Sakara Life, one of our Chef Partners, has graciously included a delicious and easy recipe for ‘Superfood Cookie Dough Bites.’ Sakara Life specializes in delicious, organic meals delivered to your home or office. They are also some of our biggest cheerleaders, and we are so grateful for their partnership. They will be donating a percentage of their proceeds to Wellness in the Schools on Giving Tuesday, so please keep an eye out!
Superfood Cookie Dough Bites
1/2 cup almond butter
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup coconut flour
3 tablespoons flaxseed meal
1/4 teaspoon Himalayan salt
1/4 cup cacao nibs
2 tablespoons hemp seeds
2 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut
In a large bowl, stir together the almond butter, maple syrup, and vanilla until creamy. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, flaxseed meal, and salt.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix well to combine. Use the back of your spoon to work in the cacao nibs. Use your hands to roll the dough into 1-inch (2.5 cm) balls.
In a small bowl or on a plate, mix together the hemp seeds and shredded coconut. Roll each ball in mixture until fully coated. Refrigerate the bites for at least 30 minutes before serving. Store leftovers in the fridge for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 1 month.
Alexia Brue is the co-founder of Well+Good, a lifestyle media company devoted to health and wellness that reaches over 15 million people a month across its website, email newsletters, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and various other channels.
She officially joined the Wellness in the Schools Board of Directors in early 2020, after years of supporting our organization. Her extensive experience in content creation, marketing, communications, and partnerships makes her such a valuable member of our team. The following is a lightly edited interview.
WITS: Please share with us why you entered the wellness space.
AB: We started Well+Good in 2009 as a media company focused on the wellness lifestyle that was emerging around that time. Before the wellness movement really picked up steam, healthy eating was thought of as punitive, not as delicious; working out was to get a flat belly instead of working out to make yourself feel great, and for your mental health. So, we were a part of that paradigm shift of wellness being seen as a fun, social, joyful, and accessible lifestyle.
We know that food is a huge part of feeling energetic and focused. Nutrition is the bedrock and foundation of a healthy lifestyle. You can be exercising, sleeping well, meditating, doing all these different beneficial practices, but if your nutrition isn’t serving you well, you don’t get the full benefits. With my own children, I really see first-hand how from a young age there are so many cultural and societal forces at work making it hard for children to eat nutritiously. We’ve seen how making the healthier choice has become more convenient and more affordable, but we still have a long way to go.
WITS: Did you have this intuitive sense that ‘wellness’ would become the booming industry that it is today?
AB: My cofounder and I had been covering wellness–all facets of the lifestyle, from fitness and food to financial and mental wellness—and the experts in this space for so long, so it didn’t seem as niche to us as it seemed to other people. I still think the wellness industry is in its very early early days and ultimately it’ll just be synonymous with life. Nancy [Easton] talks about how at some happy juncture in the future WITS will be obsolete because everything WITS teaches will be part of the system. We feel the same way about Well+Good.
WITS: The “business of wellness” has been criticized in the past for seeming like it’s catering to a certain demographic. We’d be curious to know – what does wellness mean to you?
AB: Like you are saying, wellness is a $4.5 trillion dollar industry. It has been commodified in a lot of ways. But for us, from the beginning at W+G, wellness was always about practices, not products. Practices such as walking, yoga, running, all types of exercise, meditation, sleeping well, cooking. These are all accessible practices that create a wellness lifestyle and are financially accessible. It’s as simple as having a pair of running shoes and a yoga mat. Wellbeing is someone’s birthright, and wellness is how we get there. The other stuff is window dressing, you know? No-one needs to go to SoulCycle. No-one needs a $12 green juice.
WITS: How did you get involved with WITS?
AB: Nancy and I have friends in common, and we met four or so years ago and I immediately fell in love with her and wanted to help the organization however I could. I was really familiar with Wellness in the Schools already; there was a lot of overlap in terms of core values between W+G and WITS.
Also, children’s nutrition is an area that I feel increasingly passionate about. And as my kids have gotten older, I’ve gotten more interested in how food is at the center of what it means to be healthy. I love what Wellness in the Schools is doing, and seeing how the WITS Programming intersects with Scratchworks. And I love the holistic vision of nutrition and fitness together.
