Big Wins in the Garden State

By Jesse Kramer

Wellness in the Schools is midway through its second year working with New Jersey public schools in Camden and Trenton. Already, our team has made incredible progress in a collaborative effort to create systemic change in these communities.

Our work in New Jersey began in Spring 2016 upon joining the Campbell Soup Foundation’s Healthy Communities program, a collective initiative where our team works as one of 25 partners in Camden alongside organizations such as FoodCorps, Food Bank of South Jersey, and others in Aramark-led kitchens. Then, in the 2016-17 school year, WITS joined the Novo Nordisk Community Health Collaborative in Trenton as one of eight partners.

“The mission is all about helping a community get healthier,” says WITS Program Manager Marion Williams, “and our focus within the collective is the kitchen and cafeteria. We are bringing these schools healthy recipes that are cost-effective, school-tested, and use food they already have.”

In Camden, WITS Chef Christina Martin has spent this school year working in the KIPP charter school system at Whittier Middle and Lanning Square Primary. Chef Christina had the opportunity to provide monthly tastings in the cafeteria in 2017. Thanks to the kids’ positive feedback, some of the recipes will become items on the new 2018 menu!

“We have much positive feedback from scholars at Whittier on a few of the WITS recipes,” says Aramark food service director Devida Bailey. “Scholars really liked the chicken/vegetable fried rice and chicken cacciatore. I look forward to offering more WITS recipes to our scholars.”

Starting in January 2018, we are thrilled to introduce a new menu at the KIPP schools, one that we developed with Aramark, to provide increased healthy options for students on a daily basis at breakfast and lunch. Some of the changes include removing Pop Tarts from breakfast offerings in favor of fresh fruit and hot sandwiches. The KIPP schools have also removed options like hot dogs and popcorn chicken from the lunch menu. In addition to the fried rice and chicken cacciatore, other items like chicken Caesar wraps and chicken sabroso with rice and beans are on the new menu, with vegetable lasagna, lemon pepper cod, and roasted vegetable wraps joining them soon.

To support our cafeteria work, WITS staff has trained 5th to 8th grade students on salad bar etiquette and “Eating the Rainbow” of fruits and vegetables so they can take advantage of another new offering – the salad bar!

Meanwhile in Trenton, WITS Chef Anwar Rasheed has vigorously tackled the challenging task of working in four different schools. Chef Anwar splits his time between Jefferson Elementary, MLK Elementary, Robbins Elementary, and Columbus Elementary. He spends one week per month at each school, testing one dish with the students and teaching skills to the cafeteria staff.

“The most rewarding part of my work in Trenton is making an impact on the youth and their diet,” Anwar says. “I enjoy helping and educating families so they understand how home and school work hand-in-hand, so that entire communities will be healthy and future generations will be aware to make healthy choices.”

The staff has found that students are receptive to the changes in the cafeteria – butternut squash was a favorite among the Trenton tastings. Even at tastings that may not be as big of a hit, most importantly the students are still eager to try the new dishes.

“Kids are excited when they see us show up in the classroom!” Marion says. “That’s a big win.”

While exposing students to healthy options is an important first step, instilling a culture of wellness in these communities is the ultimate goal. That change is already beginning to occur. For example, an architectural design club in Whittier Middle School has decided to build a farm stand as an upcoming project.

There is still more work to do in both cities to create lasting change, but these new developments bring important progress in our mission to teach healthy habits to a growing number of children each year.

Made With Love

By Joan Chung

Chef Ivan Beacco is not sure how he heard about Wellness in the Schools, but he knows for certain that he was on the subway. It was more than 6 years ago, and he saw a flyer, or perhaps a WITS bag, while on his commute. He immediately became curious about the organization, and so he went online to learn more information. It’s been an incredible partnership ever since.

Chef Ivan’s talents speak for themselves – he’s been featured in numerous publications, was included in the annual publication of Best Chefs America in 2012, 2014, and 2016, and was also bestowed the title of Master Chef in Italian Cuisine by the Academia Barilla. He started his culinary journey when he was just 13 years old, and it was quite by chance. After completing his mandatory school education in Trieste, a coastal Italian city in which he was raised, he decided to attend culinary school after a conversation with a friend. Food had always been a part of his life; his grandma used to cook up huge feasts for the family, and he often spent time improvising in the kitchen with his cousin while his parents worked during the day. “I didn’t even know culinary school was an option, but the conversation made me realize it was something I wanted to explore,” he says.

