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Project School Nutrition: a Canton woman's business is changing the way families look at cafeteria food

'The way we write our menus and serve our students lets them know they matter.'
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Posted at 6:44 PM, Jul 12, 2023

CANTON, Ohio — On any given day, Canton Local Schools could be responsible for feeding 1,700 students, and thanks to the district’s school nutrition director, more and more of those students want to eat at school.

Ashley Morena is the founder and CEO of Project School Nutrition.

“I’m really on a mission to elevate the school nutrition profession, which at the end of the day, makes an impact in schools,” she said.

She consults other districts throughout the state and country on how to create menus and food students love, that are USDA-compliant, and financially sustainable for the district.

“So many people do not realize that school nutrition is like a business in itself. It’s a non-profit. We cannot make money out of our program. We only receive revenue when school is in session and we are receiving meals,” she said. “So there’s a lot of nuances when it comes into budgeting. It means we need to serve as many meals as possible, but we need to do it within a budget, and we need to be very savvy on how we are purchasing.”

She has transformed the program at Canton Local Schools. Brett Yeagley, the superintendent, said every year, more students are buying school lunches.

“The pandemic really shook everything, and over the last couple of years, we really have seen a trend moving upwards here, especially at our elementary and middle school; we’ve seen more and more of a trend, and we are hoping that carries over as those kids move into the high school,” he said. “It’s almost a restaurant-like experience.”

The word of Project School Nutrition caught on and other districts began calling asking for Morena’s expertise.

“We were making an impact here at Canton Local and realized, ‘Oh my gosh, we can be doing this throughout the state and even larger,’” she said.

Project School Nutrition helps districts update menus with food students want to eat.

“We have to stay competitive with the restaurants. We have to look outside our industry and look at what the trends are and bring it inside our industry,” she said.

They also help find ways to procure and source better ingredients.

“We are going to offer everything, but if we are going to offer pizza, is it local? Is it fresh? Is it whole grain?” said Morena. “Here, we are working with local farmers to provide local beef and apples and produce. We just have to get savvy and not do what we used to do.”

All the food is also USDA-compliant.

“Everything has to be combed through, as far as sodium, saturated fat, etc. That’s the very first thing we do, ask, 'Are we compliant?' But I also like to stretch the envelope — are we just serving one entree? Or are we serving many?”

She said it’s about changing the old, nuanced misconception about cafeteria and school food.

“The way we write our menus and serve our students lets them know they matter,” she said. “I think it’s just sending that message to families to give us a chance; you’re supporting a local business when you are supporting your cafeterias, and, in turn, your children are going to get a nutritious meal that is very well-balanced and very regulated.”

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