Teamwork Takeover

By: Akasha Anderson-Nelms

Our WITS team truly walks the Phil Jackson talk, “We know the strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

In our schools, the “why” of our work remains constant; however, the “how” sometimes needs a customized approach with the help of our team. Our teams of WITS Chefs and Coaches are spread out all over New York City, each working in their own assigned schools. However, as we evaluate day-to-day work, we realize that some schools may need an extra push towards increasing healthy habits within the school’s culture. This is when we pull out the big bag of WITS solutions and bring in not one, but a whole team of WITS staff to “takeover” one school for a day.

The Takeovers are designed to showcase an amplified version of our programming to schools that need more support within either our WITS Cook or Coach for Kids programs, or both! Our presence in the school gets quadrupled with the enthusiastic WITS team, extra branding materials, recess equipment, and even balloons. 

The WITS Recess Takeovers bring a team of WITS Coaches together before recess begins and conducts a WITS Play workshop with all the school recess aides. Together, the WITS Coaches lead a roundtable discussion about how to better plan for a positive recess experience, delegate leadership roles to the staff, and fine tune the skills needed to do so. The school aides get to practice how to facilitate new WITS games, how to better work with large groups of children in small spaces, and how to model conflict resolution through play. Once recess starts, our coaches join the aides at various zones on the yard, implementing the plans they designed together. WITS Coach Sarah reflected on the Recess Takeover at PS 85, “I think we had a successful takeover, and the recess aides were willing to hear our ideas as well as share their own!” The collaboration between recess aide and WITS Coach reflects the emphasis WITS places on “people talking to people is how change happens.” This year these recess takeovers took place at three schools all over Manhattan.

The WITS Cafeteria Takeovers similarly brings a team of WITS Chefs together to reinvent the lunch experience, highlight featured lunch menu items, get the kids excited about the food, and teach them in a fun engaging style during the entire lunch service. Our WITS Chefs divide and conquer in different sections of the cafeteria. One WITS Chef joins the school cafeteria staff in the kitchen, helping with food prep and back of house, one walks around with a WITS tasting tray featuring special menu items like butternut squash, another WITS Chef teaches a WITS BIT, which are engaging nutrition lessons like “Taste the Rainbow” or “Sugar Overload,” and others inspire the kids to try something new in a fun engaging food game. These WITS Cafeteria Takeovers bring a whole new positive spin to “playing” with your food. With a team of Chefs in one cafeteria, we are able to maximize our engagement – WITS Chef Deb said of her Takeover at PS 110, “We got to speak one-on-one with every single child who came through the cafeteria that day.” 

It is a reminder that we are great alone, but as a collective we are a powerful force.

A Collective Vision of Possibility

By: Nancy Easton

I was staring at 50 (a handful of years ago now) and felt a sense of urgency. Wellness in the Schools had been doing some incredible work, making incremental change in schools around the country. But this was not enough. And, I had never seen so much interest and effort in school food. It was time to capitalize on this momentum. I stepped out of my comfort zone and took a risk. I started the School Food Innovation Lab.

I took a risk and invited a small group of Food Service Directors and organization leaders for a two day convening to envision what is possible for school meals. More specifically, to discuss ways to help all districts in our country accelerate their journey towards a higher percentage of scratch cooked meals. No easy task.

We came together from all over our country – from Arlington, Austin, Boulder, DC, Minneapolis, NYC. We came to innovate. We came with the spirit of collaboration. We rolled up our sleeves and worked together because the change we all want to see in school meals is not something that any one of us can do alone. We still walk into most school cafeterias in this country and see heat and serve, processed meals. The work of the School Food Innovation Lab participants is alternative and progressive. Together, we discussed how to make our scratch cooking practices the norm for the 31 million children who rely on school meals daily. We were a deliberately small and selective group of fewer than 15 participants. This allowed us to not only innovate, but to also be nimble, and focus on delivering results. And, we are. 

Together, we will design a coaching program and provide a resource database to help the 14,000 districts in this country take a step forward in their journey towards eliminating processed foods and instead, to cook from scratch. “We did this because we came [as] listeners, and were pushed to think in big thoughts,” said Anneliese Tanner, Food Service Director, Austin, Texas. Or, as our very own Stephen O’Brien from NYC shared: “The group was small, the discussions were targeted, and the walls were broken down, allowing for honest dialogue. We kept it on point, and we moved along.”

