Nona Evans, the Executive Director of Whole Kids Foundation, the newest philanthropic endeavor of Whole Foods Market, has a longstanding passion for improving the experience of children’s education, and a commitment to the importance of nutrition and access to healthy food choices for all.
After nearly two decades in retail design, operations and marketing, Evans puts the core principles of experiential branding to work as the leader of Whole Kids Foundation, which launched in July 2011. Driven by a belief that the best way to insure a bright future is to inspire it in young people, she has spent much of her career focusing on innovative partnerships that improve education and support healthier foodservice programs in schools. Evans has been with Whole Foods Market for 12 years, most recently serving as the Global Executive Marketing Coordinator. She has led the Foundation from its inception. Since that time, they’ve served, 2,237,048 students, created 2,678 school salad bars, funded 1,605 school gardens, and granted over $9,662,176 in funds.
What issues have you been focused on?
There are two things that we stay laser focused on: Creating excitement about vegetables and vegetable consumption for kids. The other thing is convincing adults that when kids are given good choices they will make good choices. Some parents say, “Oh my kid won’t touch a vegetable, but they will. Kids love to make healthy choices if you give them a chance.
What inspires you to do this work?
The thing that most inspires me in life is helping people find their path. Some years ago I realized the same way I did that in a company applied to kids. When you help kids expand their horizons you get a greater return on the investment. Kids are sponges ready for new ideas to explore and it’s this capacity in kids that inspires me the most.
What motivates you to do this work?
I’m motivated by the enthusiasm that comes back to us for our work with kids. The first time they get to nurture a seed to a plant and try whatever they’ve grown and discover it’s delicious. There’s a magic and surprise in their hearts that wakes me up everyday and keeps me from going to sleep.
What’s your overall vision?
Our work is really about improving children’s nutrition. The reason that I’m so personally passionate about children’s nutrition is so that our children can realize their fullest potential and be the leaders for the world we want in our future.
From my perspective, if you look out 10 or 20 years, it’s where adults are far, far healthier than they are today and we naturally make a connection between our health and what we eat. And, that we have more control over that. All it takes for us to be a vibrant community, then we’ll have more momentum. Our economic health, our community health, it all comes from our own vitality.
What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?
Civil Eats of course. I travel a lot and when I’m at the airport I always pick up something new to read. I enjoy Scientific American and National Geographic, too, because they are both examples of what happens when you follow your child-like curiosity.
Who’s in your community?
We’re so fortunate to have what I call a very collaborative community. The biggest piece of which are schools, the kids, teachers, and parents that make up a district. There are others that work in our space, Deb at Food Corps, Anne Cooper, they are truly first hand experts in the work we do. It’s interesting, I often talk about the work we’re doing and our focus on children’s nutrition and the bigger issue is childhood obesity. I think of Whole Kids Foundation as a link between groups that are making a difference.
What are your commitments?
From a standpoint of Whole Kids Foundation, fund salad bar equipment and training for schools. At the end of 2013, at 3,000 across the country, we’re funding school gardens in the quest for sustainability. We’ve just started a program to train teachers on their own health and wellness, the Healthy Teachers Program, which is really exciting. If a teacher doesn’t reinforce those lessons, we’ve missed a point.
In leading the organization, I’m most committed to collaboration. It’s really going to take us all doing our part for us to all make the change we’re all invested in.
What are your goals?
Our goal is to increase food and vegetable consumption in kids. It’s the tactic we’re most aggressively measuring. And, to improve teacher health and wellness. If we do those two things, the environment we work in becomes healthier. Out next goal is to launch a program that seeks out innovation in this space and allows us to support the innovators. Our goal is to teach the kids today and the generations after them healthy eating habits so in generations to come our headlines aren’t filled with what they’re filled with today.
What does change look like to you?
Change for us looks like fresh vegetables in the cafeteria at school and beautiful robust gardens at schools that are integrated in the curriculum. The other piece our crew is passionate about is choice. That’s one of the reasons we chose salad bars as a starting place. We know when you empower kids with a choice, we’re all amazed at their capacity to chose health. I remember when Chef Ann put salad bars in Boulder schools, no one would have guessed garbanzo beans would be the most popular item. When we’re courageous enough to give kids real choices that reflects real change.
Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?
One of the things that has surprised me the most about playing in the space with other change agents, the ability to stay flexible and to be opportunistic is just as important as long range strategic panning. I have no idea on a daily basis whom I will meet and what I will learn that can have impact, so If I’m flexible enough our capacity for change is exponential. The outreach is really the discipline to make time for exploratory conversations. One of my role models told me that conversations are free. I think that’s beautiful. I’m always amazed where I find those pearls of wisdom that change the whole view of what we’re doing.
What projects and people have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?
Most recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Steven Rich, he’s a super hero. He’s a teacher in the Bronx, teaching 10th, 11th, and 12th grade daily and involved with another school. Most of his kids are out of foster care, homeless or judicated youth. He has found that gardening is the thing that cracks open their spirit and allows them to soar. Being in the Bronx he’s found a way to do it in the classroom. He likes to say his kids drug him into the gardening. He’s got into the spirit of it and he lost 110 pounds.
The Bronx Green Machine is a totally inspiring urban gardening program.
We’re also inspired by Mud Baron, his real name is Matt. He’s a passionate leader and teacher in Pasadena, the first student run CSA in the country at Muir Ranch. His dad was a flower farmer and he has a philosophy that a third of what they plant are flowers because they open more doors than vegetables. It helps them at the farmers market start conversations about what they are doing.
A team at Madison Wisconsin school district made a commitment to put salad bars in their school and started the first 10.
The thing that constantly impresses me is the creativity in this world in terms of how to nurture and care for our kids.
Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next five-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?
I will say we are not as deeply involved in policy change as we are in systems change. But yes, I do think it’s possible. This time we’re in is teaching all of us, our political friends included, the importance of our personal health. It’s just a baby step from there to the connections our food makes. Hopefully we’ll have a Farm Bill, and what the next children’s nutrition legislation like will be really important. We really need to re-think how we handle commodities and there are some really smart people engaged in that.
What does the food movement need to do, be or have to be more effective?
In my opinion it needs to simplify and be direct in what we’re asking for. One of the best examples, Salad Bar Nation, is a simple challenge to eat a salad every day. It came from people saying this is all well and good but what can I do. Even though these issues are complex, if we ask people for really specific support we’ll be amazed at what can happen.
What would you want to be your last meal on earth?
I love to garden, no surprise, so I think it would be an enormous salad with lots of fresh herbs from my spring garden with roasted root veggies and a hint of some wonderful local goat cheese.