Culinary school was definitely not easy. The first week, he washed pots and pans for a school of 80 people, and didn’t come anywhere near a knife. He reluctantly went back the second week after his father told him to give it another chance, and then realized with each passing week, as he started learning more skills, that he was choosing to do what he loved.

When he was 20 years old, he came to the United States to work at a restaurant in Westchester County. He took the train to Grand Central one day, and started walking down 5th Avenue with hopes to find a new job by asking restaurants along the way. He found success with just his second attempt, at a Union Square Hospitality Group establishment called Borgo Antico. While he didn’t speak any English at first (“I often communicated with my coworkers by drawings!”), he grew into the head chef position after starting as a line cook.

He spent 10 years in the restaurant business in New York City, and along the way he became a Chef Partner to WITS. While the restaurant industry is demanding, he realized that cooking for and teaching children was a whole different kind of challenge. “The first couple of classes at PS 7 were pretty intimidating, and it was really eye-opening and put me in my place,” he says. “I learned how to interact with different kinds of humans, in a way. Children don’t have an agenda, they don’t criticize you because they want to show something about themselves – they criticize because they really have something to say, and you really can’t make an excuse in return. It’s a little bit of a slap to reality, and makes you ask the questions like, how good at cooking are you really? How good of a communicator are you? How good of a person? That’s the beauty of it.” While being a Chef Partner gives to WITS, he states that he feels like WITS gives to him.

When asked about his favorite memory from working with WITS, he says there are many, but one interaction with a student stands out. While it’s easy to wow 1st and 2nd graders with vinaigrettes, it is a bit more difficult to engage the older students. Says Chef Ivan, “They want to show that they don’t care much! Some classes are very rowdy. But even in the roughest of classes, there are one or two kids who are very interested in what you have to say. They can’t show it openly, but it’s there.” There was one girl in 4th grade who Chef Ivan could tell was very passionate about what he was teaching. Eventually, she told him that she was thinking about going to culinary school due to what she’d learned in WITS Labs. “That’s something that is priceless. You made a difference, somehow. You can’t forget it – it doesn’t make your day, it makes your whole year,” he says.

He realized that teaching people how to cook was something that he loved to do. The restaurant business had changed a lot over the years, and while he still loved it, it began to feel more like an emergency drill day after day. Raquel, the WITS Chef that he was working with at the time, told him that her friend was looking for a chef instructor. While the first couple of classes were intimidating, he noticed from the beginning that it was something he really enjoyed, and that teaching for WITS had prepared him well for it. He decided to take a leap of faith and start his own cooking classes. “It was scary. You’re leaving behind a fairly well paid job for something that may crash, but I decided that if there was a moment to do something like this, it was now.” And thus, Red Inside was born.

Chef Ivan knows that he wouldn’t be who he is today if he didn’t love what he did, and if he wasn’t committed to his passion. Cooking requires constant dedication, and he often compares it to being more of a parent than an artist. “It’s not 100% playtime – sometimes it involves changing diapers – but if you really love what you’re doing, you do it through the good times and the bad.”

If Chef Ivan could tell any child interested in cooking professionally one thing, he’d tell him or her, “There’s not always a 100% success rate, but it is a work of love. It should not be about the status, or money, or celebrity status. Love is really what will bring you further, and will help you learn from your failures. It’s not as much about innate talent. If you love what you do, there is a high chance you will succeed.”

Becca Parrish of BeccaPR Joins WITS Board

“The opportunity to affect lives is real.”

By Mallory Stellato

We are proud to officially welcome Becca Parrish, Founder and CEO of Becca, a creative marketing agency, to the Wellness in the Schools Board of Directors after years of support. Becca is the gold standard when it comes to restaurant public relations, and Parrish’s extensive experience in marketing and partnerships makes her a natural and valuable fit to our Board. The following is a lightly edited interview with Parrish on telling the stories of NYC chefs and what she’s looking forward to in 2018.

WITS: Please give a description of your current work and why you entered the public relations space.

BP: We tell stories about people we believe in — people, places and things we champion so those experiences can be discovered, shared and enjoyed. I started my company because I love telling stories, and finding talent. I’m an enthusiast, really.

