Thank You School Lunch Heroes

As we navigate these uncertain times, the team at Wellness in the Schools sends immense gratitude. Gratitude to the unsung heroes in school kitchens around the country who are taking real risks to make sure their “babies” are fed. 31 million children rely on school meals in the most normal of times. And, now, in such uncertainty, there is one thing that is certain – our food service professionals around the country will provide meals for school children as first responders in an unparalleled crisis. 

We have witnessed our partners around the country — from California; to Trenton and Camden, NJ; to South Florida, Washington, DC, and finally, to our partners in NYC — rallying their teams to ensure that each child has not just one meal, but often two and three meals each school day, and packages for weekends too. They have not missed a day of feeding, even as the rest of us face empty grocery shelves and crowded grocery lines.

In NYC alone, these women and men are feeding over 100 at-risk children who require pureed foods, or other types of adaptations; they are delivering to homeless shelters; this week they are providing meals in every single NYC school building – all 1700 of them. Participation has increased tenfold since Monday as we all help to get the word out that 1M NYC school children are being taken care of by the women and men who have been following strict food safety protocols not just today, but for years. Next week, NYC will move to a summer feeding model, with over 400 buildings ready to nourish our most vulnerable populations. Find out where here.

To most of us, food is nourishment, food is love. Preparing a meal for someone is an act of kindness and a gesture of care. Our partners are offering this kindness and care to millions of children daily. To the lunch ladies (and men) around the country, to your leadership and operation teams, to your families who watch as you leave your homes before the sun rises, we THANK YOU. We thank you for your sacrifices to feed kids healthy food every day and now, for putting your lives at risk to do so. We feel incredibly proud to know so many of you through our work together. We have stood by you in the best of times. And, now, we stand beside you in these most extraordinary of times as you chop, dice and serve alone. You are our heroes. 

To our community, reach out to your local district and say thank you. Ask how you can help. Chances are your thank you will be all they need, as they are running smooth operations and have this under control, as always.
To our community, link here to learn how Wellness in the Schools is responding during this time and to find resources for both those in need and those who can help. We are in this together.

Our Response to COVID-19

Taking care of our team.

This is paramount. We are sharing resources for both emotional and physical well being, and we are doing our best to provide support to team members near and far.  We have already gathered together over Zoom for a virtual yoga class provided by our partner Pam Reece – giving us all a chance to stop, and breathe together.

We are monitoring CDC guidelines, and following the leads of our districts to determine how and when our teams can support our communities by bringing trained staff members to support school sites. 

Bridging connections for our partners (chefs, fitness partners, food vendors) to help support our families.

After 15 years on the ground we have made strong connections with local partners, primarily in NYC. We are fielding calls from partners with offers to help and with expressions of need. We are finding that we can play a critical role in forging these connections to help families. See resources below.

One small example of this “networking” is working with Red Rabbit to help get their meals to over 1,000 Chop’t Salad employees’ families who have been furloughed due to restaurants closing.

Providing online resources for interested schools.

We are working with the online sports app Famer. They are providing us with a series of fitness drills for our school communities for the next two weeks. During these two weeks, we will film videos with our team to roll out more content for kids to do at home.

Continuing to develop ScratchWorks

We will continue to develop ScratchWorks to help support school districts to provide freshly prepared meals to their communities. This cooperative effort with foundation partners, namely Chef Ann Foundation, Life Time Foundation, and Whole Kids Foundation, and under the leadership of our district partners: Boulder, CO / Arlington, VA / Austin, TX / Minneapolis, MN / NYC, NY / Washington, DC is all the more important today. In these uncertain times, we have to move in the moment with short-term activations, while also staying focused on our long-term goal to provide healthy school environments for vulnerable children across this country. The word healthy certainly takes on more meaning today, and health and wellness have become ever more important. Our country is at an even greater risk than others during this pandemic due to our high rates of obesity and diabetes. Essentially, we are facing a pandemic at a time when we are already sick. COVID-19 has brought many things to light, among them, that we need to double down on the extraordinary collective work of school districts around the country.

