Ashley Morena believes school employees in the cafeteria are just as important to a child’s education as those in the classroom.
“If (students) don’t have their basic needs met, they won’t be able to learn,” said Morena, who was known as Ashley Ritz until she married Michael Morena on July 18.
Ashley Morena served as the nutrition and wellness director for Canton Local Schools for four years before becoming a consultant for the district in July through her new business, Project School Nutrition. Her mission for Project School Nutrition is to train school nutrition and wellness leaders who may feel burdened by regulations and overwhelmed with paperwork to find the time, money and resources needed to ensure students are fed high-quality nutritious meals.
“I want to revolutionize school nutrition,” she said.
Her vision of the revolution includes schools buying as much as possible from local food sources and the food service department becoming a true extension of the classroom and not just a place that provides meals.
Morena’s own path to food service has been unconventional. The 2007 Canton South High School graduate left college early to start a family and worked in various entry-level jobs before returning to Canton Local as a part-time receptionist in 2012.
“I made $12 an hour and had to pay for full daycare for my son, dress clothes and gas, so it cost me more money to come to work and I didn’t have benefits,” Morena recalled. “But I knew there would be an opportunity.”
A year later, she became a full-time receptionist and the assistant to the district’s food service director. In 2016, she moved into the role of director of nutrition and wellness when the previous director left.
“I was scared to death,” admitted Morena, who already had been handling the paperwork and most of the daily administrative tasks for the food service department. “I knew nothing about the kitchen itself.”
Morena donned an apron to learn about the kitchen operations, attended leadership trainings and worked with a consulting dietitian to learn how to write a menu that balanced all of the daily nutrition requirements while still giving students something they would eat.
“I never thought I would be in school food service, but now I can’t imagine never being in school nutrition,” said Morena, who now serves in leadership positions in various state and regional school nutrition associations.
Besides launching a new company, Morena, 31, also is finishing her bachelor’s degree in organizational management and marketing at Malone University. She expects to graduate in August and will be the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“It’s not the traditional path. I did everything backwards, but I was lucky and fortunate that I was given the opportunity,” she said.
Morena lives in Plain Township with Michael and three sons, Jaxon, 9, Quinton, 7, and Dawson, 4.
Ashley Morena’s local favorites:
Favorite thing to do:
Attend Women’s Circle every third Sunday of the month at 6th Street Yoga with Renee Waite. “I enjoy the company of women from all walks of life who are learning and growing together by discussing topics that speak to our hearts.”
Most memorable spot:
“The walking path at Sippo Lake where my husband and I used to take walks when we first started dating.”
Favorite place to shop:
The Olive Branch in Canton. “I am able to find all of the natural health products I like such as essential oils, soaps and vitamins.”
Favorite place to take the kids:
Beech Creek Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve. “My boys love the outdoor playground and the butterfly house. This is a great place for kids to explore and enjoy nature.”
Favorite indoor activity:
“I am a big fan of self-care, and a lot of my self-care routines take place indoors. I enjoy reiki sessions with Angi DeMatteis, co-owner of Inner Whisper Studio, and sound baths with Suni Moon, owner of Suni Moon Wellness. Both of these activities involve stillness and quieting my mind.”
Favorite lunch spot:
“When school is open, I enjoy lunch from the cafeteria in my school district. The food services team makes tasty, nutritious meals.”
Favorite spot to grab a drink:
“I love to sip on a glass of Dolce Sera on the patio of Gervasi Vineyard.”
Favorite volunteer opportunity:
Bridge Point Community Services. “It is inspiring to see a small nonprofit in Canton Local be able to serve many families across three school districts.”
Favorite place to shop local for gifts:
“A couple go-to places for me are Selene Stone in Jackson Township and NeeNee’s Bees and Blooms in Canton. Selene Stone offers unique stones to purchase along with books and self-care items. NeeNee’s Bees and Blooms offer fresh, local honey produced by their beehives.”
Favorite local event:
“First Fridays in downtown Canton are always fun. You never know what music you will hear in the streets, food you will taste or activities to participate in.”
Most admired local CEOs or business owners:
• Keith Hochadel, chief executive officer of CommQuest. “Keith is leading people to be the best version of themselves giving people hope and inspiration.”
• Ben and Megan McDonald, owners of Dough Go’s. “Ben and Megan make high-quality, fresh pizza and cookie doughs for local restaurants and schools.”
• Mike and Topaz Tolloti, owners of 6th Street Yoga. “Mike and Topaz have created a safe, healing atmosphere in their unique yoga studio in downtown Canton.”
• Cheli Curran, CEO of Domestic Violence Project. “Cheli is leading the way to creating a safe place for victims of domestic violence.”