National Food Trend Expert Elly Truesdell joins WITS Advisory Board

By: Joan Chung

Elly Truesdell may have just recently joined the WITS Advisory Board, but she has played a role in Wellness in the Schools’ story since 2009. WITS had just begun a partnership with Whole Foods Market (WFM) that year, and she vividly remembers unloading cases of tomatoes and potatoes for WITS Labs at the WFM Bowery location. “I feel like I saw the program when it was in its beginning stages, and it has been absolutely amazing seeing it grow,” says Elly.

Today, Elly is the Chief Strategy Officer at Canopy Foods, a food production studio that offers support in both brand strategy and manufacturing. Elly’s journey within the food space is a remarkable one. After she graduated from college, she knew she wanted to do something in food but was not quite sure what that would look like. While her friends all had serious jobs in investment banking and consulting, she found a role in a restaurant group that led a variety of interesting concepts, such as a specialty produce store and a demonstration kitchen. Within this position, she saw many different sides of the food industry, such as an “event” side and a “high-end restaurant” side. She also built relationships with the farmers who provided the produce. This prompted her to work a short stint on a farm, and experience first-hand how food went from soil to plate. She realized the restaurant industry was not really for her, and that she wanted to work for a mission-driven company that was connected to agricultural sustainability and good sourcing in some way.

For Elly, Whole Foods Market was the gold standard. She worked at a store in the marketing department and worked her way up, meeting Nancy along the way. “Nancy had submitted an application for sponsorship or donations, and I was overseeing those for the Northeast region at the time. We met to review the ask, and our relationship blossomed from there,” says Elly.

As she continued working for WFM, she knew that there was a ‘local forager’ position available for the Northeast region. After learning about the role, she made it her mission to make that her job!  After one year of dedicated preparation to make herself a good candidate, she officially started in 2012 as the local forager. Through the position, she was responsible for finding and supporting local providers of products. She found herself on oyster boats, visiting dairy farms, and talking to ice cream manufacturers to see which goods should and could enter the large retail environment that is WFM – a dream job. Thanks to Elly, beloved products such as Purely Elizabeth granola and Stumptown Coffee can be found on the WFM shelves today.

Echoing the spirit of WITS, Elly says that her favorite thing about the position was building relationships with people. “I played this intermediary role between product and Whole Foods, and helped bridge the two,” she says. Of course, this was not an easy task, mostly due to the overwhelming amount of product that exists in this competitive space. “It’s a bit disheartening because there are a lot of opportunists, but we really needed to feel like the business was offering an exceptional product. It had to reach this high level of quality and ingredient compilation, offer something new and meet consumers in a new way.”

After nine years at WFM, Elly found herself facing one consistent and glaring challenge – smaller growing producers were finding it difficult to find a co-packer or third party manufacturer that was going to preserve the product’s integrity, while helping the business tremendously scale. She joined Canopy Foods this past January as Chief Strategy Officer to help address this issue. While Canopy Foods is her full time role, she also spends 25% of her time as Portfolio Manager of Almanac Insights, an investment fund started by David Barber that extends the values of regenerative agriculture into venture capital.

As someone who was connected to WITS so early on, Elly is excited to now be a part of our Advisory Board. “I was able to contribute in this small way in the beginning, and I’m excited to now be a part of the Advisory Board after having built this skill set along the way. I’m looking forward to spending more time in schools, volunteering and doing some of the work side-by-side to really see the programming in action. I’ve heard so much about WITS and have seen certain elements, but I now have an opportunity to get much more involved.”

While the concept of getting more fruits and vegetables into a child’s diet is simple, Elly knows that it is a greater challenge than it appears. However, she believes that the WITS approach of teaching hands-on Labs and exposing children to new menu items is a thoughtful, unique model that will have a lasting impact. “When I think about the future of school lunch, I see more colors and more food in their whole form, and I think about it being a more interactive experience. I want children to actually get to play a role in making the food in some way. Cooking and working with food yourself ultimately plays a huge role when it comes to understanding health and nutrition, and WITS knows how to present it in a smart, playful, and clever way.”

The years Elly spent at Whole Foods Market imparted a deep awareness on the importance of health and nutrition. Says Elly, “It completely changed my life and really shifted the way I live. More importantly, it contributed to the way I think about children, and the way I think about families. WITS makes an impact not just on the individual child, but on the whole family, and I’ve always been inspired by Nancy and the work we do for that reason.”

