By Alexina Cather
Nancy Easton is the Executive Director of Wellness in the Schools (WITS). She co-founded WITS in 2005, aiming to inspire healthy eating, environmental awareness, and fitness as a way of life for public school kids. As Executive Director, Easton has helped WITS grow from one school in New York City to over 100 throughout the United States, serving approximately 50,000 students. Easton was named a Food Revolution Hero by chef-food activist Jamie Oliver, and “Renegade Lunch Lady” Ann Cooper recognized her as a Lunchbox Hero for her dedication to school lunch reform.
Easton earned her undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a Master’s Degree from Bank Street College of Education, and her Administration and Supervision certification from City College and Fordham University. Before founding WITS, she worked for the New York City Department of Education for over 15 years as a teacher, a teacher mentor, and a School Leader. Easton is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and is certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners.
I was able to do an email interview with Easton about her work with WITS and school nutrition.
New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): What initially motivated you to begin WITS? How has your previous position as a teacher impacted the way you run the program?
Nancy Easton (NE): As a teacher and school leader in the early 90’s, I saw firsthand the impact of poor diet and lack of physical activity on children’s ability to learn. Children came to breakfast with a bag of chips and a soda; they ate a processed school lunch and barely moved at recess. Many could not walk a flight of stairs without stopping. They could not focus in class. Few were talking about childhood obesity at the time. Something had to be done.
FPC: Can you explain how WITS managed to go from a small, grassroots organization to serving 100 schools nationwide? Did schools reach out to you, or did you have to take initiative?
NE: Schools reach out to us. We still only work in schools that come to us for our program. This work is a partnership, and we rely on our school partners to bring about systemic change, shifting the entire culture. We bring trained culinary graduates who partner with cafeteria staff to feed kids real food, and fitness coaches who encourage schools to let kids play.
FPC: How do students typically react to the changes WITS implements in their schools?
NE: When we first introduce the new menu, we hear complaints. Where is my chocolate milk? What happened to the chicken fingers? But quickly, the complaints disappear and children are happy to have a healthy meal to get them through their day. We just have to be patient sometimes. The educational piece and the tastings in the cafeteria help to support the changes. Students LOVE the cooking classes (called WITS Labs), where we prepare the same recipes they have at lunch. These Labs are the best marketing tool to increase school lunch participation.
FPC: How do you deal with the challenge of providing both healthy and tasty foods to such a large number of students?
NE: We rely on our strong partnership with the Department of Education. Together, we develop an alternative menu, provide children a salad bar each day, and make sure students have water to drink. We train the school cooks on the implementation of the alternative menu so that they can prepare it long after we are gone.
FPC: What are your thoughts on the relationship between food insecurity, obesity, and poverty? How does WITS attempt to address this?
NE: Well, we know it is completely related. This is why we focus on bringing healthy meals to students in high poverty schools. School lunch may be the only hot meal of the day for most of our kids. One healthy lunch will not tip obesity scales, but schools are a place of access and should set an example for what is right and what is deserved.
FPC: You’ve been praised by Michelle Obama, Jamie Oliver, and Ann Cooper. How do you react to recognition from such prestigious names?
NE: I am just as happy when praised by a child. They are harder to please!
FPC: What are the greatest challenges NYC faces in serving healthy lunches to its students, and how do you think they should be addressed?
NE: Size. Scale. The NYC Department of Education is a well-oiled machine doing absolutely amazing work at such incredible scale. Imagine serving 860,000 meals everyday. There is so much more work behind simply putting food on a plate. And, they are addressing this scale by, among other things, working with partners like us to turn large into small victories. To turn institutional into personal. One plate at a time; one school at a time; yet always thinking bigger. Education is key. Without the support of organizations that provide cooking and nutrition classes and the support of entire school communities, the lunch in the cafeteria just does not matter. We are helping children and their families to understand the “why not” of processed foods and too much sugar and the “why” of drinking water instead of sugary drinks. This educational piece is so important.
FPC: On the other hand, what do you see as the greatest opportunities for positive change in NYC?
NE: Again, size. Scale. If we can make it here we can make it anywhere. Kidding aside, NYC can be an example to the rest of the country. And, we can make a difference on the lives of ONE MILLION children, right here. What an awesome opportunity and responsibility.
FPC: Since initiating WITS, what do you consider to be your greatest personal achievement and why?
NE: Wellness in the Schools would not be where it is today if it were not for so many people believing in us and for the hard work of our team. I am just really proud of what I have done to help cultivate that.
Grew up in: Miami, Florida
Background and Education: I have been the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Wellness in the Schools since 2005. WITS has grown from one NYC classroom into a national organization that now reaches over 50,000 students in 100 schools nationwide. Before founding WITS, I spent 15 years as a teacher, mentor, and school leader at the New York City Department of Education.
I have a Masters of Education from Bank Street College of Education, an Administration and Supervision certification from Fordham University, and a Bachelor of Arts from Princeton University.
One word you would use to describe our food system: Fragile
Your breakfast this morning: My Mom’s homemade granola and raspberries from my garden
Food policy hero: Marion Nestle, for fighting for a better food system
Favorite food: It depends on the season, but if I have to choose one: Grapefruit – something I craved during all three pregnancies
Social media must-follow: @thelunchtray – School food advocate Bettina Siegel