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Shirley Watkins On-

Her Early Years

Fighting Against Hunger

Working Together

On Native Americans

On FNS Staff

Getting People Involved

A Lasting Memory

Spreading Hope

There 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 town.

Born 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."

Shirley WatkinsToday, 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.

All For the Children (Video Clip "Fighting Against Hunger")

It’s 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 Shirley Watkins and Daughterwere 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."

Shirley 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."

She 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]!"

She 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:

Hunger 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.

Brad Butler, Grade 4
(Food for Thought, A Collection of Writing And Recipes By Ridgeway CLUE Students)

Partnerships for Helping Mothers and Children (Video Clip "Working Together")

Asked 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.

The Partnership for Change Program brings together Federal, state, and university organizations in a collaborative effort to cut red tape and help these Shirley Watkins for the Wic Market Program 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.

While 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.

A Partnership for Helping Native Americans (Video Clip "On Helping Native Americans")

Shirley 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.

Digging in

The 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 Shirley Watkins in gardenjob 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.

Advice on Federal Reinvention (Video Clip "On FNS Staff")

Given 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."

Shirley 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."
Video Clip "Getting People Involved")

Leaving Something Behind (Video Clip "A Lasting Memory")

Asked 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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