The remarkable rise of a man from Hope to become president of the United States has a striking parallel in the U.S. Agriculture Department, where a black woman also from Hope, Ark. has risen to become the top-ranking official in charge of the $40 billion Food and Nutrition Service.

Today, Agriculture Undersecretary Shirley R. Watkins commands a staff of 1,600 and oversees two-thirds of the departmental budget, running the food stamp program, which serves 20 million people; the program for women, infants and children, which serves 7 million mothers and their babies; and the school lunch program, which feeds 26.7 million school children. But when she was born, she had nothing, not even a family.

Watkins's mother, a girl of 14, placed her underweight infant in a shoe box and left her on the doorstep of a childless couple in Hope in 1938. Adopted by a railroad worker and his wife, Watkins was 8 years old when Clinton was born on the other side of the tracks. The future president's grandfather ran a grocery store near her neighborhood. She was starting at the segregated high school when Clinton moved away to Hot Springs, Ark. Kids teased her about being adopted, and she sometimes daydreamed about what life would have been like with a young mother in some faraway place.

But she said, she always knew that her mother "did the right thing. I was blessed."

She went to the all-black University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, majoring in home economics. When she did her student teaching in Dermott, Ark., she lived with her supervisor, because no one would rent a room to a black person, according to LaVerne W. Feaster, the supervisor who became a lifelong friend.

Watkins's first job was as the "assistant Negro home demonstration agent for colored people" in Wynne, Ark. She was not assistant to anybody, but that was the title given to all black agents, she said.

She married and moved to Memphis to teach school and rose through the Memphis school system, from teacher to director of food service, eventually becoming the national president of the American School Food Service Association.

She was propelled out of Memphis in 1993, not as a Friend of Bill, but because of her prominence as president of the food service group. She is the first government food czar with hands-on experience supervising the lunch line.

Watkins "represents the best this administration has to offer," said Marshall Matz, counsel for the American School Food Service Association and a friend. "This is what Bill Clinton talked about when he was a candidate, bringing in committed, experienced people from the grass roots who have been out there in the real world running these programs."

Watkins is ironic, occasionally witty, and disarmingly magnanimous about her early life, but her elevation at USDA came just as decades of racial tensions within the department came to the fore. USDA is facing at least five class action or proposed class action complaints of racial and sexual discrimination and more than 1,500 individual discrimination complaints.

In this, her steely side shows. "It is unfortunate that within our agency there were clearly problems" of discrimination, she said.

Coming in and making changes, she said, "has been difficult for other individuals, but not for me."

The agency has been staffed predominantly by white men. "It has been difficult to break through the mind-set that 'We have always had these jobs, we deserve these jobs,' " she said. "It is sad that it is so embedded in the culture."

"We are trying to find the best and the brightest . . . and to have a good cross section," she said.

Running the nation's food programs, which sounds like the ultimate apple pie-and-motherhood-type job, is surprisingly contentious and political. When the Republican Congress proposed turning school food programs over to the states in 1995, the defeat was so crushing that it became known as "being school-lunched."

Even today, Congress and the administration are battling over whether to fund pilot school breakfast programs to check out whether kids actually do better in school when such programs are available. Some conservatives fear breakfast programs would be a step toward socialist-type meal programs.

And her food stamp program is also besieged from the other side of the philosophical aisle. Food stamp enrollment has been falling much faster than the poverty rate, and many charitable groups believe the government is not doing enough to make sure families are getting the food they are entitled to receive.

"So many people don't know how to access the programs. . . . We want to make it certain that people who are eligible are given applications," Watkins said. "Our goal is to ensure that people do not go hungry."


Shirley R. Watkins

Title: Undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services,

Department of Agriculture.

Age: 61.

Education: Bachelor of science in home economics, University of Arkansas; master of education in supervision, University of Memphis.

Family: Divorced, two children.

Previous jobs: Home demonstration agent, University of Arkansas Extension Service; elementary school teacher; director of nutrition, Memphis City schools; deputy assistant secretary, marketing and regulatory programs, USDA; deputy undersecretary, food, nutrition and consumer services, USDA.

Hobbies: Bridge, cooking, needlework.

On making sure that people entitled to food assistance get it: "So many people don't know how to access the programs. ... We want to make it certain that people who are eligible are given applications. Our goal is to ensure that people do not go hungry."