This work would not have been possible without funding from the Life Time Foundation, without support from the small team at Whole Kids Foundation and without the team of 12 who joined us last month. Everyone put their egos aside and came with the spirit of collaboration, best described by Chef Ann Cooper, whose words propelled me to take this risk: “I just want to help school food in America. What comes out of this doesn’t have anyone’s logo. [It’s] for the common good. “

We all took a risk together, with a collective vision of possibility.

Photo credit: Evan Sung @evansungnyc

Spring Chef / Fitness Partner Tip

Spring Chef Partner Tip

We partnered with Blue Apron in 2017 when they adopted four schools in the Bronx as a chef partner. It’s been an incredible partnership, and we are deeply grateful for their support. Says Blue Apron, “Our partnership with WITS has been one that continues to reward and excite everyone at Blue Apron! Teaching children that food can still be delicious while maintaining an aspect of nutrition is something that we are incredibly passionate about – and WITS allows us to do just that! Between trips to local schools, live demonstrations, and a trip to our Test Kitchen, we’ve loved having WITS be a part of our lives, and look forward to strengthening the relationship more in the years to come!”

Blue Apron’s Spring Pesto Mac & Cheese


2 cups basil leaves

1⁄4 cup mint leaves

1⁄2 cup canned chickpeas, drained

1⁄8 cup parmesan cheese, grated, plus more for garnish

1⁄2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1 garlic clove, smashed

1 tsp lemon zest

2 teaspoons lemon juice (optional)

1 cup frozen peas, defrosted

6 oz fresh mozzarella, cubed

1/3 -1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling

12 oz dried or fresh pasta (any shape will do!)


  1. Start the Pesto: Add the basil leaves, mint, chickpeas, garlic, and a drizzle of olive oil to a food processor; pulse until chopped.
  2. Finish the Pesto : Add the Parmesan cheese, red pepper flakes, lemon zest and juice (if using) to the food processor. Pulse until combined. With the processor running, slowly add enough olive oil through the feed tube and process until the pesto is finely pureed and thoroughly combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Assemble your dish : Cook your pasta per the package instructions; thoroughly drain. Transfer the pesto to a large bowl. Add your cooked pasta, defrosted peas and cubed mozzarella. Mix to combine; season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with Parmesan cheese. Enjoy!

Spring Fitness Partner Tip

Since 2007, Yogi Beans has been translating the practice of yoga into a language kids understand and enjoy! They are committed to introducing young people to a healthy and lifelong activity that is noncompetitive, non-judgmental, physically challenging, and a ton of fun! Seven years ago, they partnered with Wellness in the Schools to offer the Yogi Beans classes as a part of WITS Family Fitness Fun Nights.  Both companies believe fostering healthy habits in children at a young age create healthy and happier adults. Says Yogi Beans, “We specifically love being a part of Family Fitness Fun nights because it is an opportunity for the entire family to practice yoga together. It is wonderful to see a child show their parent how to do a yoga pose and watch both practice meditation and savasana (final rest pose) together.”

Yoga is a Mind- Body-Heart practice.  Below are tips for each aspect of Yoga.

Mind: Watch your thoughts!  In our Yogi beans classes we practice our “I AM” mantras.  Make sure the word that follows I AM is a word that makes you feel good!

Body: One of the most simple and effective poses is Cat and Cow.  Begin on your hands and knees. Round your back as if you were a scared cat to come into “cat” pose.  Arch your back as you drop your belly to the floor for “cow” pose. These two poses are great to practice first thing in the morning to wake up your spine after a restful nights sleep. (Meows and Moo’s are optional!)

Heart:  Before the start of school, a child and their parent can take a moment to think of one thing that they are both grateful for.  Cultivating gratitude and appreciation make for a happy heart.

Three Cheers for South Florida! See how our Flagship Program has impacted 4th Grader, Christie Carlo

While we offer a variety of programming, our most well-known one is our 3-year Flagship model. The Flagship model operates within school kitchens, supporting the implementation of scratch-cooked menus, preparation of healthy school lunch, and expansion of salad bars. The WITS Chefs work alongside school food staff, and also hold WITS Labs and WITS Tastings throughout the school year. We gradually scale back our presence as school cooks learn how to prepare the recipes on their own.

Christie Carlo has gone through our 3 year Flagship Program at Watkins Elementary in Florida. See below for an interview!

Interview with Christie Carlo

from 2016-2019

Grade– 4th Grade

What does WITS mean to you?

  • “Sometime I don’t like trying new things. But WITS, through Cooking Classes and tastings, has made me feel comfortable trying new things!”

What have you learned from year one of WITS to now, year three?

  • “Before buying something, always read the labels…oh ya and check how much sugar is there! Now I do that when I go to Walmart with my mom. I used to buy Lay’s Potato Chips but one day Chef Leonor showed that they were not very healthy so I asked my mom to buy me veggie chips instead.”