AB: Yes, it was really awesome and inspiring to see the team at work! COVID-19 hit right when I was about to go to the schools to see a Lab, so, it was great to get to go to the Met and finally meet Marion and see the content being created. Chef Ricardo was making a cauliflower soup that looked amazing, and I can’t wait to try the recipe.
WITS: What is one thing that excites you about our work?
AB: I love how WITS celebrates school chefs, and gives them the support and recognition they need and deserve to do their jobs well. And, of course, the WITS Labs. I love how the Labs take wholesome ingredients and unpack them nutritionally, and then include hands-on education of how to cook and create something delicious with them. It’s education that doesn’t come up in the regular curriculum. In my opinion, we should be teaching kids nutrition the same way we’re teaching history.
WITS: What are your favorite ways to stay active?
AB: I enjoy hiking, running, paddleboarding and weightlifting.
We’ve been busy shooting our WITS Programming in quite an unusual space…the Metropolitan Museum of Art! Many thanks to our Executive Chef Bill Telepan for helping make it happen. This is what a ‘Day at the MET’ looks like for the WITS Team!
If we had to come up with one quote that would encapsulate our perspective of this unprecedented year of 2020, it would be, “Out of crisis comes opportunity.”
Aside from the fact that this unprecedented pandemic has wreaked havoc on families, businesses, and the overall health of this nation, this pandemic has highlighted all too clearly the price of poor nutrition, sedentary lifestyles, and obesity-related disease. As the world around us pivoted to keep their businesses afloat, we focused on pivoting to help the communities we serve. Our goal at Wellness in the Schools remains the same: we support our school communities, regardless of whatever roadblocks are put in our way. To meet our goal during this strange year, we have pivoted how we teach our programs, as it is NOW that schools are in even more need of our wellness support, connection, content, and optimism.
Our pivoting not only led to us reprogramming the way we teach our students and school communities, but also made way for new emergency feeding programs with our community partners, in order to help communities hit the hardest due to school closings.
Since March and through the summer, we spent countless hours developing our new approach. We spent our time speaking with schools – listening, supporting, and taking everything we do best and reformatting it to meet their needs. This year, we have transferred all of our Cook for Kids, Coach for Kids, and Green for Kids programming to virtual platforms. Our team of WITS Chefs and Coaches are prepared and eager to deliver the customized approaches that each school selected as working best for them. We are offering a wide range of possibilities for students, teachers, and/or parents such as:
WITS Virtual Live Lessons – streaming into classrooms or living rooms.
WITS Pre-Recorded Lessons – allowing teachers a chance to use WITS programs in their curriculum schedule.
WITS Blended Lessons – allowing a mix of both Virtual and Pre-Recorded.
WITS on Local Cable TV – WITS Pre-Recorded content for families to use as family entertainment.
And where possible, in-person WITS Programming in the schools where we can conduct programming in larger areas of the school, such as schoolyards, cafeterias, gardens, and auditoriums where everyone has enough space to social distance.
As we push through this 2020-21 school year amidst all the uncertainties, one thing is clear. Our team at Wellness in the Schools has only strengthened, and we remain steady towards our mission. Our team is a team full of WITS Veterans bringing years of experience. And the new challenge presented to us has given us the space to fine-tune our teamwork, lead with trust, and continue to be a reliable resource for our communities to count on when needed the most.
“I like a difference in texture in my applesauce,” says WITS Chef Kisha. “I’m going to now give it a quick taste, and make sure that I keep stirring to keep it from burning.” Chef Cameo’s Zoom video suddenly pops up on the screen. “Chef Kisha, someone in the class had a question — why would the applesauce burn?” “Anything that is exposed to heat can burn,” replies Chef Kisha, “Apples have a lot of sugar in them, and sugar also tends to burn quite a bit, especially if it’s in contact with the bottom of a pot. So you just have to be mindful of that.” She brings up a spoonful to the screen, so that everyone can see the texture of the applesauce.
