My Interview with Dora Rivas, Former President of the School Nutrition Association

by Bettina Elias Siegel on June 13, 2014

Dora Rivas, Executive Director, Dallas ISD Food & Child Nutrition Services

Dora Rivas, Executive Director, Dallas ISD Food & Child Nutrition Services

Several weeks ago, 19 past presidents of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) made news by sending an open letter urging Congress to stay the course on healthier school meals.

In doing so, these individuals publicly broke rank with their own organization, which is currently urging Congress to include in the 2015 appropriations bill language which would allow struggling school districts to opt out of healthier meal standards.  (Though such waivers would be for only one year, many advocates view this effort as a first step toward permanently rolling back key nutritional requirements.)

One of the 19 past SNA presidents who signed the letter is Dora Rivas, MS, RDN, SNS and Executive Director of Dallas ISD’s Food & Child Nutrition Services. Rivas has worked in school food for 34 years, winning a number of awards for the district meal programs she’s supervised.  She served as SNA president from 2009-10 and is recognized as a leader among school food professionals.  In fact, when I spoke to Rivas yesterday she was in Washington, D.C. as an invited guest of the First Lady for her Summer Harvest in the White House Kitchen Garden, one of just three school food professionals invited by the White House to the event.

Despite the big day ahead of her, Rivas was kind enough to grant me an interview.  Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

TLT:  Yesterday I was on the SNA’s conference call and I had the chance to ask SNA CEO Patti Montague about the letter you and the other 18 past presidents sent to Congress.  Montague told me that only the current board speaks for the SNA and she seemed to imply that the past presidents are out of touch,  in that she said you “aren’t speaking to the members.”  Do you have any comment on her statement?

DR:  I talk to colleagues across the country and I belong to a number of different school food organizations, such as the School Nutrition Services Dietetic Practice Group.  I’m not in isolation. I think I understand and am sensitive to the struggles a lot of food service directors are experiencing, and even though I’m from a large district, I’ve worked in a small district, I still stay in touch with that district, and I know their concerns.

TLT:  To what degree is there a rift between the past presidents and the current SNA leadership?

DR: I think SNA agrees that we’ve made a lot of progress.  The majority of districts are doing an amazing job and have worked very, very hard to meet the standards.  I think that there’s a lot more that we agree on than disagree on. The same concerns that SNA has, I share.

TLT:  But you do disagree about the request for waivers?

DR: I can’t speak for the entire group of past presidents but I’ve heard a number say that they are concerned with the fact that it would be very difficult for the USDA to administer these opt-outs.  For example, in Dallas, I’m able to break even, but even I could make my program look like it was not breaking even for six months [a requirement for districts seeking a waiver].  So I think it would be hard to administer.

The other thing the SNA and the past presidents disagree on is strategy, more than on nutrition standards.  The SNA’s interest is not to “roll back” the standards, but that may be the intent of Congress.  And that’s a concern: putting this in the hands of Congress [versus working with USDA] is a little risky.  The past presidents feel there’s still an opportunity to work with USDA on sodium, whole grains and competitive foods.

To slow things down and ask for “flexibility” for a certain segment of school food professionals is a Band-Aid. We should be asking for help on finding solutions and working together toward what these districts need to break even or to meet the standards, or to help industry meet the standards.  And so I think we [the past presidents] are looking more for a solution as opposed to delaying.

TLT:  Do you feel the SNA should be asking Congress for more funding to implement healthier school meals?

DR: Yes, healthier meals do cost more money.  The SNA says it was told it [more funding] was out of the question.  But we [the past presidents] have asked for money in the past.  And the whole NSLP [National School Lunch Program] costs the country money as an investment in raising healthier adults.  It’s an investment.  Right now we have a national obesity problem, so why aren’t we asking for money to raise healthier students, to support coordinated school health, for more nutrition education, more collaboration with partners, parents and the community to encourage children to try new foods, to develop recipes, to provide technical assistance and set professional standards?  All of those things together cost more money, but it’s an investment in having healthier students and reducing childhood obesity.  Saying, “let’s give schools more time” is only a short-term solution, not a long-term solution.

And I know there are a lot of allied organizations that would support SNA to achieve the common goals we share.

