Dora Rivas: The Legacy Continues in Texas School Meals

Dora Rivas, winner of the Silver Plate-Schools and fsd until recently for the Browsnville (Texas) Independent School District (BISD), has significantly impacted school foodservice at the local, state and national levels.

At A Glance: Dora Rivas
• Foodservice Director
• Dallas Independent Schools
•  In foodservice since 1978 (school market)
•  Daily Meal Volume: Breakfast: 28,000; lunch: 38,000
•  Facilities: 50 feeding sites
•  Foodservice Budget: $70 million annually
•  Foodservice Sales: $1 million in a la carte and staff meals
•  Staff she oversees: 595
•  Her Wish List: Rivas recently left the Brownsville (Texas) Independent School District and hopes staff and managers there will pursue the Quality Assurance Program of Excellence she set up prior to leaving. Rivas, fsd until recently for the Browsnville (Texas) Independent School District (BISD), has significantly impacted school foodservice at the local, state and national levels. Under her leadership (she served as director from 1985 to 2005), BISD—with an enrollment close to 50,000—was one of the first large districts in the nation to champion and implement the Special Assistance Provision Program (1992-’93). Her efforts to improve and promote Provision II removed the social stigma of receiving free lunch.

In fact, BISD received a USDA Best Practice Award for innovative practices in strategic planning and creative menu planning, and Rivas herself received a USDA Best Practice Award for piloting the Breakfast in a Bag Program that numerous districts across the country have adopted. By implementing this program BISD increased its breakfast participation by 50% and now serves 3.1 million more breakfasts annually.

Each school day, BISD serves approximately 28,000 breakfasts, 38,000 lunches plus adult meals and after school snacks prepared on site for 32 elementary, 10 middle and five high schools, a juvenile detention center plus a campus for pregnant teens that includes day care and baby feeding.

Implementation of Provision II actually resulted in increased student participation of 95% in elementary schools, 84% in middle and 72% in high schools. This generated $10 million in additional funds that were used to renovate more than 37 schools in the district. Over the past decade, Rivas has succeeded in increasing productivity by 43% (from 14 to 20 meals per labor hour), something she attributes to:

  • Increased management staff training in the areas of work scheduling and task simplification.
  • Greater use of convenience foods.
  • Use of labor saving equipment like food processors and power-washers.

These efforts resulted in an annual labor budget savings of $1.3 million. A recent audit by the State Comptroller sited the foodservice department as a model to be used for the rest of the state of Texas and listed it in the Comptroller’s Web site in “A+ Ideas for Managing Schools.”

The Big D challenge: Rivas recently brought her substantial expertise to the Dallas Independent Schools where, as division manager of food and child nutrition services, she oversees a foodservice budget of about $70 million. The district serves 35,000 breakfasts and 120,000 lunches to students which is almost four times more than BISD.

“When I saw that Dallas had been without a director for a year I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for growth and that I would have a lot to contribute,” Rivas explains. “I’d be able to offer some of my experiences developed in Brownsville and share some of our successes. At this stage of my career I wasn’t ready to hang it up yet. I want to continue to grow and share knowledge I had gained.”

Rivas asserts that she doesn’t believe in taking a cookie-cutter approach to program implementation but, on balance, sees “a lot of new things that will be challenges for us all.” At the top of the list is the need to address the nationwide childhood obesity crisis within the time frame the USDA has decreed (i.e., May 2006) for developing a wellness policy. A close second on her short but challenging list of imperatives is the implementation of a food safety plan. Both are part of the mandate included in the 2004 reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Program (CNP).

By design: For almost nine years, Rivas had been involved with architects, working on plans to build a new facility in Brownsville. Although the plan was abandoned in favor of renovation, she recently visited many facilities in order to gather best-in-class ideas. Now, in Dallas, she’s overseeing the construction of a new facility to include a central kitchen—with some cook-chill production, bakery, salad and deli items—as well as a warehouse.

“Dallas has been leasing warehouse space for some time, but a recent bond election included funds for this new facility—so the experience I bring with me will make my job easier,” she says.

Prior to leaving Brownsville, Rivas redesigned the department’s manager training program. “This utilizes the Food Service Management Institute Competencies for School Nutrition Managers developed by the University of Mississippi,” she says. “Our program needed to be updated and I had just started to work with staff there. The other project is a five star recognition program. I gave the managers criteria to work on in order to achieve five star status. This is a Quality Assurance Program of Excellence encompassing five categories of standards in kitchen organization, food quality and food sanitation, productivity and marketing—and customer service is the hardest. I developed this right before I left so when I’m gone they can continue to pursue excellence with the supervisors monitoring against these standards.”

Nutrition at the heart: Rivas, the first Hispanic elected president of the Texas School Food Service Association, is a champion of the role of dietitians in school foodservice. (Prior to becoming an RD, she earned her MS degree from the Department of Restaurant and Institutional Management at Kansas State University.) Efforts to improve school nutrition have been central to her career throughout the years.

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