COVID-19 Food Hub NYC, created by Food Education Fund

Information on SNAP and Emergency Food Assistance, by NYC HRA

Information on Emergency Grab and Go Meals, by Red Rabbit

Food Bank for NYC

Resources if you may be unemployed due to COVID-19

Tips on keeping you and your kids stress-free and calm, by The Child Mind Institute

Updates on NYC school meals

Guidance for schools and childcare programs

Emergency grab & go meals 

The Joyful 12! Seasonal Cookbook by Chef Hollie Greene Rottman, Founder of JoyFoodly and WITS National Program Director

Common Threads Coronavirus Resources

Baldor Specialty Foods Home Delivery

Alliance For A Healthier Generation COVID-19 Resources

Novato, California Unified School District Free Meal Pick-Up

San Rafael, California City Schools Meal Service

Marin, California Food Bank

San Francisco Unified School District Free Meals Map

EatFresh: Quick & Healthy Recipes

Wicked Healthy Family Cooking Workshop Video Series (Coupon Code: TOTALLYFREEKIDS)

FoodHub NYC Restaurant Donation Map

Camden, NJ Meal Map

Trenton, NJ Grab & Go Meal Access

Active Plus Physical Education & Cooking Classes

Stay Home Take Care: A Social Distancing Care Package From Girl’s Night In

How You Can Support NYC’s Food System During COVID-19

NYC Well: Helping New Yorkers in Crisis

Coronavirus NYC Neighborhood Food Resource Guides

Wellness in the Home

To our friends, supporters, students, and school communities: Now more than ever, there is a great need for community. While this may feel like a small effort, we at Wellness in the Schools wanted to circulate resources and tips for you to follow during this unprecedented time. You’ll find information on cooking tips, fitness tips, and general resources on how to stay mentally and emotionally healthy, from our partners, friends, and members of the WITS community. We’ll be adding to this as the days go on.

What are you doing to take care of yourself, and your loved ones? We’d love to hear from you. Please send an email to, if you’d like to share. Take care, everyone.

Here is a collection of recipes to help alleviate stress.”
Brooke, WITS Chef 

“Scale up the recipes you are making to put in the freezer, just in case we need to completely stay indoors. My mom is famous in our neighborhood for her chocolate chip cookies. I went over to her house and made them with her, using her “measuring” vessels, and recorded actual accurate measurements. If you follow the instructions, they should turn out as famous as hers.

I also included the tomato soup recipe I just launched at the Met. Great with grilled cheese!” 
Bill, WITS Executive Chef

“Keep your immune system as healthy as possible. Here’s a recipe I developed!” 
-Rebecca, WITS Program Manager 

“Sprouting at home can be a super inexpensive way to add nutritious greens to meals, and it can also be a fun activity for parents and students. Here is a video that shows how to sprout with lentils.”
Jenee, WITS Chef

“Here’s some tips on how to stock a healthy pantry.”
Ricardo, WITS Chef and RDN

“As we try to stock our homes with supplies, keep in mind your storage availability.  Keep the air flowing, and don’t pack foods in the refrigerator. Overstocking can stress the unit, so be careful in storing. Rotate your items. Use your oldest items first. When you buy new items put them in the back row or at the bottom of the stack. (*Except when making purchases of foods that are on discount and must be eaten quickly). Be aware of expiration dates. If items are going to expire soon, eat them and be sure to purchase replacements so that you always have some in storage.”
Marion, WITS Program Director 

“Thinking back to my freelance days working from home, what most comes to mind is that you always have to keep following a schedule and structure your days. Wake up at the same time, get dressed (no day-long jammies, however tempting). Make a point of getting up from your workspace, stretching, taking the pups out. It’s always important to do it but now more than ever. Activity in the schools is non-stop, so you want to make sure you’re moving.” 
-Ana, WITS Program Manager 

“To account for the shortage of hand sanitizer, I made my own. See below for the ‘recipe’: 

The formula is 60% alcohol to 40% gel, a 6:4 ratio.
Use Isopropyl rubbing alcohol- at least 90% alcohol content or higher.
Preferred gel is aloe vera. If you can’t find it, you could try sourcing a full aloe plant leaf and harvest the gel by slicing the leaf open and scraping out the gel. Aloe Vera leaves (they are a giant succulent plant that looks like a spiked tusk) can usually be found in Hispanic supermarkets and bodegas, as well as stores that stock Caribbean products and produce.

