One Pizza at a Time: Nancy Easton Brought Healthy Food to Schools Way Before It Was Cool
July 15, 2016 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
As a teacher, marathoner, mother of three, and founder of Wellness in the Schools (WITS)—a rapidly-expanding nonprofit that brings nutritional food and fitness programs to public schools nationwide—Nancy Easton is the kind of woman who tackles impossibility with a firm hug (and a salad bar). Last week, the oft-described “renegade lunch lady” sat down—a rare occasion for her—to speak with us about asking for favors (for the kids!), turning 50 this year, and the importance of family dinners.
I ALWAYS KNEW that I wanted to be a teacher. Even as a kindergartner, I loved to play school at home. I was raised in Key Biscayne, Florida, and most of my female role models were teachers. Growing up, exercise and healthy food were just normal in our house. We always ran around outside, and other kids called my mom “nature lady” because she made her own granola and bran pancakes—and this was in the ‘70s, when TV dinners were a big thing.
I’VE BEEN AN ATHLETE all my life, and I really feel that training and competing gave me the confidence to know that I can set a goal and achieve it. I think shining on the athletic field allowed me to really shine in other areas—or it gave me the confidence to try, at least.
I THINK I HAVE AT LEAST ONE MORE MARATHON IN ME. I’ve run about a dozen, and done triathlons as well. The pressure is, if I’m going to do one, I want to do it well. We’ll see.
A TIP THAT I ALWAYS GIVE to other executives is to literally budget workouts into your work schedule. If it has to be at lunch, that’s fine—make it as non-negotiable as an important meeting. Personally, it’s as much about mental health as physical. If I miss one day, that’s fine, but if I miss two days, you don’t want to be anywhere near me. At least three of my standing workouts per week are social. I meet a WITS board member, who’s also a close friend, every week for a run.
I BEGAN MY CAREER teaching English in Tokyo, Japan, through a program called Princeton in Asia—I studied art history at Princeton for undergrad. When I came back, I knew I wanted to teach, but there was a period when I felt sort of lost. I really feel for post-graduates—it can be a confusing time. I wound up going to the Bank Street College of Education, where I got my Master’s in museum education, and then I worked at the Guggenheim in their children’s program. But I wanted to make a larger difference, and I didn’t really feel like I could do that in a small, ancillary part of such a large institution. That’s when I bumped into a college classmate—who was actually one of the first employees of Teach for America—and he asked me to be part of a new school he was starting on the Lower East Side, called the Learning Project. I taught middle school English and humanities there, and it was a fantastic opportunity to develop a curriculum and create what I wanted to do.
THE IDEA for Wellness in the Schools came out of witnessing firsthand the impact of poor diet and lack of physical activity on children’s ability to learn. I watched my middle school students come to school with a bottle of soda and a bag of chips for breakfast—their fingers would be orange from Cheetos, first thing in the morning—followed by an overly processed lunch. Recess was very sedentary, and some kids couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without stopping to catch their breath. We’d have staff meetings where we would discuss reading, writing, and arithmetic, but we also realized that if these kids aren’t healthy, they won’t even hear what we’re saying. We would take them out on hikes, and they couldn’t keep up with us. We knew it shouldn’t be a privilege to eat good food.
I STARTED the healthy eating program out of pure naiveté. It just seemed like such a natural, easy problem to fix. By then I was working as an assistant principal, and we began in one classroom, with 16 children. Joy Pierson from Candle Cafe delivered food for free once a week, and Miki and Radha Agrawal from Slice brought pizza made with fresh vegetables and whole wheat dough on Fridays. And then we had a volunteer chef come in three days a week to make other healthy meals. I knew it was good for the kids, and that gave me the confidence to think I could make a real change. The next year, we expanded into three schools and grew from there. Four years in, I switched over to working for WITS full-time.
OUR GOALS THIS YEAR are to serve over 50,000 children in 100 schools nationwide, primarily in New York, although we launched our national expansion in a big way last year. We’re now in 80 schools in New York, four in South Florida, five in New Jersey, and four outside of San Francisco.
I ASK FOR A LOT OF FAVORS, and people usually say yes. At first we were just like, “We need pizza for the kids!” But now we have a budget and we’re running a non-profit, and we need to raise money. I never imagined that I would be a professional fundraiser, because I’m a real boots-on-the-ground kind of person, but it now consumes most of my time. I network a lot, and bring donors to schools to showcase our work. I believe in what I do, so I’m definitely not afraid to ask people to help us do it. I’ve gotten a no or two, but not very often.
To contribute to Wellness in the Schools, please click here.
Photographs by Frances Denny