Thank you, Elly! WITS is so excited to have you join our Advisory Board.   

Featured Fall Recipe:

Choripan con Guasacaca (Sausage with Avocado Salsa)

By Chef Grace Ramirez

Yields: 4

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

4 chorizos or sausages of choice

4 ciabatta pockets or mini baguettes

1 tbsp butter

1 cup guasacaca (recipe below)

Preparation:

  1. Preheat a grill pan or cast-iron skillet to a medium-high heat.
  2. Grill chorizos or sausages on all sides until fully cooked, about 5-7 minutes depending on size. Alternatively, put them in the oven at 200 c for about 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. Slice open ciabatta pockets, spread with butter and lay on grill to lightly toast for about 1 minute.
  4. To assemble, tuck chorizo or sausage in and top with guasacaca.

Name of the dish: Guasacaca

Yields: 1 ¼ cup  

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Ease of Preparation: Easy

Ingredients:

2 large garlic cloves, peeled

1⁄2 cup olive oil

1⁄4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley with some stems

1⁄4 cup finely chopped cilantro with some stems

1 ripe avocado

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 tbsp white vinegar

Flaky sea salt

Preparation:

  1. Using a mortar and pestle, crush garlic with a pinch of salt and then muddle it with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When a paste has formed, add herbs and combine.
  2. Halve avocado, remove stone and scoop out the flesh.
  3. Combine with herbs, mashing with a fork.
  4. Add lemon juice one tablespoon at a time and try it before adding more. Add vinegar, and season to taste with flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Chef’s note: Some people make this in a food processor or blender, but I prefer the chunky, rustic consistency you get from a mortar and pestle. Also, the size of the avocado matters so make sure you add the acid and vinegar little by little and adjust seasoning. You might also need a bit more olive oil if the avocados are really big.

About Chef Ramirez:

Born in Miami and raised in Venezuela, Chef Grace Ramirez moved to New York at 25 years old. Grace has had many accomplishments on various TV Networks, being the only Food Network star to host programs in both North and South America with ‘Destino con Sabor.’ She was also a guest judge on Oceania, My Kitchen Rules, as well as a star on The Food TV Channel in New Zealand. Currently, Grace is a judge on Beat Bobby Flay, a host of Gooey (a special on the Cooking Channel), a guest chef on ABC’s The Chew, and a celebrity chef on Moveable Feast featured on PBS. Grace is excited to be working with WITS as she wanted to be involved with the organization for awhile. “Working with kids and food is everything! Education is key,” she says. Grace believes her values are very much aligned with the organization.

Her award-winning cookbook, La Latina, walks you through her mouthwatering dishes of Latin America, making it accessible for everyone to eat!  A portion of the sales will be donated to WITS.

 

Featured Fall Fitness Move: “Turkish Get-Up” by Fitness Partner Equinox Highline

At Equinox Highline, one of our favorite fitness moves are ground to standing exercises (example above!)

Ground to standing movements are big indicators of overall health for people of all ages. It represents fundamental movement patterns and progressive strength that we developed as babies to get us off of the ground. A ground to standing exercise can improve cardiovascular fitness as well as movement quality and strength capacity when loaded.

As a body goes from a lying position to a standing position the heart has to compensate for various level and pressure changes causing it to work more. In addition, proper joint synchronization and muscular engagement is needed to overcome any imbalance and possibility of falling down.

The apex of ground to standing exercises is the Turkish Get-Up which is a formalized set of movements done under load. Even simply gauging your progress on how easy or difficult it is for you to stand can indicate how healthy you are. Ultimately it’s the practice of going back to the fundamentals on learning how to stand up for ourselves.

Turkish Get-Up:

  1. Grip your weight and move your arm so it is perpendicular to the floor.
  2. Place the opposite arm on the floor approximately 45 degrees from the body, and bend the knee on the side of the body that’s holding the kettlebell.
  3. Roll up onto the elbow, and then roll onto your hand slowly.
  4. Lift the hips, take the straight leg and sweep it under your body.
  5. Take the supporting hand off the floor, and get your legs in a lunge position. Stand up from the lunge!

