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Betti Wiggins, currently director of food & nutrition services for the Houston Independent School District, talks about her career and her challenges as a Black woman.

Stories from the front lines: Betti Wiggins on her career journey from segregated hospitals to leading foodservice at one of the nation’s largest school districts

Betti Wiggins, currently director of food & nutrition services for the Houston Independent School District, talks about her career and her challenges as a Black woman taking her up through the industry from segregated hospital kitchens in the early 1970s through receding but still real discrimination in the following decades.

Betti Wiggins has been not only a survivor but also a fighter who always battled for her due. Refusing to be shunted to safe, traditional roles reserved for Black girls studying food science and nutrition at the start of her career, she has moved from early experiences in healthcare foodservice management field to becoming a leader in the K-12 child nutrition market in a career that spans nearly 50 years.

An early stint at then-segregated Henry Ford Hospital where she was denied her preferred position of dietetic intern but where she gained valuable management experience was followed by a slow move up the career ladder in the healthcare field in Michigan, even including a stop at a long-term care operation.

Joining Marriott Corp. in 1989 prompted a move into school nutrition, a market in which Wiggins has since overseen major school foodservice operations in Washington, DC, Baltimore, Detroit and now Houston. Along the way, she has had to fight for the positions she felt her education, experience and skills merited but which she said were denied by outright discrimination, ingrained policies, assumptions and internal politics.

Here is her story…

“I wanted to be a dietitian. You want to talk about the bad old days, I was one of the few Black girls who refused to take home economics. I took food science and nutrition. This was Detroit—Wayne State University, not a Southern school—but they were tracking us to be home economics teachers because at that time [the early 1970s] it was real unusual for a Black girl to get into a dietetic internship. [At the time] there were two Black men [who were dietetic interns] in the city of Detroit, but Black girls getting in just wasn’t happening. We could become home economics teachers, we could work as foodservice supervisors in healthcare or whatever, and that’s what happened to me. I did not get into a dietetics program, an internship, but I did go to work at Henry Ford Hospital as a diet technician for training dietetic interns. Henry Ford was notorious at the time because it was a segregated hospital in Michigan, [which is] what people don’t understand about the North. There was a lot of segregation.

I’m a very actively minded kind of person, and I thought, ‘This is not right,’ so I went to the director, Peter Musio, and he said, ‘Betti, you deserve it, but if I put you in that program, those white dietitians will have a fit—some might even quit,’ because it’s alright for me to work in a kitchen, but to go up on the floors, that was just highly unacceptable. But then he said, ‘I’ll do something better for you—I’ll make you their boss!’ So he put me in foodservice management and I was down in the main kitchen supervising the preparation of food and the ordering of food. I just learned a lot from that experience. This is the truth: I have been the beneficiary of a lot of good white folks. They knew I had talent and I had skills and they tried to do a workaround for me. I’ll never forget Peter Musio as long as I live. He put me in a situation where I learned management, I learned the books, I learned the back of the house, I learned a whole bunch of stuff in healthcare management that started me on my career.

After I’d been at Henry Ford for a while, I went to Peter again and said, ‘Look here, I’m doing all the work, I know everything, yet still you can’t promote me,’ so he got me a job with Hospital Dietary Services [HDS], a local foodservice management company that did hospitals and nursing homes. They hired me as foodservice director at Kirwood General Hospital and I worked as director at Kirwood for about a year, but it was obvious they only hired me because I was Black, so I told them I wanted to go to bigger accounts because I thought I had the skill set and education. This was around 1976, when there was a real push on to get more African-Americans engaged in leadership positions in foodservice.

[I quit HDS] and was hired at a hospital in Jackson, Mich., and worked there a couple years as assistant director but couldn’t get promoted, so then I worked for the Jewish Welfare Federation and ran their kosher kitchen for five to six years. They were absolutely outstanding, but I didn’t want to do long-term care. I was a hospital foodservice director and wanted to get back to healthcare. The movement had started and more opportunities were opening up [for minorities], but I still could not crack the code on how I could get into the big hospitals, the main hospitals.

One of the best things I ever did was going to the Marriott Corp. That was in 1989 when Marriott was really getting sued [for discrimination]. I was hired to go to Ann Arbor Public Schools [even though] I was never a school foodservice director. I was always in healthcare. Now Ann Arbor is a very liberal city, home of the University of Michigan, that was having problems with the NAACP because they were starting to get all these kids in their student body who looked like me. When Marriott hired me, they told me, ‘We want you to go to Ann Arbor’ and I told them I was raised there. They said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I was raised outside of Ann Arbor on a farm in Whittaker, Mich.’ I told them my nieces and nephews attend the Ann Arbor school system and my brother is an engineer over at Ford Motor Co. Man, they grabbed my hand and raced me up there! I was interviewed in the airport and when I walked in, a couple of the board members had been my teachers when I was in primary school.

BETTI-WIGGINS-QUOTE.jpgAtypically, if you put me on paper, you can’t tell what color I am. I did not go to a Black school, I did not grow up in a Black community and my name is Betti Wiggins—Betti with an ‘I’ Wiggins—so you can’t tell when you look at me on paper [that I’m Black], because I’ve had people who wanted to interview me who said, ‘Okay Liz, you look really good and yadda yadda yadda and let’s set up and interview,’ but then you get there and they find you’re African-American, I’ve had that happen to me too. The only thing you can tell from my resume is that I’m a woman, and that I went to a very good university, a very good high school and have had some very good experience. They just make assumptions about you. When I speak up as a woman, they say, ‘Well, she’s just hot stuff because she was raised in urban Detroit’ and I’m like, ‘No I wasn’t! I was raised on my dad’s 40-acre farm in Whittaker, Mich. I just don’t like being ignored and I don’t like being misused and I’m going to speak up!’

