing And Recipes
By Ridgeway CLUE Students)
for Helping Mothers and Children (Video
Clip "Working Together")
about her greatest source of pride, Watkins quickly moves from
the subject of children to Partnership for Change, a program
that works to improve life for the thousands of people living
in "colonias" on the Texas-Mexico border. She describes these
regions as some of the poorest in the country, characterized
by makeshift housing, lack of indoor plumbing, and dirt roads.
Almost all of the residents are Hispanic, many non-English speaking,
with an average annual income of just over $9,000 for a family
of four. Unemployment exceeds 40 percent, and health and nutritional
conditions are harsh.
Partnership for Change Program brings together Federal, state,
and university organizations in a collaborative effort to cut
red tape and help these
impoverished communities. So far, the Partnership has brought
six new WIC clinics to the colonias' residents providing new
mothers with grocery store vouchers for healthy food and ensuring
that infants and young children get childhood immunizations.
Under Secretary Watkins realizes that there is "still a great
deal of work to be done in these areas," she is proud of the
progress that is being made.
Partnership for Helping Native Americans (Video
Clip "On Helping Native Americans")
Watkins is also proud of FNS's accomplishments in bringing fresh
produce to Indian tribes on remote reservations. Historically,
some tribes didn't receive fresh produce regularly because the
procurement process took so long (sometimes five months between
order and receipt). Often foods arrived after their shelf lives
had expired. FNS learned that the Department of Defense (DOD)
had tackled a similar problem and successfully developed a network
to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to military bases and
installations. Watkins seized the opportunity for an interagency
partnership, and soon DOD was "working" for FNS, delivering
healthful fresh produce to Indian tribes on a regular schedule.
job of making sure that kids and families stay healthy by getting
the nutrition they require sometimes means that Watkins needs
to dig in her heals to get the job
done. Sometimes Watkins takes this quite literally. She jokes
about the time she arrived at a school on her hunger tour thinking
she was going to plant one sweet potato in a symbolic gesture.
When she got there, she found out the kids expected her to plant
the whole row, so, she just kept on planting - - in her black
suit and high heels. It's clear that Shirley Watkins sees a job through to its completion.
on Federal Reinvention (Video
Clip "On FNS Staff")
the success Under Secretary Watkins has achieved at FNS, her
advice to others is simple. "If you are trying to reinvent an
agency, you first have to think positively and not be deterred
by obstacles," Watkins said. She started out slowly reinventing
her agency so that people could see the need for change. Then,
she tried to help them see the value that was in it for them.
One of her most difficult tasks was helping her staff develop
a single vision and mission. But, that process helped them understand
that reinvention is not an initiative to help the infrastructure
of the industry. It's change for everyone's benefit. Shirley
Watkins recalls, "At the local level, it was, 'WOW!' I've never
seen so much enthusiasm."
Watkins is a new breed of manager. She videotapes conferences,
visits with staff, holds regular meetings with her senior leaders,
and brings people into the processes that affect them. Most
of all, she empowers her staff to implement any creative ideas
that will help achieve their mission of improving the nation's
nutritional health and ending hunger. She gives every employee
a "license to improve," and since she instituted this program
in February 1999, more than 400 employees have come up with
new, innovative projects that are increasing productivity at
FNS. She particularly recalls the words of an employee she talked
to on the road. "Shirley, " she said, "how excited I am-all
of a sudden I can do the creative things; you don't need to
be restricted by anything."
Clip "Getting People Involved")
Something Behind (Video
Clip "A Lasting Memory")
about the legacy that she wants to leave behind, Watkins says
that she wants to make a difference in peoples' lives and to
make certain that this agency is the best that it can be. She
wants to leave behind a legacy of improved access to programs
that better serve people's needs, and that reach out to families
with resources to help them. She laughs and adds, "We are having
fun here. When we stop having fun, you know it is time to go
and do something else."
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