New Year, Same Optimism

By Nancy Easton, Executive Director

Staring me in the face. Wow. Forgive me, but I have just returned from a 10-day vacation with my daughter (#motherdaughtertime) and am slightly more reflective about the passage of time. Just yesterday, Sadie was entering kindergarten. Now she can beat me in gin rummy and race me to the top of any mountain.

With an incredible year behind us and another one staring us in the face, what have I to highlight? Growth and flexibility. The 2017 school year ended with great success and visions for new growth in the fall. And, the fall began in four states, with new models of implementation and management. Most notable for me this past year was how we grew, not simply the growth itself.  It is both liberating and challenging. Liberating because we took all that we have learned from our typical method of implementation (now called the Flagship Model) and flexed ourselves with new methodologies, with new managers/directors in each new region.  Wellness comes in many variations and in order to meet the needs of a particular school, district or community, we need to be nimble. Hence the BootCamps and Workshops . . . to add to the Flagship Model. With growth and new models, came new school relationships and new levels of management. I observed with pride as members of our team stepped into leadership roles and began to build their own communities of wellness.

With anything new, there are stumbling blocks and learning curves. As I discussed with Sadie on one of our hikes, it is in challenge where we grow most and where we learn most and . . . I love a challenge! It was difficult at times for me to let go and become an observer of our great work this year, yet I welcomed the disequilibrium that comes with this new (at first awkward) stage of our growth. I watched as other leaders dove in, took risks, often stumbled, but learned in the process and had support along the way.

I enter into 2018 with renewed optimism. Most of you know that this is my nature, but this is real. I am looking at a year of evolving the BootCamp model, of growing into new cities and certainly of continuing to grow in our current locations. I am looking forward to entering into new partnerships with our coach program. I am excited to soon share the results of our 2-year evaluation with the team at Columbia University that I know will continue to help drive our work. Spoiler alert: WITS kids are eating more fresh fruits and veggies and less processed food; WITS kids are playing more during recess! I am hopeful to soon be sharing the news of other big projects in the pipeline.  Most importantly, 2018 looks like much of the same as we head into the second half of the school year – new experiences and opportunities that propel us to build a rock solid organization. The work becomes deeper and more meaningful with each day, each year.

I am incredibly optimistic about the more global fight against childhood obesity and all that is happening in our space. The NYC school year began with Free Lunch for All!  What a great way to start the school year.  We ended the calendar year with the announcement of a Meatless Monday pilot in 15 schools in Brooklyn. And, 2018 began with New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to offer incentives to help New York schools purchase healthy food grown on local farms. A great start to 2018.  We also continue to see less consumption of sugary drinks and less spending at fast food restaurants, both pointing towards a win in this fight. Finally, in the fitness space, 2017 brought a big victory to NYC with millions of dollars allocated to ensuring that every elementary school has staff, training and resources to support strong physical education programs.

Wow. That was a good deal of information! As I reflect on one year and look ahead to another, I am reminded of all that is happening in our space, both the victories and the challenges. And, this is all happening at twice the speed as when we started on this journey to end childhood obesity.  My word count even a few years ago was half the amount as today! It is an exciting time, and a time of much possibility. Wellness in the Schools remains poised to lead with our deliberate and thoughtful approach.

Amen, Amen. Bring it on, 2018!

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.