WITS West Chefs “Wok” the Line

By: Hollie Greene

January 2019

This January, our WITS Chefs out West rang in the New Year with a healthy concept to excite Novato California high school students about their cafeteria menu: a featured chef pop-up where they can build their own grain, protein and vegetable bowl. The build-a-bowl food trend of 2018 remains popular in fast-casual restaurants across the Bay Area where Poke Bowls, Quinoa Bowls, and Sushi Bowls are colorful, crunchy, and packed with healthy options.

Working with their restaurant partners, Chefs Bruce Hill and Ethan Howard, WITS Chefs Cait Olesky and Nancy Larson “wok’d the line,” serving up healthy stir fry dishes for the first one hundred students that could locate the pop-up station in the Novato High and San Marin cafeterias. Students chose as many vegetables as they wished in their stir fry from their salad bar. Options included favorites like baby corn, water chestnuts, spinach, sugar snap peas, and shredded carrots. Next, they brought their selections up to the wok, where in just under sixty seconds WITS Chefs quickly sauteed their veggies with a splash of signature garlic ginger soy sauce, serving it over whole grain brown rice. Students who wanted to create an even more plant-forward meal chose the pre-cooked ginger tofu protein option, and those looking for a little more kick opted for the sriracha chicken option. Grace Nakashima, President of the Cultural Culinary Club, says, “I’m excited about the chef pop-up bars because they introduce healthy ways to introduce cultural foods that aren’t typically represented in the cafeteria and may also encourage students to cook and eat healthier at home.” Members of the school administration staff also got to participate in the event. Says Campus Supervisor Monique Bethel, “This meal was delicious! I especially enjoyed the tofu. I don’t usually eat tofu!”

Our team dreamed up this concept after learning from the best practices of Vermont Food Services Director, Doug Davis, of the Burlington School Food Project. When Burlington High Schools started offering made to order solutions during the 2015-2016 school year, they saw their vegetable consumption go up, students started lining up early for lunch, and in a surprising twist, they saw students taking the tofu protein option most often. Our vision for the Novato pilot is to create an opportunity to engage with students in a new way, learning which global flavor profiles and creative custom meal solutions they would vote to see in future chef pop-ups, with a goal of three to four new K-12 fully reimbursable menu options to be rolled out during the 2019-2020 school year.

Let Kids Play, and Let’s Move for Kids!

By: Wendy Siskin

January 2019

Through first-hand experience and personal testimonials from students, parents, and teachers, we have always believed that the Wellness in the Schools Coach for Kids program reinvents the outdoor recess experience, and gets kids more active. Our evaluation from Tisch Food Center shows strong data points that support and affirm this belief as truth. Our program leads to a 10-fold increase of activity levels, when recess is indoors due to inclement weather. Studies have also proven that our programming increases activity levels throughout the whole school day. The overall increase of positive play encourages and increases pro-social behaviors. Teachers have reported that there has been a significant decrease in the time it takes for students to be ready to learn, after returning to the classroom from a Wellness in the Schools lunch and recess.

As our Coach for Kids Flagship program continues to grow, and we continue to analyze its impact, we have been able to expand our reach with the pilot of our BootCamp program.  BootCamp is a district wide 3-day workshop, designed to train teachers and recess aides on how to provide more opportunities for movement. Our curriculum extensively covers topics such as how to create a healthy recess environment, and how to implement classroom fitness tools. Once trained, a Wellness in the Schools Coach provides weekly follow up support for the duration of the school year. School wellness leaders can change the culture of schools by developing a holistic plan for year-long wellness events and activities. The BootCamp program equips the school wellness leaders with these tools in a sustainable way.

With all the excitement around the Coach for Kids program and its success, the demand for the programming continues to rise. Our 2nd Annual Move for Kids fundraiser is around the corner. During the week of January 28th, fitness studios throughout NYC and Miami will be hosting charity classes with all proceeds going to bring Coach for Kids to a high-need school! Come join the fun, click here for more details, and sweat with us so we can get more kids moving!

School Food Innovation Lab: A Collaborative Effort to Revolutionize School Food

By: Joan Chung

January 2019

This year, Wellness in the Schools will spearhead a truly collaborative effort to change the future of school food in this country. Wellness in the Schools, along with the Life Time Foundation, will kick off the School Food Innovation Lab (SFIL) this spring. SFIL will gather School Food Service Directors across the nation, as well as leaders of organizations in the school lunch space, to combine independent efforts in order to make greater change.

The school food landscape has seen significant changes over the years. Due to rising childhood obesity rates and, subsequently, a louder push for health initiatives, there has been greater scrutiny on the future of school food. In response, a number of nonprofits, for-profits, school districts, and other innovators have devised programs and tested groundbreaking models in schools across the country. As a result, scratch-cooked items are being incorporated into school cafeteria menus, edible gardens are cropping up all over the country, and nutrition education is being integrated into the school day. Yet, the question remains – how can we combine these independent efforts to better feed this upcoming generation? SFIL aims to address that very question.

The preliminary planning process has already begun, and the call to action has been sent out. Once participants are finalized, SFIL will officially begin with a two-day, in-person meeting in the summer, and then will be followed by three subsequent calls that will take place throughout the following year. WITS has engaged a facilitator to lead the participants in the discussions and to guide the team in devising a collaborative roadmap for systemic change.

After a year of planning and conversation, the team will produce a roadmap to implement programming of best practices in a “test” school district, as well as strategies for overcoming barriers to innovation. This pilot program will be put to the test for the 2020 – 2021 school year, and will be monitored and supported by the SFIL team.