WITS: What got you interested in restaurants, food, and finally food issues?

BP: My love of food got me into restaurants, and the theatre of restaurants kept me there. I’ve always been a hearty eater, a lover of every kind of food. I grew up in northwest Florida, and we had a huge vegetable garden in our backyard. We ate from the garden year-round, freezing the zucchinis, squash, green beans (we pickled a ton), sugar snaps – so much good food. The record number of various produce on our dining table from the garden was 17. I didn’t realize until I was much older what a luxury that was. And once I started working in the food business, and I got some perspective on the disparity between the abundance of food in restaurants and the insecurity of food for families in the city and the country — I wanted to find ways to get involved, educate myself, and help make a difference.

WITS: Why did you decide to join the WITS Board of Directors?

BP: I want to use my marketing experience, skills and contacts to help an organization that I believe in grow and prosper. I want to learn more about the challenges the cooks and coaches face in the field. Ultimately, I want to help kids eat better, feel better – to love and appreciate the power of good food, as it’s the basis of a good life.

WITS: What are you excited for in 2018?

BP: I’m excited that women are demanding that their voices be heard. And that people are actually listening.

WITS: Any new year traditions?

BP: More spontaneous dance parties!

WITS: What is one thing that excites you about our work?

BP: How deeply needed WITS is. The opportunity to affect lives is real. What’s more exciting than that?

WITS: What are your favorite ways to stay active?

BP: Walk around our amazing city. Hop on a Citi Bike every chance I get. Take yoga. Hike upstate. Dance as much as possible.

Photo credit: Melanie Dunea

The Power of Teamwork to Let Kids Play

By Rodrigo Rabanal

Sports Based Youth Development (SBYD) is imperative for our country’s growing children. And what better way to than to combine forces with similar SBYD organizations that share our mission?

Having secured funding from the Heisman Trophy Fund, collaborative entity Vita Sports Partners will create an initiative that will bring together six SBYD organizations (Wellness in the Schools, Play Rugby USA, Beat the Streets, Row New York, America Scores, and Stoked) that specialize in various physical activities and sports. Ranging from wrestling, rugby, and soccer, to skateboarding and fitness challenges, the project will consist of in-school and after-school programming for PS 208 and PS 76 in Harlem, New York.

Jesse Dilevo, whose organization Play Rugby USA is spearheading the collaborative, states, “Oftentimes schools have limited resources when it comes to what activities they can provide for their children both in physical education class, and in their after-school programs. By the end of the pilot, the students would have participated in various SBYD programs experiencing valuable character development opportunities.”

In addition to providing programming for the kids, the collaborative will also empower and increase the capacity of the PE teachers at PS 208 and PS 76, as it will provide various activities and resources to their teaching practices.

The organizations will contribute a total of 36 hours of PE instruction in a span of six weeks, along with 48 total hours of after-school programming in a span of 12 weeks.

Wellness in the Schools will be implementing its WITS Power Play curriculum from the Coach for Kids program. This will provide students the chance to engage in individual and group challenges by using skills integrated into obstacle courses, which will crucially develop social and physical development.

When asked how WITS will add value to the collaborative mission, Dilevo states, “The students are going to participate in activities that are going to help develop many important character traits that traditional activities and games may not incorporate.”

Here at Wellness in the Schools, we are ecstatic to provide this fitness education programming for PS 208 and PS 76 and can’t wait to help them let kids play.

Marathon Tips from Chef Ricardo, RDN and Coach Stephen

Whether you’re training for the New York City Marathon this November or inspired to get out and run because of it, we’ve got some tips to supercharge your running. 

