Gayla Moghannam is a wife, mother and local hero to children in elementary schools, even though they may never have heard her name or seen her face.
What makes this lady significant to elementary age children? Simply put, she is the driving force behind the change children are seeing in school lunches.
Starting when her own daughter, Alyssa, who was in my first grade classroom five years ago, Moghannam began to notice the quality of school lunches. Food was prepackaged, often in ready-to-go baggies for food like burritos. Food offered to children as “sides” looked just as dreary. There were little or no fresh fruits and vegetables, and the fruit that was offered was often canned and soaked in syrup.
Moghannam began to question the quality of school lunches that year and she didn't stop asking questions. Most moms and parents would not continue to ask questions about the quality of food lunches, but Moghannam did.
“I realized complaining wasn’t fixing the problem,” she said.
So, what exactly did this dynamo do?
“I expressed my concerns to any staff or administrator who would listen. Getting the support of our principal was key. He found a grant with The Alliance for a Healthier Generation from the Frankel Foundation. We applied quickly and received a $5000 grant, “ Moghannam said. “If anyone is interested in improving their school lunch program, I highly recommend going to www.healthiergeneration.org. For free, you can set up an action plan and establish healthy goals. For free, you can talk with experts in school nutrition. For free, you can have access to numerous grants, resources, discounts with other school lunch programs, and much more. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has been my backbone throughout this process.”
Even after being encouraged to apply for and actually being awarded the grant, the changes weren't easy. It was only with the hiring of the new district Director of Nutrition, Dominic Machi, that her concerns about the food being served to our kids were really listened to at a higher level.
After Machi joined the nutrition team, he listened and shared the same goals for kids that Moghannam had — healthy and tasty food! In October 2011, a revised salad bar was approved and then piloted at three different schools. Moghannam notes that at , the school where it all began with hderseeking answers to her questions.
“That was a total turning point for our school. At last, we could show the administration, the district, and unbelievers how much children love to eat fruits and veggies," Moghannam said. "Disney kids pile their plate high with all kinds of delicious and healthy vegetables and fruits. Very little goes to waste.“
So, what exactly is so new and different in school lunches? At all elementary schools, more entrees are made from scratch using local ingredients in the school district’s kitchen. They they are sent to schools, warmed in ovens and served to first through fifth graders. Recent menu additions made in our own kitchens include lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs and whole grain chicken patties. What makes Disney and the two other pilot schools even more unique is the children choose what sides they want.
At Walt Disney, children choose items from a full-salad bar, composed of 12 fresh choices. Nothing comes from a can, and everything is sliced and diced just as it would be at a restaurant salad bar. Instead of cans arriving to be opened before lunchtime, boxes of fresh fruit and veggies arrive, without all the preservatives from their canned counterparts.
In today’s world, where life moves at such a fast paces and we often feel like our voice may not matter, Gayla proves that just the opposite is true. Moghannam has learned that by not giving up, believing in her idea and her purpose, and not letting “no” get in her way, she truly can and did make a difference. She is a role model, not just to her own two daughters, but also to all students in our district.
Reflecting, Moghannam shares, “My children are very interested in cooking and eating. They are smart about ingredient lists and serving sizes. They love to cook and have always eaten a variety of fruits and vegetables. Just like all kids, they are tempted by the junky foods. Moderation is key. “
Hats off to this wonder-woman for ensuring all of our children lead healthier lifestyles. If your child’s school is not one of the pilot schools with fresh salad bar items, you can be a voice for change just like she was at Walt Disney Elementary and beyond.