Wellness In Our Schools: What Parents Can Do

Bill Telepan is a Michelin-starred chef with two eponymous New York City restaurants (Telepan and Telepan Local), a passion for celebrating seasonal ingredients, and a teenage daughter in public school. In 2008, he joined Manhattan-based Wellness in the Schools (WITS) as executive chef in an effort to help make school food healthier and more delicious. Nancy Easton, co-founder and executive director of WITS, is a life-long athlete and former educator in the New York City Department of Education, as well as the parent of three pubic school children. WITS is a non-profit organization dedicated to making healthy eating, environmental awareness, and physical fitness a part of everyday life for public school students. WITS helps students get back to class ready to focus and learn by providing healthy and delicious lunches and nutrition education along with an active and cooperative recess period through their Cook and Coach for Kids programs. As schools and lunchrooms across the nation began welcoming back students for another academic year, Easton and Telepan sat down to discuss the healthy schools movement, and tips for parents anxious to promote wellness in their schools.

Telepan: Public schools in New York City have recently opened their doors, and students are getting back to class — and to lunch and recess. As a parent with three children in public school, what are you hoping they find in their lunch line?

Easton: I really want my children to be able to get a healthy and delicious lunch at their school. Not surprisingly, my children go to a school with the WITS program, which means they have the Alternative Menu. In New York City, the Alternative Menu is a more scratch-cooked, plant-based menu option; many parents don't realize they have a choice, but actually any school can have this menu by requesting their principal to make the change.

So what am I looking for? First, I'm looking to see that the Alternative Menu — which features some great recipes like Texas chicken chili, co-developed by WITS — is in place; second, that there's a full and vibrant salad bar available; and third, that there are no sugary, flavored milks in sight, with low-fat or skim white milk options instead, and a water jet so children can get all the fresh New York City tap water they desire. You really want that cafeteria to be a happy, healthy place that your kids look forward to visiting each day.

As a chef, obviously I think food is one of the most important parts of our lives, but I've heard that when you were looking for a school for your first child you actually prioritized the lunch and recess program over the school's academic record. Isn't that a strange choice for an educator? [pullquote:left]
Some people were surprised that I prioritized lunch and recess, but I actually did precisely that because I am an educator and I knew from experience that in order to have strong academic results, you have to have a healthy students. I've seen enough to know that that kids have to have their basic needs met in order to excel in higher function areas like testing, classroom performance, and good behavior. More and more research is proving what we see every day in our schools: unhealthy kids can't perform as well as healthy ones. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control just came out with a great report highlighting the links between things like low fruit and vegetable consumption and lower grades, and between increased physical activity and better grades, behavior, and cognitive performance.

WITS is only in 60 of New York City's roughly 1,700 schools. What can other parents do to make sure their kids have a healthy and happy cafeteria experience? Also, what would you say to low-income families who don't have as many resources to ensure that their kids are eating healthy?
They can do the same thing that I did just by diving in and getting involved. I started WITS because I was a public school educator and parent concerned with health and wellness, but you don't have to start a non-profit to make a difference. The first thing I would say to any parent is to eat with your kids, definitely at home and even at school; it's hard to know what's going on if you don't sit down and experience meals with them. Many schools will let you visit the cafeteria to eat with your child, especially at the beginning of the year when kids are still adjusting. It's important to get the full picture before you applaud or complain about school food, so this is a great way to get the lay of the land in your school and also to connect with your child. WITS recognizes that poverty and obesity are intrinsically linked, which is precisely why we focus our work on areas where there is less access and fewer resources and why we focus on the school lunch. Many of the students we serve may not eat another meal all day, so that school lunch is of critical importance. Along with that lunch, we also bring a ton of important supports like nutrition education, physical fitness at recess, and personal interaction and support from WITS cooks, coaches, and chef/fitness partners.

In a nutshell, what are the three most important things parents can do to improve health in their school?
First, make sure your school's wellness committee is active, and if you don't have one, start one! You can't effect lasting change unless you have your school's stakeholders, like your principal, teachers, food service staff, and parents, on board. Wellness committees are a great place to bounce ideas off one another and work as a team to launch great projects and initiatives to get your school healthier. Next, look into your school's "party policies," which cover events like publishing parties, student sales, and parent-teacher conferences and meetings. Use your wellness committee to evaluate what parents and teachers might be bringing in from the outside and how that does or doesn't mesh with your school's vision of wellness. Don't feel like you have to make everything punitive either; help your school coordinate wellness weeks and parties with healthy themes and snacks. And start slow, with baby steps. Change doesn't happen overnight. Finally, in the fitness arena, talk to your child and visit your school to find out if they are meeting the state requirements for physical education. Right now, 96 percent of schools in our city don't meet the requirements for PE time: every day for kindergarten through third grade, for at least 120 minutes a week; three times a week for grades four through six, also for a minimum of 120 minutes; and at least 90 minutes a week for grades seven and eight. If your school isn't meeting these goals, work with your principal and wellness committee to make sure quality PE time is part of your child's school experience, and help your school to implement additional ways to get moving, like fitness breaks in the classroom and programs like Coach for Kids on the recess yard.