Are you looking for a way to both eat a rainbow and boost your marathon prep? Beets provide our bodies with a source of dietary nitrate, which has been found to reduce blood pressure and increase glucose uptake by helping to expand blood vessels. A 2013 study that followed athletes who consumed half a liter of beetroot juice per day for 4 to 6 days found that the time to exhaustion during high-intensity exercise was extended by 16%. But don’t “beet” yourself down if you’re not a fan of beets: dark green vegetables such as spinach and arugula will provide our bodies with even higher amounts of nitrate!
Chef Ricardo, RDN

A 5-10 minute dynamic warm-up is all you need to enhance performance and reduce injury. Try this dynamic warm-up sequence consisting of: high knee walks, walking heels to butt, forward lunges, lateral squats, butt kicks, high-knee runs, straight-leg skips, side shuffles, and backwards running. The sequence starts slow then progressively gets faster. Start where you can and do what feels comfortable and you will be on your way to better runs.
Coach Steven, Sunset Park Prep & Charles O. Dewey Middle School, Personal Trainer

CookCamp 2017: “Creating the next Generation of Healthy New Yorkers”

“Just seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces when I give them something – that’s one of the best feelings in the world. It’s all about those moments when they say to me, ‘Mr. Daniel, that food was great today.’ That’s what matters.”

Daniel is a cook at PS 108, and he is one of the 20 participants of CookCamp 2017, a pilot program started through a partnership with Wellness in the Schools and the NYCDOE Office of SchoolFood. Ten SchoolFood cooks and their managers gathered at the Institute of Culinary Education from September 26th through the 28th for an extensive training on cooking nutritious, wholesome food for students. Each day was packed with activities, including events such as culinary lessons in the kitchen, a WITS Bit on the effect of sugar, a Q&A with our registered dietician Ricardo, and even quick exercises through WITS Fit Bits, led by Coach Errol. Celebrity chefs Alex Guarnaschelli of Butter, Evan Hanczor of Egg, and our own Bill Telepan provided delicious breakfast dishes, and spoke to the participants as well. Said Guarnaschelli, “If children know more about their food, chances are, they’re going to eat better. We can empower kids by providing healthy choices.”

“This was a project two years in the making, and it changed shape many times to lead to what we have today,” said WITS Chef Shani Porter, who helped execute this program along with Lab Instructor Victoria Baluk. Said Victoria, “CookCamp was designed to educate cooks over a three-day period to include training in the kitchen, but also to use a series of nutrition discussions to further understand why we are doing this.”

The initial inspiration for CookCamp began in the way that most good ideas take shape – around a shared meal. Council Member Rafael Espinal of District 37 saw on his calendar that an organization called Wellness in the Schools was in one of his local schools, providing a program that gave students access to healthy and nutritious food. His district has among the highest obesity, blood pressure and diabetes rates in the city, and a majority of students who attend school in the district qualify for free and reduced price meals. Espinal knew that the amount of education aiming to teach people how to improve health through diet was severely lacking. He decided to go meet Nancy and visit PS 89.

He was immediately impressed. “I walked in and saw this child carrying a plate full of tofu. I’d never even eaten tofu before. I pulled this child aside and asked him, ‘Do you really enjoy tofu, or is this program asking you to carry this plate or something?’ And he told me that tofu was delicious.” He met with the PS 89 head cook, Margarita, and also ate a school lunch with Nancy, a meal consisting of items like kale and hummus.

“I realized that this program is having a real impact not just in school, but in the homes as well. I couldn’t resist wanting to partner with WITS to figure out a way to expand from one school to many schools, especially high-need schools. I remember how unhealthy school lunches were, and the lack of access we had to nutritious food.” Espinal spoke from experience – he grew up in the very district that he now runs, and when he took office, his main goal was that no child in his district would grow up with the same needs and wants that he himself had as a child.

Espinal knew that he wanted WITS, and the Alternative Menu, in all 30 of his schools, and executed a plan to implement this over a three-year period. To advocate for funding, Espinal approached the Office of City Council and made the argument that while the city could invest in creating jobs to address socioeconomic needs, there also had to be a serious investment into people’s health and livelihoods. “WITS could help decrease health disparities, and the issues that stem from it. This leads to healthier people, which would not only affect my district, but would also have citywide implications. It would help create the next generation of healthy New Yorkers,” he said. Ultimately, Espinal was able to secure funding for 10 schools, including his alma mater PS 108, to participate in CookCamp. Espinal’s commitment also helped Wellness in the Schools secure funding from the New York State Health Foundation in support of CookCamps and an evaluation through Columbia University Teachers College. 

The food at PS 108 has changed quite a lot since the days Espinal himself was a student there. “Back then, we had all junk food. Hot dogs, sloppy joe’s, pizza. We had these hamburgers that we used to call ‘murder burgers,’ because they could kill you!”

