A year ago today, in the early days of this pandemic, we could have never predicted what our programming was going to look like. Schools shut their doors in mid March of last year, but we knew that our work was more important than ever. We could not shut the door on our communities; so we went to them. We met outside, we held socially distanced classes, and we adapted our lessons for the virtual world and for communities beyond the walls of a school.
One WITS Chef put it best: Armed with carrots, beets and cucumbers, we travel into neighborhoods that have been forgotten, and we do this with heart, passion and perseverance.
We became fixtures of virtual and outdoor classrooms. We were honorary guests at farmer markets all across New York City. We turned every room of our house into a kitchen or fitness studio (for the best lighting!). We created not one, but two shows (A Bite of Wellness on BronxNet and Talks with Telepan on Instagram Live). We’ve created engaging workouts that are instrumental in keeping students focused during virtual learning. And yes, we have mastered Zoom breakout rooms.
When we look back on the year we remember loss and hardship, but looking at the pictures from this year tells a different story. It reminds us that the humans of WITS make the best out of any situation. In that way, looking back has prepared us to move forward.
Below is a slideshow of just a few of the incredible moments from this past year that were captured. Moments that show the heart, passion, and perseverance of Wellness in the Schools.
The following is an interview conducted by WITS Chef and Resident Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Ricardo Diaz. Ricardo interviewed Maya Feller, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist,a nationally recognized nutrition expert who recently joined the Wellness in the Schools Board of Directors.
Ricardo: Hi Maya, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and answer a few questions. I guess we can just jump right into it with the big question of what led you to want to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist? Was it always your end goal?
Maya: Hi Ricardo! Actually, not at all. I started out studying experimental theater and philosophy as an undergraduate. So it wasn’t what I originally set out to do. The path to becoming an RDN actually started when I was training for the Boston Marathon. I was spending so many hours running and I began to think more about the food that I was eating. What’s happening with the food I eat? Where is it going? How is it metabolized? How is my food turning into fuel? All of these questions fascinated me, and still do. After researching those questions I learned about registered dietitians and knew that it was something that I wanted to study. I come from a family of academics, so I knew immediately I wanted to go for the terminal degree, so that is what I did and I became a dietitian!
Ricardo: Thank you so much for sharing that story with me Maya. It’s also interesting to hear that we both didn’t necessarily look at nutrition and dietetics as a primary goal from the start. Becoming an RDN was something I ended up stumbling into myself. I initially wanted to go pre-med. After taking some requisite classes in nutrition I started using what I was learning in that class in my personal life, and once I saw how these practices were influencing my own health then I thought, “well, maybe I should give this a try instead.”
Maya: Oh, that’s amazing. So do you use any of your knowledge from pre-med classes years ago as you are working with the students now?
Ricardo: Yes I do, but I take what I learned and I simplify it so that students can more easily use that information to make changes within their own life… So we know how you decided on becoming an RDN, but what led you to working in private practice and academia?
Maya: Before private practice and academia I actually started working with my community. Right after becoming an RDN I started working with a community organization where I worked with homeless or unstably housed patients with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. After that, I started working with the New York City Department of Health where I was a part of a program that would go around the 5 boroughs and teach classes on nutrition and body care. That eventually led to me doing 12 week nutrition workshops in New York City housing projects. It was around that time that I decided to start my own private practice. At first, my work really centered around maternal and family nutrition, but over time it has become more general, but I still do a lot of family nutrition work and a lot of it deals with non communicable conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, etc. All of my work is from a very patient-centered, anti-biased lens. I am really there to take the science that I do know and work with a lens of cultural humility so that I can serve the patients efficiently. I don’t know anything about a person’s lived experience, that’s their unique experience, what I do know is the nutrition science, which means I have to walk in with my eyes open and my ears open and honor what they’re telling me so that I can really serve them in the best possible way.
When I was running the 12 week nutrition workshops that is when I started teaching at NYU. I started teaching life cycle nutrition there in 2012 and I am still teaching it. So that’s how I ended up in private practice and academia!
Ricardo: I really like the point you bring up on cultural humility. I feel like that is something I had to gradually learn to appreciate a lot more, especially when working with different cultures all over New York City. So how did you end up working with the populations that you work with now?