TLT:  You mean, other organizations would support SNA in a request to Congress for more money?

DR:  Yes.  When I see FRAC [Food Research & Action Center] and so many other allied associations taking a different position from SNA, I think they would support SNA in asking for more investment in our school meal programs, for technical assistance and for helping states help districts.

Let’s identify the districts that are struggling and let’s help them be successful.  We need to all sit down at the table and figure out a strategic plan to get there, with solution-based proposals rather than short-term solutions.  Because those districts will still be struggling a year from now.  The solution for them is more money.  If we really want more fruits and vegetables, that does cost money.

Also, [with respect to a requirement that breakfasts next year must include a full cup of fruit], there have never been any commodities or additional funds allocated for the additional fruit, so I think that’s another area where SNA should be asking Congress for money. Even if the additional fruit is provided through the commodity program, that would help the farmers and the school districts.

The SNA has been given the impression that asking for any money out of the question.  But the position of the past presidents is, why is it that off the table?

TLT:  There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the fact that SNA gets much of its funding from the food industry.  To what degree do you feel the food industry is driving SNA’s current agenda?

DR: I think it’s a partnership.  The food industry has been very supportive of achieving these standards and many companies have already invested a lot of money to meet the standards.  So some companies would actually stand to lose if the standards are rolled back.

And I don’t question SNA’s integrity.  I’ve been involved in the board and am familiar with their protocols for sponsorship, and they try to be equitable and fair. I don’t think the SNA is driven any more strongly by the food industry than by other lobbyists for other initiatives.  A lot of members can’t afford high memberships, so the SNA has the lowest income of most organizations, and they’re strongly subsidized.  But the decision-making at the SNA is made by the board and the executive team together.  I’m not able to answer for how much influence the industry has, but I don’t have any reason to question their integrity.

TLT:  What are your predictions about the outcome of the current school meal debate?

DR:  I’m concerned about it.  I think school districts will have done a lot of work to improve their meals but their community will not know whether or not they’re going backwards.  The perception in the media right now is that school meals are going to be less healthy, and parents won’t know which districts are still meeting the standards [and which have sought waivers].  And that’s bad, because we were already having trouble promoting a healthy image for school food.

TLT:  Do you have any final thoughts on the relationship between the SNA and the past presidents, or where you go from here?

DR:  I think the position between the past presidents and the SNA has been perceived to be adversarial when really the relationship is misunderstood.  We’re trying to see how we can support the standards and find solutions instead of delaying and creating more confusion.

There is absolutely some tension and there are different personalities at work.  Patti [Montague] is very passionate.  But we have not all sat down to talk because this has moved so quickly.  The SNA put out its position paper and we knew these were the things they were asking for.  But it wasn’t until the House bill that we understood the implications, and that’s when the 19 of us got together to say, this isn’t the solution.  This was going on on the Hill very quickly and there was no time for debate or discussion, so there has been no dialogue [between the SNA and the past presidents].

But I’m hopeful that we can have that dialogue, because we’re members as well and there’s a number of past presidents who are not retired, who are still in the trenches, so that dialogue has to continue.  We can’t stop talking to each other, and there’s still an opportunity to talk to USDA.

SNA may be too entrenched now to want to modify their position, and they’ve got different counsel, and it takes a lot to change positions once they’re approved by the board.  But I’m hoping we can move forward and have discussions, because we all share common goals.

* * *

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy Huehnergarth June 13, 2014 at 11:07 am

Congratulations to Ms. Rivas for speaking out so candidly and politely. It’s clear she respects the current SNA leadership but is at odds with their decision on how to help struggling school districts (give them a way to opt out rather than the help they need). When 50% of the SNA’s yearly funding comes from the food industry, many will assume that the food industry influences SNA policy decisions, whether it’s true or not.

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Miguel Villarreal June 17, 2014 at 10:28 am

We need more FSD’s like Dora Rivas to speak up about the future of the school meal programs. I have known Dora for many years from my years working as a FSD in Texas and she has always been a class act when representing herself, the School Nutrition Association and the thousands of students we serve every day. She is an excellent ambassador and she deserves to be at the White House representing all of us who believe that we need to continue to move forward with improving our nutrition and wellness programs in our schools.

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