72 New Chefs Bring Culinary Training to NYC Public Schools


After nearly two decades of Wellness in the School’s programming in select schools throughout New York City, we have officially embarked on a public-private partnership with the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS) and the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, called Chefs in the Schools. In the last month and a half, the vision of Chefs in the Schools has turned into reality, with WITS Chefs and OFNS school cooks working side-by-side in school kitchens across the city. 

The three-year initiative began last year with the launch of New York City’s first-ever Chef Council, composed of celebrated chefs, culinary industry professionals, and food activists. Our Chef Council created 100 delicious scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes, six of which are featured on the Fall NYC public school menu —  Jollof Cauliflower, Kachumber Salad, Pineapple Rice Medley, Roasted Adobo Chickpeas, Caribbean Spiced Jerk Chicken Thigh, and Sofrito Rice — and will continue to be featured throughout the school year. 

WITS Chefs bring their smiles, spirit, and skills to school kitchens

This year, we onboarded and trained 72 WITS Chefs. Beginning on the first day of school, September 7th, 60 WITS Chefs began our innovative side-by-side training program in NYC public school cafeterias throughout the city. 12 WITS Chefs will continue implementing the traditional WITS Flagship programming model in a select number of schools, inspiring the school’s wellness culture as a whole with work in both the kitchen and in classrooms, teaching WITS Labs and WITS BITS (cooking and nutrition education classes). 

This phase of Chefs in the Schools will take place over two years, with WITS Chefs training NYC public school cooks on how to create the new Chef Council recipes in addition to culinary skills such as scratch cooking, batch cooking, mise en place, storage and organization, and the why behind our work to increase scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant meals in public school cafeterias. 

To officially launch the Chefs in the Schools initiative, on October 3rd NYC Mayor Eric Adams and Chancellor David Banks welcomed an audience of WITS Chefs and staff, OFNS Cook Ambassadors, OFNS and DOE leadership, educators, and many members of City Hall and the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy. Speaking to the crowd, Mayor Adams said: “What we are doing, around food, this whole team — it’s so bold, and when people talk about reimagining schools, they don’t really focus on the power of food.”

He recognized the work that Wellness in the Schools has done in public schools across the city and the importance of our partnership during these many years. When speaking about the Chefs in the Schools program, Mayor Adams noted the value of having WITS Chefs in school cafeterias, saying, “Just the look — the jackets, the caps — that alone is going to tell children something different is happening here.”

Chancellor Banks also recognizes how critical it is to train food service workers and noted the innovative nature of Chefs in the Schools. He said, “When we think about professional development in our schools it’s always been about teachers and reading and math. A level of significant professional development for our food service workers to take their work to another level — that’s never been done before. Not like this!”

The impact of the Chefs in the Schools initiative is immense and felt among students, chefs, and OFNS workers alike. Children across the city are noticing the new menu items in their schools. WITS Chef Heidy Morales at South Bronx Prep sees first-hand how important culturally relevant food is for kids in NYC schools. Recognizing that representation matters, she said, “The day Jollof Cauliflower was on the menu, the kids were open to trying it. Talking across the line I learned a lot of the students are of African descent so they were familiar with jollof and they were the ones who got the other kids to try — all because they were proud of their roots!” 

In addition to children reaping the benefits from the program, WITS chefs are also recognizing how important their work is. WITS Chef Erin Mallare-Lee reflects: “Sometimes we think the system is too big to change, but the goal is the same for all of us — to set a brighter, healthier food culture for kids. If we are all able to make one small, tiny impact in our schools, we’ve covered more ground than we thought.”

Group photo at the October 3rd launch of Chefs in the Schools

Inaugural Coach Council Summit Empowers 100 NYC PE Teachers


Following the successful launch of daily fitness breaks in NYC public schools with Exos and Wellness in the Schools, our partnership has expanded to include NYC Public School’s Office of School Wellness Programs (OSWP) with the launch of a first-of-its-kind Coach Council. Building on core elements of our Coach for Kids program, together we developed the first Coaches’ Continuing Education Summit for NYC public school physical education (PE) teachers. On October 6th, 100 PE teachers from all 34 NYC school districts came together to learn from the Coach Council, move together, and inspire each other. 

The Coach Council is comprised of notable coaches and wellness programming leaders, including:

  • Jason Garrett, NBC Correspondent/Former NFL Player & Coach
  • Errol Jones, Wellness in the Schools Senior Program Manager
  • Liz McSpedon, NYC Public Schools OSWP Instructional Specialist Liz McSpedon
  • Mark Verstegen, Exos’ President & Founder/Elite Training Coach
  • Jenna Wolfe, Elite Personal Trainer/TV Journalist

The Coach Council and Exos’ performance coaches inspired NYC PE teachers with resources to take better care of themselves and learn how to empower their fellow teachers and students to do the same, creating a sustainable cycle of well-being for NYC students and educators. Summit workshops incorporated key foundations of mindset, nutrition, movement, and recovery with professional learning practices for NYC public schools. 

One of the memorable workshops was called Flow & Recovery for the Students & Physical Education Teachers. PE teachers started with one piece of notebook paper. The instructions were to fold the piece of paper in half every time the answer to the question was false. The presenter went on to ask several questions, like: “I fiercely protect my sleep and get an average of 7.5 or more hours each night. I prioritize natural light exposure every day. I have a regular stillness practice in which I focus on being present away from technology and distractions.” 

