Interviewee: Dora Rivas

Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce

Date: November 8, 2018

Location: Dallas, Texas

Description: Dora Rivas is past-president of the School Nutrition Association, retired food service director of the Dallas Independent School District, and former food service director of the Brownsville School District. 

JB: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is November 8, 2018. I’m here in Dallas, Texas, at the home of Mrs. Dora Rivas. Good morning Dora, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

DR: Good morning. Thanks for coming to visit me here in Dallas.

JB: Happy to do it. Could we begin today by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?

DR: Sure. I grew up in a small, rural community around Los Fresnos, Texas. I was born and raised at San Jose Ranch. My family were farmers and my dad did cotton, grew grain, corn, all kinds of vegetables. And we had a dairy farm and my mother made homemade queso fresco. And they would sell it to local meat markets and little grocery stores in the area.

JB: That’s a type of cheese, right?

DR: That’s correct. And so I grew up with a real hardworking family with a great work ethic, great parents that instilled a lot of great values. And so I’ve always been very grateful for being raided by great parents in a small community where we were able to grow up with a good family support system.

JB: What was your population, roughly?

DR: Oh goodness, I think our little town of Los Fresnos, growing up I don’t think there were more than 2,000 people. Everybody knew everyone, so if you got in trouble everybody knew about it. Fortunately, I behaved and I didn’t get in trouble much. Otherwise it quickly got to my parents.

JB: Is that where you started school then?

DR: Yes. I went to school in Los Fresnos, and I loved the school lunch ladies. They were people that my family knew. My uncle was the baker, and one of my aunts was one of the cooks. And one of our dad’s cousins was the cashier and manager there. And so when I went to eat in the cafeteria it’s like they knew me by name – they knew all of the kids by name. And at that time, you know, everything was made from scratch. And so I loved those homemade rolls.

JB: I think that was everyone’s favorite.

DR: Oh yes. We really enjoyed it, and I have very fond memories of our school meal program there in Los Fresnos.

JB: Do you remember some of your favorite menu items?

DR: You know, there were a lot of menu items that probably you don’t see on the menu as much anymore, but one of my favorites was Frito pie. We had meatloaf. One of my favorites was tuna sandwich and they always made like a tomato soup, or a vegetable soup to go with it. And enchiladas were always homemade. And you said one of my favorites, but I ate all of my school lunches every day, and I always had an empty plate. All the way up to – if we didn’t have enough time, I was drinking the last bit of my chocolate milk before we emptied our trays.  

JB: Did you go to high school there too?

DR: Yes.

JB: And then how did you pursue your education after that?

DR: At high school I had a wonderful home economics program. What I didn’t mention to you, is in growing up, is that my dad was a diabetic. And so I had very early interests in nutrition. And when I was taking my home economics classes our home economics teachers, Miss McDonald and Mrs. Young, taught up about the basics of nutrition and talked about what a dietitian did, and always talked about the variety of foods. And so with my dad being a diabetic I was very interested in how food affected the body. So from high school that kind of led me to the direction of studying nutrition in college.

JB: Ok. And where did you go to college?

DR: I went to college at Texas A & I University. Now it’s Texas A & M. It’s in Kingsville, Texas. And so that was – being a girl, where very few women or young girls left home in our community to go to college, I went to the closest college that had a nutrition program. And so that program had a dietetics program. There were only six of us in that class, along with a lot of other students that were home economics students, but when I went through there were only six students that were taking nutrition and dietetics.

JB: And that’s what your degree was in, nutrition and dietetics?

