Building healthy families

United Way works to address the struggles of parents, schools and meal service partners to improve health outcomes in communities across Michigan.

Photos by Sydney Kispert-Bostick and Roy Feldman; story by Jessica Carreras

It’s 5 p.m. at the Gulas family’s home in Warren and Laura Gulas is busy preparing dinner. Between chopping up fresh cucumber and tomatoes, she checks the stove to see if the beef and vegetables are done, gives the brown rice a stir and sets the table.

Her 2-year-old daughter Jozefina — nicknamed Jozie — watches a cartoon in the living room while 5-year-old Maite plays games on the laptop with their father, John.

“Dinner is ready!” Laura calls, and John helps to serve as Laura sets Jozie in her highchair. While Maite doesn’t hesitate to eat her dinner, Jozie is squirming to get out of her seat, with no interest in the plate of food in front of her.

“Eat this — it’s a mushroom,” Laura says to her, holding up the fork to Jozie’s mouth.

“You like mushrooms,” John adds.

“Yuck,” Jozie says — a new word she picked up from a character in a cartoon.

“How about some tomato?” Laura tries.


“Mira, Jozie, mira — tomate! Abre tu bocacita.” Laura tries again, speaking to her daughter in her native tongue of Spanish.

Jozie eats a few bites of tomato, a piece of watermelon and five blueberries before she’s squirming to get out of her chair again. Laura sighs.

“We’ll try again later.”

United Way’s Healthy Parents, Healthy Families connects parents with a network of support and equips them with tools to make their families healthier. Photo by Sydney Kispert-Bostick.

Creating Communities of Support

Laura, a native of Chile who moved to America 10 years ago, says she and her husband John strive to make their family’s diet healthier. But like many parents, they struggle with finding foods their daughters enjoy that are also good for them.

“Maite is very picky,” Laura says of her eldest daughter. “Sometimes I have to cook two different things, or she doesn’t want to have lunch or she just wants peanut butter.”

In an effort to find support, Laura joined a United Way workshop, Healthy Parents, Healthy Families. In the workshops, she and other moms received tips on picky eating, meal planning and grocery shopping. They also shared recipes and ideas.

“We want parents to be healthy role models,” said United Way’s Registered Dietitian, Lily Doher, who leads workshops for United Way. “We also want them to feel like they have a space to ask questions and share ideas. United Way is about building communities of support.”

To create that support across Michigan, we’ll use these workshops to build a new curriculum to impact parent feeding practices to help parents teach their children to grow into healthy eaters.

These workshops are just one of the ways United Way is zeroing in on building healthier communities.

In our region, one out of five children struggles to access healthy food. And according to a 2017 National Poll on Children’s Health, only one in six parents nationwide says that their child’s diet is healthy.

“United Way is about building communities of support.”

A less-than-healthy diet can have a serious impact on a child’s wellbeing, including their ability to learn, their emotions and their long-term health. But a child being a picky eater is only one barrier many parents across Southeastern Michigan face.

Years ago, a United Way focus was on emergency food assistance. Since 2011, that focus has expanded.

“We know that we can play a bigger role in making communities healthier,” says Sara Gold, Healthy Kids Director for United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “It’s not just about making sure there is enough food to eat, it’s about the quality of that food and promoting a healthy lifestyle.”

To make a shift in how we address childhood nutrition, we began working with the State of Michigan to increase participation rates at summer meal sites through our Meet Up and Eat Up program, and with partners in Southeastern Michigan to increase the nutrition standards of the meals they receive — all with an effort on keeping costs down and quality up.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit oversees after-school and summer programs. They partnered with United Way to help increase the nutrition value of the meals they serve in their programs. Photo by Roy Feldman.

Partnerships that work

The YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit came to United Way with the challenge of increasing the nutritional value of the meals served to the children in their care, while making healthy eating fun and interactive for kids.

We assisted the YMCA with meal planning and budgeting, and guided them through the rigorous process of becoming a State of Michigan meal service partner — known as a sponsor — so that they’d have more control over the quality of the meals served in their programs.

“A lot of funders just give you money and say, ‘Report back,’” says Lisa Senac, Executive Director of Healthy Living and Life Skills at the YMCA. “But with United Way, we knew we had somebody by our side to guide us and help us do the right thing.”

Now, when children walk into a YMCA after-school program, they get much more than a meal. They learn about the nutrition in the foods they’re eating.

At Oakside Scholars Academy in Waterford Township — one of YMCA’s 30 after-school programs — students recently spent an afternoon learning how to make pancakes with bananas, whole oats and no added sugar or syrup.

Eight-year-old Kaleb was skeptical, but after taking one bite, he eagerly shoved the rest of the pancake into his mouth and said, “More, please!”

“With United Way, we knew we had somebody by our side to help us do the right thing.”

The YMCA is one of dozens of meal service providers who have benefitted from partnership with United Way.

Next, we will help partners improve summer meal sites. A grant to the YMCA this summer allowed them to include physical activity in five of their sites. With support from donors, we’ll be able to bring engaging activities to more meal sites, encouraging families to make healthy living a fun habit.

Laura and John Gulas prepare dessert for their family: An array of healthy fruits. Photo by Sydney Kispert-Bostick.

From Chile to Michigan

Laura Gulas recalls that when she came to America, the first thing she noticed was the grocery stores full of options — many of them unhealthy. Families’ grocery carts were full of processed foods like cookies, chips and soda.

“In my country, healthy food was cheaper,” she says. “Here, fast food is cheaper.”

Laura says that at home she usually offers the girls exotic fruits to try as a fun treat after dinner. But as she sliced up a kiwi one night, she noticed Maite poking around in the pantry.

“Maite, what are you looking for?” she asked.

“Chocolate chips.” Maite replied, and continued her search.

Laura told her no, but conceded to a little chocolate syrup on Maite’s fruit.

In United Way’s workshop, Laura found a network of support for her family’s struggles with food. One mom shared that her daughter only wanted macaroni and cheese to eat. Another worried that her sons didn’t eat enough vegetables.

It helped Laura realize she wasn’t alone.

“You don’t know anything when you become a parent. You need to learn,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what culture you are from — you want your kids to be healthy.”

Laura and John Gulas work to ensure that their daughters, Jozefina and Maite, grow up healthy and strong. Photo by Sydney Kispert-Bostick.

A model for all of Michigan

Making all children healthier is a goal we share with partners across the state, and it can only be tackled when everyone’s at the same dinner table.

“By creating programs like these for parents, building strong partnerships and creating solutions with those partners, we can increase access to meals and improve the quality of those meals,” Sara says.

One of those solutions was the creation of an app to eliminate the daily paper tracking that the federal government requires for summer meal reimbursement. This made our summer Meet Up and Eat Up work more efficient, and the app is now part of standard state training for meal site sponsors.

One of our next steps is building a regional strategy to increase school breakfast participation, which has shown a positive correlation with grades and behavior.

As a result of these combined efforts, children like Maite and Jozefina Gulas grow up healthier, as well as kids in the Lansing, Grand Rapids, Traverse City and Marquette areas.

“When children and parents have access to nutritious foods and the tools to make their families healthier, everyone in our community benefits,” Sara says.

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