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Healthy Schools Program Helps a Mom Make a Difference

Gayla Moghannam used to like to volunteer in her daughter’s class at Walt Disney Elementary and would sometimes stay for lunch. She would see the food being served and think about how she would never let her children eat that. Then one day she started to think about all the kids that really depended on that meal. She saw how the kids did not seem happy to be eating the food and many complained about still being hungry in the afternoon. Moghannam realized that someone needed to speak up on behalf of these kids and she decided it should be her. She is now the mom that volunteers in class and is using resources from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to lead her school wellness council and be a driving force for healthy changes across the district.

“Part of the problem,” Moghannam explained, “is that we had a food service management company running the show but no district nutrition department to make good decisions on behalf of the students. That has changed and now we have a district director of nutrition, Dominic Machi, and he has been amazing! I give him a lot of credit for making things happen so quickly.”

With Machi on board they set out to overhaul their school meals program and win back the hearts and stomachs of students and their families. They added a daily salad bar that has 12 fresh items. “The kids just love it- they pile their plates up high but there is very little waste,” Moghannam said. “I think they really like being able to choose which fruits and veggies that will eat that day. We had been serving whole apples for years but they don’t eat them because it is hard for small children to bite into a whole apple! We realized that if you just cut them up they will eat them all up!”

The team at Walt Disney realized they needed to overhaul their entrees. “One entree they served here last year had 900 calories and the sodium exceeded the full daily requirements of an adult! That had to change. Now we have one entrée every day made from scratch- that is the best way to limit the sodium and sugar. We are making lasagna, spaghetti and chicken teriyaki with a low-sodium sauce. We wanted to show them that healthier versions of the foods they love tasted just as good so we have looked for healthier versions of popcorn chicken and French toast sticks. They don’t notice that their corn dog is breaded in whole grains.”

The school wellness council members also decided they wanted to encourage students to bring healthy leftovers from home in for lunch and they found grant funding to purchase a microwave for students to use. They also set up a “Hydration Station” with two water coolers, sliced lemons and cups.

To share the changes they have been working on, the school hosted a health awareness day in January. “We wanted parents to try the new foods, see the hydration station, see that they don’t need to send juice boxes any more, and really understand why whole foods are better for our kids,” said Moghannam. “We brought in a cow so they could see where milk comes from. We did aerobics, martial arts and a pretend food network show so our families could see how our new school meals are being made, and they could taste them. We had a huge turnout- almost every family was represented.”

The school has hosted a number of taste testing events and plans on continuing that. “We want kids and parents to try the food and give us feedback. We don’t want to keep things on the menu that no one likes. We also had a healthy recipe contest and all students were encouraged to submit a recipe for their favorite lunch item. The winning recipe was a turkey taco salad that will be on our March menu. We are calling it ‘Bernie’s Turkey Taco Salad.’ We hope that by including students in the selection of items, they will be more interested in trying new things.”

The wellness council at Walt Disney is extremely proud of the changes it has made in the last year but hopes to use the momentum to keep propelling forward. The council is starting to look at celebrations and fundraisers. It had a candy collection contest after Halloween and students brought back more than 700lbs of candy to compete for an extra period of recess. Before each holiday they send out a list of healthy party alternatives to the room parents and they have stopped selling cookie dough and added a walk-a-thon and a “Spellabration” fundraiser.

Moghannam explained that, “This has been a passion of mine for so many years but joining forces with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation really helped me take this to the next level. The resources available through the website are amazing, using the product calculator to make sure our products are healthy, and being able to pick up the phone and call an Alliance staff person to talk through ideas…it’s just amazing. I’ve been telling everyone- you don’t need any money to do this, you just need to sign up for the Healthy Schools Program!”