Pat Farris: Survivor
Pat Farris thought school foodservice would be a two-year venture. Now, after 14 years and one massive storm, she’s in it for life.
At A Glance: Pat Farris
•Director of School Food Services
•Archdiocese of New Orleans
•BS in dietetics and an MS in human nutrition from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La.
•Married to Joe
•Born and raised in Greensburg, La.
Enjoys spending time with her family, swimming and feasting on the city’s rich cuisine. Since Katrina, Farris has become politically active—participating in government planning meetings.
•School Food Services has 83 serving sites in 11 parishes (counties) serving 38,000 students. The program serves 30,500 meal equivalents daily.
•In the past 10 years, Farris has increased extra sales revenue (Louisiana does not allow à la carte sales in schools) from $800,000 to $1.4 million by increasing options and marketing.
•Farris implemented an incentive program to reward managers monetarily for offering additional service outside of lunch.
•Farris developed computer software to help cut down on waste.
•Since Katrina, Farris has completely rebuilt five of the more than 20 kitchens destroyed, with two additional sites in the works.
August 29, 2005 was the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. It also happened to be Pat Farris’s 25th wedding anniversary. Instead of leaving town for a planned getaway to Colorado with her husband, Farris postponed the trip because she said the schools might need her while they were closed “for a week or two.” This devotion to the community she serves is the driving force behind this 28-year foodservice veteran, who has adopted thousands of students as her own during her 14 years in the district.
“There were only about 500 people in the little rural town I grew up in. Everybody went to the same school, K-12. That’s where I grew up, sort of like Andy in Mayberry. My mother taught home economics and she also planned the school lunch menus. So to me, everybody ate school lunch because what I had for school lunch was what I had for dinner.
When it was time to go to college, I was interested in two things: I absolutely loved to cook and bake and I was interested in nutrition, but I was also interested in mathematics. So I either wanted to study math or nutrition. I can remember my mother standing in the breakfast room cooking and I was sitting at the table. I was looking at all the college books and I said, “I just don’t know what to do.” She said, “I always wanted to be a dietitian.” And that’s all I needed to hear. If that’s what she thought she wanted, then that’s what I wanted. What I assumed is that I would do things just like my mother. You go to college, get a wonderful degree and meet Mister Right. You work a little bit and then you have three children and you stay home. Well, I did go off and get a wonderful degree and I did meet Mister Right in college but I just ended up loving my job so much that I never really had room in my life to have a family.
After undergrad, I worked in Jackson, Miss., in a hospital. After one year, I realized that I had better go back and get my master’s and take a different direction. I was frustrated because I had this mission where I thought I was going to be a clinical dietitian and I was going to save the world. It was very personal for me because my father died of heart disease when I was in school. It was so frustrating. I would go in to see the patients and I had all these great diet and lifestyle instructions and changes. But the time I got with the patients was after they were released, so all they wanted was to go home.
So I went back to get my master’s and I was working in college foodservice. I had a dynamite boss, Irene Gardemal, and she offered me a job when I graduated. She was my mentor. I worked for her as a college student and she was very knowledgeable. She believed in training her staff well and she followed up to make sure that things were done properly. She really gave me an opportunity to see the way things should be done. I think a lot of times in work environments, a boss will help you learn the way not to do things. She gave me a lot of responsibilities and she trusted me and gave me a lot more authority than a lot of people would have given to a lowly graduate student. She helped build my self-esteem and made me feel like I could do just about anything that I wanted to do.
She was the one who pointed me to school foodservice. I probably would have stayed in the college setting because it was my comfort zone. She strongly encouraged me to give this a try. She had some friends who worked for child nutrition for the state, and she knew that they liked their jobs and they found it rewarding. I guess she just knew me well enough to know that I would be very happy in school foodservice. At LSU there would have been maybe one or two locations on campus that I would have worked at. The point about school lunch at that time, there were 16,000 schools in the state, and she probably thought it would be a good learning experience before I committed to something long-term.
So she said there was this other job in school lunch. I wasn’t sure about that, but she encouraged me to take it. At the time, I was a consultant with the state’s Department of Education, so I got to travel the state and see a variety of foodservice operations. What I realized was that after 14 years, I loved my job and it was perfect, but in the last year I realized I no longer wanted to be consulting; I wanted to be doing something where I thought I could make a difference. I wanted to be on the front line. So, I said I would do this school lunch thing for two years, because in two years, I will have done everything that there was to do at that operation. Irene was probably just encouraging me to broaden my horizons. Little did she know that I would fall in love with it and never want to leave.
I thought to really make a difference, you have to start young. You need to start with kids and their habits in school instead of trying to change them as adults when the patterns are already there. A lot of different jobs had become available and I waited until the Archdiocese position came up. This was a good program when I came in. I made a lot of changes and I think I’ve made it better, but I thought it was the best program in the state and I wanted to wait until it became available.
So my two years has turned into 14. I guess the one thing I realized in school lunch was that every single day there are 100 positive things that we can do. There might be one or two things that we cannot do because we don’t have the money. But every day is a good day and there are so many things we can do. Not one day have I been bored. That’s the secret. Anybody who gets bored in school lunch has a problem because every day there is something fun to do with the menu, with the kids, with something.
Putting people first is the biggest lesson I have learned since the storm. Put your people first and everything else will take care of itself. For the school-level staff, we have an opening workshop every year where we give out about $3,000 in rewards to the employees whose programs have seen the greatest increase in participation. The reward doesn’t just go to the manager; it goes to everyone in the kitchen. Many times they will go out as a group to celebrate.
The people I work with on a daily basis is the most rewarding aspect of my job. The staff is just so talented and so dedicated. After the storm, there were people who came back that really didn’t even have houses. They were going into kitchens that had lost power for weeks and cleaning that up. They didn’t complain; they just did what they had to and worked like a wonderful team.
If you look at the reward as being your customer, in a lot of places, the person never sees their customer. In school foodservice, I can go out anytime and pop into a school and see little smiling faces or grown high school kids enjoying their meals and interacting with the staff. It’s not just, “here’s your food and it’s nutritious and I hope you enjoy it.” It’s the interaction between the cafeteria staff, because that’s the key to a successful program. The staff enjoys their work and they are well trained. When people understand what they are supposed to do and are properly trained, then they are happy employees and they do a better job. If you do a better job, then your customers are happy, and your customer feeds back to you and it makes you feel better about your job.
I want my focus next year to be staff enrichment and wellness. We are going to work with our health insurance provider to have a real wellness program, which will focus on the employee and how we can make them a healthier person and therefore, a better employee. I have also made the commitment that I will not raise lunch prices next year because the cost of everything is going up for our parents. I want school lunch to remain the best bargain in town for them. Typically, when meal prices increase, there is a decrease in participation.”