I used something equivalent to the gel, and found a product in the baby care aisle of the pharmacy marked “baby gel” that I used instead.

A small batch goes a long way. I made a 10oz batch (6oz alcohol to 4oz gel) that my husband and I have been using for days every time we venture out. A splash of hand sanitizer is all you need. Let it dry completely on your hands for it to be effective. And follow with a soap and water hand washing as soon as you can.”
-Deb, WITS Program Manager

“Creating a consistent daily ritual is key in keeping a strong mental and physical well being:

Before diving into your everyday to-do list, start your day with:

  • A large glass of water
  • Meditation 
  • Slow Pushups — what I like to call moving meditation
  • Stretching
  • and always your favorite playlist to start your day… along with your coffee 🙂 

Then you are ready for a healthy breakfast to fuel the rest of your productive day!”
Wendy, WITS Senior Program Director

“Here are two meditation resources, on Gaia and on Spotify. For immune health: 1) Stay hydrated (it’s best to drink plain water between meals, not with them). Staying hydrated helps your body naturally eliminate toxins and other bacteria that may cause illness. 2) Incorporate spices into your meals to boost immune health!”
Hollie, WITS National Program Director

“Everyone in my family created their own daily schedule template. It’s not a strict schedule, rather more like a checklist to give structure to the day. 

We also each made a list of activities to keep from teaching for the phone and getting bored. Activities range from big things like Painting Kitchen to little things like Painting Nails! Another tip: Shut down your phone for 2 consecutive hours!” 
Victoria, WITS Chef

“We are each leading on one family “activity” per day. I may want to clean out closets, Andy might want to do a family puzzle, Zane might want to play a video game. We will all engage as a family in that one activity for at least an hour. Each day, a different family member chooses, starting with the eldest (that’s Andy then me then Will then Sadie then Zane). This, combined with a family workout, again rotating leaders, this time from youngest to oldest we have two activities that can ground our day.”
Nancy, WITS Co-Founder and Executive Director

“I recognize I’ll be much more house-bound than I am used to. I also have a lot of computer work to do, and with that, I set a 45 minute timer on my phone. Every time it goes off, I take a break for 3-5 minutes, do some jumping jacks, vinyasa flows, stretches, etc. to keep my body moving and bring oxygen to my mind for increased focus. So far, so good!” 
Katie, WITS Chef 

“Set an obstacle course in your apartment or house. If you have stairs, do a 5-10 minute stair workout. Stretch from head to toe for five minutes.”
Julia, WITS Coach

“If you are able, stay inside but stay connected with family and friends through the Group Video Chat app called ‘Houseparty.’” 
Errol, WITS Program Manager 

Finding His Calling in the Kitchen with a Little Help from WITS

In 2014, while teaching WITS Labs at Alfred E Smith High School in the Bronx, Director Marion Williams saw that all too familiar look in the eye of one particular teenager when he had his hands in a mixing bowl or with a chef knife. The WITS standard programming brought a much-needed focus on nutrition to the school, and gave the students the opportunity to expand their palates through WITS Labs. “Our classes empowered students to learn how to cook for themselves and eat properly, and also encouraged them to take advantage of initiatives that the school already had in place, such as free breakfast and ‘snack swaps,’” says Chef Marion.

