Years ago, Shirley Robinson used to see a boy named Bill Clinton on the front porch of the house in Hope, Ark., where his grandfather lived.
She and her cousin often walked by there on the way to a grocery store run by Clinton’s maternal grandfather, Eldridge Cassidy, who was known for his willingness to give credit to blacks. Her uncle had an account at the store.
“We’d wave at this little kid on the front porch. We knew his grandfather very well,” she said.
Later, in the segregated Arkansas of the 1960s, Shirley Robinson - in her words a “negro home demonstration agent” for the University of Arkansas - spent her time explaining things to rural black women such as the preservation benefits of freezing food.
“I would help her understand how she could buy a freezer instead of standing over a pressure cooker in a nonair-conditioned house in the summer,” she said.
Today, that little boy on the porch lives in the White House and Shirley Robinson Watkins is running the government’s biggest food and nutrition programs for the Department of Agriculture.
Watkins, 59, this month became the first black to be named undersecretary for Agriculture’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services agency, which has a budget of over $40 billion and is best known for handling food stamps and school lunch programs that help feed millions of Americans every day.
In fact, if the agency were a restaurant chain, it would rank second only to McDonald’s in the number of meals served.
Her appointment comes as the Agriculture Department continues to wrestle with long-standing allegations of discrimination by black farmers and by its own black employees.
“So many times, the minority community is not aware of so many programs that are available to them. They are not in the loop,” Watkins said in an interview. “People see this as an opportunity to have someone who will sit down and listen to them.”
She is also the first head of the agency with a background in food service at the local level, having directed food programs for the Memphis city schools for 17 years before coming to Washington in 1993. She taught junior high and elementary school before that and knows that children don’t succeed when they don’t get enough to eat.
“They are lethargic,” she said. “They are inattentive. They cannot keep up.”
A priority of hers is improving the nutritional value of the food eaten by these schoolchildren, as well as teaching nutrition to the estimated 22 million food stamp recipients and 7.4 million people on the Women, Infants and Children program.
“I think we could reach more,” she said. “We kind of leave it to people.”
Congress left the food stamp program with federal officials when it moved many other welfare programs to state control last year, but it is still a frequent target for criticism because of fraud and abuse.
One recent undercover investigation found that 41 percent of suspected merchants were doing illegal things such as buying stamps for cash or accepting them for liquor and cigarettes. Watkins said efforts will be stepped up to combat such scams.
She also wants to use her food service background to help school systems run their cafeterias more like a business to cut costs.
For example, right now Agriculture buys about 20 percent of the commodities used in schools. Most of the rest are purchased locally by schools, which usually pay higher prices, and Watkins would like to change that.
As for her relationship with Clinton, Watkins said she got to know him as an adult while she was president of the 65,000-member American School Food Service Association and he was governor of Arkansas. She asked him to address the group, many of whom hadn’t heard of him.
“They said, ‘Why do you want Bill Clinton from Arkansas?’ I said, ‘He is a bright shining star. We’re going to hear from him again.”’
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SHIRLEY ROBINSON WATKINS Age-birth date - 59, born Jan. 7, 1938. Hometown - Hope, Ark. Now lives in Silver Spring, Md. Education - B.S., University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 1960; University of Memphis, master’s in education, 1970. Experience - 1997, confirmed by Senate as first black undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the Department of Agriculture. Previously, was deputy undersecretary at the agency and served as deputy assistant secretary for marketing and regulatory programs. From 1976-1993, director of nutrition services at Memphis City Schools and from 1963-1976, was both a teacher and food service supervisor in the system. From 1960-1963, was home demonstration agent for rural blacks with University of Arkansas. Family - Husband, retired elementary school principal George T. Watkins; two children. Quote “I am able to look at programs from a real-life perspective of what goes on at the state and local level. I don’t think you can have that perspective unless you’ve been there.”