The 31 million school children receiving school lunch deserve better, and nationwide reform cannot be fully achieved through a singular endeavor. Through a combined effort, and as a collective team, we will be able to make a sustainable and powerful change that transforms the school food landscape, one plate at a time.

Creating a New Generation of WITS Leadership

An Interview with Rachel Alkon, Associates Council Co-President

By: Melissa Neubart

January 2019

Where did you grow up?

Manhasset, Long Island

Where do you live now?

Upper West Side

What do you do for work?

I’m the Director of Public Affairs & Policy at Whole Foods Market

What’s your favorite part about your job?

That I spend every day on the issues I care about the most: the food system and the environment. It’s rewarding to focus on your quirky passions, like sustainable packaging and ingredient transparency, and have in-depth conversations with such knowledgeable colleagues who share these interests.

How (and when) did you hear about Wellness in the Schools?

More than a decade ago, my great aunt Marilyn Katz, a talented writer and academic, then in her late 70s, was one of WITS’ original volunteers. Through a program called Gray Matters, Marilyn advised WITS on communications, in the very early days. Years later, while studying Food Policy at New York University, I had the opportunity to join WITS, and build on Marilyn’s work.

What interested you about getting involved with Wellness in the Schools?

Kids spend thousands of hours in school and learn many of their lifelong behaviors from teachers, principals, and peers. We cannot always control what happens at home, but WITS is paving the way for better lifelong outcomes, by bringing kids real food, physical activity, and critical nutrition education. WITS is making schools healthier and happier environments. I can’t think of a better way to drive real long-term change.

Can you share a memory of Wellness in the Schools?

There are too many to count, but the absolute highlight was participating in a WITS Apple Lab with elementary school kids in the Bronx. WITS Chef Ricardo’s ability to teach nutrition to kids who were maybe 8 or 9 is remarkable. The kids soaked up his every word – they learned valuable knife-skills, grew to adore applesauce, and developed an appreciation for fresh food.

We’re lucky to have you as the President of WITS’ young professional group, which we call the Associates Council (AC). Can you share a bit about the development of the AC? How (and why) was it developed?

While at WITS, we often discussed expanding the WITS network to the next generation of leaders and soon-to-be parents. We soon discovered the WITS mission has great appeal to all generations. Over the past year, we’ve cultivated a group of more than 25 professionals, mostly in their 20 and 30s, interested in children’s health. By taking on pro-bono volunteer projects, from fundraising strategy and event management to PR and marketing support, the group is generously lending their professional skills to help WITS grow.

What makes you excited to be a part of the AC?

In partnership with my Co-President, Sydney Werber, we’ve created a new type of WITS volunteer experience – rather than just volunteering for an event, the Council is tackling some of WITS’ biggest strategic challenges and priorities, in partnership with WITS leadership and staff who are experts on the program, and is addressing the complex dynamics of working in schools. It’s an amazing learning opportunity, both for WITS and the Council Members.

Any interesting events the AC organized?

Bill Telepan led an intimate seafood-focused cooking class at ICE, exclusively for Council members. We walked away with new culinary skills, new friends, and of course, full stomachs. We’re planning more events like this for 2019.

If you’re interested in getting involved in the WITS Associates Council, please reach out! You can send Melissa Neubart, Director of Development + Partnerships, an email at Melissa@wellnessintheschools.org

What Would Pearl Do?

Reflections on 2018

By: Nancy Easton

January 2019

For an organization that functions primarily on a school year schedule, a new calendar year is really just a midway point for us. The first half of this school year has been marked by something we have always done quite well – collaborate. Since we began, we have been a close partner to the NYC Dept of Education Office of School Food. While that collaboration continues to be our most robust, this year I also want to give mention to the many organizations with whom we work together to bring about healthy change, for kids in schools here in NYC. I just returned from a City Council hearing to advocate for bills to improve food and nutrition in NYC public schools. I was truly emotional standing on the steps of City Hall, knowing that we have come so far from the early days of doing this work alone. Thanks to The Tisch Center for Food Education and Policy, we now have an amazing coalition of food and nutrition advocates (nearly 100 of us!) who are already proving the value of “united we stand . . .”. Next month I will meet up with new partners from Life Time Foundation, and old friends from Whole Kids Foundation, to begin our preparations for the School Food Innovation Lab – a national example of collaboration in the quest for school lunch reform.

When pressed to write about the year that was 2018, I could only think about what a hard year it was for me personally, marked by the loss of my beloved mother-in-law, Pearl Nipon, at age 90. It’s hard to comment on 2018 without giving a tribute to her, and how she influenced me as a woman entrepreneur. The Philadelphia Inquirer does a wonderful job of capturing her influence. Pearl paved the way for so many, simply by working hard and never accepting “no.” While she was small in stature, she was gigantic in spirit and positivity – a spirit and energy that certainly fueled me. She believed she could do absolutely anything. And she did. Pearl started her first business at 18; she fired her most important supplier for making advances at her sister long before #metoo; she fought (and beat) breast cancer; she raised four children together with her husband (and my father-in-law) Albert; she exercised every day and did all of this with the most incredible grace and style. I used to “shop” in Pearl’s closet when I was looking for the perfect outfit for an important event or meeting. She was quick to give her opinion of what looked just right, and what didn’t. And, mostly, she reminded me that I could be both feminine and bold – just like her, and the clothing she designed.

We lost a family matriarch in 2018, yet her influence will live on in the many women (not only family) whom she inspired. As the head of Wellness in the Schools, I will continue to evoke my inner Pearl when I get yet another “no” or another setback in our effort to end childhood obesity –  like the most recent episode of flaunting fast food in the White House, or the rolling back of nutrition standards. This work is not easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is, and Pearl would never, ever back down.