After 16 Years, Wellness Foundation Bows Out

A group of Wellness Challenge graduates with facilitator Peggy Kraus, right. COURTESY WELLNESS FOUNDATION

The Wellness Foundation, which for the past 16 years, has encouraged East Enders to improve their health by eating a plant-based diet through its popular Wellness Challenges for adults and school programs for children, has announced it is closing down.

As a farewell gift, the organization has offered its final Wellness Challenge over Zoom for free to East End residents. Usually the program costs $199. But if you are thinking of signing up, forget it. The six-week class during which participants will learn how to get rid of animal proteins and processed foods from their diets, get help setting up an exercise program, receive tips for managing stress, and aid in transitioning to a healthier lifestyle, was booked solid with 200 people signing up within just a few days of being listed online last month.

“We’re thrilled. It is definitely the biggest one we’ve done,” said Jennifer Taylor, the foundation’s vice president and executive director of education and programs. “Usually, we try to keep them smaller so people can get to know one another, but we decided to allow this one to go to full capacity.”

With that kind of response to its services, why is the Wellness Foundation pulling the plug?

“COVID has been difficult,” Taylor said. “It has posed many challenges because up until then everything was done in person, and we didn’t know when we’d be able to get back to in-person presentations.”

Plus, she added, the organization’s largest fundraiser, a summer gala, has been canceled the past two years because of the pandemic.

The foundation, which has been operating with only four employees since COVID-19, considered reorganizing itself to expand its online footprint, but ultimately decided against it. “That marketing is very costly,” Taylor said. “It was going to be quite a gamble and we didn’t know if it would bear fruit.”

And in some ways, Taylor said the foundation’s work, if not done, is well established. “The movement is a movement now,” she said. “Sixteen years ago, it was not.” Much of the information the Wellness Foundation would typically be sharing is widely available on the internet, she said.

The Wellness Foundation was founded in 2005 by Douglas Mercer, an East Hampton resident, who had dedicated himself to a healthy lifestyle and eating a plant-based diet in retirement. He remains an honorary board member, but is no longer involved in the organization’s day-to-day operations. Taylor, who had transitioned to a plant-based diet because of health issues in the 1990s, met him when he placed an advertisement in the paper selling books about healthy nutrition. They met and Taylor said, he told her, “I’m not looking for an executive director, but you might be the person I’m looking for.” She came on board in 2006.

The foundation’s “Wellness Challenge” programs were an overnight success, attracting people from across the East End, many of whom were looking for ways to stave off the threat of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic maladies through nutrition and exercise.

“Because we were plant-centric, people thought it was vegan or bust,” Taylor said, but she added the foundation’s larger goal was “to educate people to be healthy for the long haul.”

Taylor said Mercer was encouraged when the East Hampton School District launched its “Bonac On Board to Wellness” campaign and even more so when middle school students staged a boycott of the cafeteria for serving unhealthy food. Soon, the Wellness Foundation had extended its programming to the schools, where it offered nutrition clubs, where students would cook meals for their parents. “Some of the parents couldn’t believe the veggies their kids were eating,” she said.

Restaurant-goers may remember when a little green W began appearing on plant-based meal options on the menus of local restaurants. That was another minor accomplishment of the Wellness Foundation.

“It’s a little sad to see the foundation’s sun setting at this time,” Taylor said. “But there are so many players in the plant-based movement now. We feel we can really pass the torch onto those folks.”