Murder burgers were far from the list of meals that the CookCamp participants learned how to prepare. They separated into teams in the kitchen, and spent the afternoons chopping vegetables and simmering beans to make meals such as orange-roasted carrots, mushroom bolognese, and parmesan-roasted cauliflower. Prior to this, they’d learned how to store herbs correctly, how to plan for and maintain a WITS Salad Bar, and how to determine which knife was best for peeling fruits or cutting tomatoes.

Margarita, the cook Espinal had met at PS 89, was at CookCamp herself, co-teaching lessons with Shani Porter. She gave a short speech on the first day with the simple declaration, “Whether I’m upset or I’m happy, the kids in school are going to be there in the cafeteria. So I try to be happy, for the kids.” She followed that up by slyly saying, “And, I make good vegetarian chili. The children come back after many years to taste my beans again.”

In the first few hours of the CookCamp, there was already a spirit of openness and vulnerability with cooks, the WITS team, the SchoolFood staff, and guest chefs sharing everything from stories about their schools to the ways that the childhood obesity epidemic has affected their lives. Said one of the cooks, “My school is in a neighborhood where obesity has a high rate, and I’ve grown up overweight myself. But now, you walk in the door of my school and the food smells so good, and kids are eating. And I’m learning myself how to eat healthy too.” Another cook commented, “When I first came to the school, there was this lady making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for the kids, because that’s all the kids wanted and were eating. But now, I feel so happy that the children are eating the food that I am cooking.”

Many of the cooks were disappointed that the training was coming to the end, and verbally expressed that it could last longer than three days. Some came up to the WITS staff and said that this was one of the best trainings they’d ever had (one cook even baked Coach Errol a surprise cake!). Said Victoria, “The feeling is mutual. Wellness in the Schools considers the cooks in SchoolFood kitchens to be heroes. They are the people on the front lines, so to speak, that are making our vision – to end childhood obesity – a reality. At Wellness in the Schools, our mission is to teach kids healthy habits to learn and live better, but we also want to do the same for those with whom we are partnering – these SchoolFood Managers and Cooks.”

Although the training is over, there is still a lot to be done. Said Shani, “Change is not going to happen overnight. If we all have the same goal – to fight childhood obesity, feed kids real food, and live healthier lives through food and fitness – it’s going to take time, it’s going to take effort, it’s going to take us working together to execute this vision the best way possible.” The CookCamp model provides for Shani to conduct follow-up site visits two times a month and ensure that schools are meeting program goals. CookCamp created a solid foundation for powerful change, and it could not have happened without everyone involved – SchoolFood, WITS, the Institute of Culinary Education, Council Member Espinal, and of course, the school cooks and managers.

The Sky’s the Limit with Erica Huss, Co-founder of BluePrint Juice and New Wellness in the Schools Board Member

In her own words . . .

When we launched BluePrint Cleanse in 2007, the goal was to bring the benefits of juicing to a mass audience and raise awareness on the importance of adding fresh raw vegetables and fruits into your diet to achieve optimal health.  We were really struck by how much confusion was out there around what constitutes a “healthy” diet.  It’s not about a miracle pill or a magic bullet, it’s about consuming fresh, minimally processed, real food.

As an entrepreneur in the healthy food industry, it’s been really exciting to see how much more of an interest people are taking in their health and what they put into their bodies, and how their food choices affect them, impact their families, and ultimately the community at large.  But while it’s encouraging to see so many new products and brands dedicated to helping people feel better and live well, there is a bit of an imbalance in terms of who has access to better food options.  In my opinion, there should be no limit on that type of opportunity.

It’s our responsibility to make every effort in extending the basic right of good health as far as possible, through whatever kind of giveback program a business can support. Beginning with BluePrint, and through my subsequent ventures, I have always aimed to strike that balance between giving the customer the product or service they want, and contributing to the underserved audience in a meaningful way. I was a New York City public school kid, so for me, helping support a better nutritional upbringing for the same kids felt like the most authentic connection I could make. Wellness in the Schools was doing it in a way that felt special to me. It’s not just an isolated class where kids learn about nutrition for a day; it’s a long-term plan with measurable results, which creates the systemic change that our schools need.