What WITS Makes, Trenton Takes

By: Marion Williams, NJ Director + Melissa Neubart, Development Director

Driving into Trenton, New Jersey, you will be taken back by the massive, glowing red letters spelling out WHAT TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES. This slogan hangs from a railroad bridge over the Delaware River. The slogan was chosen in 1910, when Trenton was a bustling and thriving city. While today, Trenton has lost many of its businesses, Trentonians are proud to live in the city, and partners such as Novo Nordisk have invested their energy to support the community.  

Three years ago, Novo Nordisk invited us to be a part of their Trenton-based collaborative, “Ready Set Healthy.” Together, we work to engage children in healthy eating and exercise. The collaborative is designed to help improve the health and wellbeing of Trenton’s young people by increasing knowledge about and access to healthy, affordable foods, to provide more opportunities for physical activity, and to give students, parents, and caregivers the tools to make healthy lifestyle choices.

Novo Nordisk invited us into the collaborative to focus on increasing healthy food options and nutrition education at four elementary schools (Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Columbus, and Robbins). When we began in 2015, our first project was to partner with 37-year old Trenton-based non-profit, Isles, to organize tastings of seasonal recipes. We also taught quick, nutrition lessons (WITS Bits) in the classroom. As students’ interests of food and nutrition piqued, so did our program.  

While we began to teach culinary and nutrition lessons, Francisca Sohl, General Manager of Aramark (Trenton’s food service) became a invaluable partner to us. Together, Ms. Sohn and WITS Program Director Marion Williams discussed ways to bring new recipes, marinades, and sauces on the menu; for example, we prepared a fresh citrus marinade for chicken, and it was popular with both students and teachers.

Last fall, Chef Anwar led a WITS Vegetarian Chili Lab in all four of the Ready Set Healthy! schools in Trenton. It was a hit, to say the least. As students walked through the hallway, they were welcomed by the the aroma of the cumin, chili powder, sauteed onions, garlic, and peppers that were being prepared for the chili. Teachers peeked their head into the classroom  as Chef Anwar and the WITS Lab students were preparing the food to ask, “is it ready yet?” and “can I have seconds?”. We were so glad, (but not surprised!) that the scratch-cooked food was welcomed.

We have also worked with Trenton’s school lunch staff to create a salad bar full of fresh and delicious vegetables –  a great accomplishment between Aramark and Wellness in the Schools. As the year went on, Ms. Sohn of Aramark asked “what else can we do together?” This started the conversation of putting a WITS recipe on the Trenton School Lunch Menu in all 26 schools. The first menu choice was a given – Aramark and WITS chose to place the vegetarian chili on the menu. Beginning this fall, 16,000 students are enjoying a new recipe item. What’s next in Trenton? Stay tuned!

WITS in our Nation’s Capital In Partnership with FoodPrints

By: Annie Hanrahan, D.C. Program Manager

Thanks to our new partnership with FoodPrints, Wellness in the Schools is now in Washington, D.C! FoodPrints teaches gardening, nutrition and cooking classes to students using an academic approach in the classroom to get them excited to try delicious and healthy food.

As a successful organization started in 2009 in Washington, D.C., FoodPrints wanted to continue elevating their culinary and nutrition program by cooking new recipes for weekly FoodPrints days, which is when the cafeteria served two scratch-cooked FoodPrints recipes. As they began, they quickly realized they needed more support. Enter Wellness in the Schools! We were included in a USDA grant (our first) to help develop and execute the recipes in 10 cafeterias. WITS Chef Jami Bailey works at a different D.C. public school each day, supporting, training and empowering the kitchen staff while encouraging the kids to try the food and get them excited about scratch-cooked meals.

During the last week of August, Chef Jami Bailey and I, along with Megan Geiger, RD from SodexoMagic, visited the four schools that were part of the FreshFarm FoodPrints Cafeteria Project last year. When I was a former WITS Chef visiting new kitchens in NYC, we were oftentimes met with staff who appeared nervous, standoffish or unsure of what to expect of the program. However, these schools were different; I was amazed by how welcoming each kitchen was to us as we were greeted with open arms and big hugs. We started the conversation by asking them which recipes they liked best and which were more challenging, since we wanted to design the menu with their input this year. At Watkins Elementary, lead cook Ms. Green and cook Ms. Byrd told us how they already promote veggies by asking the kids what the magic word is for broccoli, green beans or other vegetables of the day while the kids cheer in response “DELICIOUS!”

