Chef Bill Telepan was attending parent-teacher conferences at his daughter’s school in 2008 when he was first introduced Wellness in the Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring healthy eating and environmental awareness for public-school students. Founder Nancy Easton was a parent at the school and a part of its wellness committee, which on that night was distributing wraps and sandwiches to parents and soliciting feedback on the potential lunch options. “I grabbed some of the sandwiches and took them to the classroom, and on my way back down after the meeting, I said, ‘How can I help?’” recalls Telepan.
When he wasn’t working at his eponymous Upper West Side restaurant, Telepan began attending the wellness committee meetings to learn more about the school’s lunch items and the kids’ food requests. A few months in, his involvement grew significantly. He was volunteering during a recess period when the assistant principal beckoned him to check out the salad bar and to see why the students weren’t eating it. “It was basically just some brown lettuce, tomatoes, onions and jarred dressing,” he remembers. In that moment, he knew he wanted to do more. “I went back to Nancy and the gang and said, ‘Hey, what if I cooked?’”
The chef’s call to action went far beyond putting prettier food on a plate. “In New York City, 75 percent of the kids get free or reduced-priced lunch, and those kids are the ones who don’t have a good meal to go home to and often don’t have breakfast, making lunch the only hot meal of the day sometimes,” Telepan explains. “Why should they be getting processed food? Why can’t they have access to good food that will help to get them through the school day, to learn and to excel?”
Since the school had several recipes already in place, Telepan sifted through the existing options to inspire healthier versions and entirely new offerings, including an enhanced salad bar, vegetarian chili and hormone-free milk from Hudson Valley Fresh. With the items well received in his daughter’s school, Telepan and the team extended the menu to the other two schools where WITS had a presence at the time, and to eight additional schools in the following year. That momentum propelled the chef to develop several more recipes for the program, enough so as to eventually form an official WITS menu that now includes items like Tuscan roasted chicken, veggie meatballs with Bombay curry sauce and sweet potato waffle fries. As WITS continued to grow, the team began hiring culinary-school graduates to work within the schools, training cafeteria staff members and educating students on healthy eating.
Recognizing that the best way to encourage students to try the new menu additions was to teach them how to cook, WITS also developed culinary “labs” — cooking classes that take over the science lab of the school. There, students learn about the benefits of various ingredients and how to prepare the dishes they’ll be eating in the cafeteria, dishes like roasted potatoes, braised carrots, pastas and pizzas. “When they make it, they’re more liable to taste it,” says Telepan. “And when they say, ‘This is delicious,’ we tell them, ‘Great, because it’s going to be on the menu next Tuesday.’”
Telepan credits the classes with demystifying food for kids, a population he feels is genuinely inclined to learn about what they’re eating. “It’s about education,” he says. “People think there’s no way children would eat from a salad bar, but that’s not true. I think kids are curious.” Still, he admits that time and consistent efforts need to be at play. “You have to let kids try things, and you have to keep at it,” he says. “My daughter had to try cauliflower about 12 times before she liked it.”
The celebrity-chef card works in capturing interest, too. “It helps that I go in wearing a chef coat, say hi to the kids and sign autographs once in a while,” says Telepan. That buzz is only amplified by the nonprofit’s chef partners. The program invites other big-name New York chefs, like Butter’s Alex Guarnaschelli and Gramercy Tavern’s Michael Anthony to adopt a school and carry out initiatives throughout the year, including tastings, demonstrations and projects like school gardens and greenmarket tours.
Those chef partners will also be participating in the “I Heart WITS” gala on May 5, an evening celebrating the nonprofit’s 10-year anniversary at New York’s Riverpark restaurant. The night’s dinner will showcase dishes from more than 35 area restaurant and beverage partners, including Marc Forgione, DBGB, Blue Hill Stone Barns and Tertulia. Guests will have a chance to win health, fitness and travel experiences via live and silent auctions. Accompanying hosts Telepan and Easton will be model Chrissy Teigen and chef Josh Capon, and the event will honor individuals who have had an influential impact on the health and wellness field.
After assisting WITS to grow from three schools to 60 in his seven years of involvement, Telepan fondly recalls one event that helped put such possibilities into perspective. “I was sitting in on a lab at a school we had been in for three years, and one of our cooks asked the kids, ‘What are the health benefits of olive oil?’” he remembers. “Every single kid raised their hand and knew the answer.” For Telepan, that moment confirmed two things. “One, healthy eating is something that’s not going to happen overnight and has to be talked about often,” he says. “Two, kids will surprise you.’”
Individual tickets for the “I Heart WITS” Gala are $300 and can be purchased here .
Read more about worthy causes on Food Republic: