Eating the Rainbow at Bahia Vista

Students celebrate Eating the Rainbow with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables!

In California, Wellness in the Schools has been working with existing government programs in order to get students the nutrients they need to learn and live better. Thanks to WITS Chef Cait Olesky and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, the students at Bahia Vista School have had a fun year celebrating Eating the Rainbow with a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. 

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) is a reimbursement grant program that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers at the federal level. At the state level, the California Department of Education Nutrition Services Division administers the FFVP and selects elementary schools to receive a year-long grant, July through the following June, to implement the program. The purpose of this federal assistance program is to provide an additional free fresh fruit or vegetable snack to students during the school day as a supplement to (and not part of) the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program, and to teach students about good nutrition. The FFVP also encourages grantees to develop partnerships at the state and local levels for support in implementing and operating the program.

This school year, San Rafael Food Service Director, Alan Downing, applied for and received this grant for Bahia Vista School, a K–5 school with about 650 students. Through the FFVP program, students are to get a fresh fruit or vegetable three times a week (two raw, one cooked) outside of the normal breakfast or lunch service. Downing engaged WITS to execute and provide educational programming, a key component of the grant. Chef Cait carved out time during recess to deliver the produce and the education.

WITS collaborated with the district on produce selection to create a monthly calendar of vegetable and fruit selections. Always selecting seasonal choices, we had great varieties such as broccoli, sweet potatoes, strawberries, citrus in the winter months, and cucumbers in the spring. We also digitally sent home a recap of what students had eaten that week every Friday with some nutrition information and a simple recipe for families to use at home. 

When the program began in September, only a handful of curious students wandered over to the produce cart at recess — by May, hundreds of students lined up at the cart, making requests and proudly telling us their favorites. We were able to get everyone watermelon on the last day, and students were overjoyed! 

Chef Cait shares, “we were also able to implement WITS BITS and cooking labs at Bahia Vista School, and we tracked our vegetable tastings. Students put a corresponding colored post-it note next to whatever color of the rainbow they had eaten. We filled up both sides, and every week the kids got excited about trying different colors of fruits and vegetables to complete the rainbow.” 

WITS Chef Cait was so grateful to be at this school three times a week and to connect with the students and staff, who all inspired each other to try new things. Students would see Chef Cait down the hallway and run up to ask what would be served that day, or just to tell her that they had eaten blueberries or salad. Said Cait, “their favorites were any fruit and any tangy salad — we had kale with an avocado dressing that they could not get enough of!” 

A greatest hit was with pink grapefruit. This community is no stranger to fruits — they love red watermelons, orange oranges, yellow mangoes, and the rainbow beyond. But grapefruit was definitely new! With some encouragement from Chef Cait, we had some converts, who gleefully added “pink” to the rainbow chart and added a big grapefruit smile to the recess yard.

2022 Chef Partners: A Small but Steady Team

Chef Partners are necessary to the strength and success of our Cook for Kids program. As students are exposed to new and nutritious foods, the culinary genius and passion for recipes and nutrition by one of our Chef Partners can change a child’s palette and life. 

As we all know, the restaurant industry was one of the most deeply impacted during the pandemic and we were unsure what the Chef Partner program would look like once we returned. We wanted to support our many amazing partners but did not want to tax them, given labor shortages, supply chain issues, and the many pivots that our chef friends had to make. We were particularly thrilled, then, to host a handful of partners who made the extraordinary effort to continue to show up and support us through the Chef Partner program. 

We would like to highlight our mini but mighty 2021-2022 Chef Partners and some of their contributions that brought Wellness in the Schools back into school buildings in an impactful and customary way. These are not in order of favorites because they all are, but instead in order of school calendar appearance.

Chef Ivan Beacco, owner of Red Inside and a longtime friend and partner of WITS, has been improving school food since 2013. Ivan was our first Chef Partner this year to step up to the plate, joining WITS Chefs Kisha and Shani at West Prep Academy and WITS Chef Cameo at DREAM Charter in Manhattan. Chef Ivan, whose mission is to “inspire everyone to cook”, joined in teaching students WITS BITS and a Butternut Squash Lab. The students (and the WITS team) always revel in Ivan’s demonstrations and energetic and loving approach.  His strong Italian accent from coastal northern Trieste transports everyone immediately into his nonna’s kitchen.

