I am a veteran teacher who has worked in the Victor Central School District in upstate New York for 23 years. Our district has over 600 employees including teachers, administration, aides, bus drivers, maintenance and groundskeepers. Four years ago, I was tapped to lead our district as Health and Wellness Coordinator. We are in a consortium of 35 school districts for health care called FLASHP(Finger Lakes Area School Health Plan) lead by Rick Amundson from Smola Consulting. He supports all of us by holding bimonthly meetings for the coordinators, but by far the most beneficial resource he gives each coordinator is our annual membership to WELCOA. As a classroom teacher I know the importance of furthering one's knowledge. Once I received the membership I worked to learn as much as I could. I used WELCOA's resources starting with the 7 Benchmarks. This gave me the groundwork to begin to develop my wellness team and to help ask the right questions of my staff to improve their health and wellness. Each year I strive to further my understanding in this field by taking these beneficial courses. In 2017, I earned my faculty designation. What brought me to this field was having a widowmaker heart attack at age 49, when I switched to a whole food plant based diet. I reversed my own heart disease with just changing what I ate. Now, a decade later, I have lost 60 pounds. I am off of all medications, even a daily aspirin. I ran my first marathon at age 58. I now lead others to help them to regain their health. My wife and I have a Facebook group with over 2500 members called Eat Plants Love which helps people navigate the world of plant based nutrition, guiding them to the reputable research and practitioners in the field.
As health and wellness coordinator, my initial initiatives were helping the district take part in our annual 5K run, and a 10-Day Ditch the Dairy campaign. I produced monthly newsletters full of video content, recipes and research. We held a screening of the movie “Eating You Alive” open to not just staff, but our community as well. To increase participation in our annual biometric screenings, I used a video of a 2nd grade student speaking to the staff on opening day of school, to encourage our staff to participate in getting a screening. This small video helped us to double our participation.
In January 2018, I lead a 10-day whole food plant based challenge for 35 school districts and garnered a segment on Good Morning America. In January 2019, we repeated the challenge. This time we had over 75 school districts participating. 3300 teachers and staff from across New York state completed the challenge. Participants have used the challenge to start their path to regain their health. We have staff using this to help keep their cancer in remission, reduce their cholesterol to normal levels, lose weight, prevent and reverse heart disease, lower blood pressure and some were able to come off of their diabetes medications. People have learned to take charge of their own health. People who participated in the challenge averaged the following results:
Lowered total cholesterol up to 50 points
Lowered Blood pressure
Lower Glucose numbers
Weight loss up to 10 pounds
*Reduction in prescription medications
This happened all in just 10 days of eating a whole food plant based diet. Some of the comments we received were:
“So...total cholesterol went from 219 to 109. TC/HDL from 4.3 to 2.3. Glucose 95 to 84. Lost 6 lbs and BMI down 1.3. Place me solidly in the believer column. I have struggled with hyperlipidemia for 25+ years. My total cholesterol has never been so low. You did in 10 days what doctors couldn’t do for years!”
“I must say, I didn’t think I would have very interesting data to share because my original numbers were pretty decent. Total cholesterol 175 now 121 Ratio was 2.9 now 2.4 Blood pressure 121/83 now 105/69 BMI down 2.5 Waist down 2.5 inches I did do the challenge as directed with no cheating.“
“Timing is everything. I had scheduled a physical months ago before knowing about this 10 day rescue. So Monday I had blood work done and I just now got my results. My cholesterol was 194 in 2014. Today it is 133. I am not on statin drugs. I just changed my diet. Whoa!”
These are hard numbers. These are shifts in health that are measurable. The board of directors for our consortium of school districts said this was the most important health initiative that was ever implemented. Have we saved money? Lower health care costs? Compared to districts outside of our network who are seeing double digit health care increases, we are in the single digits. That is a start.