DR: Correct. I started out I was going to be a home economics teacher, even though I was very interested in nutrition. My thinking at the time, because I came from a very small community, that there were not going to be very many jobs. The expectation of my family was that I was always going to come back home, and so looking at the job market I was thinking ‘There’s not going to be any jobs for dietitians.’ And there were three hospitals there, and the dietitians there, there was only one, and I figured, ‘Goodness, I’ve going to be done in four years and they’re still going to be there. I’m not going to have a job.’ And so when I went to college I was going to get a degree in home economics, because I had also had an interest in food preparation and in teaching. And so when I shared that with my nutrition professors they said, “Oh, but you live in a community that is very low income. There’s a high incidence of chronic illness – diabetes, hypertension, obesity – don’t worry about going into that profession. You’ll find a job. Don’t worry.” So when I went to college I switched my major and went into nutrition at that point. And so after getting out of college I went to go work at a migrant health clinic. And there was a dietitian there, her name was Sister Ramona, and my instincts initially were true, and that there weren’t going to be any jobs when I got my degree, and I couldn’t find one. And so my dad said, “Well, go volunteer.” And he said, “At least get experience.” And so he found through friends that there was a dietitian working at a migrant health clinic, and so I went and I talked to her about helping her and volunteering, and I would stay with her when she would teach classes to the community about how to make the Mexican food, like the Spanish rice or the enchiladas, that were considered high in fat, high in sodium, how to make them healthier. And so I was very interested in that, with my dad having been a diabetic, at home I would do this type of cooking practices, with my dad being the guinea pig on food that was using oils instead of lard, and reducing sodium, and then switching out the sugars with apple sauce, or some of the sweeteners that were available. And so if it worked with my dad I knew that maybe some of these recipe modifications would help the community patients that she was working with. So we did different demonstrations for them and she saw that even though I wasn’t getting paid I worked the same hours that she did and even volunteered to stay later, so she applied for a grant, and then I ended up with a job at the migrant health clinic. So my dad’s advice very early was very helpful. And so from there she introduced me to other dietitians that worked at hospitals, and then I was recruited to join the Valley Baptist Medical Center that was starting a dietetic internship. I had my degree in dietetics but I hadn’t done an internship. And my goal was always to be a registered dietitian. And so they were able to plan a program for me. I was their first dietetic intern, and so completed the program there and was able to take the dietetic exam and become a registered dietitian, and they recruited me to stay and work there at the hospital. I worked there for about five years. 

JB: Well, so how did you get involved in the child nutrition profession?

DR: Well I always felt that my ultimate goal was working with schools, ever since I was even in high school. The dietitian that I was working with there at the hospital had worked in school food service, Gretchen Haggerty, and she later married and became Gretchen Rocks, but she, in Oklahoma, had worked in schools, and always told me that that was a market that really in South Texas was nonexistent. But when I was doing my internship in college I requested that one of my management experiences be in a school, because somehow I just really had that interest. I always felt that if you could teach children how to eat healthier, that we might be able to prevent some of the chronic illnesses that happen when you become an adult, with diabetes and hypertension, and again having seen it and having had that family experience. So when an opportunity came up in Brownsville – I knew there was going to be a vacancy there – I applied, and I was not hired as the director. They were looking for a dietitian. And so I started out in Brownsville working as the dietitian for the school food service department.

JB: How big was Brownsville? How many schools did they have?

DR: At the time that I went to go work with Brownsville there were only 16 schools. When I left there were over 50, and so I kind of grew up with the program. I started in 1977, and so at that time there were 16. I did the menu planning. And a year and a half later the assistant director, who did the procurement and more of the management aspects of the program, left to take another position, and then I applied and I became the assistant director. And so I, having worked as the administrative dietitian in a hospital, really enjoyed the management aspect of it. I loved the nutrition aspects of it, but I also really enjoyed the management aspects of it. And I then eight years later became the director. But before I became the director, I knew that my background was general dietetics, and in a school environment the administration, principals, they all have master’s degrees. And I always felt that I wanted to get a master’s degree, and I wanted to get it in management, because I really felt like that would be a good balance. If my goal was ultimately to become a director, I needed to strengthen my management and financial management skills.  So I went on, and my mentor at the time, the dietitian that was at Valley Baptist, suggested that I work with Kansas State University, who has been a leader in school nutrition and nutrition education at that time; it was already recognized, and Dr. Aileen Vaden was one of the major professors there. And so at one of the dietetic conferences I set up an appointment to meet with her and she was very gracious and said, “You know if you come to Kansas for the summers, and we work on some correspondence courses – at that time they didn’t have online classes – so for me it had to be correspondence classes, so we were able to work out a plan, and so I worked on my master’s and completed my master’s, while at the same time I had two little ones, and my husband was a teacher/coach. And so we got in the car one summer, started out the summer heading toward Kansas State University. It took me two summers, but I was able to complete. My husband took care of the kids and I worked night and day to get that master’s done.