Chef Ivan Beacco with WITS Chefs Kisha and Shani

Sakara Life joined us last year both as a core donor and a Chef Partner. They have adopted not one, but TWO WITS schools, joining us as volunteers at WITS Labs and WITS BITS. This spring they shared one of the Sakara pillars of health, “Eat Your Water”, with WITS Chef Victoria and students at PS145. They also donated gifts of gratitude to our school communities – providing plant-based lunches to the entire teaching staff and snacks to both teachers and school cooks. They even provided our year-end gift of teas and treats to the hard-working school cooks. The WITS grapevine has been buzzing with reviews on the Sakara granola and clean salads.

Students at PS 145 enjoy water-dense foods like cucumbers and lettuce.

Our featured Chef Partner Chopt continues to donate delicious salads for our Family Fitness Fun Nights, Cafe Days, and community events, showing participants how important it is to fuel up with nutritious food while enjoying healthy movement throughout the day. These salads — kale caesar, kebab cobb falafel, grilled chicken, vegan, and more — are accompanied by assorted dressings and bread. This year the Chopt Team joined the WITS staff for a cafeteria takeover in the Bronx, NY at PS70 The Max hosting a tasting of cucumber and their White Balsamic dressing featured on the Harvest Salad from which 10% of sales earned were donated to WITS. Thank you to Chopt – our long-time donor and thought partner – for keeping our events green and gorgeous! 

At PS 70X’s Community Carnival Event, Chopt delivered salads!

Longtime friend and Chef Partner Chaka Wilson of Hagou joined WITS Chef Ricardo at his Herb and Spice ID Green BITS at CS 55X in the Bronx. On his first visit to WITS programming, he brought spiced sweet potato cubes, seasoned chickpeas, and baby kale salad for students to taste and entertain their taste buds about how spices can be used to season many dishes expanding their palates with Halal meals. The kids really enjoyed trying new flavors!

Chef Chaka Wilson at CS 55X

Chef Anup from Green Top Farms and Farmer Pauleette from Satur Farms joined WITS Chef Cameo for a Cafe Day at PS 110 in Brooklyn. The cafeteria flourished with a bounty of fresh herbs, greens, and broccoli from Satur Farms and a Broccoli Slaw salad from Green Top Farms. Kids devoured the slaw, taking seconds, thirds, and fourths with glee! There’s nothing like a Chef Partner to prove the power (and deliciousness) of plants! Here’s a second-grader proud to have had his third serving:

A PS 110K student enjoying a healthy Broccoli Slaw recipe at lunch.

Students, administration, WITS Chefs, and all of us at WITS appreciate our chef and restaurant partners for bringing so much joy to our school communities with their passion for food and love of education.

The Magic of Moving Together

There is really only one component of our Wellness in the Schools programming that combines all the ingredients of every WITS lesson into one celebratory tradition for the entire school community, and that is our WITS Family Fitness Fun Nights. This is an after-school event when students, students’ families, teachers, the school administration, WITS Chefs, and WITS Coaches bring all the elements of every WITS lesson that students learn throughout the school day and celebrate how they can use them after school and at home. It’s an event that demonstrates how fitness can not only be fun, but can bring families together, it can inspire families to move, play, and exercise together. This event drives home the message that food is fuel and how to best fuel and refuel to keep your body and mind strong. It’s an event where everyone is there for the same reason… to have fun and to feel good. Schools look forward to this event every year; it never disappoints. However, since the pandemic started, we had to either put these events on pause or carry them out virtually, which didn’t have the same magical impact. This year, as restrictions opened, so did the anticipation for the return of Family Fitness Fun Nights!

We relaunched our in-person events thoughtfully, limiting the number of participants per event to 100 to still allow for a safe space. We also started selectively in schools that could host their events outside instead of throughout the school building. Not only did these precautions keep everyone safe, but made the return to this event the most comfortable.

The first school to dive into their first all-outdoor WITS Family Fitness Fun Night was PS 294 in the Bronx. It was a huge success! This school’s community was so excited to re-launch this event and could not wait for the outdoor yoga, Zumba, WITS coach challenge, all the healthy dinner options, and of course, celebrating with the whole school community in-person once again! The action shots that were captured by PS 294 and joyfully posted on their social media page speak for themselves.

 

Every school to follow PS 294’s lead had similar outcomes as they gathered families for some outdoor fitness fun. However, what makes these events even more impactful is that we ultimately hand them over to the schools themselves to host their own Family Fitness Fun Nights. Once we host a few events with the school, we then train a school team member to carry them out without us. They have the WITS playbook and we provide support and connect them to available local resources, but the magic of a Family Fitness Fun Night is that the schools themselves continue to host their own events at their own pace and cadence. 

