(Lois) Gene White, MS, SNS, passed away peacefully in Oak Harbor, Wash., on June 23, 2021, just six months shy of her 100th birthday. She was born tiny and sickly on Dec. 23, 1921, in Pitsburg, Ohio to Merlin and Olive Sando. Gene’s mother, a nurse, improvised an incubator in the warming oven of a wood-burning stove. Gene survived, and survived spectacularly to become a global leader in school nutrition.
Gene often referred to the life lessons she learned from her mother about caring for others, and from her father, a teacher, about the value of a good education. Gene graduated from Milton-Union High School in 1939, received her undergraduate degree in food and nutrition from Miami University in Ohio and a master’s degree in nutrition from Ohio State University. While at Ohio State, Gene met William C. “Bill” White. They were married in Sacramento, Calif., in 1952.
Following graduation, Gene worked for two years in food service for a large psychiatric hospital in Ohio before moving into the school food services field. She lived and worked in California for over 20 years. Gene served as the director of School Food and Nutrition Programs for the Sierra Sands Unified School District in Ridgecrest, Calif. Then, in the 1980s, she served as assistant superintendent and director of Child Nutrition Programs for the California State Department of Education. In this role she was responsible for federal and state programs that served daily meals to over 2.5 million children. Gene served as the president of the California School Nutrition Association and was a longtime member and a past president of the American Schools Food Service Association (now the School Nutrition Association).
While Gene was working in the Ridgecrest/China Lake District in 1970, she saw a newspaper advertisement from the U.S. Agency for International Development for volunteers to go to developing countries to assist with building nutrition programs. Gene signed up and was sent to Tunisia. As she prepared to spend her first day visiting a remote village, she stopped at a small shop and bought a box of animal crackers. When she arrived in the little Saharan village, she was met by a swarm of poor, hungry children. Gene learned that poverty and hunger were so chronic in this village that the expected life span was only 35 years. She carefully broke the crackers into pieces so she could give a small offering to as many children as possible.
That experience touched her deeply and changed the trajectory of the rest of her long life. Gene understood that by feeding children at school with locally produced food, the whole community can benefit — both in the short term, and for generations to come.
When severe reductions to the American school feeding programs were threatened in Congress in 1995, Gene traveled to Washington, D.C. and spent six months providing testimony and tirelessly advocating for this essential program, alongside (then) Sen. George McGovern and others.
In the late 1990s, Gene was instrumental in establishing an annual Global Child Nutrition Forum, which, over time, became the largest annual conference in the world focused on school meal programs, hosting as many as 650 government, nonprofit, private sector and academic leaders in a different country each year. She quickly developed “rock star” status with forum attendees, and attended each forum for 19 years, until her health began to wane in 2018.
Once again working with the former senator, presidential candidate, and ambassador George McGovern, School Nutrition Association leaders and others, Gene was a founder of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF) in 2006. GCNF hosts the Forum each year and works with government leaders and a diverse network of partners around the world to deliver sustainable and nutritious school meal programs that give every child the opportunity to learn and thrive. Gene led GCNF and provided advice to programs around the world (including programs in Tunisia, Paraguay, and China) until 2018.
Gene and Bill moved to Whidbey Island in Washington state in 1987 and quickly engaged by volunteering in the local community. Gene’s efforts included leadership in the Langley United Methodist Church, helping local school districts develop nutrition and wellness policies to prevent obesity and promote student health, board membership for the Good Cheer Food Bank, and supporting food preservation efforts with underserved native communities.
Gene was preceded in death by her parents, her two brothers and by her husband Bill (in 2011). She leaves behind nieces, nephews and many close friends.
Gene was remarkable in her capacity for leadership, kindness and wisdom. The positive impact of her life will continue to be felt by many around the world for years to come. She strongly believed that we are one global family, commissioned by God’s universal and unconditional love to care for one another. This was the focus of her life’s work.
A memorial celebration will be held 2 p.m. July 31 at Langley United Methodist Church on Whidbey Island, and viewable via live stream on the church’s website/Facebook page.
Memorial donations in Gene’s honor can be made to the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, and Langley United Methodist Church.