JB: Good for you, good for you. So then how long were you director there in Brownsville?

DR: I was a director for close to 20 years. I got there after a year and a half and became assistant director, and was there eight years before I became director. And so I left Brownsville in 2005; January 2005 I was offered a job with the Dallas Independent School District as their executive director. And so having been raised in a rural community, small town, and Brownsville is mid-sized, over 40 schools is considered a major city, but definitely not the size of Dallas ISD, with over 200 schools. So I interviewed, got the job, and driving in, my husband to this day still remembers driving in to the big city, and as we were driving in just looking at the Dallas skyline and just being overwhelmed. He had already retired at that time for the first time, and we thought ok. There’s a saying, ‘The will of God will not take you where the grace of God will not keep you.’ And it was one of our warehouse supervisors that gave me a little plaque that had that phrase. And that saying has really sustained me. Whenever I think of different challenges that come up I think of that saying.  And so there were a lot of changes getting started at Dallas ISD, of course larger population, a lot more diverse than Brownsville. And the poverty level was different; not as high as the free and reduced was, when I first arrived in Dallas it wasn’t as high. And just the different organizational structures – there was a lot of learning and adjusting, and when you go into a new school district you really need some mentors along the way. And one of my mentors that really, from the point that I was even in Brownsville, to going to Dallas, was a past SNA president, Gertrude Applebaum. And she would always give me advice, and one of the pieces of advice she gave me is to take your first year to observe, before you make any changes. And so that’s what I did. I found that the previous really had set up a good structure with technology, and so where I needed to take it was to study where the needs were, and my biggest change was really doing more to promote nutrition education and training. And so that was one of the first things I started to work on when I got there to Dallas.  

JB: What’s a typical day like, or is there such a thing as a director, either in Brownsville or Dallas?

DR: You know, that is what I love about the job of the school nutrition director, is that there is no typical day. And there are so many aspects. It’s like running a business. And so you work with personnel, you work with nutrition and nutrition education, which was my passion. But I have a creative side, and I loved, growing up, in my home economics classes I loved to sew, I loved the marketing aspect, and décor, but I also am very organized and structured. And so I really enjoy organizing and setting up systems. My master’s degree was developing assessment tools using a systems approach. And so the school nutrition, being a business, uses every one of those things that I enjoy, from the organization management to nutrition to marketing to purchasing furniture and improving the image of the dining room ambiance where the students come to eat, to where they come to an inviting cafeteria, the customer service aspect of it. And so all day long you’re working with bits and pieces of all of these different systems that have to happen in order to have a good program. In Brownsville we had less staff, so I got involved when – I had 16 schools. I had to do all of that. As a small district you do, and wear all those hats. And so having had the background of being the person that actually executed all of those things and had intimate experience with all of those things, when I went to Dallas and I had the staff to do it, and I could hire staff to do it, then I enjoyed working and teaching people all of the different aspects of it, on a bigger scale, but I had the staff to work with, and so I still could keep my hands in all of the pots, and still be able to find it very rewarding and fulfilling, and never bored, because there was always something to do. The thing that I think was added as a skill in a larger system, it existed in a small system as well, was just the politics of getting all of the work done. And because in a larger community, with all of the different cultures and diversity in a larger city, I had to learn the politics of working with all of the different advocacy groups and the different organizations that didn’t always understand the program. And so a big part of it was educating those different groups and community groups to where – I always felt that instead of seeing them as adversaries, I was always able to work with them and educate them and then get them on the side of improving the program. Each place where I worked I was able to feel like I left it better than when I arrived.