Maya: I think that as a black woman dietitian many of my patients have sought me out because I am not the majority. So I have a large group of patients that were looking for someone who is representative of them. I also have a large group of patients that identify as LGBTQ+ because my work is through an anti-biased approach. Patients want someone who will listen to them, and because I work with an anti-racist, anti-biased lens that takes cultural humility into account I am better able to serve my patients. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “thank you for listening.” That’s not generally a part of how we are trained as RDNs. We engage in motivational interviewing, which may work for some but might not work for others, and we are taught that we are supposed to educate, which is true, but we also need to educate ourselves by listening to and learning from our patients. I am always willing to say “I can learn from you,” and I think that’s why a lot of my patients come to me.
Ricardo: The listening is so crucial. I find that especially with my work with the students, you have to listen closely to them so that you can meet them where they are at, but as you say, people don’t focus enough on the listening aspect of our work. We also never really got guidance on working with the LGBTQ+ community as you mentioned –
Maya: Not at all. We are told that so many of those conversations that we have with patients from the LGBTQ+ fall under “social issues,” and are not classified as dietetics work, when in fact, people’s identities are deeply entwined with how they interact with food. I think that as we start to teach a new generation of dietitians we need to begin to build all of this into the fabric of dietetics so that students are better equipped to work with diverse populations.
Ricardo: Absolutely. One thing that comes to mind is looking at different cultures and how different cultures eat healthily. Looking back, I never really knew how to address how individuals from different cultures could eat healthy while consuming traditional cultural foods. As a preceptor, professor, and a mentor, how do you challenge and broaden the perspective with regard to how your students and future RDNs could better serve these diverse populations while keeping cultural traditions intact?
Maya: That’s an incredible question. The academy loves to say that “there is no one size that fits all.” And they’re right. There is no one size that fits all. When new patients come in we should be asking them, “what is it that you are engaged in eating, what are some of your favorite foods?” Let’s start by asking and listening, before we start to prescribe. We should take into account what is accessible in their communities.
Ricardo: That is such a good point. Chef Marion and I have to factor this into our pantry work in the Bronx. We have to take into account what kind of food and ingredients that people like to eat, along with what they have access to, and try to help them from there while being fully aware of their cultural traditions. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me Maya. It was so great to hear about your journey to becoming an RDN and how our paths had a few similarities.
Maya: Thank you so much for having me! Always happy to support Wellness in the Schools.
This article was initially published in the Whole Kids Foundation Blog of March 2021.
Life is full of unpredictable events, most of which we have no control over. However, the year 2020 will be forever remembered as the one that forced a world to stop in its tracks and alter every aspect of life that was considered normal, familiar, planned, and even mandatory. It challenged everyone, even the most inspiring optimist, to find comfort and stability.
As the long days turn into long months during this Covid-19 pandemic, it continues to radically change the way we live, work, learn, socialize, and the way we take care of our loved ones. Above all, the most important factor that this pandemic has highlighted is our health which happens to be the one thing we DO have control over. With all the anxieties, fears, and stresses, we are grasping at everything that brings us comfort, relief, and happiness. Self-care is not selfish, it is mandatory. Now that we are one year in, the dependency on technology has taken its toll and the desire to find easy ways to unplug is even more in demand. The quarantine trends of baking bread, learning a musical instrument, or hosting drive-by parties are all great ways to unplug for one’s mental health. However, taking care of our physical health requires a little more creativity.
At Wellness in the Schools, we bring food & fitness programming into the classroom. Our short-term goal is to teach healthy habits to live and learn better. Our long-term bold mission is to end childhood obesity. In order for our programming to have a lasting impact, ideally the habits we teach continue at home. Fortunately, the Covid silver lining for WITS is that we have been able to do just that. Our WITS Chefs and Coaches have been able to stream live lessons into the bedrooms, kitchens, and/or family rooms of our students.
We’ve curated a list of fun ideas for parents and teachers to use at home with their families:
OUR TOP 4 MEALTIME TRADITIONS:
Have each member of the household rotate nights of the week and cook for each other, then give ratings on yumminess, healthiness, and presentation! If some are too young to cook, partner up in teams. Tally the scores at the end of the week for a prize – fruit dipped in chocolate and rolled in coconut anyone?
Want dessert? That’s ok, take a poll and make rules around how much is too much. For example, 3 dessert nights/week and urge homemade and/or fresh fruits. If you have teens at home, you know teens like being part of the decision-making process, and having them choose usually leads to a successful outcome. You can also hold “healthy competitions” for who can make the most delicious cookie that is filled with healthy and yummy ingredients!
