A Health-Supportive Tidbit: The Gut-Brain Connection

By Tiffany Wei, RDN

 

Do you ever feel the “butterfly” in your stomach when you’re nervous? Do you ever experience a reduced appetite when you’re feeling down on one of those days? Maybe you have come across a TikTok video or a headline on this mysterious connection between our gut and brain. So what exactly is this connection that’s been so hyped? 

Did you know that there is indeed a close connection between our brain and the digestive tract? Our guts and brains can communicate with each other – this is known as the gut-brain connection. The brain sends signals to the digestive tract to control the speed of digestion, nutrient absorption, and level of inflammation. On the other hand, our guts are lined with nerve cells that produce 95% of the serotonin in our bodies — a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, appetite, and mood. As a result, what our digestive tract experiences during and after meals will “talk back” to our brains, and affect our mood and emotions.

An essential “manager” of our gut health is the microbiome, a community of good and bad bacteria that coexist in the gut. The good bacteria in our microbiome play a critical role in our health by:

  • Protecting the lining of the gut from harmful toxins and “bad” bacteria 
  • Reducing inflammation and improving nutrient absorption 
  • Activating the direct neural pathways between the gut and brain

The presence of good bacteria impacts the functions of the neural cells lining the digestive tract, and their production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Because there is limited surface area for both good and bad bacteria to proliferate in our guts, it is important to boost the good bacteria and reduce the bad.

How can we do that? This is when prebiotics come into play. Prebiotics are a type of fiber that is not easily digested until it reaches our small intestines. They specifically feed the good bacteria and help them thrive, limiting the space for bad bacteria to grow. When the good bacteria consume the prebiotics, the good bacteria produce a variety of compounds beneficial to our health, including short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), hydrogen, methane, carbon dioxide, and lactate. 

SCFA in particular helps fuel our brain and muscles, enhances vitamin and mineral absorption in the digestive tract, and boosts our immunity. Additionally, SCFA creates a challenging environment for bad bacteria, inhibiting their growth. A win-win situation!

What exactly should we eat to improve our gut health and elevate our mood? Prebiotics generally come from a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, including:

Looking for more food for thought? Here are some suggestions for happy brain food:

We would love to share with you our favorite happy gut-brain recipes to make at home!

  • Jollof Cauliflower with the main ingredient cauliflower rich in a type of prebiotic fiber called inulin, which helps feed the good bacteria in our gut.
  • Ginger Kale Salad uses kale–a dark leafy green–that is rich in brain power-enhancing nutrients, such as lutein, folate, and beta-carotene.
  • Berry Power Water helps us keep hydrated and provides us with anthocyanin from berries, which is a type of antioxidant that helps improve our memory.

Of course, these are just some examples. A general rule of thumb is to include:

  • Fresh veggies or fruits rich in dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals (at least 5 servings/day)
  • Whole grains high in dietary fiber (3-4 servings/day)
  • Animal-based protein (e.g. salmon, tuna) or plant-based protein (e.g. nuts and seeds) high in omega-3 fatty acids (2-3 servings/day)

When considering servings, the serving size of your meals is also important to make sure we are not eating too much of any particular food. For a handy guide to portion sizes, we can estimate serving sizes and compare them to the foods we eat using our own hands:  

Make your gut and brain happy and healthy!

It’s a Family Affair

 

Our team of WITS Chefs is 72 strong this year, working in kitchens and classrooms, training and educating on recipes and nutrition. 60 WITS Chefs in our Chefs in the Schools culinary training program join 12 WITS Chefs from our Cook for Kids Flagship program. All are skilled and passionate individuals with backgrounds spanning work in New York City’s best restaurants to establishments of their own. All are working in or near the neighborhoods where they live, training kitchen staff and serving students who walk the same streets they do. But a few bring something even more special to the WITS workplace: the bond of a sister, a mother, and a daughter! 

Meet two very special pairs of WITS Chefs: sisters Alexis and Patricia Rosa, and mother/daughter Rhonda Ferguson and Arisha Miller.

From left to right: WITS Chef Alexis Rosa, Patricia Rosa, Rhonda Ferguson, and Arisha Miller.

The bond among these pairs of chefs is inspirational both in and out of the school kitchens. For the Rosa sisters, it was Patricia who joined the Wellness in the Schools team first and she wouldn’t stop talking to her sister about her love for her work Alexis remarked, “I was hesitant at first, as I was on another path in my career. But, hearing about the mission, it was impossible for me to not sign up for this opportunity!” 