Teaming up with Wellness in the Schools in alignment with my business goals was the start, but I realized that regardless of what I could do through my company, I just wanted to participate however I could.  I am thrilled and proud to be part of such a special organization, and I look forward to seeing where our collective efforts will take us. Entrepreneurs believe the sky’s the limit, so that’s the approach I hope I can help to instill into everyone connected to Wellness in the Schools.

WITS Chefs Move to Broward Schools

The Chefs Move to Schools movement is alive and well, and we are taking it to new levels in South Florida this year. After a solid year of partnership with Broward County Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, this year we have collaborated on a plan to leverage our growing list of chef partners to introduce students to new healthy and delicious recipes.

Once a month, one of our chef partners will join the Broward County school cooks to prepare and serve a healthy recipe at lunch time. By the end of the school year, ten chefs will have participated in these special WITS Cafe Days, each using a different recipe on the federal procurement list. The objective is to test out these recipes and to implement them on the school lunch menu. Eventually, we will incorporate all recipes onto a new menu and train more cooks in order to to provide more children with scratch-cooked, delicious lunches.

WITS Chefs Move to Broward Schools kicked off in October with Miami Chef Michael Schwartz. The Genuine Hospitality Group prepared his kale pizza on October 16 at McNicol Middle School, and on October 18 at Watkins Elementary. Chef Clark Bowen of DB Bistro Moderne will follow with a black bean and plantain quesadilla, and Chef Aaron Brooks of Edge Steak & Bar will unveil the famous WITS vegetarian chili in December. In the spring, local chefs will each choose a month to continue the momentum begun in the fall.

This year, we have made a big leap in Miami-Dade County, as well. The main victory? Roasting vegetables. After a year of forging relationships and gaining trust through training, Florida Program Director Allyce Perret-Gentil reported that the schools have received the green light to begin serving roasted vegetables on the lunch line. She has remarked that “this small act of roasting vegetables is making change at home.” Giving kids access to vegetables cooked in different ways increases their chances of trying them. “Food has become more of a family subject, and children are encouraging their parents to cook more,” said Allyce.

These new developments in our Florida chapter are opening more opportunities to train, teach, empower, and create change through food.

Back to School, Back to Routine, Back to . . . Running the NYC Marathon?

Fall in New York is one of my favorite seasons.  As much as I love summer, its sense of freedom, and the hot weather (can’t take Florida out of the girl), by September, I welcome the order and routine.  And, I love back to school!  I love seeing the faces of the eager, yet sometimes anxious, young children who have that huge sense of wonder in their eyes.  I love watching them in the cafeteria devouring greens and raw veggies from the salad bar, or on the recess yard running around with their rosy cheeks and sweaty faces.  It is a happy time. This year, back to school for Wellness in the Schools means 4 states, 122 schools and over 60,000 children. Thanks to so many friends in our city, this year is unprecedented as all 1.1 million NYC children – from Pre-K through 12th grade – will have access to universal free school lunch. The importance of our work in partnership with the NYC DOE has catapulted!

We continue to grow and refine our programs, while also developing new methods of implementation that will help us to serve more schools and kids.  Read more in our CookCamp feature as a great example.

There is no better way to speed dial right into routine than to train for a race – the New York City Marathon, to be precise. With equal amounts of chiropractic, acupuncture, meditation and . . . . oh, running, I am training for the NYC marathon (again). I will run (again) with the Wellness in the Schools team.  I will run to end childhood obesity.  This year is particularly special because 4 of our 5 runners are WITS staff members!  As we grow, we do not need to look far for healthy, eager runners. Please meet our awesome team here  and support their efforts.

For me, this year is special because it feels like it might be my last marathon (at least in this decade). Gone are the days where I could decide on a Friday that I will run a marathon on a Sunday.  I nursed an injury all summer, and then started on my 10-week training program.  While I cannot promise the outcome, I can say that I am following my program with precision and determination – the kind I have not shown since college.  I need it.

I have been asked to share tips on how I keep up my training – year after year – as this has been my way of life (marathon or no marathon) for over 30 years now. Here’s how:

1)    Training keeps me happy, sane and centered. People ask how I stay in shape, and my answer is: “I want to stay happy; staying in shape is a by-product.”

2)    I meet a friend for a workout at least twice a week. This not only makes a workout fun and social, but it also forces me to get out of bed or get out on the road on a hard day. And, the problems we solve on those longs runs or bike rides….