Chef Kisha and Chef Cameo are in the middle of a live, virtual WITS Applesauce Lab with 30 students of West Prep Academy. Chef Kisha is busy stirring a steaming pot, with two cameras set up — one in front of her, and one suspended over the pot. Chef Cameo, in the meantime, moderates the Zoom chat room to relay the students’ questions as they come in: How can we make it less chunky? Is it supposed to be liquidy? Do we add water if we want it to be liquidy? There’s really no sugar added in it? Can we put it in a blender? It doesn’t look like ‘normal’ applesauce…it tastes good though, right? One student doesn’t have a question, but types in the chat, “This is fun!”
Our WITS Chefs and Coaches have suddenly turned into script-writers, directors, camera crew, and video subjects all at once. It goes without saying that Wellness in the Schools Programming this school year looks very, very different. We are used to emulsifying salad dressings side-by-side with our students, and high-fiving each other on the recess yard (can you even imagine?! High fives!). This year, our students can find our WITS Chefs and Coaches on their desktop screens and phones, bringing the same level of encouragement and guidance and (virtual) high fives through our virtual WITS Programming.
Of course, the work set-up has been quite a big difference from being in schools. “I look for a ‘golden hour’ when family, pets, neighbors, and construction will not be too loud. I turn off fans and the A/C unit, turn on extra lights, and then it’s go time,” says WITS Chef Kent. Chef Kisha speaks about her makeshift filming station, “Negotiating space has been a bit of a challenge since I don’t live alone. Most days, my workspace has been the bedroom. It is one of the few places that I can shut out the rest of the world. With a box full of chefware sent from the office, I can turn any area into a kitchen!” Says WITS Chef Victoria, “I like to review my script and consider where I can have some fun, and highlight it on the actual script as a reminder. You spend a lot of time in your head to “get it right,” but the downside is that you tend to forget to have some fun. Just as in the classroom, our virtual audience is kids. They expect, and deserve, some fun!”
One of our keys to success has been having a moderator separate from the WITS Chef demoing the recipe or WITS Coach leading the children through an exercise. “Keeping the students engaged with questions in the chat and through video would be incredibly difficult to do while teaching,” says Chef Cameo. Chef Kisha agrees, “The moderator is instrumental in helping the class flow, and reminding the chef or coach if they accidentally miss a key point. The moderator can also work out the lighting and camera angles with you through video.”
Says Program Manager Errol, “The biggest success has been seeing the students’ faces on the screen in real-time; this was equivalent to interacting with students in the recess yard. This adds a new level of excitement for the WITS Coaches, who have waited for student engagement these past few months and are used to seeing happiness in a kid’s face every day. The Coaches found themselves recreating the feeling you get in the recess yard and hoping they’re having fun.” Says Chef Jenee, “As I’ve started this new, unprecedented way of teaching WITS content, one surprising thing that I’ve experienced has been the unbroken connection with students over the shared experience of joy and excitement around delicious and healthy food. It was great to see students’ faces light up when tasting a kale smoothie that they prepared during a virtual WITS Lab.”
Of course, nothing replaces being in schools. Our WITS Chefs and Coaches miss their students terribly. “I hate not being there,” says Chef Anwar, “Nothing beats being there.” However, our ultimate goal is to continue carrying out our mission: teaching kids healthy habits to learn and live better. “We continue to be a part of the communities that we have worked so hard for over the years, especially during a time when familiar relationships are crucial. Our students know that we are truly going through this with them, and that we care about how they are,” says Chef Kisha. While it’s difficult to not be in schools, and virtual teaching (especially live) can feel like a whole new territory, we know that now more than ever, we need to emphasize the importance of health, nutrition, and exercise within our communities. Chef Victoria said it best: “The community, the world, needs to build their immune system now, more than ever. We talk about masks and hand washing, but we’re not talking about our everyday health and what we can do to keep ourselves strong. It’s like two legs of a three legged stool. We have an opportunity here and organizations like ours have the tools and the people to make change. Health needs to be made a priority across the board, beginning with ourselves.”