What was your favorite WITS Lab Recipe?

  • “Honey Mustard Dressing and Yogurt Dip with Fruit!”

What is one thing you learned from WITS Labs?

  • “First, always wash your hands because you do not want to spread germs. Then when using your knife, use it properly so that you do not cut yourself. Also, if you have a big knife you can scoop up your chopped food with the blade.”

What is your favorite item on the School Lunch Line?

  • “Kale Pizza! I used to help finish my friends slices if they didn’t finish it!”

Do you cook at home?

  • “I can’t cook alone so I help my mom. I helped her make the WITS veggie chili once, it came out so good.”

What do you want to be when you grow up?

  • “I want to have my own business to design buildings- I think that’s called an architect?”

Has WITS helped you in your core classes?

  • Ya! It’s helped me with conversions like cups and Tablespoons which has helped me in Math.”

Anything else?

  • “Chef Leonor is funny. She likes to flex her muscles and tell us protein is good for us. Chef Leonor also helps us know how the color of foods foods help our body…for example, “red” is good for our heart, “blue” is good for memory and “orange” is good for vitamin c!!”


“WITS is good but it should be everywhere. It would be sad if every kid didn’t get the opportunity that Chef Leonor gives us.”

Plating with the Pros: The Bittman + Telepan CookCamp

This April, our Wellness in the Schools leadership teamed up with the Mailman School of Public Health to hold a one-day CookCamp at the Institute of Culinary Education for their graduate students. WITS’ Nancy Easton and  Chef Bill Telepan and Mailman faculty member (and prominent cookbook author…) Mark Bittman led the CookCamp for 15 participants. Participants learned basic culinary techniques, while also discussing the role of cooking in public health, particularly in efforts to inform, educate, and empower people to prepare healthful meals.

This idea was brought to fruition after a meeting with Julie Kornfeld, the Vice Dean at Mailman, and Mark himself. Philosophically, both organizations want to solve public health issues, for WITS, specifically childhood obesity. What better way to do this than to teach public health graduates how to cook?. It made sense to combine Mark and Bill’s chef expertise with WITS’ programming. By using Mark’s recipes from his well-known How to Cook Everything and by leveraging his knowledge and WITS’ curricula, WITS designed  a class.

The day started similarly to a WITS CookCamp, designed for school cooks. After a short reflection, in which participants answered questions on issues surrounding food, health, and the obesity epidemic, everyone gathered into the kitchen. The menu was extensive and ambitious: roast chicken parts, pan-cooked salmon with two different types of drizzles, stir fried tofu, rice and beans, and much more. Before the participants separated into teams to each tackle a recipe, Mark and Bill provided demos and taught fundamentals such as basic knife skills.

The day closed with a final reflection that circled back to the beginning of the day, addressing why it was important to learn how to prepare healthful meals, and why cooking is such an empowering tool. Said one participant, “I can see now how food – more specifically, healthy food – is essential to ending the obesity epidemic.” Said another, “I learned so much about how to cook healthy meals at the CookCamp. I didn’t know how to prepare salmon, or how to make my own salad dressings!” Due to the success of this CookCamp, WITS is excited for further collaboration.

Life as an Adelphi Fellow: Stories from our Graduates

As we graduate the third cohort of Adelphi University Fellows, we want to take a minute to applaud our partners at Adelphi and thank our two graduates – by hearing directly from them. As most of you know, we partner with Adelphi University to bring talented graduate students into our Coach for Kids workforce. Each year, a cohort of students earn a tuition-free Masters degree in Sports Based Youth Development in return for working as WITS Coaches. The partnership is a win:win, as WITS gets talented Coaches, with the support of a university and the students get a free graduate degree. What we did not plan for was how bittersweet it would be when our Fellows graduated with their Master’s degrees. For the fellows, this degree is the launch pad to their careers – so many of our graduates over the years are doing some incredible work out there.

