Today is Food Day, and we are excited to welcome Wellness in the Schools to Miami. United around the conviction that healthier bodies make healthier minds and that, conversely, unhealthy school environments interfere with student health, school attendance and academic achievement, Executive Director and Co-Founder Nancy Easton is armed with a strong troop of supporters, many of them chefs. For good reason! Chef Bill Telepan, a champion of this nonprofit’s efforts in NYC to improve school lunch and educate kids about healthy eating, asked his friend Michael Schwartz for help in bringing this great work to South Florida. Of course his reply was, I’m in!
About a year later, Nancy is in town giving a keynote at University of Miami this evening marking Food Day and a milestone for the organization’s arrival here. Over lunch at Michael’s Genuine®, we met the four chefs who have been hired by WITS and trained to work on-site with cafeteria staff to prepare daily scratch-cooked meals and educate families about the importance of eating healthy food. Across Miami-Dade and Broward County, chefs Michael, Bradley Kilgore (Alter), Aaron Brooks (Edge Steak & Bar at the Four Seasons Miami) and Clark Bowen (DB Bistro) will each visit their respective schools for special “Café Days” throughout the school year, where they can make an impact first hand with their cheffy know-how. Think special recipe demos and tastings, dishes for school lunch menus based around fresh ingredients, farmers market visits to see first hand where food comes from, and more… As we well know through early work with Phyllis Wheatley Elementary and Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools, the smallest things can sometimes have the biggest impact. Michael’s school chef partner Leonore Azpurua at McNicol Middle School in South Broward pointed to recently popping into classrooms to taste basil harvested from a nearby community garden with students. And that’s not even in the cafeteria! “The principal is very supportive, but it’s the kids that really want this,” she shared.
In the past eleven years, WITS has cooked over 11 million school meals and led more than 54,000 hours of play. We had lots of questions for Nancy, as you might imagine, especially about what we can expect here in Miami. Here’s a little taste of what’s to come!
The Genuine Kitchen: What’s the most rewarding part of the job? Can you provide one anecdote that says it all?
Nancy Easton: I often say that I keep at this year after year because it is indeed, so rewarding. I see “victories” every day – from kids wanting seconds and thirds of kale salad to principals telling us how much our program is changing their school culture. It sounds silly, but when I walk into schools and see bags of chips and sleeves of cookies on the cafeteria floor, it just makes me so happy to see these same kids wanting more and more kale. They are hungry. They will eat what is in front of them.
A recent reward was actually from a principal. Our focus is not necessarily on the adults in our communities and we do not focus on weight or appearance, but we do hope that our work is making everyone think twice about their own health, starting with the kids. A principal recently told us that thanks to our program, she lost 30 pounds over the summer and that she has so much more energy and feels so healthy.
TGK: What gets kids to eat healthy? Describe a kid’s palate!
NE: As an educator, I always insist on pairing a very good education program with the changes we want to make. It is tough to put organic tofu in front of a kid (or anyone) without educating on the “why”. While our focus is in the kitchen and on the recess yard, we support this centerpiece with a robust educational program – from WITS Labs to WITS BITS to FIT BITS to Family Fitness Fun Nights. I also want to make it loud and clear that most kids are very open to new discoveries (and they are hungry!). If you continue to provide kids with delicious healthy choices, they will devour them. Do not give up. It can take persistence.
TGK: What’s a favorite dish or ingredient that has won them over from your experience in NYC?
NE: I think at this point our vegetarian chili is our signature dish! Everyone loves it. It is served in the cafeteria regularly and we make it on our winter WITS Lab (seasonal cooking class). It is so well spiced and seasoned that the kids don;t even miss the meat. We use three different beans as our protein source. Kids also love hummus, another dish made with a bean (chickpea).
TGK: Why Miami?
NE: The story of coming to South Florida is actually a sweet one. We obviously look for like-minded markets that are ready of change. And, in the case of South Florida, the head of a local community foundation (Melissa White) was asked by a community member help to create a healthier local school. Melissa googled and found Wellness in the Schools, an organization founded by her camp counselor (yours truly)! I guess she thought that if I could teach her how to swim and play tennis that I could possibly run a wellness organization. Melissa helped us to find 3 others schools in South Florida so that it was worth our efforts and resources to come down.
TGK: What’s the biggest challenge entering a new market, and describe your approach
NE: We look to new markets as the building new networks – we spend a good deal of time getting to know people and learning about their needs and assets. For the work we do, and to bring about change in general, we rely heavily on the building of relationships and in the case of a new market, on the needs of that community. We are not here to say: “Here is the only way that works. Do it now.” We are here to listen to the specific needs of a community, to tap into the resources of that community (both human and otherwise) and to build relationships and trust in that community so that we can share/implement our models together. We have been incredibly fortunate to hire a staff in South Florida who are dedicated and talented and fabulous. They have learned from our team in NYC and have executed with precision and frankly, with patience. Change is happening at a pace slower than they want, but we have high standards and they are driven to meet those standards, working with local resources and local change agents.
TGK: What is food day all about, and where does it fit in in the overall big picture of your objectives at WITS!
NE: Honestly, Food Day to me is like Women’s History Month or Black History Month. One day? One month? Food Day is very day for me but I am of course happy that we give more focus to food on this one day. The topic of “food” touches on so many charged and difficult issues – from children’s health to food insecurity to climate change. WITS comes to food day from the perspective of children’s health and specifically childhood obesity. We bring awareness about the issue through our programming and our activism/advocacy.