A teacher who worked in the school’s career center first introduced Chef Marion to then sophomore Isaish Thomas. He was taken by our cooking classes and wanted to learn more. Because there was little opportunity for one to pursue culinary interest outside of directly participating in the WITS Labs, Marion decided to create her own internship program. She took Isaiah under her tutelage, along with three others. “This young man inspired me while I was in the high school,” says Marion. “Many days, people wanted me to just give up on these students, and I had to press forward that Isaiah (the youngest 1 of 4 interns I had while there) was always waiting for me and looking for our next project in and out of the school.” Isaiah began as a classroom assistant, helping with set-up and clean-up of WITS Labs. “I assisted with anything she needed help with, because I wanted to get as involved as possible,” says Isaiah. 

Wellness in the Schools could see that he was serious about culinary education. Says Isaiah, “I’ve always loved cooking. I’ve never had a problem figuring out what I wanted to cook. I can always follow a recipe, and tweak it and improve it and make it my own. It’s what I find so interesting about cooking.” Even though he was still in high school, Marion pulled some strings and gave Isaiah the opportunity to work with our WITS Executive Chef Bill Telepan. He interned at the eponymous restaurant Telepan, and received intensive culinary instruction from Chef Bill and his staff for a year and a half. “I would head over to the restaurant as soon as my day at school was finished, and would be there until 8:30 or 9,” says Isaiah. “I worked mostly in the garde manger section, which is basically where cold dishes were prepared, and I helped with its prep work. I thought my time at Telepan was great – not a lot of people were able to work at such an amazing place. And I was just starting off on my culinary journey! And, of course – working with Chef Telepan was amazing…I look up to him a lot. He’s always doing something, keeping himself busy, getting things done.” 

Isaiah graduated from Alfred E.Smith last year and is now studying Culinary Arts and Agriculture at SUNY Cobleskill. He tries to cook for his friends and family as much as possible within the limits of his tiny dorm room kitchen. “You have to work with what you’ve got…for example, you learn to remix mac and cheese with spring onions!” 

Along with being a full-time student, he currently works at a catering center. While he has experience in the restaurant field, he has found that certain aspects of catering really interest him. “I’ve been working with this boss for four years, and he’s been exposing me to a lot of what on-premise catering looks like. I find it really cool. You know what you are preparing and what you are getting, and you get to work with customers to customize and create.”  

Isaiah will be graduating this spring, and his hope is to find a job within the culinary field so he can use the skills he has learned and honed over the past six years. So much of the work we do at Wellness in the Schools is an indirect consequence of our standard programming – through a simple WITS Lab,we were able to shed light on a culinary path for a focused young sophomore. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to work at Alfred E. Smith years many years ago, to have crossed paths with Isaiah, and to get this chance to see how one small encounter has shaped his life. 

Some BITS of WITS for a Healthier 2020

By: Melissa Neubart

The year 2020 is here, and if you’re making a New Year’s resolution (or several), you’re not alone. Rather than give up on this perennial brand of self-improvement, why not try a new approach and make daily, small improvements for this year?  These 8 “micro-behaviors” (WITS BITS, if you will) have been submitted by our wonderful staff across the country! If you’re inspired by the micro-resolutions below, take a photo performing your healthy habit- and tag us on social! @wellnessintheschools


One of my favorite ways to kick off the day right is with an avocado bowl for breakfast. It’s simple and delicious and keeps me full through lunch. Here’s my recipe. 

1/2 avocado
Your favorite spice on top; right now mine is Bahārāt (Bahārāt is an aromatic, warm, and sweet spice blend typically made with a combination of black peppercorns, coriander, cumin, allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, paprika, and nutmeg.)
2 tablespoons of kale pesto
1 tablespoon sunflower seeds
1 egg (boiled, scrambled or fried)

Submitted by Chef Hollie Greene, National Senior Program Director, based in California

Commit to eating a healthy breakfast every morning.  It helps you to be more mindful and conscious of your diet, setting a precedent for the day ahead. This sends a strong signal to the subconscious mind about the importance of our health. 

Submitted by Jami Bailey, WITS Chef, Washington D.C.