To Jason and Sarah – we deeply appreciate the work you have done with us. The lives you helped shape in your WITS schools will forever have your imprint. The skills, energy, passion, and lessons you brought to this work will continue to shape healthy habits in the lives of hundreds of children. Thank you for your contribution and best of luck in all that you do. We know you will be a huge success. – Wendy, WITS Senior Program Director

“Life as an Adelphi fellow and WITS Coach has been a great experience and journey for me, and one of the blessings I have had is the chance to share my experience with many children from diverse backgrounds through movement and play. Being a WITS coach enables you to inspire children, put smiles on faces and bring people together. Through my past experience in coaching soccer, I was able to engage with so many children through the Coach for Kids program. While my encouragement for soccer was not always influential to start with, it slowly became a highlight over the last two years. And on one sunny day in the Bronx, I turned up to the school to witness 4th and 5th graders empowered to involve everyone who wanted to play in a small sided game. This kind of engagement with children in diverse communities is not always common in the classroom setting, but with persistence, energy and patience with the children I was able to create this safe space where they could connect with one another through play. With my assistance throughout the year and by working alongside schools staff, it was a joy to see the way this diverse group was collectively growing, week by week. It eventually led to their own school team! Their excitement each week to highlight their improvements and show me their new skills at recess, is something I will never forget. Most importantly for me, I also noticed the friendships that were developing and the energy change within the yard as many children all of different race, ethnicity, skill level and experience came together through a little guidance. As a WITS coach, that is what we are there to do. These life-changing experiences will stay with me forever and I have to thank Wellness in the Schools for providing them for me.”  – Jason Hadley

“These past two years with Wellness in the Schools have been so memorable. I was so fortunate to be placed in the Epiphany lower school for both years. Balancing the Adelphi fellowship, WITS, and other jobs has been difficult, but I wouldn’t trade any of these experiences for the world. While working at Epiphany, I found myself a part of their community. Each day working with the students, I was reminded why I do what I do. For example, my first year, there was a second grade girl who was shy and utterly afraid of trying anything new. For the most part, she would sit and read a book on the stairs for the whole recess period. Throughout the 2017-2018 school year I would spark conversation and she would try games such as helicopter or switch. Then later in the year, I introduced the junior coach position. She signed up for one week and this seemed to have opened up her world. I think being in a leadership position helped her come out of her shell. She soon began playing with new friends, participating in more games, and suggesting games. This transformation was so awesome. At the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, I had a WITS table set up at the back to school night event. The girl’s mom approached the table and introduced herself and told me how much I had impacted her daughter’s life. I was totally blown away by this and I had never expected to meet her mother. This example is just one of many that I can reflect on while working for WITS. I am so grateful for the opportunity to get my master’s degree and this wouldn’t be possible without WITS. I just want to thank everyone for all of their support and guidance these past two years. Thank you!” – Sarah Merck

*WITS Note: Many congrats to Sarah for winning the “Excellence in Sports Based Youth Development Award” from Adelphi University! We are so proud!

Gala Galore

Our 12th annual Spring Gala held at USHG’s Bay Room on April 2, 2019 was a magical evening!  We can’t thank our chefs, sponsors, host committee and volunteers enough for the unbelievably delicious and entertaining night. As always,  our amazing chef partners did not fail to impress – serving over 40 delicious tastings – including Gramercy Tavern’s Citrus Cured Char Pistachio Tart and Sugar Hill Creamery’s A$sop Rocky Road Ice Cream.

“Congrats on the hands down best gala yet!  The space was beautiful, the energy was phenomenal, and the food was next-level awesome.”
“I was struck by the turnout of all-star chefs and found myself feeling lucky to be part of this supportive community.”
“Working with Wellness in the Schools has been one of the most rewarding partnerships of my career. Nancy, Bill and the entire WITS team do an incredible job of making their sponsors feel a part of the family instead of just a logo at an event. It has always been the mindset that WE are making an impact together and the gala is a wonderful example of this mentality in action. As a WITS partner, the gala is a celebration we look forward to every year; one that will continue to be a milestone to celebrate wins, bring awareness to the “heart” work and integrate the many stories of the WITS extended family.” – Danielle Sandars, Director, Employee Communications & Engagement,  Converse
“We here at Crafted Hospitality are thrilled to continue to support Wellness in the Schools and their ongoing work towards creating healthier eating habits in our schools. This event is a testament to all the time and energy Bill & Nancy have put into to creating such a spectacular organization.” – Tom Colicchio
“WITS is an amazing program. Being a part of the Gala each year is super important to us. As a father of two girls in the NYC public school system, WITS’ ongoing efforts to get kids excited about cooking and eating couldn’t be more near and dear to my heart. We can’t wait to see you all next year!” -Wylie Dufresne

Culture Counts

Wellness in the Schools is built completely on the strengths, talents, passion and dedication (I could go on…) of our team of chefs and coaches, who work in schools feeding, playing with, teaching and influencing more than 70,000 children across this country each and every day. In the early years, I used to worry about growth because we are built solely on the power of something as complex as human capital. I worried how we would “replicate” these great talents. A wise mentor said to me, “you do not replicate people; you build a culture that attracts these incredible people and you continue to nurture that.” And, that is what we have done. For nearly 15 years. Every single day.