Our Wellness work comes alive inside school buildings and communities. We make tahini dressing with students in classrooms, we high-five one another on the recess yard, and we work side by side with school food staff in the cafeteria kitchen. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that our programming will look different for the 2020-2021 school year. However, our mission has not changed: we will continue teaching kids healthy habits to learn and live better.
We know that COVID-19 has impacted our most vulnerable communities. We also know that there is overwhelming data on how this pandemic disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities, who experience a higher percentage of diet-related disease. We are thus prioritizing by strengthening and reinforcing the relationships we have made with students, guardians, teachers, and school staff over the years. We are listening more intentionally and actively, and customizing our wellness work based on what schools most want and need. In that spirit, we will continue to do the following:
Work closely with our schools through our remote online learning platform, featuring pre-recorded, live and blended fitness and nutrition content.
Adapt our fitness program in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.
Produce “A Bite of Wellness” with BronxNet TV, where viewers can watch our WITS Chefs give a cooking demonstration even without WiFi or computer access. This can be viewed biweekly on Tuesday nights at 8PM EST, on Channel 70 on Optimum, 36 on FiOs, and also here.
Support school districts by providing Wellness trainings, focusing not only on nutrition and culinary education, but also overall well-being.
Support emergency feeding efforts.
Work with our parent and guardian community, ensuring that they have the most up-to-date resources available for navigating the pandemic and other related challenges.
Pursue change on a systematic level by advocating for freshly prepared meals nationwide, specifically through our ScratchWorks initiative.
We remain immensely grateful towards our School Food Heroes for continuing to show up for our students, day after day, and we are honored to be serving our communities during this time. Thank you to our community for standing beside us during this truly unprecedented school year.
Two weeks ago we celebrated National Teacher Appreciation Week with an Instagram post expressing our gratitude to all teachers, but we feel the need to take our gratitude above and beyond the restraints of the Instagram caption limit and provide a bit more flavor. Because educators deserve that we go above and beyond for them.
We can all look back and remember a teacher who left a lasting impression on us. If not a teacher from school, then a teacher from another walk of life, such as a mentor or coach. Your ability to read this blog post is a direct result of someone who taught you how to read. In fact, almost everything that you know was taught to you by someone else. This makes us realize that even when we aren’t in the midst of a pandemic, we owe teachers more than we can ever repay them.
But we are in the middle of a pandemic, and teaching has only gotten more difficult. With a digital divide, the challenges of impacting children and effecting change are doubled. As Priya Parker of the New York Times put it in her recent podcast on How Teachers Are Fighting to Make Meaningful Connections With Students, “Teachers are in the transformation business. At the end of every school year, young people are supposed to leave changed. That’s a tall order — particularly now, when we’re forced to limit what we can do together and we’re teaching on Zoom.” This order is made even taller due to students feeling scared and restless, or at the very least confused about what is going on right now.
In spite of these challenges, Wellness in the Schools has seen many instances of educators going above and beyond; helping to put their students more at ease. Here are just a few examples that we would like to share…
Ms. Costa of West Prep Academy has invited WITS Coach Errol to help bring fitness into the homes of students via Instagram Live. Every Friday at 1:30 pm, Coach Errol has led exercises with the students who tune in, and Ms. Costa, Magnet School Specialist of West Prep, welcomes her students with a big “hi” and offers them the chance to request the workout songs. See a snippet of this here. Ms. Costa has also identified families in need, for whom we are providing meals.
Principal Grande of PS 56 has been using his guitar skills to connect with his students. Here is a video of him singing “Wonderwall” by Oasis for his students. And another video of Principal Grande performing “My Hero” by Foo Fighters.
Teachers at KIPP schools in Camden, NJ volunteer to deliver meals to the families of students who could not pick them up on their own.
Wellness in the Schools educators – WITS Chefs and Coaches – fall right into the category of above and beyond. They face the same challenges and they miss the daily engaging and powerful interactions with their students. But they too are overcoming obstacles or helping others by
Offering volunteer translation services for Spanish speaking New Yorkers
Participating in volunteer feeding efforts in NY, NJ, FL, DC, and CA.
Continuing to create video content and even holding live virtual classes for both children and families.
