Lora Gilbert: Changing Directions

By Becky Schilling, Editor

Lora Gilbert, Silver Plate, Orange County Public SchoolsAt a Glance: Lora Gilbert
•Senior Director of Food & Nutrition Services
•Orange County Public Schools, Orlando, Fla.
•Years in foodservice: 23
•Years at Orange County: Eight
•Meals per day: 149,444
•Foodservice employees: 1,406 FTEs

Lora Gilbert, senior director of food & nutrition services for 172,000-student Orange Country Public Schools, is relatively new to school nutrition. In her first position in a school district, Gilbert has made astonishing progress. Participation has dramatically increased, especially at the high school level, the department has made an $18 million turnaround and student input has become an integral part of the department’s decision-making process. Not bad for a newbie.

Back to school: Gilbert may be new to school nutrition, but she’s been in foodservice for 23 years. While working on her master’s degree at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Gilbert was part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture study to analyze the nutrient content in school meals. For the study, Gilbert and her colleagues determined the body mass index of students and interviewed school nutrition directors. Gilbert also worked on child nutrition projects while nutrition director/corporate nutritionist with Schwan’s Food Service between 1991 and 2001, where she was in charge of nutrition labeling.

“I really got interested in school foodservice,” Gilbert says about her work with Schwan’s. “They let me start a department, called the Better For You Department, and we did product development and consumer research. Part of my work with Schwan’s took two school districts and put them on new menus. We had to research the nutrient information [of the new menus], build our database and put in the system of recipes and menus so that all the recipes were standardized. We wanted to do research to see what the new menus would do or what kind of products were needed for new menus.”

Lora Gilbert, Silver Plate, Orange Country Public Schools, Chefs Move to SchoolsWhen Gilbert moved to Florida in 2002, she applied for several jobs, including her current position. While continuing with the interview process for Orange County, Gilbert worked for a year at a local hospital. “I think healthcare can be so routine,” Gilbert says. “In a big district like this there is so much diversity and so much that you can do. It doesn’t rely on one person; there is a whole team. In healthcare it was all reliant on me. I was more of a case manager because I would tell the patients when they needed to come in to get their blood checked and the doctors would sign the orders for me. It was a very good job. I loved it, but it’s just a lot of pressure on one person—not that there isn’t pressure now.”

In 2003, Gilbert was hired at OCPS. She says the biggest surprise she’s had since working in the schools was the amount of time it takes to make changes. “I’d worked with smaller groups and getting people on board was not such an issue,” she says. “Here, we have to plan change very carefully. A big part of that is communication. I’ve taken a lot of seminars on how you speak to large groups. We have 1,600 employees and every single one of them is the front line to our customer, so I really have to plan with every single person in mind the changes that are needed, and I have to communicate those very carefully so that they are understood. Nothing is done on a whim.”

Lora Gilbert, Silver Plate, Orange Country Public Schools, annual food fairTeam building: The program Gilbert inherited in 2003 was $7 million in the red. “I think the biggest thing in Orange County was that we were not recognizing that this is all about the kids,” Gilbert says about the program in 2003. “I think one of the biggest challenges in school foodservice is that you have a captive market, so it’s very easy to forget that you’ve got to provide customer service. That’s really been our emphasis. A lot of my managers are from the retail world, so they get it. Even our managers who have been in school foodservice for 30 years are very dedicated to serving our customers. If they see that we are not reaching 20 kids who qualify for free meals, they are going to go out and find them and find out why.”

Gilbert created a management team with varying backgrounds, including Disney, Universal, a long-term care facility and a pharmaceutical company. “I look for really smart people,” she says. “I look for what they’ve done in the past and I can teach them school foodservice. They have developed a real passion for school foodservice. I don’t think any of them would go back to their other foodservice jobs. This is where their hearts are now.”

Lora Gilbert, Silver Plate, Orange Country Public Schools, dining teamStudent voices: Once the team was in place, Gilbert and her staff focused on customer service, with the goal that once the students felt they were being heard and appreciated, participation would increase. “One of the very first things I did was I said nothing goes on the menu unless the kids love it,” Gilbert says. “We’re not the teachers anymore of, ‘if you get green beans in front of you the tenth time you’ll like it.’ It just doesn’t happen in school. Their peers are their No. 1 influencer and if their peers are never going to like green beans you’re never going to be successful.”

Gilbert and her staff started an annual food show in 2007. The event is one of the primary ways the department gathers feedback from students. For last year’s show, more than 300 students were invited to participate. Eighty-five percent of the district’s new menu items for the 2010-2011 school year were selected at the show. For an item to make it onto the menu, it must get at least 70% student approval at the show. If the item achieves that mark, it gets further student testing at schools.

Financial turnaround: Since Gilbert took over the department in 2003, reimbursable meals have increased 51%. Secondary meal participation has increased 42% in the last four years. These increases in participation have accounted for an additional 11.9 million meals during a seven-year period.

