“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 in 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.