Interviewee: Pat Farris

Interviewer: Melba Hollingsworth

Date: January 28, 2009

Location: Archdiocese of New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana


Description: Pat Farris holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Dietetics and a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition from Louisiana State University. She has held numerous positions in the field of nutrition, first working in hospitals, and later consulting in child and adult weight management. In 1980 Pat accepted a position with the Louisiana Department of Education’s child nutrition programs, and learned what school lunch was about for the next fourteen years. Since 1994 she has been with the Archdiocese of New Orleans, where she is currently the Director of School Food Services.

Melba Hollingsworth: I am Melba Hollingsworth and I am here with….

Pat Farris: Pat Farris

MH: And Pat, would you give us a little something about yourself?

PF: I would love to. I grew up in the very small, country town in Greensburg, Louisiana. The town only had 500 people and everybody went to the same school. In fact, my mother taught Home Economics in the school and also planned the school’s lunch menus.

MH: Wow. What’s your earliest recollection of the nutrition program? Was there a school lunch or breakfast program that you participated in? And what’s your favorite meal?

PF: Well, my first recollection was from day one at school. From the first grade everyone in my school ate school lunch. My mother planned the menus so I liked the menus. And I guess my favorite menu was, believe it or not, was meatloaf and mashed potatoes and of course the school-made rolls. At Christmas, there were special times when they would bring in big boxes of whole fresh oranges and fresh apples and that was special.

MH: Tell us a little about your educational background. Where did you attend, and your degrees?

PF: I went to LSU, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and I graduated with a degree in Dietetics. And I went on and worked for a while. I worked in the clinical field in a large hospital, and then I came back and got my Master’s Degree at LSU.

MH: And what major was that?

PF: Human Nutrition.

MH: Did you do an internship?

PF: I did not.

MH: Oh, ok. How did you become a child nutritionist?

PF: I wish I could say it was something I knew from the beginning I wanted to do, but actually I was working at LSU in graduate school for Irene Gardamal and she had offered me a position to stay in residence food service, but a job had come up with the state department of education and she and I talked about it and she strongly encouraged me to take the job. And at that point well, I thought that I liked school lunch as a child, but I really didn’t know what the profession was like. So I assumed that I would work for school lunch for two years, and at two years I would have known everything, and I would be bored, and I would be ready for a new challenge. Well, that was 29 years ago and I will tell you this: not one day have I been bored in school lunch.

MH: So obviously you had some mentors. Do you recall who they were that directed you into the nutrition field?

PF: Well, of course it was my mother. My mother taught Home Economics and she was instrumental in me choosing Dietetics as a profession. And than when I was working for Irene Gardamal, she was the one who encouraged me to give school lunch a try and I’m glad I did.

MH: So will you tell us a little about your positions that you held that were involved with school nutrition?

PF: Well I have had a variety of jobs that had to do with nutrition. I worked with Council on Aging, I’ve worked in hospitals; I did a lot of consulting work; weight management for adults, weight management for children. And in 1980 I took my first job with The National School Lunch Program, and that was working for the state department of education. And that was a great opportunity because I traveled the state, and I got to go into a lot of school districts, saw some wonderful programs and saw how things were done. And after fourteen years of doing that, I really wanted to do my own operation. I wanted to run the show. I just didn’t want to go in and see what was done, and I had the opportunity to move into the Archdiocese of New Orleans as Assistant Director. And I was over personnel at the time.

MH: What year was that?

PF: That was 1994.

MH: Oh, so you came here. Who was the Director at the time?

PF: George Sanderson was the Director and he was a delight to work for; I absolutely loved it. He was a man of few words, but very effective. And in fact the interview consisted of I was going to be the people and he was going to do things, which meant I took care of personnel and he took care of purchasing, and it was a perfect balance.

MH: That was him, wasn’t it? So, is there anything unique that you have found about this state in regard to child nutrition programs?

PF: How much time do we have Melba, because Louisiana is unique in many, many respects? Louisiana had a school lunch program in 1939. In the 40’s and 50’s our Governor Long advocated free lunch for needy children.

MH: Huey Long.

PF: Right. Senator Allan Ellender was with the president when he signed the National School Lunch Act of 1946. You’ll see that in all the photographs; you’ll see Senator Ellender in those pictures. When I started in 1980, it was sort of the end of the big oil rush and prior to that there had been a lot of state funds given directly to school lunch. There was a cash reimbursement on school lunch and then it declined and then finally in the early 80’s it was totally eliminated. However, Louisiana still does provide a lot of state funds to local school boards in the way of minimum foundation funds. And those are funds that are given directly to the superintendent, which he can give all or part to the child nutrition program.

MH: Yes, I recalled that. So, that’s not been typical in all states from what I understand.

