Believing a Classroom Learns on Its Stomach

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By David Gibbons The first thing you notice about Nancy Easton is the sparkle in her eyes and then the crinkle in her smile, sure signs of the eternal optimist who won't take no for an answer and relishes a tough challenge. Easton's mission, through Wellness in the Schools, a nonprofit she founded in 2005, is not only to promote the notion that improved diet and exercise lead to better academic achievement and enhanced individual potential, but to put it into practice. Easton acts as the "coach"-the program's teaching face and athletics consultant-and Bill Telepan as "cook"-its chief of sourcing, developing and implementing new school lunch recipes. "It's the passion and energy that Nancy brings to this project that makes it work," said Telepan, known for his eponymous restaurant on West 69th Street. "There are a lot of roadblocks, but she doesn't let them stop her." Telepan and Easton met as fellow parents at P.S. 87 and she soon convinced him to join WITS, which now operates in 40 New York City public schools as well as 14 in Kentucky and Florida. Easton, 46, has the lithe physique and buoyant stride of the elite college athlete she once was: Recruited to play soccer at Princeton, she also ran track, setting a school record at 800 meters and anchoring a 4 x 800 relay team at the national championships. After earning her master's degree at Bank Street, Easton taught at I.S. 370 on the Lower East Side, where 99 percent of students were at poverty level and many struggled: "They would walk into the school with a bottle of soda and a bag of chips for breakfast. Then they ate a processed meal for lunch. The same kids couldn't focus in class, couldn't walk a flight of stairs without catching their breath. This was the '90s and no one was really talking about it at the time "We were kids teaching young kids," said Easton, a Miami-area native. "We would take them biking after school or hiking on weekends, and they couldn't keep up. It was just so bizarre to me, as someone who grew up running around." Easton's family ate figs and mangoes from their backyard. Her mother tended garden and put health food on the table; friends and neighbors called her "Nature Lady." Easton's father is a self-made man who started with a dry-cleaning business and eventually became a successful real estate developer. "I attribute that positive can-do attitude to him. If you wanted to do something, you were going to do it and do it well." Nancy the Eternal Optimist admits to an ingenuous false naiveté: When she's trying to get to "yes," she'll often conveniently behave as if "no" doesn't exist. Asked whether she needs a realist on staff for balance, she chuckles, "Yes, that would be Marjorie [Wolfson], our director of programs. I joke that when we're crossing the street together and the sign says 'Don't Walk,' she always stops and I just keep walking." But there's more to it than just forging ahead: "If the cook in the kitchen or the woman who runs the school gives us feedback that it's not going well, we don't gloss it over. Listening to the problems and continuing to work through them is another important trait. "It's not just about changing lunch," said Easton. "We need to talk about why we changed it, to cook with the kids, cook with the parents, teach them about nutrition, so they understand why they're not getting chicken fingers."

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