“Being a Wellness in the Schools Chef is a dream come true for me. I was a New York City public school student myself, and my passion for cooking, education, and providing children with real, healthy food led me to this fulfilling career. One of my most cherished moments so far was when a child tried cauliflower for the first time and loved it. It’s also heartwarming to see kids lining up for seconds of salad. Knowing that I’m positively impacting their lives fills me with joy.”
Eva Del Omo, Wellness in the Schools Chef
What is the problem Wellness in the Schools is trying to solve?
In 2022, over 13.4 million children in the US lived in households that experienced food insecurity, up 45% from 2021. In addition to this terrible injustice, many children do not have access to nutritious, healthy food and exercise, which means that 1 in 3 children under the age of 18 also suffer from chronic lifestyle illnesses like obesity and diabetes, with even higher rates among Black, Brown and Indigenous children. Needless to say, chronic lifestyle illnesses significantly impact children’s quality of life and ability to focus in school.
In the United States, 49.4 million children attend public school: 60% of those children rely on free or reduced-price lunch each year, and 31% rely on breakfast. This makes schools a critical place both for access to nutritious and healthy food and physical movement, and for promoting nutrition and lifestyle education. Yet, many public schools fail to offer scratch-cooked, healthy, plant forward meals and provide limited opportunities for exercise due to barriers such as cost, equipment, personnel training, and existing programming’s lack of cultural relevance.
What is Wellness in the Schools doing about this?
Wellness in the Schools sees the 12,000 hours kids spend in public school as the perfect opportunity to co-create healthier environments for children to learn, live, and thrive. Now operating in four states and Washington, D.C., the organization partners with public schools, chefs, and coaches to make sure schools can provide access to nourishing, cooked-from-scratch foods and active play to combat trends in chronic lifestyle illness.
Thanks to three core programs that complement each other, Wellness in the Schools now reaches over one million public school students every school day.
The Cook for Kids program helps feed kids real food, transforming the cafeteria menu to culturally relevant, plant forward, from-scratch foods and making the classroom a fun and encouraging space to learn about nutrition and get excited about menu items from a hands-on point of view. For example, instead of being introduced to a vegetarian chili for the first time in the cafeteria, kids learn how to make it themselves in an immersive cooking class that gets them excited about this plant-based, healthy option and increases the likelihood they’ll eat it in the cafeteria. “I’m only 10… but the most valuable thing I learned was that you can still eat good and tasty food without all the fat, sugar, and sodium,” says Annabelle, a student participating in the Cook for Kids program.
Coach for Kids helps let kids play and be more active throughout the school day with specially trained gym teachers, or “coaches”, to support active participation through classroom breaks for “WITS BITS”—streamed exercise modules—and coaches on the playground who get kids actively playing. “Recess feels safer and I have more fun. Last year I never looked forward to recess. Now I do,” says a student from PS 75.
Green for Kids helps get kids passionate about preserving the planet through environmental sustainability education and hands-on gardening experience ranging from waste reduction lessons in the school cafeteria to an introduction to composting in their school’s garden.
A Great Example of How This is Working
After nearly two decades in the business of healthy food and active play for kids in public schools, Wellness in the Schools is now partnering with the entire network of New York City public schools through the Department of Education. This has enabled the nonprofit to scale its programming to the largest school district in the country. All 1,200 NYC public schools have incorporated a Wellness in the Schools x Chef’s Council menu of 100 plant-based, culturally relevant, scratch-cooked meals in their cafeterias. Its chefs are now working across all NYC public schools to train cafeteria staff on this new menu and programming to facilitate adoption and buy-in.
Ways to Help!
There are many ways to support the amazing work Wellness in the Schools is doing in New York City, California, Florida, and beyond. You can join as a chef or coach and even bring the organization to your school! Of course, donations are always welcome, or if you have partnership ideas, you can reach out directly to Brian Jones, Director of Development.
“The early support and ongoing partnership with Newman’s Own Foundation has been incredibly valuable to Wellness in the Schools, enabling us to shift the culture of food in schools and train chefs to bring scratch cooked, culturally relevant recipes to their menus. It is the unwavering belief in our vision and commitment to walk in step with Wellness in the Schools that makes our collaboration with Newman’s Own Foundation one that will continue to be critical for our continued growth and success.”
Nancy Easton, Co-Founder and Executive Director