The Wellness Zone: Radically Transforming a Community
by JoAnn McLean
Several years ago, I heard about a miracle way of eating where everyone lost weight, arthritis was alleviated, cholesterol cut, diabetes disappeared and blood pressure plummeted.
I wanted ‘IN’ but the tiny organization, begun in 2005, tucked away above the East Hampton garage of its founder and benefactor Doug Mercer, was not easy to find.
I heard whispers about the seven-week commitment and blood tests required to access this life-saving journey, but its name was elusive.
As I searched for access, I noticed several of the writing faculty at Stony Brook Southampton Arts, where I was taking classes, discarding pounds like first drafts. Finally, I had a lead on the crisp new world of The Wellness Foundation and Plant Based Eating.
Doug Mercer had been on a similar journey prior to establishing the Wellness Foundation. After witnessing his father suffer multiple strokes, he sought to outwit his perceived genetic destiny.
According to Jennifer Taylor, Executive Director of the Wellness Foundation, “His doctors were not helpful,” so Doug searched on his own.
“Back in the early 2000s, not much data or research was available,” she said. “He went to the Optimum Health Institute, where he learned about plant-based eating and changed his eating habits dramatically.”
“Around the same time a new program was started by East Hampton school staff Ginny Reale and Barbara Tracy to bring wellness into the school by teaching kids about nutrition and exercise,” she added. “They started the ‘Bonac on Board Wellness K.’ As kids were learning more about nutrition and label-reading they noticed the disparity between what they were learning and what was being offered in the school cafeteria.”
The kids went on strike and a local paper reported that the school could not offer fresh foods for lack of proper refrigeration. Mr. Mercer read the article and anonymously donated the money for the refrigeration, and that is how the Wellness Foundation started.
Add to that the serendipitous arrival in East Hampton of Ms. Taylor, a vegan health educator and coach, who holds degrees in nutrition and social work, has experience in the health field and a track record as the Executive Director for Marylou Henner’s online health initiative for women.
Recognizing a kindred spirit in Mr. Mercer, she contacted him and they formed a team that would dramatically change food awareness and health for children and adults on the East End.
Ms. Taylor’s mind is so well-nourished, she could tell you just about anything nutrition related. This is one smart vegan cookie! Drawing upon her years of experience and several groundbreaking studies (eg. The China Study (T. Colin Campbell), The Pleasure Trap (Lisle and Goldhamer), The End of Dieting (Joel Fuhrman) among others, she devised the initial Wellness Challenge Program. She has been refining it, enhancing it and expanding it ever since.
Under Ms. Taylor and her team, Mr. Mercer’s vision grown to be a mainstay of the East End’s South Fork and a significant modifier of the minds, lifestyles, and even restaurants of its residents.
Restaurants in Sag Harbor, Southampton and East Hampton offer “W”, Wellness Challenge approved, meals, supporting the health goals of their clientele and a night out without guilt. You can find a list of those restaurants online here.
The Wellness Foundation has established relationships with yoga studios, gyms and food purveyors, including the North Fork’s Harvest Food Box to offer discounts for Challenge graduates.
The Wellness Challenge
The Wellness Challenge claims, you will lose weight, feel better, see your cholesterol drop, get off prescription drugs, enhance your quality of life, and be empowered by the meetings that provide a sense of community and support as you change your ideas about food. And, they have the years of statistics and testimonials to back up their claims.
“Try a really focused approach for 7 weeks and see what happens. We don’t realize how much control we have over our health…genetics loads the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger,” says Ms. Taylor.
Peggy Kraus, Exercise Physiologist, Certified Diabetes Counselor, and Wellness Challenge facilitator of 45 Challenges, likes to borrow a phrase from Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn: “if it has a face or a mother you won’t be eating it,” a sobering and thought-provoking concept.
“Good food is good food, she continued, “It doesn’t matter that it comes from a vegetable, it’s good food.”
Initially, Challenge participants were older, but now the foundation is seeing 20, 30, and 40-year-olds.
“Most people have some health issue they want to address,” explains Ms. Kraus, predominately weight loss and high cholesterol.
“Some just want to have more energy. One client, who has taken the Challenge four times, said plant-based eating is like learning a new alphabet…a new way of thinking about food…where a ‘healthy meal’ is no longer a ‘healthy meal,’” says Ms. Kraus. “It takes times to learn a new language. You need to be patient with the information and carry an open mind, be willing to learn a new way of thought. I agree it’s not easy to give up what you did your entire life.”
But it is worth it, she says.
“Big business promotes unhealthy food,” says Ms. Kraus. “Look at the research. It is unhealthy. The research is most impressive for plant based eating. What clicked for me is that I was taking someone else’s word for it all those years. Once I met Doug Mercer, I started to read the research… how could I ignore it?”
After reading Caldwell Esselstyn in 2007 Kraus gave up dairy. The following January after reading the China Study she gave up meat.
“I didn’t realize I became a vegan. I just slowly accomplished it,” she says.
Ms. Taylor has concentrated much of her educational planning and field time on the school program W-Kids (training program module available at W.org). For her “it all starts with children and parents.”
“I worked for 9 years with very sick people and I wanted to put the focus on prevention rather than management,” she says. That meant starting young and counting on the kids to bring the parents along.
“We knew it would be an uphill battle. People were not living like this. We wondered if it would it be accepted,” she said. “In 2006, Doug and I would go to East Hampton Middle School, and offer support groups, do food demonstration, and just hope somebody would show up. It was a lean six people, then 12, then there was interest in Montauk, Sag Harbor, and we began to spread out.”
They now have a presence in 11 schools, from Montauk to Southampton, and several schools on the North Fork are currently in training.
“We make it fun,” she explains, “Kindergarten kids are “Food Explorers. Trying whole food snacks. Third graders are “Food Detectives,” learning to read labels, what’s really in packaged food. And fifth graders are ‘Change Agents. We teach them that their voice matters. Each child chooses a change they want to make around nutrition in their own health or their family’s. Like getting all sugary drinks out of the house. Or exercising together. We ask the kids, “Did you walk your parents today? We have helped 13,000 kids so far on the East end learn to make healthy food and exercise choices,” Taylor says.
The Wellness Foundation’s vision is prevention — a grassroots effort to “radically transform a community into a wellness zone,” says Ms. Taylor. Rather than manage a disease, they propose preventing disease by plant-based eating and exercise and they have employed all manner of local resources to make the East End a role model for other communities to follow.
This fall they will be initiating their new campaign at the John Marshall School in East Hampton, which will be declared a Wellness Zone. It will be the goal of the entire school, with each child involved in choosing whole foods, choosing water as their beverage, choosing walking and movement, and using mindfulness techniques, to help alleviate stress.
In January, a new Wellness Challenge Program for adults will be launched. Because so many unhealthy eating habits are stress-related, more attention will be paid to controlling stress in one’s life, establishing balance. Their mission is to provide an environment where everyone can achieve a healthy, happy life and learn how not to die before our time.