Both have kickstarted incredibly memorable career paths at this organization. WITS Chef Patricia’s expertise in the public school kitchens of Staten Island is nothing short of stellar. She crafts strong relationships with the Cook-in-Charge at each school kitchen, teaches knife skills like a pro, and brings the salad bar to life. Her signature Arugula and Tomato Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette is a student favorite. It is both decadently delicious and is a simple recipe that students can make at home, with their families. 

Across a few bridges to the Bronx, WITS Chef Alexis Rosa knows a thing or two about making salad bars a sensation. Her interest in experimenting with different ingredients led her to work both in catering for weddings and then as a Chef at Facebook (along with her sister), where the menu rotated daily. Now a WITS Chef, one of her favorite moments in a school so far has been refreshing the salad bar experience and watching students line up to take salad in numbers. To their delight, these are numbers the staff had never seen before. Alexis laughs, sharing that the salad bar magic and other shenanigans come from the fact that she and Patricia “have worked together our entire career and we love it; we feed off each other so much. We help each other out with any challenges we come across in schools, and my sister gives me the encouragement I need to put myself out there more and interact with the students and kitchen staff with ease (I’m the more laid-back of us two). We also send each other photos daily of the work we do in these kitchens to inspire each other since we can’t actually be side by side.” 

WITS Chef Alexis Rosa prepares the salad bar at New Settlement, Bronx

Though the sisters work in boroughs across the city from each other, that doesn’t stop them from making time to be together outside of work. From each “Good morning!” check-in to planning of what to do, eat, cook, and weekend plans, the two weave in and out of food and family chatter, nimble and nourishing. Birthdays and holidays are celebrated with Alexis and her two children and Patricia — who is more of a mother figure than an aunt to the kids — right alongside the bunch. Just as Alexis counts it “a blessing to be a part of this mission providing students with healthy, delicious food that will nourish them,” add sisterhood to that list!

WITS Chefs Rhonda Ferguson and Arisha Miller attending Chefs in the Schools Mayoral Launch in October 2023

WITS Chef Arisha Miller comes to Wellness in the Schools from the intersection of culinary, food, and nutrition. Growing up in Guyana, Arisha observed the work her mother, Rhonda Ferguson, put into the restaurant she owned: Rhonda’s Spicy Kitchen. The restaurant was always a whirl of spices and scratch-cooked recipes. Arisha’s love for food and skill of cooking stayed with her through high school. This love drove her to earn a degree in Culinary and Baking & Pastry Arts, learning the science behind food and what it can do for you. Arisha said, “It all clicked when I realized that our eating habits start as a child and things like illness and disease can be easily prevented and reversed in their early stage with good food.” And, it was daughter Arisha who showed her role model and mother the way this time. Rhonda joined Wellness in the Schools after Arisha shared her stories.

Rhonda and Arisha have built incredible relationships in and out of the kitchen, and now infuse their joy for food into schools across the Brooklyn borough. WITS Program Manager Laurielle Clark highlights Arisha as “a treat to have in the kitchen,” with endless recipe inspiration for the school cooks she works with. “With her persistence, hard work, patience, and a ‘get it done’ spirit, Arisha creates an atmosphere for the kitchens to thrive in.” Rhonda, too, utilizes her knowledge of running a restaurant as well as teaching culinary arts in after-school programs to implement side-by-side training with school cooks that is uplifting and engaging. Outside of work, the two always find time to bond and hang out either baking at home, cooking, watching a movie, or just hanging out. With the many wins and challenges that come with this work, Arisha and Rhonda add that this close bond “makes us able to discuss our goals and give each other valuable advice, making the school kitchen experience comfortable and fun!”

New WITS Lab: Pineapple Rice Medley

 

A new WITS Lab has premiered to students all across the country this year: Pineapple Rice Medley. 

Thanks to our Chefs in the Schools program and NYC’s inaugural Chef Council, Pineapple Rice Medley is one of many new recipes on NYC’s public school lunch menu. It’s also the first of three new WITS Labs this year that Wellness in the Schools has created for students through our traditional flagship programming model. These WITS Labs highlight a “star of the show” ingredient from a recipe and dive deep into the nutrition, history, seasonality, and connection to the cafeteria for students. Chef Council member Tyler Ranson of Sakara Life developed this Pineapple Rice Medley recipe that adds fruit, vegetables, and whole grains to students’ plates. 

