People Issue

Dora Rivas Is on an Insatiable Quest to Improve the Nutrition in Dallas' Public Schools

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

After Michelle Obama visited Dallas' public schools in 2012, Dora Rivas, the district's executive director of food and child nutrition services, might have taken a breather. The administration had set goals for schools to implement healthier lunch menus, and Rivas' district boasted the best performance in the country -- so good she'd drawn the attention of the First Lady of Vegetables.

But Rivas' work with childhood nutrition didn't start with Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative, and it didn't stop with the FLOTUS's approval. Rivas has been working to get children to embrace good eating habits since she tried successfully to get her own kids to give up white bread in favor of whole grain more than 30 years ago.

Back then she used a blind taste test to convince her kids that Wonder Bread was flavorless and that whole grain baked goods actually tasted like real bread. She led the offensive on flour tortillas made with lard and kicked whole milk to the curb in favor of skim. Now she's doing similar work for Dallas' school kids. The only difference is there are 157,000 of them.

Changing the diet of that many kids takes a lot of coordination among originations. The challenge is further complicated by the fact that nearly 90 percent of the children in her district qualify for assistance. For many of her students the meals they eat during school hours are the best they get the entire day. And because nutrition is so closely linked to classroom performance, those school-day meals are imperative.

That's why Rivas is pushing so hard to expand breakfast in the classroom. Now, in every elementary school classroom in the district, children rip open a packet of apples and a pint of skim milk before they rip open their Trapper Keepers. The program has been so successful Rivas is now working to push it out to middle and high schools, too.

Even that's not enough. By working with United Way, Baylor University's Texas Hunger Initiative, Dallas' Coalition for Hunger Solutions and more, Rivas is pushing her good nutrition mantra beyond school boundaries and out into communities -- an effort carried out by her school kids, who take nutrition knowledge home with them to their parents.

This summer, Rivas took her efforts all the way to D.C., where the White House hosts an annual summer harvest at the White House Kitchen Garden. Each year, they invite students from schools across the country to join the First Lady in some good old-fashioned garden work, and to hear talks and presentations on the state of nutrition. Through Rivas' participation, the event highlighted her work in Dallas to transform the local school environment. Lard-based tortillas shuddered in the distance.