After about 10 questions, there were several gasps heard throughout the crowd as the pieces of paper kept getting smaller. It was an eye-opener for the importance of prioritizing your well-being. 

From left to right: Errol Jones (WITS), Liz McSpedon (OSWP), Eric Dannenberg (Exos), and Jenna Wolfe moderating the panel

The electric day included remarks by Flavia Puello-Perdomo, Chief of NYC Schools for Community Supports and Wellness, who remarked on the power of this gathering; Jason Garrett, who emphasized the importance of believing in students; and a panel among the Coach Council members moderated by the wonderful Jenna Wolfe. 

This event was the first in-person professional development for these NYC PE teachers since the pandemic, so the enthusiasm of the in-person team bonding was grand. As Liz McSpedon remarked, “Thank you for providing an unforgettable experience for all of our teachers and coaches! The event rekindled the why of what we do as Physical Education teachers.”

The teachers all felt empowered as ambassadors to share what they’ve learned with their colleagues and increase wellness activities in daily school programming, including the recently launched Exos x WITS daily fitness breaks. The overarching message was one of support — supporting these physical activity role models to be their best as they teach, coach, and inspire all NYC students toward healthy habits. 

Summit leaders and PE teachers pose for a group photo

National Partnerships Bring Bounty to Our Menu


One of the many wonderful images evoked when thinking about food is a table full of family and friends, sharing a meal, nourished by each others’ joy just as the food nourishes us. Our work resonates with this image: we strive to operate as one organization at a table of many, and as chefs with a diversity of experiences, cultures, and gifts to bring to the table. This diverse gathering allows us to truly serve our communities as we listen and lean in. With Fall traditions of giving gratitude, we extend a heartfelt thank you to the many partners and efforts that make Wellness in the Schools who and what we are. 

One such partnership seed we are grateful to have planted is with The Common Market, beginning our work together in Camden, New Jersey over seven years ago. Fresh, local produce from The Common Market is a staple in the recipes we develop for students in Camden. In our CookCamp training, seasonal availability from The Common Market means we use and uplift what local farmers are growing in our recipes, and share the importance of eating seasonally to students on the lunch line. It also means that when the fall season is underway, all partners share the excitement of the fan-favorite recipes coming to the menu, like WITS Butternut Squash Soup and Vegetarian Chili. 

The Common Market is also a strong partner in Wellness in the School’s newest district, Newark, New Jersey, where we are thrilled to bring our programming in partnership with The Common Market, Food Corp NJ, The Greater Newark Conservancy, Urban Agriculture Cooperative, and funding from Novo Nordisk. The Common Market has begun the work to increase access to fresh, local, and seasonal produce in the school community, allowing us to then develop recipes, train school cooks on preparing these scratch-cooked recipes, and increase student engagement with the same ingredients and recipes. We look forward to continuing our partnership in a new district. 

A seasonal tasting of WITS Butternut Squash soup, with fresh squash from The Common Market

Heading to Washington, D.C., Wellness in the Schools brought a pilot bilingual CookCamp training to the D.C. Bilingual School this summer, the first of its kind. Entering a new market, all of the elements of a WITS CookCamp were there: training on scratch-cooking techniques, knife skills, menu planning, personal development and wellbeing, and learning the why of the work we do together to ensure access to nourishing food for students. The highlight of this partnership was providing the training in both English and Spanish for the first time, emblematic of our ethos to meet people where they are. This bilingual approach allows our formal training program to adapt to school cooks and the community, with all-bilingual side-by-side training, hands-on demonstrations, and materials like printed recipes and instructional videos. 

In the three-day CookCamp, school cooks prepared 14 WITS recipes side-by-side with WITS Chefs, learned kitchen hacks, and became more confident in reading and implementing recipes throughout the training. WITS Chef and Program Manager Ricardo Díaz, RDN, reflected, “It was rewarding to see the staff take away so much from the training, especially regarding wellness and self-care being integral to the kitchen curriculum.” 

In a recent update from the School Nutrition Manager at the D.C. Bilingual School, one of the recipes prepared in CookCamp — Mac and Cheese with Broccoli Trees — has already been placed on the menu. We are encouraged to see a strong partnership between school cooks and school nutrition staff, and we look forward to continuing conversations in the district. This pilot will echo to other CookCamps following D.C. Nationally, we are streamlining into a CookCamp model with ongoing (virtual) technical support, allowing our staff to support more school cooks and school districts. 

Traveling to California, October brought a celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day with recipes honoring ingredients from the indigenous land. WITS Chef and Program Manager Cait Olesky prepared a Miwok Bowl for elementary school students to learn about and taste for a week of WITS Labs, honoring the Miwok tribe who originate in Central California where the Labs were taught. The Miwok Bowl combines wild and brown rice, pumpkin seeds, corn, and greens, and in the Lab, raisins and a dressing were added to the bowl for additional textures and flavors. The students learned to assemble the bowl from the ingredients, with one exclaiming, “I gotta try it ’cause I gotta be adventurous!” The tasting received many thumbs up and much excitement about trying more recipes with these ingredients in the future. 