To design the Pineapple Rice Medley Lab, a team of WITS Chefs, Lab Instructors, and Managers translate the recipe into an experience for students in the classroom. The logistics of making a recipe in a school kitchen versus a classroom are different; in the classroom, chefs set up a table display of all of the recipe’s ingredients and then give students the ownership to make the recipe themselves. In the Lab, we highlight the star ingredient, brown rice. We talk about the benefits of whole grains, what a whole grain is and its many varieties, how it helps our digestion, and how it has a nutty flavor. We introduce the other ingredients: sweet pineapple, crunchy string beans, carrots, peas, corn and a zesty seasoning of soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. We give students a “chef’s job” of chopping string beans and allow them to add spices to the pot and help mix up the recipe. 

Each step of the lesson plan gives students a hands-on fun, engaging, and safe experience with a recipe. WITS Chef and Program Manager Cait Olesky works on developing WITS Lab lesson plans and remarked, “It’s amazing to see the entire process from just the beginning idea, to the modifications to a classroom setting and a home recipe in the recipe cards students take home, to seeing it play out in class and having students actively participate and love the end result.” 

In October, this excitement was ready to be put into action with Pineapple Rice Medley being prepared and tasted by students. WITS Lab Instructor Victoria Baluk observed that this Lab piqued students’ curiosity with so many interesting ingredients in one dish and was a perfect opportunity for her to teach the concept of “Eating the Rainbow” to the students. She explained, “The ingredients are so colorful — carrots, peas, corn, green beans, and pineapple — making the dish visually exciting and something where they could gobble up almost every color.”

Students at PS 132M help a WITS Chef prepare the Pineapple Rice Medley recipe

The star ingredient, brown rice, proved to be another favorite of students. WITS Chef, Program Manager, and RDN Ricardo Díaz pointed out that rice is a staple ingredient of multiple cultural cuisines, so students could explore a new variety of a dish they might encounter outside of school. “Students enjoyed learning about and smelling the seasonings we used, and most were drawn to taste the rice of its garnish of pineapples,” Ricardo said. “The middle school students in particular appreciated hearing how they could use leftover rice and a few staple ingredients at home to make this recipe into a side dish or as part of their main meal.” 

WITS Chef Yamilet Limonta taught her first-ever day of WITS Lab classes with this recipe at PS 75 in Manhattan this fall, remarking that “no amount of pre-planning or training can prepare you for the absolute overwhelming excitement from little ones who just learned that they’re going to eat a recipe that has fruit and vegetables in it!”

A PS 75M student in WITS Labs receives an “I tried it!” sticker for her sampling of the Pineapple Rice Medley

Meet WITS Coach Kit Greenberg

 

Over the summer, we welcomed Kit Greenberg to Wellness in the Schools. A force of kindness and charisma, Kit’s background and experiences are the perfect match for the WITS team: varsity diving at a national level, a Master’s degree in sports leadership underway, and a knack for visual art, among many other creative pursuits. She is thriving as a WITS Coach this school year and becoming a role model for many young students in NYC’s public schools. We are thrilled to introduce you to Kit in a lightly edited interview below. 

What brought you to Wellness in the Schools?

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a Marketing Degree, I immediately started my Master’s in Sports Leadership while interning as a strength and conditioning coach. I was an athlete throughout my life, specifically diving for Wisconsin. I value physical activity immensely and continuously see how the benefits are highly dimensional. As a long-time follower of Wellness in the Schools, I saw firsthand how Nancy has created sustainable changes throughout NYC and across the country. I wanted to be a part of that. 

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

Wellness isn’t limited to one thing. Wellness is a holistic integration of fueling the body, the mind, and the soul. I have always valued wellness greatly in my personal life. Each day I prioritize a culmination of activities that feel authentic to me. Whether that’s working out, cold plunging & sweating in a sauna, fueling my body through nutritious food, spending time with loved ones, or drawing & painting, I live my life by doing what brings me joy. I thank my mom for instilling that in me from an early age #whatbringsyoujoy. It is a privilege that I get to incorporate activities surrounded by like-minded passionate people. I am energized by my community and by the world of wellness. 

Recently graduated, you have spent a lot of time both in school and as a varsity athlete. What have you learned about balancing the two, and what advice would you give younger students who want to follow in your footsteps?

