Health and Wellness

Wellness in Our School

By Matt Margini, RE Humanities faculty

While other kids around New York City might have been filling their trays with reheated chicken nuggets or mass-produced mac ’n cheese, students at the Ella Baker School were eating organic pizza with broccoli and soy cheese, prepared by chefs from a local restaurant.
The year was 2005 – half a decade before Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign would push childhood obesity into public consciousness. Vegan restaurants were few and far between; the age of the wellness influencer was not even close to beginning. But change was happening in that small, 18-student classroom in Lenox Hill, and the source of that change was Nancy Easton ’84, a self-described “crazy parent” who had dared to ask whether her school was doing enough to provide nutrition to the children under its care.
Now, Easton’s nonprofit, Wellness in the Schools (WITS), is a juggernaut, serving 172 schools and more than 85,000 children nationwide – including Ransom Everglades School, a brand-new partner looking to take a fresh approach to student meals and nutrition. Inspired by and modeled on that original relationship with the Ella Baker School, the organization works with schools in several ways to improve the quality of their food offerings and nutrition education. Sometimes Wellness in the Schools will send professional chefs to schools to conduct hands-on cooking classes with students. Sometimes, WITS will give cafeteria chefs the opportunity to learn new techniques with restaurant chefs. Sometimes it will work with school administrations to develop nutrition curricula.

"It is so important that educational institutions reinforce any changes made in the cafeteria with educational programming and messaging throughout the school community.... Healthier students are, quite simply, better students."
Nancy Easton ’84, founder of Wellness in the Schools
“We’ll break up the academic day with things like showing how much sugar is in a typical drink, or showing how much fat is in a typical fast food meal by putting Crisco between two buns and measuring that out. It gets really visual,” Easton said.

More often than not, the organization will do some combination of all of the above, in addition to helping schools with fitness and anti-bullying programming.

Since its inception, Wellness in the Schools has catalyzed the transformation of some of the biggest and most logistically complex school systems in the nation, including the New York City Department of Education and D.C. Public Schools. For the NYC DOE, a system that oversees around 1,700 kitchens that serve some 1.1 million children per day, with many of them getting their only significant nutrition from school, the partnership has been instrumental in improving the quality of food offerings and giving kitchen workers opportunities for professional development.

“We’ve really had an opportunity to train our cooks and give them a sense that this isn’t just about lining up food and putting it out there for kids. It’s really a culinary, inspired way of thinking,” explained Christopher Tricarico, Senior Executive Director of the NYC DOE’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services.

At Ransom Everglades, Wellness in the Schools is working with RE staff and SAGE Dining Services, the vendor that provides meals on both campuses, to find ways to improve the healthfulness of the school’s offerings and, perhaps, incorporate nutrition education into the school’s curriculum.

“The best part about doing this work is that when you stay with it for all these years, you can truly see the value on many levels,” Easton said. “You can see it in large institutions like the NYC DOE, in parents who are taking the lessons home and, most importantly, in children who devour a kale salad on their lunch line after insisting that they will never like it.”

Easton is excited: unlike places in the Northeast, where schools are in session precisely when crops aren’t growing, South Florida’s mild climate presents rich opportunities for locavore procurement. WITS has already made significant partnerships with around a dozen schools in the region, including McNicol Middle School in Broward County (serving 796 students per day) and Charles R. Drew K-8 Center in Brownsville (serving 693). The organization has also partnered with some big-name chefs, including Chef Michael Schwartz P’15 of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink and Chef Aaron Brooks of Miami’s Four Seasons Hotel.

But Easton is also excited because Miami is the place where her lifelong passion for healthy eating began. Born and raised in Key Biscayne, she has fond memories of her mother, a “bit of a hippie” who was into healthy eating before it was cool, baking vegan carob brownies and selling crates full of grapefruit and oranges (rather than candy) at team fundraisers. One day, her mother brought home chickens so that the family could have fresh eggs – not an entirely foreign concept in Miami, but fairly uncommon for suburban Key Biscayne in the late ’70s.

The chickens didn’t last. “They were doing okay, but the possums were interested in them, so my dad built a chicken coop for them. The possums got in and the chickens never got out,” she recalled. But she was still inspired by her mother’s example, which had changed the way she looked at food and its impact on a person’s wellbeing as well as the environment.
“It’s really a culinary, inspired way of thinking.”
Christopher Tricarico, Senior Executive Director, NYC DOE’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services
After attending Key Biscayne K-8 Center (a school with which her organization has now partnered), she attended Ransom Everglades for middle school, where she remembers having a social justice bent. She did well academically and excelled in sports, but she found herself wishing for more opportunities to connect with people of different backgrounds. With her mother’s blessing, she transferred to Ponce de Leon Middle School and then Coral Gables High School, where she finished her degree.

RE Board of Trustees Chair Jeff Hicks ’84, who followed a similar path from RE to Coral Gables High, remembers being impressed by her work ethic and drive. “She was an incredible athlete, passionate about fitness and running and cycling and marathons and all sorts of stuff like that,” he said. “She was an incredible overachiever as a junior high school student and a high school student.”

After attending Princeton University, where she played three sports and broke records in track and field (to this day she is ranked 10th in the women’s 800-meter run), Easton moved to New York and started a career as a public school teacher. She loved the kids, and couldn’t help but notice their struggles with poor eating habits.

“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.”
Founded in 1903, Ransom Everglades School is a coeducational, college preparatory day school for grades 6 - 12 located on two campuses in Coconut Grove, Florida. Ransom Everglades School produces graduates who "believe that they are in the world not so much for what they can get out of it as for what they can put into it." The school provides rigorous college preparation that promotes the student's sense of identity, community, personal integrity and values for a productive and satisfying life, and prepares the student to lead and to contribute to society.