Thank you to all of the teachers going above and beyond. We cannot wait to thank you in person!
We have modeled for years that healthy eating and active play are synergistic, each reinforcing the other to paint a more complete picture of wellness. This week, we would like to finish painting our picture. Last week we featured the work of our Chef Partners during COVID-19. Now we would like to shed light on the great work of our Fitness Partners, who have been keeping us moving, stretching, and dancing. A good deal of attention has been directed at those partaking in emergency feeding and donating meals for healthcare providers (and rightly so!), but we also wanted to take this space to recognize and applaud the individuals who encourage us to touch our toes and compete in a triathlon in our living room. In a time when many of us are more sedentary than usual, we are realizing that movement is more important than ever for our emotional, mental, and physical health.
First, we are grateful to the sports coaching and mentorship platform Famer for donating their time, resources, and knowledge so that we can share our virtual fitness and food programming through their software app. We developed WITS-specific activities, filmed at home by our WITS Chefs and Coaches, and Famer polished the videos for its platform to be shared with our school network. While our team is not able to be in schools, Famer has made it possible for us to continue teaching children healthy habits while at home.
And of course, we are thankful to our Fitness Partners. So many of them have created innovative ways to keep us active during this pandemic, despite the obvious restrictions (we can’t freely go outside, we have limited equipment, and some of us are in tiny NYC apartments, to name a few). Here’s what some of our Partners have been doing:
Volo Sports keeps our young, house-bound kids engaged through free yoga sessions and Virtual Simon Says
WITS Coach for Kids Ambassador Jenna Wolfe used her passion for fitness for Famer, teaching children how to master the burpee, everyone’s favorite fitness move.
We know that creating this kind of remote content can be challenging, especially when ‘fitness classes’ traditionally rely on collaborative in-person energy, yet our Fitness Partners are determinedly pushing forward (and pushing us forward, as well). Active play has always been a key pillar of our work, and the pandemic has drawn public attention to the importance of good health, with fitness being one side of the good health coin. Whether today in our bedrooms and living rooms, or tomorrow in your studios, fields and courts, we send a collective THANK YOU to our Fitness Partners for keeping us moving and keeping us healthy and strong, both mentally and physically.
In last week’s entry on Healthcare Heroes, we featured one of our long term Chef Partners, Chopt Creative Salad. We wanted to build on that this week to celebrate the many Chef Partners who have donated their time, their resources and their talent to countless Wellness in the Schools events over the years – from our annual Benefit on the rooftops of Manhattan’s finest buildings, to school kitchens and classrooms where their 10-year old audience is equally awed.
Our approach to COVID-19 has not wavered since the day public schools closed. We are helping to fill in the gaps with real food, by once again tapping into the resources of our Chef Partners. Our Chef Partners, most of whom serve local communities, are the heart and soul of local economies, from NYC to Miami. They make up the economic ecosystem that we support today so that tomorrow we are one step closer to a stronger food system — one that purchases from local farms, values scratch cooked over processed food, and fuels a preventative approach to good health.
Today, we thank the very same Chef Partners who have redefined the word ‘hospitality.’ Many have turned their commissaries and kitchens into emergency feeding operations, have pivoted their business models to address the needs of healthcare staff, and have continued to seek ways to do what they do best — feeding their communities, and keeping people nourished.
Green Top Farms is one such example. Green Top Farms, a catering company that has donated produce to our Fall Harvest Dinner and has adopted a school in Harlem, shifted their business model to address the pandemic by turning their NYC commissary into an emergency feeding operation. They have been preparing and delivering 1000+ meals to the people on the front lines and to families in need, including those in our programs. Two Wellness in the Schools Chefs even joined the “staff” at Green Top Farms, since their work in school kitchens is not viable during this time. While WITS Chefs Laurielle and Kent are no longer able to feed children in NYC public schools, they are using their time and skills as chefs to volunteer at Green Top Farms, preparing nourishing meals for the most vulnerable of our NYC families. The lead chef at Green Top Farms, Anup Joshi, was actually one of our very first Chef Partners 15 years ago when he was a line cook at Tertulia. It’s been remarkable seeing how our partnerships continue to grow and evolve, in a way that none of us could have ever imagined.
