The Big Idea: Wellness in the Schools

Program is on a mission to improve fitness, nutrition and environment in New York City public schools.

Nancy Easton
Executive Director
Wellness in the Schools, New York City

Wellness in the Schools is a nonprofit that started off very small, grass roots, parent-run. Our mission is to improve fitness, nutrition and environment in New York City public schools. I started this organization because I was a teacher and I did breakfast and lunch duty, and I watched as kids came in with bags of chips and a bottle of soda for breakfast. Our long-term mission is to combat childhood obesity with the short-term mission of getting kids to be more aware of why we’re changing foods, why we’re making school environments healthier, providing students with a healthy lunch and recess period so that they can go back to class ready to focus.

We have two main programs: Cooks for Kids and Coach for Kids. For Cooks for Kids we work in the lunchroom to rewrite the menu and eliminate processed foods. We have a list of goals: salad bars in every school, housemade dressings, eliminating chocolate milk, etc. We work in really close partnership with New York City public schools’ SchoolFood workers. We also have a very strong educational component. For Coach for Kids we send coaches to recess to help get the least active kids active and prevent playground bullying.

We receive funding from three sources: events, grants from individuals and corporations and [contributions] from schools that want the program but don’t meet the 70% of students at poverty level so they pay a fee.

Bill Telepan, of New York’s Telepan restaurant, is our executive chef. He trains our Wellness in the Schools (WITS) cooks who go into the schools to work with the SchoolFood employees. We hire culinary graduates. We train them on the ins and outs of working in schools. They do safety, HACCP and equipment training with SchoolFood. Because we have a large educational component, we train the WITS cooks on child development and behavior management strategies. They are cooks and not educators, so that training helps when they go into the classroom. The WITS cooks’ goal and role when they get into the schools is to train the SchoolFood employees who are there every day. It’s ultimately a sustainable program because after three years the WITS cooks are no longer in the schools. The cooks who work there are trained to implement the “WITS menu” and do the salad bar. Once they have the WITS menu and they are trained in it they can do it on their own.

The WITS menu is developed with SchoolFood. We’re partners, but WITS is not running the school cafeteria. Monday is Mediterranean Monday with housemade pasta with pesto or a tomato sauce; Tuesday is Trayless Tuesday citywide so we do sandwich day with paninis, wraps or a deli bar; Wednesday is bean day, or Latin Wednesday, when we serve housemade vegetarian chili in variations, like a burrito or chili over rice; Thursday is chicken day; Friday is pizza, which is a housemade flatbread pizza with housemade pizza sauce. We have the salad bar and fresh fruit every day.

All of our ingredients are from the USDA procurement list, and all are SchoolFood ingredients. We don’t bring in anything different, except we were able to get grass-fed beef and olive oil into the schools. We try to eliminate the mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers, anything that’s cut open out of a box.

I used to say the general reaction was, ‘oh, my god, who are these people? Why are they here?’ And by the end of the year it’s a love fest by everybody. We’re doing a better job working in partnership with SchoolFood so the cooks actually know who we are and why we are there. We train together. They know that we aren’t there to take their jobs. We’re there to work together for this common mission and we do training together so everyone understands what’s going on.
The educational piece has been the real change agent. The WITS cook leaves the cafeteria for one week and teaches in science class. For that one week, instead of science class it’s a cooking class. We have done the classes for the kids and now they are making vegetarian chili on their own. We serve the vegetarian chili at parent-teacher conferences in little tasting cups. We say, ‘this is what your kids are eating, try it.’ It’s so much about messaging and marketing. Now that every one of our schools has reached out to us and we have a waiting list, that reaction is much more positive. We’ve become not just about changing the food in the cafeteria but changing the culture in the school. If schools have a fair on a Saturday they want us to help do the food or we’re doing a family, fitness, fun night in the schools.

We don’t do breakfast, but we might pilot that next year. We are in 36 schools in New York and 12 in rural Kentucky. We are also consulting with the Department of Agriculture in Florida. 

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