Thanks to this New York City activist, public schools are getting a lot healthier

Activist Nancy Easton brings healthy eating — and living — to children at public schools. By Fiona J. Kirk

Agosto / Septiembre 2018
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Nancy Easton founded Wellness in the Schools to offer kids healthy foods.

In the mid-1990s, when Nancy Easton worked as a public school leader in New York City, she was dismayed to see her students eating a bag of chips and drinking a bottle of soda for breakfast each morning. This was usually followed by a lunch of processed food from the cafeteria. Not surprisingly, the kids couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without stopping to catch their breath and were unable to focus in class. That’s why in 2005 Easton founded the non-profit Wellness in the Schools (WITS) with the mission of inspiring healthy eating, environmental awareness and fitness as a way of life for kids in public schools. Its “Cook for Kids” initiative is multi-pronged, including an AmeriCorps-type program for recent culinary graduates that places them in schools to work alongside cafeteria workers; labs where students learn to cook a meal, which is then incorporated into the school menu; and workshops for parents on healthy home cooking. We spoke to Easton about her initiatives and the difference they are making in the lives of these kids.

American Way: Tell us more about Cook for Kids. Nancy Easton: The centerpiece of the Cook for Kids program takes place in the cafeteria, where we work closely with the department of education to rewrite the school lunch menu so it’s more of a scratch-cooked menu. The WITS chef works alongside school lunch workers to prepare the meals and to train the lunch workers on the implementation of this new menu, so the chef becomes part of the fabric of the school and part of the shift in culture to a healthier environment.

AW: What early obstacles did you have to overcome? NE: Our biggest challenge to date has also become our greatest opportunity. As a small nonprofit, partnering with the New York City Department of Education was a true learning experience. The NYC DOE is the largest school district in our country, serving approximately one million children daily. To learn to navigate their world, work within the many constraints and face opposition at times was very challenging at first. Today, the NYC DOE is our most important partner and our biggest advocate. Together, we’re feeding children healthier every day.

AW: This year, WITS celebrates its 10-year anniversary. Looking back, what memories stand out? NE: The daily victories are certainly worth noting. Like the child devouring kale after never seeing it prior to our labs. Or the child coming up to a WITS chef and telling her that he lost ten pounds over the year because she taught him how to eat healthfully. Or the skeptical “lunch lady” telling us she will never serve chicken fingers again after working with us and learning what’s best for kids.

AW: And what about WITS’ other initiatives: Coach for Kids and Green for Kids? NE: With Coach for Kids, we place current or former athletes in the schools with two goals: to get the least active kids moving and to prevent bullying. They set up a positive structure on the recess yard so it’s controlled chaos. The larger goal is that kids have a healthy lunch, a positive recess experience and then head back to class, ready to focus and learn. With Green for Kids, we partner with different environmental organizations and garden programs. And this year we’re using hydroponic tower gardens to teach children about environmental issues and the value of growing locally.

AW: Who was your inspiration? NE: My mother continues to be a role model and inspiration for me. As a child, I was a bit disappointed and even embarrassed that I was the only kid with brown bread and carob brownies in my lunch. No one wanted to trade with me! As I got older, I began to value her forward thinking and attention to our health and wellbeing. My mom was certainly way ahead of the trend and I still learn so much from her.

AW: Where do you see the organization going in the next 10 years? NE: I’d like to see us become obsolete. That the schools are healthy and kids are active and eating well and learning to cook without us, that that’s become the norm. And I’d love to bring back home economics classes and teach kids that cooking can and should be an easy skill. I think that’s a very clear way we can fight the obesity epidemic.

BY THE NUMBERS: WITS grew from serving a class of 16 kids in one New York City public school to reaching 30,000 students across the country today.

SETTING THE EXAMPLE: Easton is a mother of three who’s run marathons, triathlons and even an Ironman distance triathlon.

DROPPING NAMES: The WITS team includes Michelin--starred chef Bill Telepan as its executive chef, and Easton was recently named a “food revolution hero” by chef activist Jamie Oliver. Not surprisingly, the organization is part of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Chefs Move to Schools” planning team.

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