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.

WITS Move for Kids

February 2, 2019 • 2pm 

Fhitting Room UWS

584 Columbus Avenue/New York City

Our Signature FHIX (Functional High-Intensity Mix) promises five elements to deliver the results you want. Each of our classes combines functional movements, high-intensity intervals, strength training, varied exercises, and a total-body focus to promise you a workout that’s a step above the rest.

January 28, 2019 • 3 pm

Exhale Central Park West 

150 Central Park South/New York City

You’ll work it all out in this athletically and mentally challenging yoga class set to an ever-changing, upbeat playlist. Expect a flowing, challenging, and mindful yoga practice.

Thursday January 31, 2019 • Xpm

Equinox High Line

100 10th Ave/New York City

A vigorous, more athletic approach to yoga characterized by flowing poses and sequences that are linked to the breath. Sequencing will vary with instructor philosophy.

Sunday February 3, 2019 • 2 pm 

Barry’s UWS

72-74 W 69th St/New York City

Run + Lift/Barry’s is an hour-long cardio and strength-building workout designed to help your body burn up to 1,000 calories thanks to their carefully crafted program that is as effective as it is fun.Their clients spend 25-30 minutes running on the treadmill and 25-30 minutes doing strength training, broken into rounds.

Sunday January 3, 2019 • 10:30 am 

Flywheel Chelsea

245 West 17th Street/New York City

Our signature high-intensity interval training ride. Climb heavy hills, sprint through fast flats, jog up-and-down mixed terrains, and race against others in the epic class that’s changed countless bodies and minds. Includes an upper-body series for a full-body workout.

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


4 chorizos or sausages of choice

4 ciabatta pockets or mini baguettes

1 tbsp butter

1 cup guasacaca (recipe below)


  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


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


  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.