Just how did the former New York City teacher get kids so excited about kale—and introduce them to other veggies they'd never tried before? Thirteen years ago, Easton founded the non-profit Wellness in the Schools (WITS) with a mission of diminishing childhood obesity by teaching kids healthier habits and providing more access to healthier foods. Since then, WITS has expanded its reach from one school to 122, affecting over 60,000 students in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and California.
Schools working with WITS aren't serving grayish mystery meat, rubbery nuggets, or greasy pizza. Working with the Department of Education's alternative menu, nutrient-dense meals are created by Oceana executive chef Bill Telepan—who serves as WITS's official executive chef. (So you know everything is pretty darn good.)
"We've really perfected a model, having a chef and coach in a school for three years, doing a deep dive on menu changes, training the school aids to reconstruct recess, and really becoming part of the fabric of these schools, not just in the cafeteria and schoolyard," Easton says.
"In the beginning, we were almost forcing this on schools, but now we get so many requests that we've set up different models." — Nancy Easton, WITS executive director
"In the beginning, we were almost forcing this on schools, but now we get so many requests that we've set up different models," Easton continues. In some schools, they host cooking classes or revamp the school cafeteria menu. In others, they focus on restructuring recess to ensure kids are being active. They also host one-off workshops, talks with parents, or "family fun nights," AKA activity-based events where you'll see rosy-cheeked kids running around, smiling from ear to ear.
Telepan has been involved since year one, after hearing about WITS at a parent-teacher conference at his daughter's school. He started out as a volunteer doing recess duty, but then moved to a place he felt really at home: the cafeteria. "At the time, there was only one school, and I hosted a sandwich day and served hormone-free milk from a milk supplier I knew," he says. "It was a big success so they let me do a vegetarian chili day, too." As the number of schools working with WITS grew, so did Telepan's specially hosted days, and eventually he had enough recipes to create a menu for the schools to use a a guide for their own lineups.
WITS works similarly to Teach for America, attracting culinary grads to use their know-how in the schools. They also have volunteers in the fitness space. "It's been really rewarding to see more people want to get involved," Easton says.
The long list of volunteers includes Gramercy Tavern Executive Chef Michael Anthony, and Butter executive chef Alex Guarnaschelli. "Seeing the kids try something like cilantro for the first time reminds me of why I love food all over again," Guarnaschelli says. "And you see these beautiful moments where food intersects with culture. One kid might say that his mom is Colombian so they eat cilantro all the time. And another kid will say his dad is Indian so they eat cilantro all the time. And then you'll have another kid who doesn't like it and thinks it's gross."
"School is where they're being educated, and food education should be part of that." — Alex Guarnaschelli, executive chef
But with growth comes more opportunity—and more need. WITS is hosting a gala next month to raise money to continue its efforts. "The money will help bring staff into the cafeteria, bring a coach to the recess yard, and [go] toward our cooking classes," Easton says, adding that the program will be expanding to even more schools soon.
"I think every parent wants to know their kid is eating well when they go to school," Guarnaschelli says. "School is where they're being educated, and food education should be part of that, but it requires time, dedication, and resources."
One of Telepan's favorite WITS moments clearly reflects its impact. "We were doing a cooking class at a lower-income school in the Lower East Side," he remembers. "We'd been in that school for three years at this point. We were cooking with olive oil, and we asked the kids if they knew what the benefits of olive oil were. Every single hand shot up. They all knew! That showed me that they had seen it, they tasted it, and it was just part of their lives now."
There's data that speaks to the program's success, too. After two years, schools with WITS saw a 39 percent increase in fruits and vegetables being eaten at lunch and a 62 percent increase of pro-social behavior at recess. Data also shows that kids get on task much quicker after lunch and recess with the healthy changes.
"Over the past 10 years I've been working with WITS, the conversations around health have definitely changed," Telepan says. "Parents know about obesity and the diseases associated with it. The problem is access to healthy foods." Why not start addressing that at school?
Wellness in the Schools Gala, April 24, 2018 at 6 p.m. Visit wellnessintheschools.org for tickets.
Something else extremely cool that's being served in public schools: biodynamic cereal. And here's how you can help make healthy food available to more people in your community.
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