We also visited the FoodPrints teaching classrooms, which was a dream. They had their own teaching kitchen with some classrooms specifically designed for FoodPrints programming! Most of the schools also have huge gardens for students to plant, grow and harvest their produce for the classroom.

SodexoMagic has been an extremely supportive partner managing the kitchen staff. Megan, along with the help of Jami, has gone to each school to make sure the staff has all their ingredients, aiding with prep if needed. She also holds weekly conference calls to discuss recipes from the week and go over new ones for the following. SodexoMagic also has some of their own scratch cooked recipes on their menus that goes out to all the schools, such as roasted sweet potato and kale, ginger kale, hummus veggie wraps and sesame carrots. We hope to make classroom versions of her recipes to support all scratch-cooked items on the menu!

This Fall, Special Guest Chef Jose Andres and WITS Executive Chef Bill Telepan will be hosting a very special event to celebrate our partnership with FoodPrints and DCPS, as well as the amazing school cafeteria staff who are changing how meals are prepared for students. Our relationships with DCPS, SodexoMagic and FoodPrints have been a true partnership. As we work together through the challenges and successes of bringing healthy meals to kids, the support is felt across the board.

WITS Walks (and Swims/Bikes/Runs) the Talk

For the Wellness in the Schools leaders, the end of summer means an end to the triathlon season where they each spent many hours swimming, biking, running, and competing…successfully. As we are now well into the hustle and bustle of the new school year – with over 140 schools in 4 main markets (gulp) –  they leave behind a very active summer. A summer that perhaps got them in shape for what was to come this school year.

Nancy is not new to the triathlon scene – she was an age group competitor in the years immediately following university, where she was still seeking that same thrill of competing that she enjoyed in college. For those new to the triathlon world, a triathlon is a race that includes a swim, a bike and a run, in that order. Each race is a different distance – from a sprint to an Ironman distance (the Ironman is a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.22-mile run, or a marathon!).

Nancy entered her first triathlon in 1992  and competed in an Ironman in 1998. Soon a career, a family and life took over, but she maintained a healthy lifestyle and decided to get back into the competition two years ago. She picked up immediately where she left off – winning her age group. This summer, Nancy landed back in the water and on the roads and fulfilled an 18 year dream – to compete in the NYC Triathlon – a race with over 7,000 competitors. She clearly recalls the first year the race was held here in NYC, “I was 4-weeks pregnant with my first child and one of my closest friends entered the race. As much as I wanted to join her, I was nervous about competing. I waited 18 years to do this one.” And, the wait was worth it. Nancy not only won her age group, but was also the 38th woman overall, beating athletes who were half her age! “Whether we like it or not, our ages are written on our legs. While on the bike, I somehow thought it was fun to ride past a 25-year old and tell him that I could be his mother. I guess I just have many more years (and miles) on the bike!”

The highlight of the summer triathlon season, however, was the West Point Sprint Tri where Nancy met up with WITS Executive Chef Bill Telepan and Union Square Events Executive Chef John Karangis. This group certainly sets a high standard for what it means to stay healthy – Nancy once again crushed her competition. Perhaps inspired by his over-achieving partner, Bill took on the triathlon challenge and trained with his daughter Leah for West Point. After being on his feet all night, he would get up to train in the summer heat before going back to prepare lunch for his many diners. Bill explains that since his job is so physical he needs to stay in shape. He loves the triathlon training “because it changes everyday, so I never get bored. Plus it pushes me because there is a race at the end. I loved training with my daughter this summer because we got to spend a lot of time together.” Indeed, both Nancy and Bill remain a constant inspiration and role models to not only the many children whom we serve, but also to our adult team of chefs, coaches and change-makers.

But Nancy says she works out to stay happy as much as she does to stay in shape (often the two go hand in hand). She works out to meet up with friends and gets to do both at once. “I was lucky this summer to ride with two amazing girlfriends and strong cyclists. Before we knew it, we had gone 25 miles and had solved all of the world’s problems (or at least our own).”

We no longer harvest tomatoes. We no longer eat chilled cucumber soup. We now get pumpkins and peppers. In the same manner, our workouts change with the season. Nancy is back to running in Central Park, meeting up with good friends and maybe doing a little yoga in her living room on a rainy fall day. Bill sticks to the gym. Regardless, they remain in shape and healthy and ready to continue this fight to end childhood obesity…and to take on any challenge that the school lunch/recess revolution puts in front of them.