I worked for Marriott from ’89 til ’95 and it was the same kind of stuff, and not just for me as a minority, because minority men got more opportunities than minority women. And there were always reasons they didn’t promote us—we were hostile, or we didn’t know how to dress or didn’t have the same kind of education and on and on. And when they couldn’t check off one of those boxes, they’d go back to your attitude.

I was identified by Harry Schwenker, who was president of Marriott School Support Services. He came to me one day and said, ‘Look Betti, this market is changing and we’re going to need women, Black women and Black people in leadership positions’ because they were being sued. If you remember back in [the mid-90s] the Marriott Corp. was sued by all these Black employees, so they decided they would fast-track me to make me a regional vice president.

Well, that did not go well with the fellas. Again, I have to say there were good people who knew better, who wanted to do better but who were locked into the culture and the structure. [Unfortunately], Harry, who had fast-tracked me and scheduled me to be regional vice president in three years, left the corporation. Well, the long knives came out and the next thing I felt I was gone—not fired but promoted to a level that they said there’s no account that can carry you, so you’ll have to find a job within the corporation, and if you don’t then we’re going to terminate you. You talk about someone who has almost seven years in the corporation and this is what you tell them?

So I started being creative and I started looking around at all the accounts that they were after, and one they were really after was Washington, DC., so I just used my relationships with African-Americans, because there was an African-American director in Washington, DC. I called him up—he was getting ready to retire—and asked, ‘Would you do me a favor and introduce me to your superintendent?’ and he did, and I went in and I sold myself. This was at a time when DC was the last place you wanted to be. The control board was there and Andy Brimmer [Ed. Note: Brimmer headed the financial control board that took over oversight of Washington, DC finances as part of a federal bailout]. The superintendent took me to his office, asked me a few questions and the next thing I knew, he had me by my hand and I’m sitting in front of Andy Brimmer and we were talking about how we were going to change foodservice in DC Public Schools. I worked DC for I think three years, then was terminated, got caught up in the policy battles.

So I went back to Michigan [to the Detroit Public Schools] and was doing fine until it was decided that the foodservice department needed to be outsourced. I then started my own consulting company but, to be honest, I wasn’t getting some of the opportunities that some of these white women got because of my color. They never looked at my skill set or track record. Actually, the group that respected me was vendors and manufacturers because I always asked the right questions. It was never about relationship with me. It was about, does your product fit my need, what are my margins going to be, how does your product some out on surveys and what kind of support do you give? I always had good relationships with manufacturers and vendors and even with state directors because I always ran a good, clean program.

I [returned] to Detroit in 2008 and that’s when I beat the management company. I bid against Aramark with the union and our proposal was accepted, and that’s when I became self-op again, in Detroit in 2008, which lasted until 2017. I would have retired from Detroit but Houston called and asked, ‘We need you to come down here and help out because we’re going self-op’ and I said, ‘You’re going back to self-op after 20 years with Aramark?’ and they said ‘Yes, and we’ve looked all over the country and you’re the only director that has the kind of experience that we need to take it back to self-op.’

When I entered school nutrition, it was just as bad as everywhere else, but there was a way [forward]. I remember a [School Nutrition Association] general session where [1991-92 SNA President] Sue Greig spoke and told them, ‘We got a problem here in this association because we don’t have any African-Americans or other minorities in leadership positions, and we need to change this.’ You could hear a pin drop as she spoke. Then you eventually had Shirley Watkins and other African-Americans coming up through the ranks, serving on committees and [so forth], so that now Reginald Ross is president. I think SNA has come a long way. I think Patti [SNA CEO Patricia Montague] has really tried to make sure that she engages as many groups as she can in SNA. I’m working now with an International Food Manufacturers advisory group and I have to thank Jim Green, who organized it because he has really made it a part of the agenda, that we must have diversity.

BETTI-WIGGINS-QUOTE-2.jpgI’ve seen the growth, I’ve seen people grow, I’ve seen corporations grow. It used to be manufacturers didn’t have a Black sales rep, but I’m seeing that now, I’m seeing vice presidents, we’re seeing Black presidents in charge of distribution companies. The first time I met a Black president was Ray Roberts of US Foods when he came to my office trying to get our business. He came in with his sales rep and we were passing cards around. I thought he was just a rep, but then I looked at the card—president? I turned his card toward him and said, ‘This is you?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m the president.’ He’d only been there about four months. I had started seeing [Black] reps and manufacturers reps and I’m waiting now for the first Black brokerage company. I haven’t seen that yet.

So are things getting better? Hell, yeah—much better than when I came in. I’m not bitter about anything. I’ve had a great career, and one thing I have to say, I earned every bit of what I have because nobody’s given me anything. All I ever asked for was opportunity.”

Career advice from Betti Wiggins for young Black professionals looking to advance careers in school nutrition

“First of all, get an education that’s grounded in science as well as business. At the end of the day, this is not a nutrition program. We are a not-for-profit business and we serve meals. We sell meals in order to generate revenue. Don’t be so focused on the need to be a dietitian. You should have a good nutrition understanding but [also] a good business background because you can always hire a dietitian.

The other thing is, try and get a job in a small district and learn. There’s something to be said about doing that internship, so go to a small district where you can put your arms around [a couple of] schools and really find out what makes them tick, because you can take that experience and move it to a larger district.”

As told to Mike Buzalka on July 8.

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