This year marks an incredible time for a meaningful organization called Wellness in the Schools (WITS), which encourages healthy eating and play through a variety of inspirational programs. WITS is celebrating its 10 year anniversary and will be hosting its annual gala on Tuesday, May 5. I had the pleasure of speaking with Nancy, Co-Founder/Executive Director of WITS to get some more insight on how the organization started and where it’s looking to expand. Our interview follows below:
What inspired you to start the Wellness in the Schools program?
I was working as a school leader and one of my big jobs was to oversee breakfast and lunch duty. I would watch children bring in a bag of a lunch and a bottle of soda, and that was breakfast. This was shortly followed by an over processed lunch followed by an unhealthy recess period of just kind of standing around and doing nothing or getting into fights. So really this time for healthy eating and healthy play was not happening. So that was a long time ago. And we would sit in staff meetings where we would talk about reading and writing, but really we would also talk about health and were like you know what? They’re not even listening to what we’re teaching because they’re not eating healthy. So really it became a big conversation among myself and staff members. I decided I had to do something about it.
Are the goals for the program ultimately to promote healthy eating and to design different ways to improve the wellness programs within schools?
School lunch experience, which is lunch and recess, go hand in hand in New York City public schools. The real focus centers around that school lunch experience. So: Healthy lunch, positive recess experience, back to class ready to focus and learn. It’s a short term goal [for the program], but we’re also really teaching skills for a lifetime of good health. And that really comes from not only that one meal or that one recess experience, but also comes from cooking classes with children, cooking classes with parents, fitness breaks in the school day, family fitness fun nights. So to your point, it’s all these other things that we’re doing in the school to impact school culture. We ask that a school have a wellness committee and that we lead that and/or sit on it. We often lead it. In those committee meetings monthly, we talk about our main goals revamping the lunch menu, teaching cooking classes, and presence on the recess yard. But also [ask], what do you want in your school to help you shift your culture? Some schools focus on fitness, some focus on parent cooking classes, new party regulations, or snack regulations. So however we can help tip that meal to a healthier school culture is what we’re working on.
You partner with a lot of chefs, such as Chef Bill Telepan, for the meal aspect of the program, How did that come about?
So Bill came on board when were first in 3 schools only, all volunteers trying to figure out what we were doing. We were working in two high poverty communities and we worked in my kid’s school because that’s where I spent a lot of my time, and that school was also Bill Telepan’s daughter’s school. We were showcasing these healthy lunches that we were making at parent-teacher conferences. So Bill came in, tasted our healthy Chicken Caeser Wrap, grabbed it and went to his conference. On the way back out, the way he tells the story is that his daughter did really well at the conference, and he came up to me and asked how he could help. Those four words turned into another full time job for him. He has become our Executive Chef, the spokesperson for Cook for Kids program. He recruited his [chef] pals to all sponsor a school. Getting the excitement around this for kids is really what it’s all about, and [the chefs] really are rock stars when they come to the schools. We ask them to come two to four times a year, and ask them to do a tasting or demo, some sort of experience in the school. We also as them to take on a project: helping to start a garden, writing a cook book that the school can then sell at a fundraiser, whatever the school wants because we want to make it something that can work for the school. So they’re involved. Of course, they all cook for our gala, which is wonderful. They have a whole list of requirements when they sign on to be one of our partner chefs. They all sign on to the Chef Moves School Initiative. So we’re promoting more and more chefs working in schools. They’re a great help to get the word out.
Who do you partner with for funding and extra resources to keep the program going?
A big part of my job is to raise money for this to work. We have corporate donors, family foundations, some public dollars through the schools paying for it. Essentially, we have a gala every year that raises a bit of our money. A lot of people in the food space: chop’t Salad is a donor, Chipotle is a donor, and different organizations that have taken on this issue. More and more people are becoming aware. The child obesity epidemic is really a new epidemic that people are really understanding and understanding what some of the solutions are for tha,t and seeing our work as a solution. More and more people are coming to us and wanting to get behind the work. We spend a lot of time fundraising, we invite people to visit our schools, we write grants, and have events.
In light of the school lunch debate, what are your challenges?
My answer 10 years ago was the myth that children don’t want to eat healthy food, the mentality in this country that healthy food should be norm. That was one of our biggest challenges. Certainly what I’ve seen over the year is a shift in our country and our mentality and the importance of healthier eating and healthy schools. I wouldn’t say it’s a priority, but it’s shifting to become more important and people are seeing the impact of the role of healthy eating on better academic performance and lifelong healthy living.
My answer today is as you expand, how do you keep quality control? What are your metrics? We have to say x percentage of children are eating more fruit and vegetables. So the short answer is quality control that goes with expansion and proving our success through metrics.
What does this mean for you all?
I know it means that we’ve been at this for a really long time in this new time. It puts us in a wonderful position of expanding and replicating a proven model. We’ve been refining it and perfecting it for all these years. I’m just very excited about the possibility of expanding, and that expansion is going to look different in different states and different cities. We can tap our current staffing and resources support around the country.
What future projects are you working on?
We have about ten balls up in the air right now for our next expansion sites, but I think the 3 that we will probably land in the next year are: Camden, New Jersey, Miami, Florida, and we’re looking to develop more partnerships in New York be able to expand our program in a different model.
What an impressive organization! To purchase tickets to WITS’ upcoming gala, go to https://iheartwits.splashthat.com/