If the tradition of cooking for each other is a success, start keeping track of all the highest rated recipes made from each family member and create your own cookbook! This is a wonderful tradition as well as something to use again when you want to recreate the dish together – or to share among friends.
What better way to clean up after dinner than with a dance party? Turn on your favorite music, create an assembly line, and dance while you clean. If the kids are too young, give them a little area to “clean” while you clean and the happiness of the dancing will keep them included. A great way to get moving, laughing, with the reward of a clean kitchen.
OUR TOP 4 FITNESS-FUN TRADITIONS:
Obstacle courses! This can be modified to be perfect for any household. Let the kids lead for optimum success. The course can be set up inside or outside. One leader designs the course and the whole family has to complete it. Each course usually consists of 5 obstacles. It can include everything from crawling under chairs to hopping over a row of pillows. Depending on the athleticism of your household, the obstacles can be at any level of ease or difficulty, as long as it gets everyone moving. Have everyone do the course once, clock each run, then have each person do it again trying to beat his/her last time. Want to challenge teamwork? Partner up!
Take a daily walk, with a twist. Many kids find walks boring. So jazz it up and make it a game. Bring the dog, if you have. Bring a football and play catch while walking. Or, end the walk with family competition (football, wiffle ball) – adults against the kids!
Turn chores into a game. Instead of saying “I have to do something”, try switching your perspective to “I get to do something.” Just this slight word change can change the amount of energy you bring to the task. If you said, “I get to do laundry today”, it sounds exciting, right? For example, when putting away your laundry, grab a partner and make it a relay! Maybe open up your sock drawer and see how many balled up socks you can make it in your drawer from 6 feet away. Get creative with your chores and you will find you and your family genuinely saying, ”I get to do chores today!”
Get outside in nature. Of course, respecting social distancing, find a peaceful spot outside. Enjoy the air. If you haven’t already, this is the perfect time to bring the healthy habit of meditation into your day. An easy way to start is to go outside, find a tree, and have a seat. Focus on just one leaf on the tree, watch it blow in the wind, and intently listen to hear the noise of that one leaf blowing in the wind. This will help the start of blocking out all other noise in that one moment.
From our team to yours, stay present, safe, healthy, and have fun!
Wellness in the Schools continually adapts our lessons to meet the needs of our communities. In some cases, the partnership between WITS Chefs and schools is so strong that an entire new curriculum is created. The Rainbow Salad Lab is one of those colorful cases.
The idea was born from a collaboration between WITS Chef Cait Olesky and Lu Sutton Elementary School garden coordinator Erin Compton. Erin and Chef Cait decided to refresh a Greens Lab taught a few years ago with a new, colorful twist – adding the bounty of locally grown California produce and a “mix-and-match create your class salad” activity.
Why is Lu Sutton Elementary such a great place for the Rainbow Salad Lab? Lu Sutton Elementary has a fantastic garden, and gardening is a regular part of the school curriculum. Students are familiar with the yearly life cycle of the garden and all it has to offer. Erin keeps the school garden bountiful year-round with greens (lettuces, chard, and kale), apples, beets, squashes, pumpkins, herbs, and more.
Not being able to teach in person this year hasn’t stopped Erin’s creativity. She has found many innovative ways to keep students involved, even if they couldn’t be weeding and harvesting as they usually do. One of these innovations was to focus on California agriculture, as it is a considerable producer of greens, citrus, stone fruits, berries, nuts, and floriculture. California grows nearly 100% of the U.S. artichoke crop, with 80% of that produced in Monterey County – not far from Lu Sutton!
For the Rainbow Salad Lab, Chefs Cait and Nancy Larson teach a virtual-live lab to each class. Chef Cait demonstrates making the same salad and herb vinaigrette for all classes. All of the Lab ingredients are grown in California and can frequently be found in the school’s garden. The Lab also includes items often in the cafeteria lunches that students take home, such as sunflower seeds, craisins, and apples.
As with all our Labs, we discuss the health benefits of each ingredient in the salad. This nutrition lesson includes information on the vitamins and nutrients of the leafy greens, fruits, vegetables, and the benefits of the healthy fats such as avocado and olive oil.
The fun and learning continues with the “mix-and-match create your class salad recipe” activity. Each class collectively chooses from a list of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, plus items such as cheese, olives, and herbs. Their choices are then added to a green salad base. At the end of the week, class recipes are put into a hat, and Chef Cait blindly chooses one to distribute to the entire school, as “Class XXXX’s California Rainbow Salad”. Students will even get a take-home spice packet to mix into oil and vinegar at home for a delicious dressing.