PS 70 in the Bronx is a great example. A team at PS 70 organized and hosted their own Community Event including fun fitness activities, dancing, healthy drinks, and power snacks. Wellness in the Schools contributed as a partner but PS 70 was the orchestrator. The students, their families, teachers, and the entire school administration participated in this event and are forever empowered to maintain their own school’s wellness culture. THIS is our WHY.

Lending our Learnings to the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

If you are reading this newsletter, you know that this September the Biden-Harris Administration will host a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health – the first of its kind in over 50 years. Over 50 years ago, the interests of the various advocacy groups were likely a bit more at odds than they are today. Today food insecure adults are at higher risk of being obese and therefore at risk of multiple obesity-related illnesses; and with much more data on the relationship between poverty and obesity, we are more united in our efforts. Still, there are many competing constituents and we do not want to paint a picture that this will be a piece of cake (or a glass of kale smoothie), however… it is exciting to be on the frontlines of this work, part of the conversation and close to where the decision is being made.

As part of our ScratchWorks collective initiative, we have joined a Task Force on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health to support and inform the conference with suggested policy actions. This strategy group was formed by The Bipartisan Policy Center and given the range and depth of experience of this group, we are confident that our recommendations will be heard.

Closer to home and in conjunction with the task force efforts, our Executive Director Nancy Easton and National Program Director Marion Williams, joined a listening session at Gracie Mansion last month, hosted by NYC Mayor Eric Adams. The day at Gracie Mansion was not only inspiring, but also productive as small workgroups developed strategies for the White House Conference to end hunger, improve nutrition, reduce the prevalence of diet-related diseases, and promote equity throughout the food system. The workgroups were kicked off by motivating words by Mayor Eric Adams, U.S. Representative James P. McGovern, and an engaging panel discussion with Richard Ball (NYS Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets), David C. Banks (Chancellor of NYC Department of Education), Dr. Michelle McMacken (Executive Director of Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine, NYC Health + Hospitals) and Dr. Ashwin Vasan (Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene), moderated by Marion Nestle. 

A day of work at Gracie Mansion would not be complete without a private tour. Nancy and Marion took full advantage of exploring the iconic home of the NYC Mayor.

Earth Day is Everyday: Novato School Garden

WITS Program Manager and Chef Cait Olesky shows off a big apple from the gardens of Lu Sutton K–8 in California.

The Spring 2022 newsletter would not be complete without a tribute to Mother Earth. Earth Day is a time to celebrate and promote environmental education, inspire action, and renew and expand commitments to protect our planet. Despite these efforts and celebrating this annual event for over 50 years now, our beloved planet is on a fast track to disaster making the fight for safeguarding it harder than ever but essential.

However, in WITS schools in California, Mother Earth is thriving and children and adults alike are understanding her bounty. Several of our schools have working gardens that are blossoming and are not only beautiful but are also providing bountiful harvests to nourish and teach our children. 

Our highlight school this spring is Lu Sutton Elementary School in Novato, CA. They have an amazing garden with an enthusiastic garden coordinator, Erin Compton-Schimmel. Gardening has been integrated into the school’s curriculum for all grades. The students typically engage in a garden experience once a week to hone their skills and to learn about particular plants. The teachers then integrate what the kids are learning in the garden as an extension of science class.

The WITS Chefs enjoy learning from the students not only about what they are growing in the garden (currently artichokes, radishes, carrots, beets, lettuces, herbs, plus flowers and fruit trees), but also what they are learning about bugs and insects, composting… you name it! The most rewarding part of the partnership for the WITS team is to be able to tailor the WITS Labs to the harvest of the season. We developed a Salsa Lab with their homegrown tomatoes. In this Lab, students learned about the benefits of tomatoes among other things that are good for the heart. They could not be more thrilled making a salsa using fresh tomatoes from their own garden and dipping it in baked chips as a healthy and delicious snack. 

We expanded on our Greens Lab with the abundant variety of greens in the garden, harvested on the very day by students themselves. We taught the popular WITS Applesauce Lab with the incredibly juicy apples grown right here in the school. Finally, we featured their homegrown cauliflower and beans in a WITS Pickle Lab pilot we developed specifically for Lu Sutton and with plans to expand to our other markets. 

