“I watched them come to school with a bag of chips, and that was their breakfast,” she recalled. “A very large bag, usually orange, and the soda was also orange. So not only did they have orange fingers and orange tongues for a good part of their day – they also couldn’t walk a flight of stairs.”
Experiences like these inspired her to start Wellness in the Schools, which she co-founded with celebrity chef Bill Telepan (the first of many noted culinarians who would associate with the nonprofit). The experiment at Ella Baker School was limited in scope and difficult to sustain, but it raised eyebrows among some higher-ups in NYC’s education bureaucracy. The involvement of chefs like Telepan helped – as did a forward-thinking working relationship with Stephen O’Brien, a regional director of operations who believed in the vision and helped gain support for the program’s expansion.
“[There’s] a pretty deep and symbiotic relationship between WITS and the Office of Food and Nutrition Services,” explained O’Brien, now the DOE’s Director of Strategic Partnerships and Policy. “Working together over these many years, we continuously tried to keep working in partnership so that we could help elevate the whole program, not just an isolated set of schools.”
As the years went on, WITS assisted the city with every step it took to improve its food service and nutrition education. When the DOE placed salad bars in every school, Easton’s nonprofit sent in local chefs to teach cafeteria staff how to prepare them. With the help of Wellness in the Schools, the DOE developed an alternative menu that principals could choose to adopt, with healthier and vegan options. The organization also lent support by training staff and creating curricula when it became feasible for that menu to no longer be the alternative – in other words, when the system moved toward a healthier menu citywide.
Transitioning a school cafeteria to healthier options is a logistically daunting process. Easton recalls not even being able to fit into the kitchen at Ella Baker by the end of that first year, when she was nine months pregnant with her third child; other schools throughout New York City are similarly cramped and under-equipped to serve the thousands of students that depend on them. The pandemic has tested the limits of this already frayed system. Some school kitchens in New York found themselves serving 15,000 meals per day in 2020 – an overload that made it difficult to maintain the new focus on whole foods and scratch cooking that Wellness in the Schools had helped usher in.
Even under normal circumstances, school cafeterias are required to follow a litany of regulations, governing everything from calorie count to ingredient sourcing, that restaurant kitchens do not. Costs have to be kept down – way down: New York reimburses schools around $1.80 per meal – even though daytime deliveries increase the cost and complexity of procuring ingredients.
To a restaurant chef who might be used to changing the menu overnight, on a whim or in response to market trends, the red tape can be a headache. “When we have chefs that are working with us, there’s a lot of friction and frustration,” O’Brien said. “The creative chef who understands the technical side of how to prepare a delicious meal has very little patience or appreciation for the bureaucracy it takes to actually deliver that meal within a system that is here to safeguard the future of our children. Bureaucracy can be a good word when it comes to food safety or children’s safety.”
From O’Brien’s perspective, the key to the success of Easton and her organization is their ability to listen to this perspective. “With Wellness in the Schools, they stuck it out with us,” he said. “They took the time to learn, to find ways to work with us, to find opportunities to improve the program. They didn’t just point the finger at us and say we’re not doing a good job and walk away. They actually worked really hard to lift up our program, to lift up our front line employees.”
"In the same way that we care a great deal and take great pride in the intellectual offerings that we provide to our students, I think it’s just applying the same rigor to our nutritional offerings."
Jeff Hicks ’84, RE Board Chair
For Hicks, elevating RE’s program is the entire purpose of partnering with Wellness in the Schools: making sure that a school with an already strong nutritional foundation is doing everything that it can to enhance the health and wellness of its students. The first step is underway: a detailed examination of everything from equipment to food preparation techniques to ingredient sourcing. Down the road, Easton looks forward to advising on improvements to RE’s dining halls and developing nutrition programming for RE students.
“It is so important when doing this work that educational institutions reinforce any changes made in the cafeteria with educational programming and messaging throughout the school community,” Easton said. “In my experience, both are critically important to the growth and development of the children in their care. Healthier students are, quite simply, better students.”
Added Hicks: “In the same way that we care a great deal and take great pride in the intellectual offerings that we provide to our students, I think it’s just applying the same rigor to our nutritional offerings. I think we already do a really great job. It’s just about trying to understand what more is possible.”