How do you coordinate 3300 people from disparate regions of the state to make them feel part of an event and not alone? We had a kickoff event a month before the challenge to encourage people to signup with guest speakers and vendors. I created a Facebook group for the challenge which had over 800 participating in discussions. I shared resources, videos and recipes for the group. We had Youtube live sessions to answer all their questions for all the participants. I sent out daily newsletter emails with success stories, video content on plant based nutrition and more recipes. Each school district had a built in support network of individuals who were participating. They shared recipes and made lunches for each other.
Many of the districts that participated in 2018 had Plant Based Coaches established that I trained (Fall 2018) to be their districts go-to-person for questions and answers. Many of those coaches held cooking demos and planning sessions to help the participants. I brought in a local doctor to speak to our coaches to further their knowledge of how plant based nutrition helps fight most chronic diseases. One of my proudest moments was when our district chef and our district dietician decided, on their own, to make up challenge compliant meals for the staff. I hadn’t asked them, they just went ahead knowing that it was something to try to help build our culture. They have continued making these meals on a weekly basis for the staff. As a result of this initiative I received the Wealth of Health Award for “Best Company Group Wellness Initiative” by Excellus Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Rochester Business Journal for 2018.
At times it is hard to calculate ROI in the health and wellness field. How do you record savings on events that never happened by changing the course of health for an individual?
The pre-diabetic who now no longer is pre-diabetic. The person with hereditary heart disease who improves their numbers so well that their doctor takes them off of all their medications. In a survey after the event, over 90% said they would participate again. Over 80% said they will continue adding more plant based options into their meals. Since running this challenge in my district for 4 years, the culture of the school has changed. At district functions healthier options are available. We are looking at how to incorporate healthier food for our students. My wellness team attends workshops offered by universities on greening the school meals. I have one employee using plant based nutrition to reverse his diabetes, another to prevent the progression of her macular degeneration, another using it to heal her IBS. Other districts are conducting cooking classes and weekend meetups to batch cook to help people get ready for the next week. Health and wellness is not just about “savings” and “ROI”. It is about families living long and healthy lives. It is bringing health where there was illness. This challenge was not a “one and done” experience, but a segue to people making fundamental shifts in their health.
Our nation is a nation in crisis. We are a country exploding with chronic diseases making the costs for employers, and employees, skyrocket. Right now, it is a runaway freight train with no signs of stopping. 1 in 3 Americans will die of heart disease, the leading killer of all Americans. More women will die of heart disease than all cancers combined. 1 in 4 children suffer with chronic disease. 1 in 3 are obese. 1 in 5 have high cholesterol. There is hope and there are things that cannot just slow, but stop, and even reverse, the train.
By making people aware of their lifestyle choices, we can reduce cancers by 40%. By helping people take charge of their own health, we drastically lower the heart disease risks and insurance costs. I want, not only my staff to be healthier, but I want my students to be healthier. I want to inspire the community to take charge of their own health and not delegate it to a doctor’s office visit.
The tides are turning. Plant based nutrition is the most effective way to change our health. It is the only way of eating proven to prevent and reverse heart disease. Local restaurant owners have asked me for help to adjust their menus. More and more fast food places have plant based options. Doctors, from cardiologists to nephrologists, are recommending people to shift their eating instead of taking pills. We see the term ‘plant based’ pop up daily in the media. Nutrition is but one piece of the puzzle on leading our employees to better health. With this one piece in place, people are better prepared to incorporate other shifts to improve their health even more. A recent article in the magazine Fast Company stated that Tufts University researchers say moving towards a diet more centered on fruits and vegetables would save 100 billion in medical costs. This was shown in one testimonial from our challenge.
“I've been plant strong for a year now, and I am no longer on statins (total cholesterol of 130, triglycerides at 95). I'm constantly within 3 lbs. of ideal weight for 7 months straight. I'm able to play tennis, compete in 10-11 races, including trail, road, duathlons, and triathlons every year, and do soccer refereeing on the side. I feel like I've turned back the clock! I feel more like 31 than 51.”
You can’t mandate people to make healthy choices. With a little creativity and help from supportive health and wellness advocates, we can help people realize that small changes can lead to big results. This will not be a top down government lead initiative. It will be a grassroots groundswell by people like us in the trenches every day, helping to make changes in our employees lives.