The six to eight hours of recommended nightly sleep is a long period to go without any water consumption. I’ve started leaving a water bottle by my bed at night so that the first thing I do in the morning is to drink some water. I always wake up thirsty and love coffee in the morning, but I have discovered that my digestive system feels much better when I drink water before my caffeine! 

Submitted by Julia Leitermann, WITS Coach in New York City 


Breathe:  Easy as it sounds, I find myself holding my breath when I’m focusing on a project or stressed about something.  It’s always a good idea to remind your body to breathe. This is how I calm down: 

4-7-8 Breathing:  Great for when you are anxious, I’ve started to get my kids on the recess yard breathing when they need a break to “catch their breath.”  Inhale for 4 seconds through your nose, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and then exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds, and repeat! After a few rounds, you will notice your heart rate slow down and your body relax. 

Submitted by Julia Leitermann, WITS Coach in New York City 


Reduce the blue light on your electronics. I’m not saying that you need to reduce the use of electronics in your life, but lower the lighting! You can often download an application or extension that will reduce the blue light in your screens, which is what can keep you awake and give you headaches! 

Submitted by Julia Leitermann, WITS Coach in New York City 


One simple micro behavior is to walk/take the stairs everywhere! Maybe instead of transferring on the subway for one stop, you walk an extra ten minutes/blocks, or instead of taking the elevator/escalator you take the stairs. This simple swap is an easy way to get your steps in! 

Submitted by Julia Leitermann, WITS Coach in New York City 


State the best part of your day and the funniest part of your day. Practice this daily with either a friend, coworker or family member. This can happen over text, phone or in person.  It’s a nice mental exercise especially for the toughest days when it feels like nothing went right, but when asked what was the best part, usually you can find something like : “the cashier at the grocery store was very friendly” or “I ate my favorite breakfast today.” 

Submitted by Annie Hanrahan, Program Director, Washington D.C.


Spaghetti squash is an amazing substitute for traditional pasta! Cut it the short way (hamburger vs hot dog) to get longer “spaghetti”!

Submitted by Emilie Hernandez, WITS Coach, New York City


After work or school, we may quickly scarf down our meal while watching our favorite show, only to realize that our plate is empty. Before your first bite – use your senses to appreciate your meal- what colors is your dish made of? How does it smell? What kind of textures make up your dish? And … then – dig in!

Submitted by Melissa Neubart, Director of Development and Partnerships 

A Winning Recipe: Wellness in the Schools and FEAST

By Alex Parks

Systemic change in the world of food is a tough nut to crack. That’s why Wellness in the Schools and FEAST work together to make a lasting impact on how people think about food and wellness. With Wellness in the Schools programming focused on the cooks of tomorrow, and FEAST programming directed towards the cooks of today, we are collectively able to point students and parents in a healthier direction. 

In 2013, Sam Polk and his wife Dr. Kirsten Thompson started FEAST (Food Education, Access and Support) as a way to address the imbalances that come with a broken food system. They began to make an impact on thousands of individuals and families in Los Angeles with their free 16 week program, but food and health inequalities go far beyond the borders of Los Angeles. With the help of Wellness in the Schools, FEAST is now able to take their programming all the way across the country to New York City, where it is continuing to transform lives. Dana Rizer, the Executive Director of FEAST, said it best: “FEAST is so proud to partner with Wellness in the Schools. We share the belief that good food has the power to change lives, and we bring different ingredients to the table. By working together, we’re able to ensure that the schools, students and families have the resources to increase health and wellbeing. Through collaboration, we’ve created a winning recipe.” 

I was fortunate enough to attend a FEAST program at PS 112 here in Harlem to see this “winning recipe” firsthand. Every class begins with a nutritional discussion, but as this was the first class after the holiday break, everyone took a moment to tell the rest of the group what they did over the holidays. I could already tell that FEAST was transformative when one participant said, “I am happy to be back from break. This is my happy place, where I can be reminded to eat healthy, and be happy.” Today the discussion topic was on making healthier choices when eating out at restaurants. The group leader and participants went back and forth, asking questions, offering suggestions, and discussing the difficulties of making healthy choices when eating out. 

