Nancy Easton stands in front of a packed room of well-dressed moms who are focused on each word she says about childhood obesity.
“Obesity is no longer about the fat kid,” said Easton, a former Ironman Triathlon participant. “The ultimate goal is that we’re teaching children skills for a lifetime of good health, not just this one lunch or this one recess period, so that we’re combating that childhood obesity epidemic.”
Easton, recently named a “food revolution hero” by chef activist Jamie Oliver and part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Lets Move! initiative, is founder and executive director of Wellness in the Schools, or WITS, a nonprofit organization that encourages healthy eating and fitness for children in public schools.
“Since we’ve been doing this, we’ve really seen it become a revolution and a movement,” said Easton at St. Philip’s Episcopal School in Coral Gables on Friday. Her initiative essentially focuses on drastically improving the lunch period, in an effort to improve the overall health of children.
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Since 2005, her organization has rocketed from helping 16 children in just one school to 30,000 students in 50 schools across New York, Kentucky and Florida.
After graduating from Princeton University in 1988, Easton witnessed firsthand in New York City what she considers the impact of poor diet and lack of physical activity on children’s ability to focus. Soon after, she was inspired to start her own organization. She refers to it as a Peace Corps for the wellness world.
WITS implements its three-year program in 10 schools each year. The program includes a re-writing of the lunch menu, training for the school lunch workers with the new menu, and outside support getting the least-active kids active and prevention of playground bullying.
“We’re essentially a public-private partnership that helps support what’s already happening in the public schools,” Easton said.
The Cook for Kids and Coach for Kids program costs approximately $100,000 per school for the three years.
According to the WITS website, her program “develops and implements healthy food, healthy environments, and opportunity for regular play to help kids learn and grow.”
Easton’s growing movement in New York inspired St. Philip’s Head of School, the Rev. Gregory Blackburn, Ph.D., who last year took a few teachers and parents up North to see how their lunch program worked. For the last month, a new snack initiative began for St. Philip’s pre-K-3, pre-K-4 and kindergarten classes.
“The goal down here is to talk to teachers and parents and to share my story and to share our program, so that they have a basis from which to work. The more you can talk about this work, the more change is going to happen,” Easton said. “We want to share best practices as often as we can.”
Easton cited statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about obesity, which say that obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. She added that various studies have proven that unless something is done the current generation of children will be the first to not outlive their parents.
“We’re teaching kids math, how to read, music, why don’t we teach them the proper way to eat?” said Allyce Perret-Gentil, St. Philip’s school nurse. “Its not about being crazy healthy, but teaching kids how to have a balance, to have energy at school.”
One of the parents, Melissa Medina, called Easton’s presence in the school Friday morning a push by Blackburn to change the culture around eating in the school.
“Its easy just to forget about what your kids are eating, what are you truly packing for them,” said Medina, 35. “It’s really easy to not put importance to it and this reminds us that its extremely important for obvious reasons.”
Some parents walked away from Easton’s presentation knowing that spreading the word and sharing ideas will help initiate change in neighboring communities.
“The easy starting point a lot of times is the private schools and then once the movement continues to grow and there’s more a groundswell, it’ll continue to spread,” said Krislav, 39, a mother from Temple Beth Am and a member of Slow Food Miami. “That’s our hope anyway.”
Easton admits that in the early days of her program, everyone thought they were crazy. But 10 years later, people contact her to come and talk to their schools.
Perret-Gentil felt similarly when she announced earlier this year that they were starting a pilot snack program for the younger children at St. Philip’s. But parents were interested and excited to get involved.
“This is not all brand-new information, but being reminded of it, it sparks something in a lot of people,” said Medina.
Easton understands that she will not change the world as one person, but that she can slowly teach others through conversations and consultations.
“We have a great opportunity with schools to set an example, and that’s really why we do this work — to ultimately combat the childhood obesity epidemic,” Easton said. “The more people that we can talk to and share this message and we can give tips, the better.”