Meet Nancy Easton of Wellness in the Schools

by Catherine Elliott

4/05/16

One of many critical tasks within the sustainable food movement is connecting children to healthy and sustainable food options and education. To learn more about the process of building sustainable food access and curriculum in school systems, we were delighted to gain perspective from Nancy Easton.

Nancy is the Executive Director and Founder of Wellness in the Schools (WITS), a national nonprofit that inspires healthy eating and physical activity in public schools. Through meaningful public-private partnerships, WITS empowers schools to provide healthy, scratch-cooked meals, active recess periods and fitness and nutrition education. Nancy has overseen the growth of WITS into an organization that has cooked more than 11 million school meals and led more than 54,000 hours of play. She has been honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at the launch of Chefs Move to Schools, been named a Food Revolution Hero by acclaimed chef-food activist Jamie Oliver and has been recognized by Ann Cooper, the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” for her dedication to school lunch reform.

Before founding WITS, Nancy was a teacher and school leader with the New York City Department of Education.  She holds a school administration certificate from Fordham University, a master’s from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s from Princeton University, where she was a three-sport athlete. With several marathons and triathlons under her belt, including an Ironman distance triathlon, Nancy views fitness as a personal and professional passion.

Looking back on your career prior to starting WITS, what types of experiences motivated you to pursue change in school food systems?

Pretty much everything in my life as an educator and mom of three! I started WITS because I saw firsthand the impact of poor diet and lack of physical activity on children’s ability to learn. I watched children come into school with a bag of chips and a bottle of soda for breakfast. That “breakfast” was later followed by an overly processed school lunch and a sedentary recess period — perhaps the only time of day that children had to run around. Our food system was broken and our children were suffering from it. They could not walk up flights of stairs without stopping to catch their breath. They could not focus in class.

“On a more systemic level, we are starting to really see the impact of the work of our change agents — cooks and coaches. School cultures are starting to change.  Schools are making demands both inside and outside the kitchens.”

How has the process of conceptualizing, establishing and expanding upon WITS programs influenced your overall vision for the organization?

It’s a continual process — we quickly learn where we are making the most impact and affecting the most children. We build upon these successes and focus in where we know we can make a difference. Our vision is to create healthier school environments for children to learn and grow. In order to achieve this vision, our chefs and our coaches are in schools every day, working side by side with school communities. It is this daily interaction that allows us to make daily assessments and ongoing improvements.

What are some of the main considerations that WITS makes when introducing programs into a new school?

The primary consideration is whether the school wants us! Schools come to us for our program, and we have a long waiting list. They first have to ask, then we determine whether the entire community is willing to work together with us to make change. We cannot rely on just one champion; we need directive from leadership and support from many stakeholders — from families to teachers to school cooks to recess aides. All have to be willing to be part of the solution.

WITS’s Cook for Kids program is doing great work in terms of bringing scratch-cooked meals, healthier menus and expanded salad bars to cafeterias. What are some challenges WITS has faced in terms of integrating better food options into school settings?

Everyday we meet new challenges, new opportunities and new rewards. We partner with the largest school system in this country, and we are expanding our work nationally. We want our NYC program to be a model for the rest of this country — that’s impacting 32 million children!

We are challenged by everything that comes with scale — botched deliveries, need for training and schedule changes. The real challenge, however, is that even with all of this great movement around the import of healthy diets, we still have not internalized that healthy bodies equal healthy minds. Most schools, even those who are like-minded, do not prioritize food and fitness programming. We face this challenge every single day.

How might shifting school food to providing healthier, more sustainable choices impact the development of a sustainable food system at large?

As I mention above, the federal lunch program feeds 32 million children daily. It seems pretty simple to me — if we are demanding real food instead of processed foods, then perhaps our agricultural policies will follow. We won’t need to subsidize the three large crops (wheat, soy, corn) that are used to create processed food, and instead we will need to support the production of real food.

When looking at the results WITS programs have had on different schools, what do you find the most inspiring?

I find the small victories incredibly inspiring — like when children devour kale and vegetarian chili. It still makes me so proud to look at their little eyes brighten up and their little faces smile in delight when they eat something that is so delicious and also so good for them.

On a more systemic level, we are starting to really see the impact of the work of our change agents — cooks and coaches. School cultures are starting to change. Schools are making demands both inside and outside the kitchens. Schools want wellness policies; they want better food at PTA meetings; they want to implement fitness breaks and add healthy snacks to their school day.

Those are the daily victories. When I stop to reflect (and thanks for allowing me to stop), I am inspired by knowing that we are making an impact not just in individual schools, but across this city and country. Our cooks have cooked more than 11 million school lunches and our coaches have led more than 54,000 hours of play on the recess yards. This year alone we are impacting 34,000 children. That is extraordinary work — I am so proud of my team and the hard working change agents who work every day in schools. We are at the forefront of a movement and we, together with our many partners, are going to win in this battle against the childhood obesity epidemic.

Stay up to date with the latest from WITS!

Facebook: Wellness in the Schools

Twitter: @WITSinSchools

Instagram: @wellnessintheschools@nancy.easton

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