And soaring back to NYC, WITS Chefs honored Indigenous Peoples Day with a culinary demonstration at the New York Botanical Garden’s Edible Academy in their “Sensational Seeds” series for families. Ingredients from the earth were again uplifted, this time in a Fruit and Seed Bar: dried apricots and cherries paired with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and flaxseed meal, combining other baking ingredients to make this nutritious snack. WITS Chefs Marion Williams, Ricardo Diaz, and Kent Gifford spoke to attendees of all ages about how seeds grow, their nutritional power, and the many ways to use seeds (especially after pumpkin carving!). When the Fruit and Seed Bar tastings were shared, there was surprise at how simple ingredients could create a recipe so rich — rich in texture, flavor, nutritional value, and cultural significance. 

Wellness in the Schools fully embraces the many ways to partner with others, listen in multiple languages, and connect across communities thousands of miles apart. We are grateful to the many partners who help us to bring our vision to life.

WITS Chef Marion Williams and a student helper showing different seed types to a young audience member

Meet Brian Jones, New Director of Development


The self-proclaimed “new guy” to our staff is Brian Jones, Director of Development, whom we welcomed to Wellness in the Schools in August. A fundraising professional with a background in wellness programming, Brian is a Wellness in the Schools unicorn. His background spans city agencies, nonprofit organizations, and corporations and he has led significant growth in each role. We are thrilled to introduce you to Brian in a lightly edited interview below. 

What brought you to Wellness in the Schools?

I applied for the Director of Development role with Wellness in the Schools because it seemed to be such a unique combination of my background in school wellness programming, fundraising, and health equity. Every role in my career up to this point has a connection to the work I am now doing, which also includes my role as an athlete, fueling my competitiveness and drive to exceed expectations as an individual and as a team. 

Why are you passionate about wellness? What does “wellness” mean to you? 

I have always been inspired by the role of wellness in personal growth, balance, and fulfillment. Wellness to me is a gateway to focus and concentration, and on the other side of the spectrum, it is also a form of relaxation for me. Rest, Hydration, and Movement are my wellness pillars and are where the physical and mental aspects of wellness live for me. Whether it’s a long run, a pick-up soccer game, or biking on a desolate trail, I prepare for my day, wind down from my day, and organize my thoughts during my moments of movement. In these moments I feel most connected to myself, making it easy to stay passionate and always in pursuit of a challenge. 

Your prior experience is vast — what are some highlights from your career that apply to your experience at Wellness in the Schools?

There are a few. On the wellness end, having spent two years working for the NYC Department of Health, Division of Physical Activity and Nutrition in 2008–2010 and creating the Move To Improve curricula with the DOE, shaped the way I viewed large-scale municipal-level program implementation. That project from curriculum design to teacher training and evaluation taught me valuable lessons on how to manage the intricacies of schools, balancing partners, crafting reporting, and public speaking. Coincidentally, Nancy Easton and I were moving in the same direction at this time but did not cross paths! 

In my role with the American Heart Association, I had the pleasure of leading the fundraising team that was responsible for supporting schools and youth in NYC. I worked intimately with all 32 district leaders of the DOE, in addition to working with the Office of School Wellness to drive pathways for funding to land in schools. 

These are two examples of my past roles that apply to my current role — it feels like six degrees of wellness separation.

What project or engagement are you most looking forward to doing this year as Director of Development?

I am looking forward to increasing the number of donors, diversifying our donor sources, and building a culture of giving from donors we know and prospects that we want to engage. We are in a time of growth and I am excited to fuel our ability for continued growth through closing gifts and enhancing the visibility of our brand.

What is your favorite wellness practice?

My favorite wellness practice is unplugging with my family, preferably outside or on a beach. Inserting a run into my day somewhere is a very close second.

What is your favorite meal or healthy snack to make?

I love mango. Mango anything. Dried, fresh, salad… it all works. 

WITS Expands to All NYC Public Schools


After 18 years since our founding in New York City, Wellness in the Schools has reached an extraordinary milestone expanding to all NYC public schools for our Chefs in the Schools program! Our Menu Development and Chef Training program, officially named Chefs in the Schools,  in partnership with the NYC DOE, Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS), and the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, will officially launch this fall after a year of testing and tasting scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes with our Chef Council.* 

We are moving forward in stride after a long history working in NYC public schools and building trust with leadership. Our growth is also possible thanks to a forward-thinking administration that last month released its Food Education Roadmap, a vision to prioritize food education in public schools. The Roadmap’s priorities mirror the core principles of Wellness in the Schools: building students’ knowledge and habits about healthy eating and wellness, ensuring access to healthy food for consumption in schools, and empowering the community with the knowledge and resources to be advocates of health and wellness. 

This past year of preparation has been an exciting journey at every step of the way, from hiring 60+ new WITS Chefs to refining recipes into their most nutritious and delicious form. On the hiring side, we have collaborated with Empowered Hospitality to employ over 60 new WITS Chefs who will begin in August. We are inspired by the many extraordinary candidates, all like-minded, talented, passionate, and diverse individuals, who as many remarked “have been looking for something like this all their lives.” These new WITS Chefs will work over the next two years to reach all 1,200 school buildings, training all NYC school cooks on new recipes as well as kitchen skills more broadly. 

