Whole Kids Foundation is built on a spirit of collaboration, and we act as a catalyst for change by investing in partnerships with respected experts in the fields of nutrition and education.

Together, we amplify each other’s efforts to improve children's nutrition and wellness.

Throughout 2023, we are spotlighting our current partners and how these organizations are growing the next generation of healthy eaters.

Wellness in the Schools (WITS) is a national nonprofit that teaches children healthy habits to learn, live and thrive. They partner with public schools, chefs and coaches to ensure access to nourishing food and active play. Their collaborative approach and programming aim to shift the culture of schools to prioritize well-being. Founded in 2005 by Nancy Easton and Bill Telepan, Wellness in the Schools reaches over one million public school students across the country every school day. WITS is also a founding partner of ScratchWorks, collaborating with Whole Kids Foundation and other non-profits and school food leaders to support districts in moving to scratch cooking.

We reached out to Nancy Easton, Co-Founder and Executive Director at Wellness in the Schools, to get the scoop on how they are helping kids learn to love fresh, nutritious, whole foods.

Whole Kids Foundation (WKF): What is Wellness in the School's (WITS) approach to advancing children’s nutrition and wellness?

At Wellness in the Schools, our approach is a holistic one, centering on the needs of a district/community, and then providing specific programming to meet those needs. We are active listeners, arriving with an arsenal of talent and tools.

We work in public schools, the ideal and most equitable (sometimes, only) environment to shape children’s wellness behavior. Over one-third of children under the age of 18 in the United States are affected by chronic lifestyle illnesses, with higher prevalence and BIPOC populations. Many schools lack the necessary resources for students to achieve the proper nutrition and physical activity that are prerequisites to learning. Our goal is to help schools across the country become healthier places for students to learn and grow.

We approach this with three programs/goals:

  1. Our Cook for Kids program helps feed kids real food, transforming the cafeteria menu and training school cooks on preparing those menu items; and supporting these changes with nutrition and culinary education in the classroom.
  2. Our Coach for Kids program helps let kids play and be more active throughout the school day.
  3. Our Green for Kids program helps get kids green through environmental sustainability education and hands-on gardening experience.

The programs weave in and out of each other, and students make the connection between the tomato growing in a garden to making tomato salsa, to eating a nutritious meal or snack that will fuel active play… all ingredients to nourishing a thriving life!

How does WITS support school districts and how does that work impact the larger school nutrition movement?

School districts are our largest and most important partners. We are invited to work with districts as they look to bring more scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes onto their menu. We begin with district leadership and then execute a holistic program, with a simultaneous top-down and bottom-up approach. Our culinary teams work with menu planning to develop recipes; our WITS Chefs then work both side by side in kitchens to train the cooks on these new recipes, as well as offsite in our CookCamp culinary and wellness training workshops; and ultimately, our WITS Chef educators work with schools to teach children to cook the very same recipes that they will see on their menu (WITS Labs). We place WITS Chefs in schools over a period of time to ensure that our changes are lasting. They work closely with school wellness committees while our leadership team works with district wellness staff.

In parallel, our Coach for Kids program works both with district leadership as well as on the ground in schools. We are training physical education teachers to execute our fitness programming at a district level while modeling this programming in select schools across the city (and country).

Essentially our model is one that brings about systemic change by working with districts and city agencies. However, our strength really lies in the on-the-ground work, where our WITS Chefs and WITS Coaches interface daily with school personnel, parents, and ultimately our most important stakeholders — the students themselves. Our team members represent the communities we serve and bring our established programming to classrooms around the country with that beautiful combination of passion and talent. They serve as role models and change agents for the movement at large. THIS is how change happens!

How does WITS measure impact in its programs?

Our largest market of effectiveness (by scope) is our expansion of programming from one school to over 190 in five states in the past 18 years. We only bring our programming where we are invited, and we take a deep dive once invited in. Our partnership with the New York City Department of Education is the best example of our efficacy. We started in one classroom at PS 225 in 2005, and by 2025 we will be reaching almost one million students in all NYC public schools.

With every school district, we work diligently to build trust and assess their needs. Every relationship is different based on their needs. In Redwood City School District, California, we will be doing our first CookCamp training with the school food staff this August after a year of consulting and learning how they work. In our South Florida market, we are just in classrooms teaching WITS Labs and WITS BITS. In Camden, New Jersey, we are in our seventh year of programming and second year of the Full Futures collective and focus on CookCamp training and student tastings of new, scratch-cooked and nutritious recipes.

Student progress is also a large measure of impact. A study conducted by the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Columbia University was published in 2021, evaluating how Wellness in the Schools’ programming impacts students’ school lunch consumption and levels of physical activity. Highlighted results include that children in WITS schools eat 40% more fruits and vegetables compared to children in non-WITS schools, are as a group 10x more vigorously active during indoor recess and have a 58% decrease in the time it took to get back on task after lunch/recess. We have since raised those percentages and strengthened our programming and wellness cultures in schools.

At a high level, we are working toward systems change, whether it’s a school district adding new scratch-cooked recipes to the menu, a salad bar being a part of the cafeteria experience for students, or nutrition education being integrated into a school or district-wide wellness policy. But the daily human change is just as extraordinary. It’s the second grader who wants a vegetable of every color on her lunch plate. It’s the middle school student who is eager to try new foods and share their excitement with a classmate. It’s all of the students who go home with a WITS recipe and want to make it with their family, bringing conversations about nutrition and nourishment into their homes.