Gilbert attributes the increase in participation to better customer service. “We are really focused on the fact that the customer is alone in the line and they are making their decisions right then,” she says. “I get tired of them taking the same thing all the time. When I go around to schools I’ll take 10 kids and I’ll say, ‘do you want a free lunch today? Come with me.’ We all sit down and we taste the new item for the day. It might be our shepherd’s pie or our turkey taco crunch or yellow rice and beans. A lot of kids will choose the same old thing. They will take a hamburger or pizza every day, but if I sit down with those kids, most of them will take that new entrée. It’s just that they don’t know what it is. Now we require that our managers do a tasting of new items in the secondary schools every week. At the elementaries they do it once a month.”

Another way Gilbert and her staff have gotten students to participate in the school meals program was to give them options they see in retail outlets. “My staff goes out to places like the food malls and they find companies that make products that they think our kids will like and they talk to them about becoming a school foodservice provider,” she says. “We have one company that provides sushi to our schools. We have another company that liked the business so much that they became a commodity processor. They now do all of our Asian items. We have the same orange chicken and General Tso’s chicken that is in the food mall.”

In 2005, the food-service department implemented strict nutritional guidelines, which included the removal of french fries. Once again, Gilbert and her staff went to the students. “We went right to the kids and said, ‘we have to take fries off, what do you want instead?” she says. “In 10 different schools they said salads. So we went back and did the research on what kinds of salads because we don’t take anything at face value. They wanted a mixture of iceberg and romaine lettuce. They didn’t want tomatoes; they wanted cherry or grape tomatoes.”

Calling all chefs: Another way Gilbert has involved students is through Chefs Move to Schools. Gilbert invited area chefs to come into the kitchens at 15 schools and work with her foodservice staff and students to develop new menu items. The initiative was so successful that White House Assistant Chef and Food Coordinator Sam Kass and Dr. Janey Thornton, deputy undersecretary of food, nutrition & consumer sciences for the USDA, joined the unveiling event for newly created items. Some of the recipes created through the collaboration include fish tacos using tilapia, shredded carrots, red and green cabbage, bok choy and avocado in a whole-grain tortilla, and a fruit roll up with cantaloupe, strawberries, pineapple and melon rolled in rice paper.

“We are really one of the first districts to roll this program out and I think that also caught Chef Kass’ attention,” Gilbert says. “The biggest surprise for me was cole slaw. It showed up in three recipes. I think another exciting thing was that they took our turkey and gravy commodity and made it into two new products the kids loved. One is a turkey taco crunch and the other is a pot pie. The turkey is a really good-tasting product, and we needed to use it more, and this gave us a couple of new avenues.

“I’m willing to try anything,” Gilbert says about her success at OCPS. “We can move fast and pilot it, and if it’s the wrong move we can stop it. I think that’s one of the biggest things I allow my staff to do.”

What Others Say About Lora

Michael Eugene, chief operations officer:

Eugene has worked with Gilbert for a year and a half. He previously worked in other districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“I had talked with Lora about something that we did in L.A. We hired an executive chef. Right around the same time was when the first lady was designing the Let’s Move campaign. As we talked about getting chefs in our schools, Lora absolutely embraced the idea of having executive chefs from around the community come in and work with us. That takes a strong personal sense of leadership and confidence to have folks come in and essentially look at how you could do things differently. Sam Kass said our program was a model that other districts could follow.

Oftentimes in school nutrition we see the adult view of how the child should eat. Lora doesn’t impose that on our kids. She will go straight to the kids and say, ‘of these nutritious things, what do you like the best?’ She takes great pride in drawing them into the decision-making process.

Lora is a different type of executive. Her managers are very much empowered, but she holds them accountable to a high level of expectations and outcomes. You see that in the characteristics of her team. They are really independent thinkers, but they act as a team. It’s all a result of Lora’s leadership style of allowing them to put forward their expertise and function as very capable executives.

Lora has the prefect balance between being a hard-core business person and being passionately holistic about child nutrition. I’ll sit with her and in a single breathe she’ll talk to me about profit and loss statements and commodities and then shift gears and talk to me about working with an individual child to talk with that child about the importance of eating a nutritious meal.”

Javier Vazquez, area manager of technology for foodservice:

Vazquez has been with the district 4 1/2 years. He previously worked for a pharmaceutical company.

“Lora empowers us to be able to make changes where we were lacking in the past. For example, we have reports now that we can give to other area managers to give them better data about what goes on in the schools. We’ve come up with a report that gives the increase or decrease in participation broken down to free, reduced and paid, so that you can really concentrate on where the problem can be. This helps those area managers when they have a school that might operate in the red to make them into a success story.

We’ve been working for the past couple of years to promote social marketing. Lora was instrumental in getting our leaders on board with what we were trying to achieve as far as trying to get student input now versus later. We have a Web site through Ning, an online social networking builder. The kids are the ones who are building this for us. Through Ning, it attaches polls in Facebook. So it gives me the true data right now instead of waiting for the end of the year. This helps out our menu writers because when they are ordering or planning the menus they can see what is really selling and what the kids don’t like.”

Read more Silver Plate profiles: Dee Hardy, George Miller Jr., Steve Sweeney, Bruce Thomas