And in the testing kitchen, the Chef Council has created 100 scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes that move through a comprehensive sampling and tasting process and then make it to the OFNS menu. 

One might ask, why would we develop all of these recipes if we don’t know that the students will want to eat them or try new foods?  Enter our sampling process, where during this school year, we have collected feedback from students and parents on these new recipes.  At these sampling days in cafeterias, each student gets one carnival-style ticket along with their tasting cup. The students try the recipe — and at least take one “thank-you bite” if they are doubtful — and then put their ticket in a thumbs-up or thumbs-down bucket. Students were overall excited to taste something new and felt empowered that they were being asked to help make the decisions for what will be on their lunch menu in the fall. As much as the sampling days are about receiving feedback on how the recipes taste, they are also a chance to introduce some of the cultural background and celebration of these recipes. At a sampling this spring for the Vegetable Pineapple Rice recipe at The New Settlement in the Bronx, WITS Chef Kent went all-out, decorating the table with luaus and putting pineapple stickers with the ingredients and nutrition facts, all around the cafeteria. And yes, there was music, too! This experience was fun for the kids, as they got to taste a recipe while also learning and interacting with the sampling with all of their senses. 

The testing and sampling processes have refined the recipes so they are ready for eager tasters at all NYC public schools this fall. Some recipes, like Rajma (Indian Spices Red Kidney Beans), generated a lot of initial feedback: almost every student at the first sampling thought it was too spicy. So, Chef Council member Bill Telepan went back to the drawing board, working with Chef Anup to adjust the spicing blend. At its next sampling, there was a marked improvement in thumbs up votes! Wellness in the Schools Chef/RDN and Chef Council member Ricardo Díaz also appreciated the highlights of the sampling process, noting that some recipes were surprisingly well-liked right from the beginning. Students loved the Sautéed Mushrooms; while mushrooms typically are not a popular vegetable among students, these mushrooms were mixed with sofrito, a common Hispanic seasoning that opened up students to the recipe. When students (and teachers) start coming up to get seconds and thirds of the samples, we know the recipe is a success! And even when the recipe starts with many thumbs-down votes, we thank the students for being honest and helping us to make the recipe even better. 

Vegetable Pineapple Rice Recipe Sampling Day at the New Settlement Schools, Bronx

As the new recipes make their way onto the OFNS menu, the Wellness in the Schools team is creating three new WITS Labs that will be a part of our traditional flagship programming model at 30 NYC public schools. The WITS Labs will highlight a “star of the show” ingredient from a Chef Council recipe, diving deep into the nutrition, history, seasonality, and connection to the cafeteria for students. Lessons for Vegetable Pineapple Rice, Jollof Cauliflower, and Kachumber Salad (Spiced Cucumber and Tomato Salad) are in the works and will be taught by WITS Chefs in our demonstration schools this fall.  

As this fall ramps up with chefs in the kitchen and recipes on the menu, we are all keen on making these changes sustainable and long-term. Nancy Easton, WITS Executive Director and Co-Founder, states that she has three long-term visions for the program: that after the two years, we maintain a presence at all NYC public schools to support continued implementation; to continue developing and menuing scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes; and last but not least, Wellness in the Schools is looking forward to bringing Chefs in the Schools to other cities all over the country. 

* Chef Council: Zoe Adjonyoh, Chef and Food Writer; Yemisi Awosan, Chef and Founder of Egunsi Foods;  Kenneth Collins, Chef of Kemited Kitchen; Ricardo Diaz, Program Manager, Chef, and RDN, Wellness in the Schools; Anup Joshi, Chef of Green Top Farms; JJ Johnson, Chef and Television Host; Anita Lo, Chef and Restaurateur; Tyler Harvey, Sakara Production Chef; Grace Ramirez, Chef, Author, and TV Personality; Rachael Ray, Chef Council Chair, Television Personality, Author, and Philanthropist; Anthony T. Solano, Founder and Owner of ZtoJu, Afro-Latino Vegan Restaurant; Bill Telepan, Executive Chef, Wellness in the Schools; Marion Williams, National Program Director, Wellness in the Schools

Coach Council Officially Launches


June, 2023 – The first-of-its-kind Coach Council* has officially launched, in a partnership between Wellness in the Schools, Exos, and the NYC Public Schools Office of School Wellness Programs. Coach Council members will provide professional learning and leadership education to teachers, host bi-annual curriculum training, and serve as spokespersons during events, all supporting the live virtual programming of daily fitness breaks for public school students in the classroom. 

The Coach Council is composed of notable coaches and wellness programming leaders, including Wellness in the Schools Senior Program Manager Errol Jones, Exos’ President & Founder/Elite Training Coach Mark Verstegen, and NYC Public Schools Office of School Wellness Programs Instructional Specialists Liz McSpedon. Joining this strong team are NBC Correspondent/Former NFL player & coach Jason Garrett and Elite Personal Trainer/TV Journalist Jenna Wolfe. 