Looking ahead to the remainder of the spring brings a great deal of excitement to students and teachers alike. For example, we will be incorporating spring greens and herbs into a crostini topper. These sessions open up the students’ minds far beyond the bounds of traditional curricula. Students gain so much from making the connections between where their food comes from, how it grows, and how much better it tastes when it is right from the ground and prepared by them. 

You would be surprised to know how easy it is to grow your own vegetables, especially with summer around the corner. There is so much information available about choosing the right plants and soil depending on where you live. For WITS in CA, there is always a growing season, and carrots, radishes, and peas are perfect to grow in the spring. Plus, folks are putting in their tomato starts for summer!

Through our Green for Kids program, we are bringing gardens to schools, teaching kids environmentally sustainable practices and providing garden to cafeteria tastings. Abiding by this year’s theme for Earth Day, we are encouraging them to “Invest in our Planet”. There is a desperate need to shift our attitudes toward more sustainable practices. We believe that by instilling these small but impactful practices in children from such a young age we are not only teaching them how beautiful this planet is but how it needs to be respected and protected. We are proud to state that our Green for Kids program provides them with interactive lessons on food waste, sustainability, and gardening to empower students and schools to protect our planet for generations to come!

Rookie Coaches are In It to Win It

This year, three new WITS Coaches joined our team: Daniel Crachiolo, Dominika Jargilo, and Naika Pierre. Their personal drive toward the WITS Mission exudes with every interaction they make in their school communities. Their open and thoughtful approach to this work matches their expertise and it is clear they are making an everlasting positive culture shift in their schools. 

Daniel Crachiolo

Coach Daniel quickly gained trust in his schools by reaching the students in the classroom, giving them the power of WITS FIT BITS, short fitness breaks during academic time that helps them refocus and release any unwanted jitters. He prioritized WITS FIT BITS, as he knew these breaks would help him to gain a stronger connection with the students and benefit his impact on the recess yard. Daniel often collaborates with his WITS Chef and adds a WITS FIT BIT into a cooking or nutrition lesson. This really helps the students connect the dots between food as fuel for fitness!

Daniel is the calm, quiet force of nature on our team. He has a comforting tone and welcoming presence which supports his work in the schools. He harnessed his quiet nature and made a quick impact as a rookie in his schools through the power of collaboration and openly sharing his story with his communities. “I was a child that had a lot of ailments and was overweight most of my childhood and was not really able to play with the other kids due to my lack of energy and coordination. Since I was a young adult, I learned many things about diet and exercise that helped me overcome the aforementioned things. I am currently studying for a precision nutrition certification. The WITS goal of increasing daily physical activity and fighting childhood obesity-related diseases was something that really spoke to me because I can be the person to these kids that I did not have myself as a resource growing up.” 

Daniel’s calm engaging style has increased adult participation in his schools to a place it has never reached before. The adults join and help lead fitness activities and are gaining respect and inspiration from the students. This is such a critical component to a successful and sustainable healthy and active school culture.

Dominika Jargilo

Coach Dominika is another quiet force but most definitely the mightiest WITS Coach in Brooklyn. As a rookie coach, she was challenged with creating a solution for a school that had a major challenge they could not solve on their own. PS 56 in Brooklyn’s recess yard is under construction and won’t be available for use for over two years. Principal Grande was desperate for a creative solution that would give his students the opportunity for an active and positive recess experience but in an open street.  With her meticulous and driven approach, Dominika presented safe solutions, worked through each challenge, and communicated her progress with Principal Grande in the process. For example, Dominika knew that for kindergartners to have a more successful recess experience, they necessitated smaller groups. Dominika presented a schedule change to Principal Grande and they worked together to accommodate smaller groups and a safer outcome for the kindergarteners. It is now working seamlessly and the school staff, students, and Coach Dominika are developing creative fitness activities that are woven into their everyday. 

Coach Dominika has become a piece of the fabric of PS 56 Brooklyn. She recently devoted her own time to PS 56’s school community over the weekend, participating in their reading campground. “It was nice to see some of the students’ parents and to see the students outside of regular school programming. The parents of three boys in the school came up to me and said ‘Are you Coach Dominika? We hear so much about you at home. The boys love to go outside with you and play games. They talk about monkeys and bananas all the time.’ It was a great week!” Coach Dominika

Naika Pierre

Even as a rookie, Coach Naika has completely transformed a school that is brand new to the Wellness in the Schools program. Her superpower is in the way she lights up a room with just how excited she is just to be there. Naika’s passion and belief in this work gives every school staff member, including the principal, a sense of comfort that Naika will find and execute a successful solution to any challenges they bring her way.  Her style of teaching not only connects with every student but every single person working in the school. She understands that each person plays an important role in the school’s culture. Because of this, Naika assessed that her priorities for success were to set a consistent expectation for the students and focus on teaming up with her school aides and teachers to equip them with the same passion and knowledge, so all can work as a power team.