3)    I sign up for races – even just for fun – with friends at all levels of competition, as something to work towards and to look forward to.  The party afterwards is always the best part. Again, I make it social.  We are all so busy, so we combine our desire to stay happy and healthy with our desire to be together and support each other.

4)    I literally look at my schedule each week and rearrange workouts (and even work calls or meetings) to make sure I get my exercise high.  I essentially prioritize a workout as much as I prioritize an important meeting.  Indeed, I am much better in that meeting if I am consistent with my workouts.

Many are already asking how they can support.  Thank you.  Click here to check out my fundraising page. I am open to wagers on my time.

A 2017 Note From Nancy Easton

I have re-worked this entry in my head many times. My inclination was to respond to the election and its implications on our work, and thank Former First Lady Michelle Obama for her leadership in our space. I have some pretty fierce and passionate opinions on the subject, but others have done a much better job articulating these points. I was particularly attracted to commentary by two advocates, Bettina Siegel, and Chef Ann, who outline the progress achieved over the past eight years, and our former First Lady’s intelligence and grace while navigating the seas of the political fray. 

I then considered writing what I shared with the WITS team during our January staff training. The training was auspiciously sandwiched between the day we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day our country inaugurated a new president; or perhaps more importantly, the day millions of Americans marched in peaceful protest. I took a moment to pause on the meaning of these events and what they had to do with our work. My answer was everything. Now more than ever our voices need to be heard. Now more than ever our children need their good health, to grow into productive adults. We serve children of color, immigrant children, children who may never have a voice if we do not take care of them now. We recognize the relationship between wellness and success in life and now more than ever is the work of WITS relevant.

I could end here, but then I joined my former colleagues and students at a reunion on February 1st that most certainly gave me more reason to pause and reflect on the value and meaning of this work, and frankly, on this life. Twenty years ago I started a school on the Lower East Side. We served the toughest bunch of middle school students I have ever met (still, to this day). They were 11, I was 29. They are now older than I was when I taught them. And, I always felt we never gave them enough. If you have followed the WITS origin story, you would feel like you know these kids. They were the ones with the orange fingers and tongues (thanks to orange soda and chips). They were the kids who could not walk a flight of stairs without stopping to catch their breaths. And (perhaps the most powerful one for me) Rene Polanco was the kid whose story I share when training our chefs on behavior management strategies. I saw Rene at the reunion and with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes, I shared his story: on day two of my teaching career, Rene yelled out in the middle of my lesson – “miss, how long have you been teaching?” Without pause, I turned to him and blurted, “10 years”. And, while I am not advocating for dishonesty, it was probably the smartest knee-jerk reaction in my entire career. I showed confidence even though I was shaking underneath. I took charge, even if I was clueless. I would not let that little – intimidate me!  Well, Rene grew up and while his life has not been easy, he is now in security at the World Trade Center. Among the former students I spoke to last week, there were multiple “Rene” stories and tales of success and heartbreak. And, tales of how they have informed my career. Among them are chefs (!), teachers, law enforcement agents, lots of parents. These are kids who never, ever had it easy but who never, ever gave up.

What were my takeaways?  Besides the rollercoaster of emotion, I reflected on two life lessons:

1) The hardest work days are the most rewarding. I feel incredibly fortunate to do this work every day. To serve, to empower others, to do my very little part to make this world a better place. And, it is hard. It is even harder for my team in the schools every day. It is damn hard. And, damn rewarding.

2) Life is formed through relationships. Let us continue to build those relationships. To build bridges to a better world.

So, I was supposed to reflect on 2016 and share my hopes and dreams for this coming year in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions. While this may not achieve that goal, my reflections most certainly take the form of resolutions as I think about what is most important in life. I should also share here what I expressed to my team in January: I am excited about more of the same. We do great work. I want to dive deeper and do even greater work. Where are we not meeting our goals? How can we support each other to do so?  I am also excited about what is ahead: CookCamp, FIT BIT Training for teachers, and developing a more sophisticated tracking system to highlight our impact. I am excited about our national growth. There is much to be proud of and still much more to accomplish. I take moment to pause and thank all of you who have made this journey possible – from the WITS team to our donors to our many supportive partners. Let us make this another powerful year. It is an important one.