It is an action-packed lesson with gardening, cooking, nutrition, local agriculture, and an element of surprise all wrapped into one. What makes the lesson memorable, like all WITS Labs, is that it is a complete sensory experience: students are smelling and tasting the ingredients that they are hearing about, and forming these connections.
Chef Cait says of the Rainbow Salad Lab, “this Lab is a fun and creative way to motivate kids to make and eat a big beautiful salad with local ingredients and also ones that are easily accessible to all of our families.”
It turns out that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, is actually a bowl. And that bowl is filled with salad.
For the last 15 years, our Wellness in the Schools programming has transformed the school lunch and recess experience. We have always offered programming that supports our immediate goal to have students receive a healthy lunch followed by an active and positive recess experience so they can return to the classroom focused and ready to learn. Our programming teaches students to adopt these healthy habits to their every day, help them to understand and feel the benefits, and ultimately reach our goal of ending childhood obesity.
As our short term goal of teaching healthy habits to live and learn better and our long term goal of ending childhood obesity has not and will not change, the way in which we have had to stay the course during this pandemic has.
When schools pivoted to remote, hybrid, in-school, or a sporadic flux of all, we stayed constant in providing them with our support – and pivoted with each play. And what this pandemic highlighted for us is that our programming has never been more needed. For the most part, there was no more lunch in the cafeteria but they were still eating in some way, so our WITS Chefs supported that experience with virtual nutrition education, food access, and cooking classes. However, our schools were not able to provide recess. There was no longer a set time for kids to move, play, socialize, or recharge. There was no longer a place for them to gain physical confidence, work in a team, learn a new movement, perfect a skill, or forge a new friendship. These are the vital components our WITS Coaches teach during WITS Play at recess. Not only was the ability to release pent up energy taken away, but all the social-emotional learning that goes along with it was also missing. Students were now sitting in front of their computer all day, either at a desk in a classroom surrounded by plexiglass or at home far from their peers.
We quickly pivoted our Coach for Kids curriculum to provide schools with a daily and weekly schedule of movement opportunities. We merged our classroom curriculum of fitness breaks (WITS FIT BITS) with our recess playbook (WITS Play) and created new models that are plugged into school schedules throughout the school day, virtually. We provide a schedule of virtual live classes and/or prerecorded videos that teachers can use when they feel the need. We have also teamed up our WITS Coaches with our WITS Chefs during nutrition and cooking classes so every WITS class includes movement before, during, or after a nutrition or cooking lesson.
It is one thing to be an effective and engaging coach in person but a whole other skill to be able to engage elementary school age and even more challenging, middle school-aged students in physical activity as a class through a screen. The start was definitely a challenge, as we were up against students who were taking our class from their bed and not really in the mood to move, students who didn’t feel comfortable with their camera on, students who were trying to stay quiet so as not to distract adults or siblings trying to work nearby. The challenges were daunting, however, we persevered and found a way to overcome all of it through WITS Play techniques and inclusion.
We now have concrete schedules with our schools that incorporate movement throughout the day. Our schools have never been more appreciative and our student surveys have proved that this new approach is helping them focus and feel better throughout their school day.
The success that we have found so far in this unprecedented year has given Wellness in the Schools a new digital arm to our programming that we believe will continue even as life gets back to “normal”. Not only does this digital arm help our schools reach their required 60 minutes of physical activity a day, it enables us to reach more students and school communities – it’s especially fun when we see parents join in on the fitness fun.
We will continue to pivot to the needs of our communities. And we will always find a way to continue to Let Kids Play, Feed Kids Real Food, and Get Kids Green.
Without leaving our bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms or other makeshift offices, Wellness in the Schools has managed to share our expertise and perspective on wellness issues on a national platform – from Florida to New Jersey to New York, directly from our laptops. In an odd way, the challenges of isolating during the pandemic have opened up opportunities nationwide in this winter season.
First stop, the Global Wellness Summit, in Palm Beach, Florida. Thanks to board member and co-founder of Well+Good, Alexia Brue, we had the great opportunity to introduce our work and our recently launched ScratchWorks at the hybrid event in Florida – where 100 participants gathered in person and over 600 more gathered virtually. The Global Wellness Summit brings together top wellness leaders from around the world to this important conference on the multi trillion dollar wellness industry. This year’s focus was on resetting the world of wellness. Wellness in the Schools was fortunate to be zoomed in for a special “announcement” and introduced by Alexia. See full 6-minute interview here.