It is common for school aides to supervise the recess yard, escort a student to the nurse’s office, or deliver necessary discipline as needed. It is uncommon for students to expect a fitness activity from a school aide. This is an area that the Coach for Kids program drives to tackle and Coach Naika worked her way in and did exactly that. Coach Naika built the trust quickly and scheduled a WITS Play Professional Development session for the school aides. In the session, she opened their hearts and minds, getting to know them, and learning their history with the school.  She taught them the WHY of our work, the HOW, and gave them the tools, practice, and resources to lead, facilitate, engage, and inspire the students. The professional development was full of fun, laughter, vulnerability, and inspiration. Every topic and lesson was taught through play, which really gives aides a new perspective of physical activity and social-emotional learning. More importantly, they now have the power to teach it themselves! This workshop was the turning point of Coach Naika’s success story at PS 70 Bronx.

Here is a quote from PS 70’s Principal Roxanne Ledda: “That [professional development] Naika did for our school aides was the most impactful workshop they have ever received. The aides were heard saying that it was the first time they truly felt seen. This will change everything, thank you so much!”

Naika’s presence is felt around the building; she has helped secure the WITS culture amongst her community of change-makers.

Our rookie talent and passion, combined with the veteran experience has made for a very successful Coach for Kids program during this school year where we continue to face unprecedented challenges yet continue to deliver fitness breaks and activities that our school communities are embracing more than ever. Together, we are in it to win it.

Pandemic Pilot Becomes a Permanent Program: Mosholu Montefiore Community Center

When Covid-19 halted our in-person classes and the world went virtual, Wellness in the Schools naturally pivoted, and early on was asked to participate in a pilot study that Dr. Jessica Reiter from Montefiore Hospital was conducting to measure students’ (and ultimately family’s) physical activity and eating habits and patterns. 

In March 2020, the team at Mosholu Montefiore Community Center (MMCC) ended in-person programs but kept their food pantry open and asked Wellness in the Schools to help support their efforts to feed healthy and delicious meals to their community members. This meant that the community in and around this area had access to ingredients during the difficult phase of the city-wide lockdowns and could also learn ways in which to turn these ingredients into meals. Our WITS National Program Director Marion Williams and Chef/RDN Ricardo Diaz conducted virtual cooking classes based on weekly ingredients available at the pantries. They used the common pantry ingredients and together with their participants transformed them into delicious meals. After just five sessions, they had quite a following! Today they conduct both in-person and virtual classes and continue to bring value to a simple pantry box. We interviewed one of the participants, Geneice Hodge, to reflect on her experience and share what she has learned.

Did you do in-person classes on just zoom?

I actually did both in-person and zoom, most of them were in-person and that is what I preferred. 

What did you learn during your sessions? 

Ricardo and Marion taught us how to cut veggies and how to make salad dressing. I was so surprised by how just four simple ingredients could make something so delicious. Personally, I didn’t like cauliflower before class but the way Ricardo showed it I was amazed and so were our kids. It was an eye-opening experience and we thoroughly enjoyed the classes. 

Was it a new experience or something that you had expected?

I actually took another cooking class years ago where they did not teach us the basics like the cutting methods, or give us the nutritional information of what we were eating. But with this class, I think it was nice to learn more in-depth, you know?

I also had no idea how to combine different flavors and veggies and fruits that we got from the pantry. My favorite ingredient was the North African spice rub and we made so many delicious meals out of that. The feeling of being in this class was different compared to others. I am someone who loves food and loves to cook for my family. My brother joined in too, so it was nice to learn! 

Would you join again?   

Absolutely yes! It was amazing that it was open to the entire community and we enjoyed learning about using fresh ingredients to make something healthy and still enjoy the taste. The best part was that my kids loved it.

This is a true WITS success story that first started with students, then their parents, and finally the entire community in that area irrespective of whether they had kids in our schools. Chef Marion recalled the first class with parents where some of the participants were living in shelters during the lockdown, and they only had access to a microwave or air fryer. They had to pivot and quickly change the direction of the class because of these limitations. Taking this into consideration, in addition to the limitations of the weekly ingredients, they taught the participants how to make rice in a microwave. Who knew? What began as an activity during the pandemic became a much-appreciated program extending not only to students but also to their families. 