JB: And how long were you in Dallas?

DR: I was only going to be in Dallas three years, and I got there in 2004 and I left in 2015, so that’s about 11 years. It was very rewarding in that when I got to Dallas we only had 20 percent breakfast participation, and when I left we had Breakfast in the Classroom serving all of the children across the district free breakfast. When I arrived in Dallas we had a free and reduced program and we had about a 70 percent free and reduced population. We really felt like there were a lot more students out there that needed the program, but maybe were not aware or for some reason or the other did not apply. So we were able to work on developing online applications, being able to offer more support to families to apply for benefits, and ultimately got it to where we had a high enough percent of free and reduced to where we were able to move toward Provision 2, and then ultimately Community Eligibility Program, where all of the children in Dallas were able to receive meals at no cost. I had done that in Brownsville, and was one of the first large districts that had Provision 2, where all of the children ate free. And what that program is is that when you have a high enough percentage of free and reduced it almost costs you more money to maintain the infrastructure of filling out applications, all of this paperwork going into file drawers and the cost of keeping all of that up, whereas if you serve all of the children free you eliminate having to have families fill out free and reduced lunch applications, and so a great benefit to the students. They don’t pay for books, they don’t pay for bus transportation, and so regardless of a child’s ability to pay, children come so school hungry. Many of them don’t eat in the morning because they are not hungry when they get up in the morning. They’re rushing to get to school. So by midmorning they’ve lost their focus, and they’re tired, and they get ‘hangry.’ And so when they start out having breakfast in the morning, it’s just key to their learning. And so I feel very good that at the point that having gone in feeling very intimidated by the size of Dallas ISD and having come from a small, rural community, that I was able to really impact the lives of all of the students there. So that has been very rewarding.

JB: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the child nutrition profession over the years?

DR: The biggest change I think is just the way the family structure has changed, in that women stayed home and took care of their children and prepared meals for them, and so as we’ve moved to a need for both men and women to work to support their families, there has been less of a workforce in the school cafeterias that know how to cook, which then has led to the industry offering more pre-prepared, processed foods. So where when I went to school we were eating fresh baked food, homemade rolls, more of the food is coming in already prepared. And so in 2010, when I was the School Nutrition Association president, there was a big movement and need to act on reducing childhood obesity. Huge change, because more children are spending time in front of the TV, they’re playing video games, they’re not as physically active. That has led more toward the obesity problem. So in 2010 we really had to take a look at just educating children and families about eating healthier and getting more active. And of course the target of all this was the school meal program. Which the school meals were never the problem, but the perception was that our school meals were not healthy meals. And so I think that at that time the microscope or the focus on school meal programs came on ‘What can we do?’ – wanted to change the image of the program. And then where opportunity exists ‘Where can we make our meals healthier?’ As a dietitian I had gone to work in Brownsville with that focus in mind already 20 years before that. In Brownsville I already was serving whole wheat bread, reduced sugar, reduced salt, and so many school districts across the country were already doing that. But here in 2010 the perception was that we had not made those changes. So a big part of our job was educating communities that we did have healthy foods. I think the recognition through the Healthier US School Challenge, where school districts were recognized for those changes brought to light the fact that there were many school districts across the country that were meeting the standards for healthier meals, and for promoting nutrition education, school gardens, activities in the cafeteria, and partnering with the community and school administration, and having a coordinated approach toward school meals to where everyone was trying to educate the children on trying new foods, tasting foods that maybe they didn’t eat at home. And so this whole wave started in 2010 with the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative, and then with the Chefs Move to School, trying to prepare foods that were healthier. But we had lost a lot of workforce that no longer could cook, and that lacked culinary skills, so that we then had to refocus our attention on teaching those skills. If we were going to do foods that had healthier ingredients, less salt, less sugar, then we had two things that had to happen. Either industry responded by creating healthier foods that we could purchase, or we also moved toward preparing foods using fresher ingredients, and all at the same time preparing foods that students would eat. And so that has probably been the biggest change. The Institute of Child Nutrition has provided a lot of great resources that made it a lot easier for food service directors not to have to develop all of these materials on their own. They’re able to go and get resources, and download resources where they can do training, or also get training directly to come to the school to do training locally. But I think there’ve been a lot of improvements as a result of that movement, and I think children are healthier as a result. Maybe we’re not there yet, but I think there is a movement. I think with the education students are more aware of the choices available to them because more choices are being offered to them on the school line. And so the big part of education is getting the student to make those choices that are better for them, because the options are there. But if you put a hamburger out there, and you put a lemon/garlic chicken it’s a tough choice, and so you have to make that hamburger just as healthy, and make that lemon chicken so juicy and tasty, and give them samples, to where both of them become an option, whereas before the students would say, “It’s a no brainer. Hamburger’s what I’m picking up today.” But now I think students are more open to trying new foods and cafeteria staff are also doing a better job of making those options by offering taste tests, sampler trays, and going out, and then as well as the school gardens, showing the students how food grows. I remember a cafeteria classroom where a science teacher told me that when she was talking to the students about the school garden and she asked them, “Where does your French fry come from?” they had no idea that it came from this potato. And so when they grew the potato in the garden, and then had an activity where they actually prepared some of the foods, then the lightbulb would go on. And so it’s been fun watching the changes.