As we continue to grow and bring on new team members to propel this work each day, culture and quality continue to matter more and more. We have been extremely fortunate that as we have grown into new markets, we have recruited back chefs who worked for us here in NYC and who deeply understand our culture. This has made our national growth much easier. Thank you to Hollie Green in California and Annie Hanrahan in DC. Likewise, we love it when a chef takes a pause (to perhaps give birth to twins), and then comes back once those babies are in school. Thank you Kristin Atkinson. And, finally, we continue to work with chefs, coaches and administrative team members as they remain in the field at schools and other programs, or in graduate work. We are constantly supported by team members in all aspects of the wellness field, even if they are no longer with WITS.

I am often asked how to build a strong company culture. Below are my suggestions.

Establish Values.  Every new staff member, including the interns, meets with me to review our culture and to ask me questions. I love these meetings as I am now too often removed from the day to day work.

Live them. Walk the Talk. It means nothing to establish values if you do not hold your team to task on these values. Uphold them each day by your own actions.

Let your mission drive you. This is easy with a non-profit. We are 100% mission driven by nature. When all else fails, stop and remember WHY we do this work.

Create routines and rituals. Whether it’s a bi-monthly staff meeting, an annual holiday party, or an inspirational story to start the day, create rituals that you stick to. After many years of these rituals, something powerful happens!

Allow space for all voices to be heard. I do not love organizational charts as they visually put just one person at the top. I often say that all ideas are important – from the intern to the CEO. These ideas help to build the spirit and create the fabric of an organization.

Focus on what’s going right. With the help of our leadership team in the field, I send out short notes to team members to thank them for their positive contributions to our work. It can be powerful to acknowledge the positive. We all make mistakes and we all struggle from time to time. Instead of harping on these mistakes, learn from them and move on. People are not always going to meet their goals; look to what they have accomplished and encourage more of that. At the same time, if it truly isn’t working, don’t be afraid to suggest a move. This is an important example to others.

Communicate. Communicate, Communicate. Do not avoid confrontation. Address issues. Share ideas and vision.  Give space for open dialogue and lead by example. Much can be solved by simple communication. And, not by email. I mean old fashioned conversation.

Winter Chef Partner Recipe

Chef Raquel graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education after completing her externship at Le Bernardin.

In 2009, Chef Raquel created A Pinch of Salt, which offers hands-on cooking instruction focused on healthy, delicious meals. Chef Raquel’s commitment to healthy cooking was recognized both near and far, leading to an invitation to the South Lawn for Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign. She then joined Wellness in the Schools as a WITS Chef, and worked with us for several years.

Chef Raquel is passionate about helping start up food entrepreneurs succeed. She consults, provides ServSafe training and culinary training for small businesses in Fairfield County. She can also be found doing cooking demos, workshops and classes for The Bridgeport Farmers Market Collaborative, local organizations, recreational centers, food pantries and senior centers.

Recipe: Three Sister Tacos

Recipe Prepared by Chef Raquel Rivera-Pablo

Serves: 6


1 small spaghetti squash, halved lengthwise

1 small red onion, minced

1-2 cloves of garlic, minced

1-15 oz. can of low-sodium black beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 lime, zest and juice

olive oil

salt & pepper to taste

1 bunch of cilantro, chopped


1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  

2. Rub each half of the spaghetti squash with olive oil.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place spaghetti squash cut side down on a baking dish lined with foil and roast until tender, approximately 35-40 minutes. Remove from oven, cool slightly. Use a fork to scrape the inside flesh until it shreds into spaghetti strands. Set aside.

3. In a pan, warm 1 Tbs. of olive oil and cook onion until softened and translucent. Add garlic and cumin and cook for 30 seconds then add beans and corn. Remove from heat and cool.  

4. Add the zest and juice of the lime and cilantro to the bean-corn mixture.

5. To assemble: Heat a corn tortilla in a pan. Fill tortilla with spaghetti squash and bean-corn mixture over the top and more cilantro. Enjoy!

Chef Notes: To make spaghetti squash in a hurry, cut a slit in the squash lengthwise then use a fork to poke holes throughout.  Place in the microwave and cook on High for 5 minutes. Remove and then cut completely in half where you make the slit. Remove seeds. Take one or both halves and place cut side down in a baking dish. Fill with water, covering the squash by 1 inch. Microwave on High for 5 minutes, and then in 2 minute intervals until squash is tender. Remove, drain, and scrape the pulp and season with salt and pepper!