Salad Bars Make a Comeback in NYC

 

Colorful salad bars were a fixture of NYC’s public schools for years but the pandemic forced cafeterias to close them. This spring, the Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS) gave the green light (see what we did there?) to the re-introduction of this vibrant and healthy school food option, and Wellness in the Schools was called upon to re-introduce a Salad Bar CookCamp training to their cooks. Just in time for National Salad Month!!!

At our Salad Bar CookCamp, we provided day-long salad bar workshops, a version of WITS’ CookCamp training, to give OFNS kitchen staff the support they need to reintroduce salad bars. We worked together to make salad dressings and composed salads, and explore and practice the various ways to cut and set up vegetables for a salad bar that is as pleasing to the eyes as the palate. The training itself is a three-part process. In addition to training OFNS cooks, we also provide on-site workshops for school aides, the women and men who are charged with overseeing the lunch period and who are critical to the success of any cafeteria programming. Finally, we are re-introducing our Salad Bar etiquette classes, to remind children of the protocols around salad bar use. The three-part process is complete with colorful signs for each salad bar, explaining the benefits of the vegetables.

OFNS head cook Aida Perdomo said, “The principals are very happy that we are back with the salad bar and the kids are too!” Aida works at the New Settlement campus in the Bronx, which houses three schools and nourishes scholars in pre-k through high school. Perdomo is grateful for the support of WITS Chef Kent and the addition of new salad bar signs, as well as the New Settlement kitchen staff who have been inspired by the opportunity to offer fresh salads again to nutrient needy growing bodies. The return of salad bars will also be a bonus for NYC’s new plant-powered Friday menu. 

Enthusiasm for the return of this bounty of fresh produce is widespread. At a recent training of school aides, Brooklyn’s District 13 Superintendent Kamar Samuels and Emily Paige, Principal of The Urban Assembly Unison School in Clinton Hill, took time to listen in and express their appreciation for WITS involvement. Principal Paige was vocal regarding the power of adults engaging kids in conversation about healthy eating and the role this salad bar will play in those efforts. “The salad bar is an addition to the hot lunch that is appetizing, beautiful, colorful, and fresh,” Principal Paige said. “We want to build up a pro-culture around our school food.” 

The adults aren’t the only ones creating excitement around this new option for lunch; the kids are getting involved, too! At PS151 in Brooklyn, a group of 5th graders on the “Green Team” have taken on the responsibility of encouraging their classmates to eat at the salad bar, and help with tastings. 

Spring is officially here and flowers and trees are bursting with color, brightening our environment. But the season’s renewal isn’t just outside. Thanks to a forward-thinking Office of Food and Nutrition Services and a community of wellness change-makers, cafeterias all over New York City are seeing that same colorful transformation.

New WITS Labs are a Home Run

 

With students back in school this year, we brought new labs to the WITS curriculum. All three of our new WITS Labs — Squash Soup, Spaghetti Squash, and Seasonal Herbs — along with our nutrition education and in-class tastings have brought students much joy amidst the ongoing stressors of the COVID pandemic. WITS Chefs continue to be outstanding role models and positive forces in all of our markets. Equally wonderful are all of our partners, especially Baldor Specialty Foods, who have donated ingredients to the Labs. Read on for the amazing highlights and experiences of our Chefs in classrooms throughout NYC and Florida these past few months. 

Chef Ricardo’s Squash Soup at PS/MS95, Bronx, NY

This November, I had the pleasure and privilege to bring Labs back to one of my schools in the Bronx, PS/MS 95X. I taught 6th through 8th grade over the course of a week. After eight years of WITS programming, the students are familiar with our message and curriculum. But more than anything else, after watching me cook over Zoom in the last school year they were simply excited to roll up their sleeves, grab a knife and cutting board and prepare and taste some of the food! 

The star of this Lab was Butternut Squash, an immune-boosting superstar packed with Vitamins A and C, and dietary fiber. As an orange veggie, I had to take a moment in class to point out the similarities and differences between squash and sweet potatoes (more commonly seen in PS95’s school lunch and surrounding supermarkets). The squash was prepared as a soup, which was a first for any of my schools. Seasoned with thyme and garlic, I particularly enjoyed the flavor and warming qualities of the soup. It was also easy to prepare. 