On October 6th, in honor of National Coaches Day, we will launch the first-ever Coaches Summit led by the Coach Council, Exos, Wellness in the Schools, and NYC Public Schools. 75 Physical Education (PE) teachers will come together at this summit to learn directly from the Coach Council and Exos’ performance coaches and be empowered to share what they’ve learned with their colleagues to increase wellness activities in daily school programs. The summits will incorporate key foundations of mindset, nutrition, movement, and recovery, supporting physical activity role models to be their best as they teach, coach, and inspire all NYC students. All 75 PE teachers will earn continuing education credits and have the opportunity to be a district ambassador.  Over the course of two years, the Coach Council and Coaches Summit will train 150 PE teachers who collectively reach 75,000 students a year.  

In parallel, Wellness in the Schools will be on the ground in schools this fall supporting the daily live virtual programming. WITS Coaches will teach live WITS FIT BITS, lead professional development for teachers, and guide the teachers, staff, and school community through the implementation of the live streamed fitness breaks and best practices for the technology in a classroom. WITS Coaches and staff will continue to work with the school to shift the culture and prioritize well-being as a whole.

The recent Coach Council and Coaches Summit launch comes on the heels of launching  Coach for Good, an initiative between Wellness in the Schools and Exos. Coach for Good, which builds on our Coach for Kids programming model, has brought virtual on-demand and live-streamed daily fitness breaks to 7,500 students across 15 New York City public schools in this spring’s pilot. These 15-minute fitness breaks help activate the brain, improve on-task behavior, strengthen students’ ability to focus, and help students return to their academic time ready to learn. The fitness breaks also help students reach the CDC’s recommendation of 60 minutes of daily physical activity. Leading the fitness breaks is Exos human performance coach and educator, Eric Dannenberg. With over 15 years of coaching experience and educating professional and youth athletes and the general population, he engages students at an age-appropriate level while making it a fun activity for the entire classroom. His daily classes this spring and summer included sports drills and a Super Bowl field trip, guiding students through functional life skills like body awareness, confidence, balance, strength, and coordination.  Our partnership with Exos is built through our like-minded missions, teamwork, passion, and most of all, having fun with the students and teachers! 

In celebration of Coach for Good and uplifting the wellness culture at our schools, we executed several WITS Play Days this spring.  WITS Director of Operations & Communications, Wendy Siskin, reflects on her favorite school visit to West Prep Academy in January when the Coach for Good initiative launched. “It was such an exciting launch to see WITS and Exos, coaches and leaders from each organization, teachers, students, and leaders from the school, and the much-deserved Press highlighting the excitement of this partnership and this work all in the same room together celebrating,” she said.

This program will grow to reach all schools in NYC, then ultimately expand nationally. We are excited to empower and inspire teachers, students, and school communities with movement and the skills needed for long-term success. 

Exos Partner Coach Eric Dannenberg leads a fitness break at PS 160, Queens


Crossing the Finish Line With Our Partners


Zucchini carrot cake tastings, Zumba classes, and sprouting greens — this school year has been extra special with the support of our amazing Chef and Fitness Partners. Read on for stories of a few of this school year’s special partnerships. 

Wellness in the Schools hosted a dozen Family Fitness Fun Nights this year, evenings at a school for students and their families with exciting fitness classes led by WITS Coaches and WITS Fitness Partners and a complimentary healthy dinner. PS 70X’s Family Fitness Fun Night this February stands out as a favorite: celebrating wellness, Black History Month, and the power of community, students and families alike were abuzz with excitement and energy. From high-five push-ups with WITS Coach and Program Manager Errol to yoga and Zumba classes, it was an incredible evening with a huge impact on both participants and instructors. Zumba instructor Brianna remarked, “I am honored to have been a part of this. Thank you again for such a great event.” Yogi Beans has also been a core Fitness Partner to Wellness in the Schools at these events, with fabulous yoga instructors who bring a peaceful centering of mind and body to the school room each evening. 

Chop’t deserves an extra-special shoutout for their participation at these Family Fitness Fun Nights, as the evening is not complete until dinner is served! Donated by Chop’t, students, and families enjoy healthy salads to nourish and refuel after fitness activities. The salads, from Kale Caesar to Kebab Cobb Falafel, have been a huge hit — as are the dressings to pair. The Chop’t team made the salad experience even more fabulous by hosting a Cafe Day at PS 70X the next month, where students could taste ranch and honey mustard dressings with cucumbers and pita chips to taste. Thank you, Chop’t, for encouraging salad bar participation and helping us feed kids nourishing food. 

The Chef Partner excitement continues with Anup Joshi of Green Top Farms. In addition to being on our Chef Council, Chef Anup is an amazing presence at our Cafe Days. Anup Joshi – as well as being on our Chef Council (link), Anup also is an amazing Chef Partner of our Cafe Days. This winter, at a Cafe Day at PS 110K, Chef Anup brought a Caesar Salad recipe tasting to the students and taught them about the healthy ingredients in the salad like lemon juice, garlic, and a base of leafy greens. Everyone loved it! Chef Anup then brought his Cafe Day magic to PS 160Q with a Purple Sweet Potatoes with Healing Spices recipe from Green Top Farms. The tastings paired with education on all of the purple sweet potatoes’ vitamins and how they support our bodies. 

