Doug Mercer has spent years seeking the path to a healthier lifestyle.
“Back in the ’90s, I was another guy on the street, as confused as everyone else about the science and greater health,” Mercer said. “I gave myself a kidney stone with the Atkins Diet."
But in February 1999 he went to the Optimum Health Institute in Austin, Texas, and changed his life.
His Wellness Foundation, based in a small suite of offices over a garage on Dunemere Lane in East Hampton Village, was developed based on a discovery Mercer made that a plant-based diet was the healthiest way to live.
Mercer's steel blue eyes never waver as he describes his journey toward better health and the explosive success of the foundation, now in its sixth year.
Mercer was intrigued by the detoxification and cleansing elements of the program at the Texas institute. “I’m amazed by the miraculous nature of the human body when you do the right thing,” he said, remembering how good he felt. He read every book he could find on the topic of eating right, including Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. “He started my love affair with the bean,” Mercer said, laughing.
Doug Mercer graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and then joined the family shipping business, States Marine Lines, for 25 years. He was CEO of that business and served on a number of boards, including Paine Weber's Family of Funds. Summering in the Hamptons in 1970, Mercer gave back, volunteering for Meals on Wheels and the Children's Homework Program, and monitoring Piping Plovers, running the program for the town under the natural resources director.
In February 2005, students went on strike, boycotting unhealthy cafeteria food. “I thought, these kids are standing up for wellness and health, and I’m sitting here,” Mercer said. He created Wellness Foundation, and attracted a board of advisers “whose major interest is humanity, giving of their lives.”
The foundation leads two programs: Wellness Challenge for adults, and Food for Life for sixth grader, which is expanding to include other grades.
Wellness Challenge typically begins with an eye-opening lecture from a well-known physician about nutrition about reducing dependence on unneeded medications, avoiding diabetes and cardiovascular disease, exercise and embracing a plant-based diet. East Hampton residents are invited to sign up for a free six-week program.
At each meeting, the group is encouraged by a trained facilitator to discuss issues, review a lesson plan, track progress and join in food preparation and tastings.
Food for Life has been exponentially successful in the middle school, administrators say. “It’s made a significant impact on the kids,” middle school Principal Tom Lamorgese said. “After the program started, we noticed that a wave went through the school. Sixth grade students who learned from the program moved away from cookies as snacks in seventh grade. They took their notebooks home and educated their parents.”
The success is rooted in the interactive nature of the course. Students learn to prepare the food and enjoy tasting the result of their efforts. “This generation becomes the generation of change,” Mercer said.
Parents are enthusiastic about the Mercer's approach: "While participating in Food for Life, my children and I learned to make and enjoy green smoothies and kale chips,” Eve Karlin, a year-round East Hampton resident with triplets in the middle school, said.
“Hands-on demonstrations taught my kids the staggering amount of sugar in our everyday food and the scary ‘mystery’ ingredients" in certain colas, she said. "The program changed the eating habits in my house and prompted me to take Wellness Challenge, where my cholesterol lowered nearly 60 points."
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, an author, nutrition expert and practicing physician was the first speaker to address adults in 2005. “Doug Mercer’s warmth, generosity and dedication to helping others make him a hero in my book. I admire his efforts and the wonderful accomplishments of his brainchild, Wellness Foundation," Fuhrman said.
“Our mission is to make East Hampton the model of wellness,” Mercer concluded. “Our vision is for other communities to follow in our footsteps.”