WITS Labs in the age of COVID have required a major overhaul from pre-pandemic times. Ordinarily, students would get to see a meal actively prepared in front of them and participate in its development by cutting vegetables, adding seasoning, stirring the pot, and much more. This time around, I prepared all of the soup ahead of time so it could be reheated and served in sealed containers to my classes. To balance the pandemic guidelines around serving food against providing as many experiential learning opportunities in the lesson, I found it most effective to allow students to engage with individual elements of the recipe as we read through it. Students got an opportunity to practice their knife skills dicing apples, tried to identify thyme by sight and smell from a selection of herbs, and tasted squash a couple of different ways. 

All in all, the students generally enjoyed the opportunity to engage with an ingredient that was either new to them or prepared in a way they had never tried before. Teachers happily allowed children to take out their phones at the end of the class to get a snapshot of the recipe while doing the same themselves. And even the parents got to see the Lab in action when I was invited for an encore (virtual) demonstration at the following Parent Association meeting.

Chef Laurielle’s Spaghetti Squash at PS 151, Brooklyn, NY

Finally back in the Labs at one of my favorite schools in Brooklyn — PS151! This was my first in-person WITS Lab with the students since June 2020. The students were full of excitement as they knew to expect a fun class of Labs and instead of trying to imagine the aromas and taste of the recipe virtually, they were actually going to experience a LIVE class.

For this round of Labs, the students were learning about and making a recipe using spaghetti squash. This particular squash is in season in the Fall and Winter and it was important to introduce and learn about a new item that grows during this season. Students were very familiar with pumpkins and apples but spaghetti squash was a new fruit (because it has seeds) for most of them. We talked about the nutritional components like fiber and Vitamin C which is usually a discussion for most of the Lab classes. We talked about its comparison to pumpkins but also how unique and different the texture of the spaghetti squash is. We also chatted about the seeds and reminded students that they are edible and make a great healthy snack, once roasted. I had a display of other types of squash including gourds, acorns, delicata, and kabocha. But what really stood out for the students was that this recipe actually looks like SPAGHETTI! The students were able to pull the flesh of the squash with a fork and create the spaghetti noodles, which is quite unique for a squash. They loved it! They had a choice to sprinkle parmesan cheese, pepitas, and/or pan-fried sage as a garnish. I received many positive comments from the students and staff: “I wish that this recipe would be available for lunch at school!” “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted!” “It really does look like SPAGHETTI!”

The process of preparing and production for this Lab was quite involved. All of the squash (50 pounds) had to be cut, seeds removed, seasoned, cooked, and stored on the Monday before classes began. I prepared another 50 pounds of squash mid-week for the remainder of the classes. I taught a total of 20 classes for students in grades Kindergarten through 5th grade.

Overall this was an extraordinary Lab experience for the entire school community and I can’t wait to hear from the students once they’ve tried the recipe with a loved one.

Chef Sara’s Apple Labs, Colbert Elementary, Hollywood, FL

This December our first in-person Labs were taught by chef Sara at Colbert Elementary in Broward County, Florida Colbert is a special school and there is so much support from the administration, faculty, and cafeteria staff that our programs really have a chance to shine through and connect with students. This is largely due to Sara’s excellent work. She presents the class with so much clarity and warmth that you can sense the students’ engagement. We were also lucky to have the support of our Broward Food & Nutrition staff who were onsite and really happy with how it had been managed. Here is how it went for Sara:

It was fun to be back in full swing. The kids were excited and the teachers were looking forward to being back to the cooking classes. Almost all the groups missed our in-person cooking activities.  We were able to accomplish what we set out to do — 360 students learned about apples. We also made applesauce and everyone got to taste it. They liked that applesauce and enjoyed the wonderful smell coming from the classroom. A third-grade student told me, “Yes!! We are finally cooking again!”

Chef Victoria’s Herb Labs, PS555 & PS145M, Bronx/Manhattan, NY

WITS Lab curriculum includes many recipes with herbs as an ingredient. We discuss herbs during all of our Lab lessons but never before have we focused on them exclusively. Our Bouquet Garni Lab included four herbs — thyme, parsley, rosemary, and oregano — and these four fresh ingredients open up a world of possibilities for WITS Lab instructors and the children we teach. In addition to discussing herbs’ role in flavoring food and providing nutrients, our discussions are also tailored to the various curricula of each grade: we explored how and where they are grown (in the wild, in gardens and on farms, and in pots at home) and their properties, when they are fresh, versus dried; aromatherapeutic uses; medicinal applications including that of Native Americans and the Chinese. We used our senses to explore: smell, sight, feel and taste. 