Blue Apron brought their Cafe Day to PS 95X/AmPark and PS 294/311X in the Bronx. Two wonderful days of Cafe Days, with a fabulous recipe! The Zucchini Carrot Cake with Yogurt Frosting, vegan version included, was a colorful, tasty sampling for hundreds of students. Principals, teachers, and students alike flocked to the table for this nutrient-rich cake. 

WITS Cafe Day with Blue Apron

This year, Chef Andy Kitko of the restaurant Oceans became our new Chef Partner to PS 3M. In May, with summer approaching and zucchini coming into season, Chef Andy made Kolokithokeftedes, a Greek “zucchini meatballs” dish. Students loved it and asked for seconds and thirds! Bringing a new culture and flavors to students was a big success, and we can’t wait to partner with Chef Andy for more Cafe Day experiences in the coming year. 

Aaron Brooks, our Chef Partner in Florida, put a twist on the Cafe Days to host a special event for school teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week this May at Charles R. Drew K–8 Center in Miami-Dade County. Together with WITS Chefs Leonor and Sara, Chef Aaron put together an amazing garden-to-table culinary experience, harvesting greens and herbs from the school’s garden to make Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho, Avocado Basil Crema, Adobo Chicken with Quinoa, and Corn Salad Chimichurri. 

David Enteman of North River Dry Goods brought some plant-based snacks to Landmark Elementary’s Family Fitness Fun Night in Brooklyn. As a proud public school parent, his passion project became creating a snack for his son that wasn’t highly processed. The resulting snacks, crunchy yellow split peas, come in a range of spiced flavors that students and parents could taste at this event. It was exciting to see kids trying this plant-based snack and either trying yellow split peas for the first time or in a new form. The snacks, and David’s spirit, won over some kids, with the Jalapeño flavor being the most popular. 

Ithaca Hummus has donated many squeeze packets of hummus to our school for kids to taste this year. Ingredients like chickpeas, lemons, garlic, roasted peppers, and beets in the hummus make it nutritious and flavorful. The beet hummus, a bright pink color, was a big surprise for students who realized how delicious beets were! Thank you Ithaca Hummus for providing a creative way to encourage students to eat the rainbow. 

At PS 145 this spring, WITS Chef Victoria partnered with Gotham Greens to plant basil seedlings. Students learned basil care tips like repotting, watering, and making sure plants get enough sunlight. Plus, basil is perfect for a minty touch in any recipe! 

Last but not least, a lucky group of students from PS 145M, along with WITS Chefs Kisha and Victoria, visited the Sakara Life kitchen at Long Island City this spring. They got a behind-the-scenes look at Sakara’s production and research & development — including all that goes into making nutritious, delicious meals — and even made their own plant-rich cookie dough creation to take home. Throughout this year, Sakara’s team of Chefs and volunteers have hosted numerous Cafe Days and events and continue to be a valuable partner to Wellness in the School’s work on the ground. 

PS 145 students making plant-rich cookie dough creations at the Sakara Life kitchen

Thank you, WITS Chef and Fitness Partners, for a fabulous school year! Happy summer, and we can’t wait to dive into another school year with you all. 

WITS CookCamp Takes the Show on the Road

In English and Spanish

In the Fall of 2018, WITS Chef Ricardo was preparing for his first CookCamp training at his first WITS school, CS 55X. Excited but cautious, he knew from his time in the kitchen that there was not yet a strong relationship between himself and the school cooks, and he was nervous if the CookCamp training would go well. But it turned out what the kitchen really needed was skills-based training and leadership building — and CookCamp did just that. Many years later, those nerves turn into success in all different forms. School cooks are excited to try recipes but have never tried those foods and don’t think the kids will, but then, they make a recipe and marvel at how easy it is to make while being fresh and tasty. WITS National Program Director Marion Williams remarks, “At all the CookCamps, the success is the transformation from the disbelief of scratch-cooked recipes to the ease and confidence of making a nutritious, tasty dish.” 

This August, Wellness in the Schools is bringing the CookCamp training experience nationwide: Redwood City School District (CA), San Rafael City Schools (CA), D.C. Bilingual School (DC), and New York City (NY), and a pilot CookCamp at D.C. Bilingual School (DC), with additional CookCamps in the fall expected in Camden City School District (NJ) and Newark City School District (NJ). These CookCamps will train school cooks on topics such as scratch-cooking techniques, knife skills, menu planning, personal development and wellbeing, and learning the why of the work we do together to ensure access to nourishing food for students. As Wellness in the Schools’ national footprint is growing, we have developed a CookCamp travel team to lead on all trainings and provide a flexible follow-up support experience for school kitchens nationally. In addition to expanding to more school districts, this model creates a larger network of support and one where we can learn from other districts. 

The star for innovation in this year’s CookCamp tour is at The Bilingual School in Washington, D.C., where the entire WITS CookCamp training will be conducted in both English and Spanish for the first time. This approach allows our formal training program to adapt to the community, with all-bilingual side-by-side training, hands-on demonstrations, and materials like printed recipes and instructional videos. 

WITS Chefs often speak some Spanish in kitchens where most cooks speak Spanish, colloquially known as ‘kitchen Spanish,’ and WITS recipe brochures are printed in both languages to students after WITS Labs. Yet as now WITS Program Manager and RDN Ricardo Díaz describes, “the process of preparing for a CookCamp in Spanish is all hands on deck. It involves a lot of time spent developing our own notes so we feel confident delivering that material bilingually. Many WITS Chefs and a network of partners have been extremely helpful in reviewing the translations and making sure the language accurately reflects Wellness in the Schools’ mission clearly and concisely.” 