PF: No, and I think, too, that Louisiana is unique is that we have held very firm to our nutrition background and we do not allow a la carte. We are one of the very few states that do not allow a la carte. So, we believe that the reimbursable meal is the foundation of the program. And after a child has received the well-balanced, reimbursable meal, then they may purchase an extra item.

MH: Yes, that policy has helped hasn’t it?

PF: I think so.

MH: And is still in effect isn’t it?

PF: Yes, it is.

MH: So what’s a typical day like during your career? Why don’t you go back at the state first and say what a typical day was versus your day now?

PF: I’m not sure if there’s ever a typical day in anybody’s profession. A typical day with the state might have been working on training materials, might be going out to schools as an individual, or with a team to do a review of the school district, going and evaluating the whole school operation, and then meeting with the Food Service Director and the superintendent giving them our feedback. Today, again there is no such thing as a typical day. I might work with principals, superintendent, parents, kids. We might be product testing, might be testing a new recipe. The last several years have been very busy with architects and contractors and kitchen consultants, busy rebuilding eight new kitchens since the storm.

MH: You just mentioned the storm. Would you elaborate on what went on during the time of the storm?

PF: Well, picture this: August 2005, serving over 36,000 lunches every single day to 40,000 kids, 110 schools totally operational, and in an almost a blink of an eye, everything changes. Hurricane Katrina came August 29. Not only did I lose my house which was underneath 8 feet of water for three weeks, many of the schools and the neighborhoods that they serviced were also underwater. So we went from 110 schools to, overnight, probably no more than 15 schools that were operational and we were serving 5,000 lunches instead of 36,000 lunches every day. So it’s been a recovery and we are now back to 87 sites and we are up to 26,000 lunches, but we have permanently lost students that are not enrolled in our schools. They’ve left the state or they’ve left the area.

MH: My goodness. So you’re still recuperating from that?

PF: Yes, yes.

MH: So, obviously that must have been one of the biggest challenges you ever faced?

PF: It was a huge challenge. I can remember standing in my rented apartment in Baton Rouge, which is 70 miles from where I used to live, and I was on the telephone literally calling hundreds of employees because they had been scattered throughout the country. And what we wanted to know was No. 1, are you okay? Did you survive? Find out where they were and get a mailing address so we could mail them a paycheck, and also let them know they were still covered with health insurance. Then secondary ask them, when do you think you can come back because we are getting schools open and we want you to come back and go to work.

MH: So what was your response? What was their response?

PF: Everything you can imagine. Some said I want to come back as soon as I can. Three years later, we still have people that are coming back – it’s taking them that long to get their house in order and return to Louisiana. Some, of course, moved and were settled in a new area and stayed.

MH: So, it was hard to get labor obviously.

PF: It was extremely hard for everybody in the whole industry to get labor after the storm. Restaurants, fine food, fast food, everyone had a challenge. FEMA was in here and they were basically hiring anybody that they could as well to work. So it was a tough market. And we couldn’t get food. If you can imagine that two of my main providers of food, the vendors, were flooded as well. One totally relocated to Baton Rouge, so we couldn’t get food from our traditional – getting food was quite a challenge because we couldn’t get food from our traditional vendors and they couldn’t make as many individual deliveries to individual schools because they didn’t have a staff as well. Their trucks were flooded, sometimes their trucks were stolen. So what our ladies did was just amazing to me. The trucks would come; they would meet in a grocery store parking lot maybe, and the ladies would all come and drive their vehicles, and they would get the food and take it back to serve the kids. Whatever we could obtain from the vendors, that’s what we served.

MH: So they still had a cooperative spirit sounds like?

PF: Unbelievably. The work ethic was unbelievable after the storm, the people were so dedicated. Our people came in – some who really didn’t have homes, they were living in FEMA trailers, or living with relatives – they came in to schools that had been flooded and they were helping to clean out – they came in to schools where maybe they weren’t flooded, but they’d lost power for three weeks. So you can imagine what that was to go in and clean that up, and they went in school after school, never complained, just did it for the kids. They were there for the kids.

MH: Truly a remarkable feat for those folks. So, what changes have you seen in child nutrition profession over the years?

PF: Huge changes. Lots of change, of course, in the menu, in the accountability, everything now is computer – and when you asked me about when I went to school, when I went to school we stood in line, everybody ate, and everybody paid 20 cents. And there were two students with a cigar box, and that was our accountability. Now with my students, they come in, we finger scan them, that’s how we take the lunch count, so there’s a lot of computerization and automation. We’ve change the menu a lot. I see a lot more processed foods and fewer from scratch items. In the Archdiocese we still bake every day. We make homemade whole-wheat rolls, we still make gumbo from scratch – and that’s one of our most popular items – but some of the things I have to laugh, because what’s old is new again. Back in the olden days when we had food garbage, we would collect it and in the country you would give it to somebody who would feed it to their dogs. Well I just got back from the 2009 industry seminar and the most progressive school district now is going green, and they’re collecting their food garbage, very high tech, goes on a special truck, and it is treated and heated to kill the bacteria, and now it’s fed to farm animals. So we’ve come full circle with that.