After the discussion ended, it was time to cook! The recipes for today were a Chickpea Salad with Tomatoes & Cucumber, and a Sautéed Zucchini, Tomato, and Chickpea Ragout served atop couscous. The recipe printouts even include extra facts and tips about the dish. Participants took turns dicing, measuring, and cooking until all of the food was ready. The food was delicious… both times. Yes, I got seconds. 

After everyone was finished eating it was time to get together for the sharing circle. The sharing circle is a safe space for FEAST participants to have a dialogue about a weekly topic. Participants confide in each other, and form a deep connection from the realization that although we all have unique obstacles we face in life, many of us are going through something that somebody else has experienced. The sharing circle is a reminder that you are not alone, and you have a group of people that you can turn to at every FEAST class. 

When I walked into the classroom that morning I was not sure what to expect, but when I left the classroom both my stomach and heart were full. I could tell that this program makes a difference for its regular participants because it had made a difference for me after only one class. I learned more about what to avoid when eating out at restaurants, I laughed and smiled while cooking with the rest of the participants, and I heard some truly incredible stories. I was reminded of the greatest aspect of cooking: it brings people together. It brought Wellness in the Schools and FEAST together, allowing for parents and children to cultivate healthy habits as a family. That too, is a winning recipe. 

How Will We Roar?

How Will We Roar?

By Nancy Easton

A new year. A new decade. The roaring 20’s. Let’s see how we will roar. For me, a time to reflect, reconnect and refocus on what is really important – my family, good friends and this meaningful work. I feel fortunate to get to do this work everyday, this mission driven work where I am rewarded the minute I walk into a Wellness in the Schools recess yard, school kitchen, or culinary classroom. 

With a new decade, I find myself much more pensive. I have no memory whatsoever of the turn to the 2010 decade, perhaps because I had 3 kids under 9 and was growing a small non profit. I know I was in deep, juggling school drop off, big meetings, family dinner, bedtime and then back to work. I know sometimes I felt like I was simply checking my list, fulfilling obligations and getting through my day. I know I was building something, both with my family and with my work, that was perhaps still abstract. 

This decade, I am most certainly at a different place that I hope to remember when I am reflecting in 2030. The day to day is not as intense – both my kids and my extraordinary and inspirational team are self sufficient – but the big picture of the meaning of the life and work looms very, very large. And, the big picture of how we create systemic change to end childhood obesity looms even larger. I continue to build and yet now I do so with a bit more understanding of where the ideas and visions will land – and sometimes that is not always hopeful, especially when each day we are bombarded with stories like this

If you have been reading this new year entry for a while, you would know that I am not much of a resolution gal. Resolutions, like diets, are often broken after the first month. Think, rather, about lifestyle. Sure, my husband challenged me to a few new things this year – 30 days without sugar, inspired by a piece he read in the NYT, or upping my meditation game (ie, not missing a day for 30 days, even if I only have 5 minutes – thank you Just Sit. Generally, each year is more of the same. And, such is the new year for Wellness in the Schools, especially since we are actually really just midway through our school year. We have new initiatives that we hope to bring to scale this year, but mostly we will continue our great work in the schools each day with a heightened sense of awareness and perseverance. The work in our 150 schools, in 4 states and DC is intense, it is messy, it is grueling and rewarding all at the same time. This is the meaningful stuff. We will forge ahead, against many obstacles, often against a lack of understanding. We champion not just our work, but the small wins in schools and the big wins of like-minded partners who are fighting the same battle. We do not do this alone. 

I write this on the weekend we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so I end with his inspiration – the time is always right to do what is right. This is why the extraordinary Wellness in the School’s team comes to work each day.  Bring it on, 2020.