As a high-performing athlete, other sectors of life can fall to feeling unbalanced. It can start to feel like to live a balanced life, you have to sacrifice other areas, never maximizing your potential. Instead of succumbing to this idea, we can recognize it. Paying attention to what fulfills you can help you insert routines that take advantage of your strengths. You start to cultivate positive habits that require little energy, giving you more time to focus on the tasks you know you need to accomplish and even who you wish to become. 

I knew that some days were harder than others. It’s not easy. No one is saying it is. Recognize that as well. Take time to think about who you want to be and create an environment that energizes that idea. I found that surrounding myself with loved ones, carving out parts of the day to be alone, trying to walk into practice or work with energy and a smile no matter how I was feeling, as well as giving myself at least one ‘treat’ a day was crucial to my happiness. That ‘treat’ ranged from an almond milk latte and vegan cookie to treatment with Stef, my amazing athletic trainer at Wisconsin. It’s little things that make you smile amongst the crazy.

What project are you most looking forward to at Wellness in the Schools? Share a moment so far that you’re excited about building on in 2024. 

There isn’t one project I can pinpoint. Rather, I am regularly excited to give these kids more time to play and have fun. Promoting an environment that allows them to do that is important to me. It’s truly a gift when I see their faces light up when I walk into their classroom each week. Building a sustainable emphasis on physical and mental wellness in collaboration with nutritious food through wellness councils, committees, and events is the big picture. 

What is your favorite wellness practice?

In 2024 I have committed to stretching at least 10-15 minutes every day. I started incorporating it after my nightly 30-minute sauna. I’m trying to cold plunge a little too! 

What’s your favorite workout?

SoulCycle with a mixture of weightlifting and maybe a little pilates or even hot yoga! I love it all. The fitness community I have is the biggest part of it. 

What is your favorite meal or healthy snack to make?

I’m a BIG breakfast food girl. Avocado toast with eggs and Truff hot sauce is a go-to. Can’t go wrong with a doctored-up oatmeal or large breakfast burrito either. 

School Food Policy Perspective

 

On January 16, Mayor Eric Adams released his Preliminary Budget for FY25. We are encouraged to hear that cuts aren’t as dire as were proposed in his November budget. 

However, if the mayor’s proposed budget cuts to school food remain, it will directly impact school meals and undercut our efforts to improve school nutrition with our new Chefs in the Schools initiative–a partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy and the Department of Education’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS).

Just over one year ago we celebrated the formation of the inaugural NYC Chef Council. That council developed 100 scratch-cooked, plant-forward, and culturally inclusive recipes for NYC public school children. In June, we celebrated the launch of the first-ever Food Education Roadmap at PS 75 in Manhattan, to support increased participation in such meals. And, in October, we gathered together at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in East Harlem with more than 100 Wellness in the Schools Chefs and NYC Cook Ambassadors, in their chef coats, to launch Chefs in the Schools, our training program to support NYC school cooks in the preparation of these delicious and nutritious meals.

Since then, children all over NYC have seen an increase in scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally inclusive recipes such as the Kidney Bean Rajma, Pineapple Rice Medley, Jollof Cauliflower, Kachumber Salad, and so many more prepared by NYC school cooks. Simultaneously, NYC school cooks are being taught culinary skills and learning efficiencies to prepare scratch-cooked meals. 

Until now. This menu which was developed through thoughtful partnership, with input from children and parents from all over NYC, is being replaced with processed heat-and-serve menu items, derailing the momentum that has been building for more than two years. These cuts are confusing for children and directly impact their health. The loss of positive momentum will be felt in the classroom, on the playground, in the gym, and in all aspects of children’s lives, as the impact of a healthy meal can go a very long way. And, unfortunately, the converse is all too true, as we witness high rates of diet-related illnesses, impacting even the youngest New Yorkers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 39% of our public school children in grades K through 8 are overweight or obese.

In the 2023-24 school year student participation in school meals has increased, higher than pre-pandemic numbers. Increased student participation will now only hurt the Office of Food and Nutrition Services as they will not only not be reimbursed for those meals, but will now have to make cuts to the menu that compromise the integrity of our innovative, new program and decrease the frequency of nutritious, scratch-cooked meals on children’s plates. 

The budget cuts are hitting school children where it matters most and we are deeply concerned. Wellness in the Schools is already leveraging private dollars to continue to develop and test new recipes, as we will not lose momentum. Private dollars, however, are limited and our city, our public school children, need to be able to rely on public funding to support healthy school meals that can lead to improved learning outcomes and a lifetime of healthy eating habits.

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