MH: Wow, that’s a good thing.

PF: I think so.

MH: So what do you think has been your most significant contribution to the field?

PF: I would have to say helping the city of New Orleans after the storm, because we were putting schools in operation in neighborhoods before there were grocery stores and before people were actually living in the neighborhoods. The superintendent that served right after the storm, Father William Maytry, had a philosophy: build it and they will come. He said, “We’re not going to wait for the neighborhood to come back and then put the school, we’re going to put the school first and the neighborhood would follow.” I think that proved true in many cases, so I feel very good about that. And of course getting 450 people back to work and on the payroll was very rewarding for all of us.

MH: Well, you all had to relocate your offices. I remember visiting you in Baton Rouge.

PF: Right.

MH: But when did you move back to New Orleans?

PF: We did not come back to our office until March, so we were out from August until March. We had field offices. The Assistant Director, Pat Adams, was down in Houma. I was in Baton Rouge. The chief accountant was in Kenner. So we had three field offices operating. We operated on walkie-talkies, because cell phones really didn’t work, the cell towers were down. Communication was a challenge. And then for a short time we moved back to New Orleans, and we were actually in a nursing home in one big room, and we had one big table. That was our office for about two months probably.

MH: How long have you been in this building? From after the storm?

PF: Since March 2006. We came back here and it was great to be home.

MH: Do you have any more memorable stories? You already mentioned some, but I would like to know any more that come to mind.

PF: Well, I guess some of the things that make me – some of the most memorable stories I would have would be I was lucky enough to work for Nell Brouette, and Nell Brouette was really quite an institution. It’s the simple things, nothing really special or fancy things that I remember, but Nell taught us how to debone a whole turkey, and in today’s world nobody in the kitchen knows what a whole turkey looks like… deboning a whole turkey with Nell, going to state conferences and visiting with other people and having a good time, and just going to the schools and watching the kids’ faces and having fun with them.

MH: Do you think your schooling prepared you at all for the child nutrition program?

PF: My formal education gave me the basics of nutrition and management. And thank goodness I had some accounting classes in there, and some business, but it really wasn’t until I came into the workforce. And you know what probably was the biggest impact was the way I was raised, the way that my parents raised me, my strong work ethic, and to do the right thing. So I got in and I was lucky enough to find a profession I loved. If you don’t love your job, then you’re not going to be good at it no matter how great your formal training is. So I got the basics from the formal education, but until I got in and really worked, and worked with people because after 29 years in this business when I go to one of my schools, if I can’t learn something new that day from one of my employees then I’m not paying attention. So every day we should learn something new.

MH: Would you give some advice to a person who is just coming into this field today?

PF: Yes.

MH: What advice would you give?

PF: Well, we had several interns, dietetic interns, come through our program and I tell them that they’ve chosen a great profession and to please consider school lunch, because school lunch – unlike some of the other jobs – there are a hundred things you could do every day. There may be one thing that you can’t do because you don’t have the budget or it’s a requirement that you can’t do something, but there are a hundred things that could be done. So I would tell people to come in, keep an open mind, love what you do, and be creative.

MH: So where do you get your interns from, from what university?

PF: Right now we’re getting them from both Tulane and Touro. I am sad to say that Touro is ending their internship program. In fact, our new dietician, Jenny Ridings, was an intern just a couple of years ago. She’s very energetic and has all the new ideas. She’s implementing our yogurt parfaits; in our girls’ schools we are going to have cheese and fruit and cracker plates. You know they don’t necessarily want the big heavy lunches, they want something light they can snack on, but that meets the nutritional requirements.

MH: Meets the reimbursable meal. Anything else you can think of? We would love to hear anything else you want to say.

PF: I’m just glad ya’ll are doing this history because history sometimes gets lost, and there’s so many records – people are throwing out all the records after 6 years.

MH: If there’s anything left here, my goodness. I guess you lost a lot.

PF: Well, we did lose a lot, but we were very lucky that this office is on the third floor so that we didn’t have any flooding and we only had a couple of windows go out, so we didn’t really lose… pictures. In fact I have pictures to share with you, and books and things like that.

MH: Perfect. Well thank you, Pat Farris.

PF: My pleasure.

MH: It’s always a pleasure. We have worked for many years together, haven’t we? Thanks.