All of the upfront preparation is ready to soar at The Bilingual School’s WITS CookCamp training next month. Ricardo visited the school earlier this summer to assess kitchen and cafeteria needs, as well as to understand the school wellness culture as a whole. “I am excited for the opportunity to come back and cook with them and interact with the students,” Ricardo remarked. “Getting to know the cooks and integrating our training with their culture will be very impactful.” 

This new approach will echo to other CookCamps following D.C. Ricardo continues, “Our approach is important because we don’t really see school cook training programs like CookCamp anywhere else. It’s important we are going through this process and developing material that provides an effective training experience for Spanish-speaking populations, which is often the primary language in school kitchens and among students in all of our markets.” From D.C. to New York City, California, and Florida — we will soon be reaching all of our school kitchens and cooks with the CookCamp experience in both English and Spanish!

WITS CookCamp training

No Mas Taki: Meet WITS Chef Kisha Cromartie


It’s a Wednesday at PS 145 in Manhattan, which means WITS Chefs Kisha Cromartie and Victoria Baluk are working in perfect harmony to teach WITS BITS. In these WITS BITS, which are shorter than the traditional WITS Lab and focus on a nutrition concept rather than a whole recipe, the two roll a cart into a classroom — or even teach in the hallway — and get kids excited about food and nutrition. Topics vary from Eating the Rainbow to Sugar Overload. This spring, after watching the rise of the infamous Takis snack and the purple bags of ultra-processed ingredients spreading all over school classrooms and lunchrooms, these WITS Chefs are taking action and creating a new WITS BITS lesson: Taki Takedown. 

Taki Takedown teaches kids about the Takis ingredients, what makes a food addictive, and about food-triggered dopamine. But to make it even more special — and a true WITS experience — WITS Chef Kisha has created a spice blend for the kids to taste. Nicknamed the “Nomastaki” (No More Taki) Seasoning, it is made of cayenne pepper, chili powder, paprika, tajin, cumin, onion, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and a squeeze of lime. Paired with whole-grain tortilla chips, it is an excellent Taki dupe and is made of real ingredients that kids can recreate at home. 

This is just one of many stories highlighting the remarkable compassion and nuanced approach Kisha brings to every school and community in which she works. Kisha started as a WITS Chef in the Bronx and Queens, supporting colleagues in the classroom and kitchen. She quickly developed relationships with and respect from the entire school. Now working with Wellness in the Schools for her 11th year, her strengths have spread: she is an incredibly strong chef, a beloved FEAST instructor, and is particularly strong with middle and high school students. 

At Wellness in the Schools, strengths don’t just come from the work we do, but who we are and how we show up. Long-time WITS Chef Victoria reflects, “It is amazing how much love, integrity, passion, and spirit are packed into Kisha. Her smile is generous and her kindness is genuine, but it’s her sneaky sense of humor that I value most. Kisha’s first instinct is to bring the laugh, then we can deal with what needs attention. Kisha is a Go-To for a giggle in work and life.” 

As WITS Chef Kent Gifford puts it, Kisha is wholeheartedly an “amazing woman and force of good.” He remembers back to his first time in the field at a school in 2015, observing Kisha’s WITS Tomato Sauce Lab at PS 69 in the Bronx. When a student got sick all over the desk, without hesitation, the pair of WITS Chefs had the kindergarten class singing “Tomatoes are Good” while the student was escorted to the nurse and Kisha cleaned up the desk. Then, the lab continued without a hitch. It was a fabulous demonstration of teamwork and the humor and positive outlook Kisha has working with kids and her colleagues. 

WITS Chef Laurielle Clark honors Kisha as “a remarkable woman and proud member of the WITS ‘Seasoned Chefs’ team.” She continues, “I find her gentle spirit impactful, passionate, and she’s aware of the cultural needs in our school communities. She is also the ‘Queen’ and creator of the Power Water WITS BIT! We have now seen so many iterations of power water from Chefs and it’s all because of Kisha. She is indeed a true champion of change and we love her!” 

One coworker with a strong memory of that Power Water WITS BIT creation is Errol Jones, now WITS Senior Program Manager. In 2017, Kisha and Errol worked together as respective WITS Chef and Coach at PS M811 The Mickey Mantle School. He says, “We were driven, as always, by our love of collaboration, so we decided that we needed a big event to involve the whole school. We had highly competitive students, so we proposed a basketball tournament! Kisha and I wanted to give our students a hydration station, so we named it Muscle Water (now Power Water). Fast forward to tournament day and Kisha had her Muscle Water Station outside the gym whilst the students were engaged in the basketball tournament!” The event was a beautiful collaboration between the WITS duo and representative of the strong relationships built with the entire school community. Every teacher, administrator, school aide, security, guard, and paraprofessional participated in the evening all about sportsmanship, hydrated with Kisha’s buffet of ingredients making up the muscle water. Power Water has since become a staple WITS BIT. 