In addition to Green Top Farms and Chopt, here are some ways other rockstar Chef Partners have been addressing COVID-19:
Between the Bread donated meal packs to school food staff and their families in Camden. Six schools received bags of food containing whole wheat fresh bread, potatoes, onion, citrus, granola bars, and assorted cheeses. Please see below for a message from Between the Bread’s Jon Eisen and Camden City School District’s Manager of School Nutrition Arlethia Brown.
Chef JJ and the FIELDTRIP team have fed more than 800 healthcare workers in hospitals throughout the community. They have also partnered with Harlem Grown to support youth and families in shelters throughout Harlem during this time.
Chef Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine Restaurant Group is feeding 150 families in Liberty City, Miami. We are grateful to our long-term partners, the Key Biscayne Community Foundation and José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, for providing funding for this project. The effort is featured here.
Chef Clark Bowen of Fooq’s Miami is donating meals to feed families in Liberty City.
SOUND Tea is delivering their sparkling beverages to hospitals.
The Little Beet’s #InMyScrubs initiative is keeping hospital workers well-fed.
Gotham Greens is donating fresh produce to food banks and community partners.
Soom Foods has donated their tahini to our restaurant partners and schools.
Misfits Market is donating fruit and vegetables to families in our partner school in Camden, NJ.
Red Rabbit is preparing meals for senior citizens in NYCHA Housing, Settlement Houses, etc.
The list above just barely skims the surface, and there are many others who have gone unmentioned. We know that so many chefs and restaurants, whether they are a part of the WITS family or not, are doing what they can to take care of their staff, their patrons, and also those closely affected by the pandemic. We encourage our readers to show restaurants support during this time by ordering gift cards, purchasing meals to go towards healthcare providers, or donating towards funds such as the one set up by the James Beard Foundation. Check to see if your favorite local restaurant has set up a GoFundMe page to support their furloughed staff. While we eagerly await the day that we can gather and share a meal inside the restaurants themselves, we will do what we can to support them from six feet (and more) apart.
Last month we expressed our immense gratitude for the school food heroes of our country — some of whom appeared on the cover of Time this week. One school food worker from the Dallas Independent School District featured in the cover story had a touching remark: “Most people look at us as a cafeteria lady, I look at it as a service. If there wasn’t an epidemic we would be still serving kids who probably would not get another meal until the next day. It’s an honor for us to serve those kids.” This quote eloquently captures the importance of service in a time of crisis – something healthcare workers know all too well.
Even on the most typical of days, healthcare professionals put their own health at risk to help others. And now they are caring for more people than they have ever had to, and doing an exceptional job. They are heroes, but they are still human. Even our heroes need some help from time to time; they need to know that somebody is also there for them. Dr. Chen Fu, from NYU Langone Medical Center told a Time reporter, “The only thing that really keeps me going is the kindness that everybody’s been showing me and everybody in the healthcare profession at this time. People who reach out, who buy me a meal, the people who let me know that they’re there for me across the digital line.”
That’s where our long-term partners at Chopt come in. Chopt Creative Salad Co. and Dos Toros have raised over $250,000 to launch and support their “Feed the Frontline” initiative — a program created to provide medical professionals with healthy meals everyday while they’re at work. They are donating over 1,000 meals a day to sustain the people who are sustaining us.
A crisis is not the time to stop eating healthy. Hospital workers spend most of the day on their feet so they need a nutritious option like a salad to get them through the day. Chopt has always known the importance of a healthy and balanced meal, having supported our mission to feed kids real food for over 10 years. Now, they are going to great lengths to feed our healthcare workers real food.
To both our healthcare heroes and our Chopt heroes: Thank you. We are grateful for your sacrifices and hard work to support people in their time of need. As our NYC Mayor said earlier this morning, “I can’t tell you when we’ll be able to host cultural events and parades again. But I can tell you who our first parade will be for: When the time is right, New York City will honor our health care workers and first responders.” We can’t wait to see you there.