Next stop, New York, NY. We joined a local partner, Nazareth Housing as a guest panelist at their Virtual Gala in December. Nazareth Housing is a NYC-based nonprofit that supports the city’s most vulnerable families with housing stability and economic mobility, and we were honored to be called upon as an expert in the food space for their panel. We shared our thoughts on food insecurity, food access and the value of real, whole food during a pandemic (and always). We were joined by moderator Calvin Sims and fellow panelists Judi Kende from Enterprise Community Partners and Christopher Wimer from The Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy. Enjoy the full panel here.
Finally, our last stop on this virtual tour brought us to Princeton, NJ, where we designed a wellness panel for the Campus Life employees’ retreat. The participants – all employees of the university – enjoyed a discussion moderated by WITS’ Executive Director and Co-Founder Nancy Easton, and highlighted by an all-star panel of Maya Feller, Marcus Samulesson and Jenna Wolfe. This team was not only full of excellent advice and wisdom on how to be well during a pandemic, but mostly their collective combination of knowledge, passion and humor was educational, inspiring and entertaining all at once. Or, as described by Jess Deustch, Associate Director of Princeton Campus Life, “ . . . through the magic of the essence of Nancy, it all [came] together in the most incredible way – you all [found] a way to reflect all of it – the messy, the painful, the funny, the profound. Just all of it.” Enjoy this panel discussion here.
Our travels in the wellness world continue to solidify our leadership and our partnerships with others doing such important work. The pandemic has taught us many things, one of which is the reminder that we are all in this together. Lending our expertise and support to those doing this good work is both a rewarding and important part of driving change.
When schools across the country closed their doors in March of last year, we knew that we had to adapt our programming. We quickly went from in-person to virtual. As an article from our last newsletter described it, “Our WITS Chefs and Coaches have suddenly turned into script-writers, directors, camera crew, and video subjects all at once.” The virtual classroom was new territory for both students and educators alike.
There are many obstacles in virtual learning, but one that became apparent for some of our communities was technological and broadband accessibility. We had trained to teach our classes virtually over conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but how could we continue to work with our most vulnerable communities who could not access our content in an online format?
The answer to that question actually takes us back to 2015. WITS Chef Ricardo Diaz had just started at Wellness in the Schools and was teaching WITS Bits and WITS Labs at PS 55X, The Benjamin Franklin School in the Bronx. As Ricardo continued to work in the school over the years, his talents caught the attention of Principal Luis Torres.
In April of last year, Principal Torres shared with Ricardo that many students in the Bronx were unable to participate in virtual learning fully due to lack of technology and limited broadband. Data collected from the City of New York corroborates Principal Torres’ claim; nearly one third of New York City households lack a home broadband subscription. Furthermore, approximately 12% of New York City households do not have home access to a computing device of any kind. These percentages are even higher in many of the communities we work in, such as Claremont Village in The Bronx where PS 55X is located.
Principal Torres connected Ricardo with the staff at BronxNet, a public, educational, and government access cable TV network in The Bronx. The network was putting together a string of programming to air throughout the school day called Edulution, which airs educational content created by New York City teachers to help bring virtual education into homes where device or internet access was limited. BronxNet was looking for health and wellness content on Edulution, so we were invited to submit a pilot episode.
Not long after submitting a 15 minute pilot episode, a WITS BronxNet show was born! We were immediately featured bi-monthly for 30-minutes during prime time. The show has proven to be so popular that we were recently upgraded to a weekly 30 minute episode.
Starring WITS Chef and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Ricardo Diaz, often accompanied by his sous Chef (and nephew) Sebastian, A Bite of Wellness puts some of our regular WITS programming on display, while also modifying the content to make sure it is relevant for the audience at this moment. WITS National Program Director Marion Williams, who produces the show, said that, “before developing an episode idea we always ask ourselves ‘What do the people need right now?’” This aspect of the show comes through clearly. The food that is cooked in episodes of A Bite of Wellness is always in season, featuring Green Market tours and local produce. Currently, during the cold winter months, we have featured a series on immunity, and ways you can incorporate immunity boosting ingredients into your diet. It’s not just a cooking show.