Better Together: the Bronx Plan

Early this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza announced the first 50 schools accepted to the Bronx Plan, which was launched last year. Over the next three years, the Bronx Plan will support 180 historically underserved schools citywide. As part of the Bronx Plan, each department was asked to innovate and devise solutions to improve student outcomes. 

Doing their part, the Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS) developed a collaborative menu (with recipes from the Alternative and Scratch Menus) that will also feature International Week recipes (Asian, Mediterranean and Latin).  And, here’s where we come in – Wellness in the Schools was invited by the leadership at OFNS to provide CookCamp training to all 50 schools. This invitation is symbolic of the growth of our partnership with OFNS over the past 15 years, and how we now seamlessly develop and implement programming in tandem. “We truly appreciate the partnership with Wellness in the Schools,” says Christopher Tricarico, Senior Executive Director, Office of Food and Nutrition Services.  “We are excited about the work and look forward to continuing the collaboration.”

What is particularly important about our CookCamp model is the focus on not only recipe training (from mise en place to knife skills to scaling recipes), but also on the “why” of our work – to fight childhood obesity. While observing our CookCamp model, the leadership of OFNS recognized the influence of the CookCamp training – to inspire those on the front line, the school cooks and managers – to be part of the solution. When asked how she is part of the obesity solution, a school cook explained in our October training how much she already notices how children are enjoying the new menu items, like fresh salad options and homemade spiced Adobe chicken. We have engaged a team of seven WITS Chefs and Managers to serve as lead trainers. They will gather with the 50 OFNS staff each month, in both classrooms and kitchens. Says Janice, one of the participants, “I didn’t know how we got picked as a school [for Bronx Plan] . . . Because of the CookCamp, I realize it’s a privilege, and I am excited to be one of the first schools.”

In addition to CookCamp training, we will market and promote the new recipes through WITS Tastings and Family Cooking Classes. We will teach families to prepare and enjoy the Bronx Plan International Lunch Menu recipes, such as Vegetarian Chili, Spiced Chicken with Rice and Beans, Pasta Primavera, and Sweet and Sour Chicken Bowl during a series of family classes. Classes like these have been shown to positively influence children’s food preferences and behaviors, according to a recent study by the Minnesota Heart Institute Foundation entitled “Food Explorers” (2015). The Family Cooking Classes are sponsored by Whole Foods Market 5% Day.

By educating school staff, parents, caregivers, and students on the why of this work and by supporting them to be wellness role models, Wellness in the Schools is executing on the goal of our NYC Chancellor, Richard A. Carranza:  “The Bronx Plan is grounded in our fundamental belief of investing in our schools, our students and our communities.” Our goal is to grow with this plan to serve all 180 schools, and to use as a pilot to expand citywide.

Back to School with Errol Jones, Coach for Kids Program Manager

Errol leads our Coach for Kids program in schools. He has been a crucial team member in the past 4 years, coaching students and providing professional development for teachers and coaches.

What brought you to Wellness in the Schools? 

I spent 22 years in the British Army, and then I moved to New York to follow my passion for working with young people. I was fortunate to join Wellness in the Schools four years ago. I started by working in Alternative Learning Centers, and then was put into schools as a WITS Coach. I really learned how to hone my craft, and luckily got promoted to Program Manager a couple of years ago. As Program Manager, I facilitate training and manage schools in New York City, and I pass on the lessons and experiences I’ve had to our coaches, teachers, and students. 

What are some top memories that stand out to you? 

Working alongside Adelphi University coaches has been incredible – the partnership Wellness in the Schools has with Adelphi is so strong. Our first cohort of coaches have all developed into great leaders themselves. For example, Jason Perez, one of our first Adelphi fellows, now works for DREAM Charter School (with which we have now developed a really unique partnership), and it’s been great to see his journey. He is now working with Adelphi first-year students, and he goes out and assesses them on the recess yard. It’s come full circle. 

What does the WITS Coach for Kids Program achieve during active recess?

We enable kids to exercise creativity, self-expression, inclusion, and we give them tools for healthy conflict resolution. 