Kisha is adored by all, developing these lasting relationships with everyone at her schools and impressing a quiet but incredibly powerful and kind spirit into the WITS workplace. Marion Williams, WITS National Program Director, has mentored Kisha from the start and commends her growing consistency in the work and kindness she brings to work every day. “That consistency helps people learn from her. In schools, they look for her, count on her, and she has such a tight community around her in every school she is in,” she said. Marion fondly remembers when Kisha sent warm socks and a get well soon note — that all of her fellow WITS Chefs had signed, coordinated across many boroughs and busy schedules — to comfort Marion when recovering from a surgery. “It was something so simple but it means so much when Wellness in the Schools is very fast-paced.” Thank you, Kisha, for helping us slow down, appreciate teamwork and friendship, and take care of each other. 

Wellness in the Garden State


Spring is a celebration of many things: it acknowledges the resilience through winter months, honors the trust among the soil, sun, and water that collectively nourish the plants, and the warm spring weather finally brings buds to the surface that transform into beautiful flowers. Spring is also a perfect symbol for all the WITS programming growing in the Garden State. In New Jersey, Camden and Newark are incredibly strong markets with impactful CookCamp trainings and phenomenal tastings. Though one city is seasoned with WITS and one is new, both are growing in special ways. Read on for the inside scoop! 

Our roots begin in Camden, where we are in our seventh year of programming and our second year of the Full Futures collective. Working alongside other community partners like The Common Market and Whitsons Culinary Group and with generous funding from Campbell Soup Company, our goal is to build the school nutrition mindset, advance food service infrastructure and nutrition education, and implement recipes and menu changes. Working with our partners for several years, through the pandemic and in the ever-changing environments that schools are, our trust for and communication among each other has grown. 

As each school district is unique, our work in Camden focuses on kitchen staff training and student tastings. Each year we offer WITS CookCamp Professional Development and Training days. This is where the school’s kitchen staff learn new recipes, knife skills, and food presentation, as well as how to give and receive feedback, reduce food waste in the kitchen, and all about local food in Camden. Thanks to our collaboration with The Common Market, WITS CookCamp helps school food staff understand where the food coming into their kitchens is from, how to work with it to make delicious and nutritious recipes, and understand how nutrition ties into the food — knowledge that helps them be their best at work, and also communicate better with the children they serve across the lunch line. Our Camden CookCamp in the fall — featuring WITS Butternut Squash Soup, Seasoned Herb Rice, Sofrito, Spinach and Blueberry Salad, Vegan Cornbread, Vegetable Wraps, and Vegetarian Chili — gathered over 128 cooks to present this scratch-cooked and colorful menu for lunch, with much excitement from all participants to work with new recipes and incorporate new cooking methods and techniques. 

WITS’ special ingredient in Camden is our tastings, where students receive a new item to try from the lunch line or in workshop groups and provide their feedback. Favorite WITS recipes this year feature local ingredients from The Common Market: butternut squash has turned into a soup, salad with blackberries, and oat cookies, and kale has turned into a salad, a saute, and chips for a healthy snack. Breakfast items have expanded, with muffins using local ingredients like sweet potatoes and oats for students to enjoy. Our New Jersey WITS Chefs also conduct tastings and cooking demonstrations outside of the lunchroom for a few students, teachers, and parents at a time. Participants appreciate having a voice and feel empowered to be a part of the school’s wellness community and learn firsthand the value of local ingredients and making a recipe from scratch. The impact of WITS Chefs is felt by many school communities; one note from a teacher, who helped facilitate student group demonstrations, gave gratitude to WITS Chefs Debra Williams and Angel Jones, saying “Thank you for helping me get control of my life by starting to pay close attention to my eating and by choosing healthier eating habits. I have been attending your demos and trying the recipes, making them for me and my family. I am proud to say I am feeling great!” 

WITS Chef Shani Porter guides a Newark Head Cook in preparing sweet potatoes.

New roots are growing this year in Newark, with March bringing the official launch of our partnership with the Newark City School District at a WITS CookCamp Training. School food service staff in attendance represented all 66 schools in the district, making for an unprecedented day of learning together. The day was focused on knife skills and kitchen safety and sanitation. Cooks developed teamwork and problem-solving skills by making a spread of WITS Recipes — recipes so well enjoyed that in the days following WITS CookCamp, the Newark City School District permanently added the WITS Pasta Primavera recipe to their menu, reaching students district-wide! For the remainder of this school year, we will continue weekly side-by-side kitchen training in seven pilot schools. Cooks expressed enthusiasm to incorporate their learnings from CookCamp moving forward, comments ranging from the versatility provided to them by learning different cooking techniques, to cooks learning a salad dressing preparation with local blueberries and wanting to make it again. 100% of participants reported that CookCamp increased their interest in learning more about the food and nutrition connection through preparing these nutritious recipes — Wellness in the Schools will be back soon to further guide Newark cooks on teaching across the lunch line so students understand the importance of eating a nutritious lunch, too. 

Similar to Camden, our work in Newark is successful thanks to a strong partnership between The Common Market, Food Corps, The Greater Newark Conservancy, and a generous donation from Novo Nordisk. It is inspiring to work as a collective in both cities and watch changes being made daily in schools to create healthier and more creative kitchens and learning environments. With our roots growing in the Garden State, we are excited about what the future will bring.