To Ricardo and Marion, A Bite of Wellness is all about accessibility. They know that in order to make cooking accessible, they need to show how to access the ingredients. There are multiple episodes of A Bite of Wellness that start in farmers markets. Marion and Ricardo have been to so many farmers markets in their WITS regalia that they are now recognized by market patrons! Farmers market episodes explain how one can use EBT and Pandemic EBT to pay for fresh produce at GrowNYC markets, and how to ask questions about the produce. By demystifying the farmers market and showing alternative ways to pay, Ricardo and Marion have made it easier for Bronx residents to access healthy ingredients and cook delicious meals.
This isn’t only empowering to viewers, but to Marion and Ricardo as well. Marion said that, “What A Bite of Wellness allowed us to do was to engage our communities and to see families in the Bronx at farmers markets to let them know that we are still here. Even though we have not been going into their schools in person, we’re still here…we’re still doing this work.”
To see the work for yourself, tune into BronxNet’s BX Inform channel (channel 70 on Optimum, 36 on Fios, or the live stream link here) on Monday at 6:30 PM ET. If you want to view clips or full episodes that have already aired then check out the A Bite of WellnessYoutube channel.
When school buildings closed nearly one year ago, many people feared the impact it would have on food accessibility – millions of students depend on school meals for at least one of their meals a day. Although school buildings remained closed for learning for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year, many of them opened their doors to act as feeding centers. School food managers, cooks, and staff from the Office of Food & Nutrition Services (OFNS) in NYC became frontline heroes, putting their own health at risk to keep New York City’s children and community fed.
Wellness in the Schools created Wellness Camp: Taking Care of You, in partnership with OFNSto support school managers and cooks as they continued to work daily to feed children in NYC, whether in school or not. The Wellness Camp – which was co-designed by NYC school cooks themselves – teaches tips for mindfulness and personal health, to help school cooks take care of themselves so that they can better take care of others. The classes introduce simple at-home recipes,fitness activities and breathing techniques.
Wellness Camp is a six workshop series, 100% virtual. Each workshop is driven by the five senses, where we teach mindfulness techniques and holistic health strategies that can be used to mitigate the stress that comes with working on the frontlines of this pandemic.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend the first workshop in October, which focused on the sense of sight. WITS Chefs Rebecca Johnson and Victoria Baluk led the class by discussing the importance of sight in the scope of wellness. “Before we eat what’s on our plate, we see it. One of the best things we can do for our health is eat a variety of fruits and vegetables that come in many different colors,” Rebecca instructed.
Next, Rebecca demonstrated how to make overnight oats and all of the ways that we can customize it to make it to suit our tastes, while also being a healthy and filling breakfast that you can take on the go.
Chef Victoria then led everyone through a stretching routine that was devised specifically for school cooks. Hours of leaning over counters and looking down at cutting boards when preparing food can create a good deal of muscular tension and soreness. We therefore began with simple wrist stretches. Cooks also spend much of their day standing, which takes a toll on the body. Taking small stretch breaks throughout the day mitigates the soreness cooks often experience, and also allows them to set aside time for their own wellness. Chef Victoria reminded attendees that, “it’s important to breathe mindfully as you stretch, it makes the stretching easier but it also makes the stretching become a form of moving meditation.”
At the end of the session, Chef Rebecca reminded everyone that, “how we see things is often determined by our mindset,” bringing back the connection between sight and our overall well being. The school food chefs in attendance left rejuvenated. One cook stated, “I am constantly thinking about the job. I have dreams about it, but this training helps me turn off my brain.” Another attendee said, “I feel that these workshops show that people outside the kitchen really care about us.” Stephen O’Brien, the Director of Strategic Partnerships for OFNS said, “Our kitchen staff have done an exceptional job under exceptional circumstances and deserve our support. This training is one way that we can do that.”
What does Wellness in the Schools see for the future of Wellness Camps? We will grow the Camps and expand them to other districts, as well as outside of the cook space. On the coach side, Wellness in the Schools will host Wellness Bootcamps; sessions similar to Wellness Camp that are designed for those providing physical activity in schools (or virtually). We have also received requests from principals to host wellness sessions with their teachers. In short, we see ourselves spreading wellness wherever needed.
As for what Wellness Camp means to us, Rebecca put it best, “Wellness Camps are a phenomenal opportunity to provide some of NYC’s most essential workers with tools to keep themselves well at the most critical time of our generation, during a pandemic. We all remember the tremendous impact of Cook Camps, so to be invited back into OFNS kitchens virtually in support of frontline worker’s wellness goals is nothing short of magical. It’s humbling after all these years, to still be together with school food service managers and cooks cooking, moving, breathing and laughing. I see it as a wellness community that even these socially distanced times could not separate.”
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.