JB: So what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced? It sounds like some of these changes were challenges, but were there others?

DR: My most recent experience, and I retired from Dallas ISD and now I work with the Army and Air Force Exchange, and I think we often forget that we also have American children that are being served school meals under the National School Lunch Program on military bases. And so my most recent challenge is planning meals and serving healthy meals to children overseas, in Europe and Asia. And so the biggest challenge is to provide meals to those children that they will enjoy, with the logistical challenge of getting them across the waters to distribution centers and teach the employees, some American, some local nationals, who may have never seen, like in the Pacific, they might not have ever seen Spanish rice, or they may have never seen a taco the way we would see it, because they might be more familiar with adobo chicken. And even though these are American children in Europe or in the Pacific, they are immersed in the local culture. And when I first started my thought was ‘Oh, they’re American kids. They all like hamburgers and pizza, similar menu to what we have in the States.’ So my challenge is still understanding that we have to talk to our customer, and to the students, no matter where they are, and not to assume that these are the foods, or the way that it’s cooked, that they will automatically like. And so in my visiting schools overseas I’ve learned to kind of make adaptations to the different regions with menus that are going to meet their traditional American style food, along with incorporating the local flavors that they’ve learned to enjoy during their assignments there overseas. So that has been more challenging, but really I don’t see it as a challenge. I just see it as a learning opportunity in adapting and trying to meet the needs of the kids, which is not for me a challenge. It’s fun.

JB: I’m going to put you on the spot. What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the field of child nutrition?

DR: For me I think it’s just expanding access to breakfast and expanding access to lunches in all of where I have worked, both in Brownsville, and I’m referring to the school nutrition setting, both in Brownsville and in Dallas. It was the first program where we offered Breakfast in the Classroom close to thirty years ago, and we started Breakfast in the Classroom at one school, and then that concept of Breakfast in the Classroom is now all over the country and has expanded access to breakfast to more children. So I’m very proud of that. I’m also very proud of the fact that also while I was in Brownsville we were one of the first large districts to add Provision 2, and then take advantage of being able to offer free meals to all students. There were about four other school districts that were under pilot universal meals, but Brownsville was the first one that did it under the Provision 2 concept. After that all of the South Texas schools and many of the low-income schools across the country started going with Provision 2, which then led to Community Eligibility. And so that created a wave again to expand access to free meals to all children. And being able to expand healthy meals that are going to benefit children for me I think has been the most rewarding.