You’ve seen the program grow exponentially over the last 4 years, especially the Coach side… 

Well, every year, this program grows into this bigger beast. There’s a lot of growth, and we are evolving and growing with the program. It’s important for us to focus on making sure our structure is strong, and just believing in the people we have working with us. We all have the same passion and dreams and goals, we just need to keep our focus on quality as we grow.

Kids’ favorite recess activity?

Definitely any variation of tag! We’re just trying to get them as active as possible, and wanting to make sure they have fun. 

Favorite part of the job?

Interacting with people within a school community.

How do donations support Coach for Kids programs?

School communities instantly see the value in our programs: coaches make connections at a personal level and students return to class ready to focus and learn. 

Donations allow more schools to start Coach for Kids programs, and on more days of the week. We include school aides in games which moves the school community towards the long-term sustainability of active recess. 

Hopes and dreams for the future of school fitness? 

A Summer Camp Program and After School Programs where we could better utilize our large pool of coaches and community fitness partners. Bigger picture – going even more national, so that we are in more schools and impacting more children across the country!

Growth Within Our Capital

Wellness in the Schools has grown exponentially in the past few years, thanks to demand from across the country. With roots in a tiny classroom in New York City, the organization has expanded to California, Florida, New Jersey, and now Washington D.C.. We are entering our second year in our nation’s capital, and our partnership with DC Public Schools (DCPS) continues to grow stronger. 

Our partnership started with the 2018-2019 school year, with Annie Hanrahan (a former NYC WITS Chef!) spearheading the effort. We were asked to come to Washington D.C. by FRESHFARM FoodPrints, who were already partnered with DC Public Schools Food & Nutrition Services. The FoodPrints program integrates gardening, cooking, and nutrition education into the school curriculum, with the ultimate goal of improving health outcomes of children and families. While they had a strong presence in schools by teaching children to cook healthy and delicious recipes, they needed support to bring these recipes to the cafeteria. Thus, Wellness in the Schools stepped in, bringing our CookCamp (school cook training) expertise to the cafeteria.

We started small – just four schools – but that expanded to eight by Winter of 2018. And it didn’t take long for DCPS started to notice Wellness in the Schools. We are now in 10 schools in partnership with FoodPrints as part of their Class-to-Cafe program, which includes one scratch-cooked day per week at each school, with the menu reflecting what the students are learning in the classrooms. Says Annie, “Our partnership with FoodPrints is really awesome – it’s so unique working with a partner so closely. Everything we do is in tandem, and we make sure that their classroom work is being translated into the cafeteria as fully as possible.”

In addition to these 10 schools, DCPS contracted us to manage two new self-operating schools for the 2019-2020 school year. Our role in these two schools is to manage and assist in the cafeteria kitchens with the school food staff, and manage them in a coach-teach-train model to help the move to self-operating be as sustainable as possible. Our WITS Manager Chelsea oversees breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our goal is to move all three meals to more scratch-cooked, in collaboration with DCPS. 

Over the summer, Wellness in the Schools brought CookCamp training for the entire kitchen staff at each self-operating school. Says Annie, “CookCamps are really just incredible. I think that is where we really get the buy-in from the staff. It has shown the value of what we can do, and it is an incredible team-building and engaging experience with cafeteria staff. We give them a platform for their voice as well, which I think is so important.”

Looking ahead, we will be starting WITS Labs in D.C. for the first time this year. We will continue to conduct WITS Tastings in the cafeteria, and are looking forward to hosting WITS Cafe Days as well. 

While this relationship with DCPS is still fairly new, it has been a positive one. Says Rob Jaber, Director of Food and Nutrition Services at DCPS, “It has been an absolute pleasure and honor to join you in this journey. The gains are real, and now measured – students are increasingly excited about eating healthier options at school, and we’re hearing them tell the stories of how those same recipes are now coming into their homes to make with the family. This work matters. I look forward to continuing this work with you all.” 

Check out an incredible video of our work, highlighting the power of our partnerships, here