After exploring the herbs and learning the nutrition, medicinal and culinary values, and uses, each child created their own Bouquet Garni or bundle of herbs, and we discussed ways to use the fresh bundle and/or dry the herb for future use. 

One teacher shared that the kids in her class kept pulling their bouquet garni out of their bags to look at them throughout the day, Another teacher told me that at afterschool the kids were talking about their bouquet and the Lab at the after school program. And a dear student said, “This class gets 11,000 out of 10!” 

    

WITS Winter Wellness Wisdom

 

On Tuesday, January 3, 2022, our WITS Chefs Rebecca Johnson and Brianna Giannizzero visited PS75M on the first day back to school from the holiday break. PTA member Jamie Harris led her from her classroom to another to meet Julie Karlin, the PTA member and educator. Julie was not in her classroom but seconds later they saw her coming around the corner with a student in tow. When she saw the WITS Chefs standing outside her door in their whites, she yelped “WITS” and did a dance. Chef Rebecca just HAD to capture this moment (see photo)!

It’s this kind of enthusiasm for wellness efforts in schools that makes the difference in quality programming and children’s lives. Having educators and parents who are familiar with the WITS program advances the mission of healthy habits, positively impacting the educational, emotional, mental, and physical lives of NYC’s school children at a time when it could not be more needed. Yay PS75M!

As we enter a new year, it’s likely that you may know someone who has made his or her New Year’s Resolution to adhere to a new diet. With the holiday season and all of its food-filled celebrations only just behind us, WITS Chef and Nutritionist Ricardo Diaz recommends lifestyle changes versus “diets”.

While the majority of New Year’s Resolutions tend to stick for only a few weeks, we invite you to try a resolution that might prove to be easier than a complete diet overhaul, something that can turn into a lifestyle change and make a colorful fruit or vegetable part of every meal, as often as possible. Any vegetable or fruit will do, preferably your favorite ones, but eating a mix of different fruits and veggies is even better! 

We consume a diverse array of antioxidants when we eat fruits or vegetables —it’s what makes them colorful. Additionally, the vitamins and minerals present in fruits and vegetables provide our bodies (and immune systems) with the raw materials needed to maintain good health. Eating more fruits and vegetables can also indirectly support immune health by providing nourishment (in the form of dietary fiber) to the “good” bacteria that make up our microbiome, leaving less of a foothold for harmful germs to find shelter in our guts. 

In our elementary school nutrition curriculum, we call this “Eating a Rainbow” and it’s really as simple as that! 

Depending on where you live, some fruits and vegetables will be actively growing and available at stores — recommend seasonal produce as your first stop for Eating a Rainbow. But if it’s hard to find fresh vegetables or fruits in your supermarkets, frozen vegetables or fruits offer similar nutritional benefits as fresh produce. In some cases, the processing of some canned foods (like tomatoes) could make them even healthier than their fresh counterparts. 

Whenever you start feeling under the weather, you may want to consider the following; most of these pair well with a variety of foods across different cultures. 

  • Garlic – excellent antibacterial/antiviral agent
  • Ginger – anti-inflammatory, can improve digestive function
  • Turmeric – anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant
  • Citrus – good source of Vitamin C (healthy immunity), and they’re currently in-season
  • Mushrooms – across the board, they are a good source of B vitamins and selenium (supports healthy immunity)
  • Elderberry – good source of antioxidants, may relieve symptoms of flu and other upper-respiratory ailments

As we continue to navigate the challenges of staying healthy during the winter months (COVID-19 notwithstanding), it goes without saying that Eating the Rainbow, consuming more nourishing foods, and getting more movement are essential to self-care. But the most important thing we can do for ourselves is to listen to our bodies — while it’s easy to ignore or treat symptoms of exhaustion or illness, it could be our body’s way of telling us that we need to slow down, rest and recover. 

If you’re looking for a way to Eat a Rainbow using some winter seasonal produce, check out our Butternut Squash Soup Recipe. Loaded with Vitamin A (healthy cells, healthy eyes, healthy skin), Vitamin C (healthy skin, healthy immunity), and dietary fiber (healthy guts), butternut squash becomes even sweeter when roasted. It’s equal parts nutritious and delicious!