JB: As you think back over your career do any memorable stories come to mind of either special children you’ve served our people you’ve worked with over the years?

DR: I can’t leave without really emphasizing the role of mentors that I have had that have really helped give me confidence to do the work that I have done over the years. I’ve had so many past presidents that you’ve interviewed that exist in the Archives of the Institute. And these women who preceded me like Gene White, like Josephine Martin, like Jane Wynn, and I could go on and on. One that I have worked most closely with is Gertrude Applebaum, because she was from South Texas. And she mentored me ever since I started working in 1977, and we still talk on the phone even up to this past week. And so if someone is starting out as a food service director, or going into the profession, I just would advise them to seek a mentor, someone that shares the passion, someone that you can call and not be afraid to say, “I don’t know how to do this. Can you share with me how you solved this problem?”  I think we think we’ve got to know it all. And nobody has a monopoly on information. And so I think for me the mentors that I’ve had throughout the years have made the most difference. One experience I had, and it kind of goes to paying it back or forward, in my travels overseas I had met one of our cafeteria supervisors over there, and a couple of years ago we attended the school nutrition conference, and so we brought the supervisors from overseas. She happened to be from Germany, and we came to meet there in one of the sessions, and I remember one of the area supervisors that I worked with in Dallas, and she had told me, “I was one of those Army brats that ate school lunches in Germany.” They were both there and I said, “This is Sonya Gage. She’s from Germany. And what base was your dad stationed at?” And she mentioned the school. I think it was also Ramstein. And then when they both met they realized that she had been her cafeteria manager when she was a child there.

JB: It’s a small world.

DR: Yea. And now she was now serving other kids and had always remembered her experience there and what a nice supervisor she had so she sought to work, in Dallas where I worked she was a dietetic intern, so I was helping her become a professional. And she completed her school nutrition specialist, but now here it just made like full circle. Now she was going to be the one to nurture and serve future children. So it is a small world, and we never know whose lives we touch, but we hope that those lives that we do touch will be inspired by someone who helped them so that then they can go in turn and help others.

JB: You mentioned seeking out mentors. Is there any other advice that you would have for someone that was considering child nutrition as a profession today?

DR: You know, it is one of the best professions. What can I say? It is one that’s a rewarding profession. It is one that there’s never a dull moment. It uses every scope of your talents. And then if you like children, if you’re service oriented, if you like to develop people, and you’re rewarded by teaching, then I think this is a profession that never will feel like work. I tell my kids, as a mother, find something that you love to do, because then you never feel like you’ve worked a day in your life. And what a blessing it is for many of us who are in the profession to be able to say, “Gosh, I’ve worked over 40 years, but I’ve never worked, because it’s all been fun.”

JB: Is there anything else I neglected to bring up, anything else you’d like to add?

DR: Let’s see. You’ve been very comprehensive in your questions and we’ve talked about the importance of mentoring – can’t say enough about finding someone that you trust, that you don’t mind sharing your vulnerabilities. And that you need to be able to humble yourself and be able to accept the fact that you’re not an expert of everything and that you need to solicit help of others that are more experienced. I always hung out with older people, and I’m glad I did, because I found I always learned a lot. Now I hang out with younger people so they can teach me how to use all the technology. But I think that might be something that is a lesson learned, is that you should not limit your sources to only people that are like you. That you need to expand your ability to learn from the young, from the old, from the customers you serve, from people that don’t agree with you, people that agree with you, and then formulate the best from all of them.

JB: Well thank you so much for taking the time for me today.

DR: Well thank you for listening. With you coming I thought, “Gosh, I should spend more time preparing for the questions” and I didn’t but I thought to myself, when you ask the question if it’s about my life I should know it, right?

JB: Well, thank you again.

DR: You’re welcome.