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!

Kelvin Gary, WITS Board Member and Fitness Fanatic

 

Kelvin Gary is an internationally recognized fitness expert, known as the “trainer’s trainer.” He continues to make his mark in New York City as one of the top fitness professionals; and is the Founder, CEO, and Head Coach of Body Space Fitness, a boutique personal training facility specializing in “Semi-Private” personal training. For the past decade, Kelvin has cultivated this space to pursue his love for helping others live a better life through fitness. 

Kelvin joined the WITS board last year and is a valuable voice as we help our students to create healthy habits every day through movement that feels good. Below is a lightly-edited interview with Kelvin.

What brought you to WITS? 

KG: I have long since wanted to find ways to give back within the fitness community. I had been speaking to many of my clients seeking opportunities, like those of Wellness in the Schools, to help bring everything that I’ve learned throughout my career together with educating and uplifting underserved communities. 

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

KG: What I’m passionate about most is helping people understand “why” wellness is important. Then, giving the tools to know and do the “what” and “how” part. Wellness to me is having the optimal capacity to do whatever you want to your fullest ability — on the playing field or in the board room! 

You participated in our virtual Move For Kids event in 2021 — what was that like?

KG: Being an instructor for a Move For Kids event was awesome! It helps to become more in touch with the community and see what types of workouts get the group moving. 

What are you most looking forward to doing on the board with WITS in the future?

KG: I most look forward to contributing in a way that makes a difference and produces a tangible result. I also look forward to the day 10 years from now when a WITS kid comes back to tell us how we have changed his or her life. That’s what we’re here for.

What are some of your best fitness tips and practices for all ages?

KG: Move, Move, Move! N.E.A.T., or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, is our second biggest source of daily caloric expenditure. Also understanding that maintaining lean muscle mass and eating enough protein are both also super important to optimal performance. 

What is your favorite workout?

KG: Total Body Strength workouts are my favorite. Even a guy like me can be strapped for time, so a structured workout that hits many body parts works best for me. 

What is your favorite healthy meal or snack?

KG: My favorite healthy snack is Viking Waffles, which are high-protein, ready-to-eat waffles. They are good for being on the go. Also, I’m a big fan of beef jerky.

Coach for Kids Launches Talent Hack with WITS

 

On December 6, 2021, Wellness in the Schools launched Talent Hack with WITS to bring wider access to fitness activities to our schools. This was an exciting launch and partnership, to say the least. A strong pool of Talent Hack Coaches specializing in a wide menu of fitness formats teamed up with WITS Coaches and their schools to provide customized and engaging live-streamed classes for every WITS classroom to experience. Both the teachers and students participated in these inspiring classes and were able to use this activity time to reboot, refocus, and get mentally and physically motivated and ready for the rest of the school day. The live classes were also recorded and stored in the WITS library, for all WITS school partners to use whenever they need. 

Talent Hack (TH) is a technology platform that exists to propel enterprising fitness professionals forward in their wellness career; from tools and resources to build and scale their businesses to access to the best job opportunities in the wellness space. Founded on the principle that building community and an emotional connection to your clients is the secret ingredient for success in the wellness space, Talent Hack serves as the technical partner to help fitness professionals launch their own brands so they can focus on creating and connecting with their clients.

WITS partnered with Talent Hack to bring more variety and an online platform to our students. The launch started with a pilot in 5 NYC schools. It was an exciting time for these schools as they got the chance to experience these engaging, interactive, and energetic live 10-minute fitness breaks that streamed right into their classrooms. Each class had an opportunity to join 2 fitness breaks a day, each day of the week. Not only did the students (and teachers) get a much-needed brain break from their academic time, they also got the chance to learn a new way to move, exercise, and play from inspirational role model coaches. And an even more motivating component of this incredible partnership was the fact that students from all over the city in multiple boroughs, got to see each other on the screen and cheer each other on, with a bit of healthy competition. They got to feel not only good about themselves but also feel a part of a bigger community doing something good together. 

We are excited at the potential reach that this partnership can help us achieve and spread the message of fun into fitness as well as equip our schools with the tools and resources they need to help build healthy habits into their everyday life.

Where Wellness Meets Social-Emotional Learning

The 2021–2022 school year started off strong at West Prep Academy (MS421) and PS 145 when Wellness in the Schools helped launch their year with a two-week Social Emotional Learning curricula. We are deeply aligned with our approaches to learning as experiential and integrated into all aspects of life. Kudos to the West Prep and PS 145 leadership for beginning this unique new year with classes and workshops that address not only the academic but also the social-emotional aspect of learning. And, we were honored to join them!

The Wellness in the Schools team spent two days doing what we do best — teaching hands-on culinary and nutrition classes as well as fitness activities. Students were coring apples, seasoning them with cinnamon or nutmeg, and noticing the tartness or sweetness of apple flavors, depending on the variety. The smell of apple sauce was emanating throughout the halls of West Prep and PS 145. In the gym, kids were navigating the great skill of teamwork while playing rugby basketball, helicopter, and Gaga ball — all games that were new to many and therefore “level the playing field”. 

Students were not the only beneficiaries of this experiential learning. Because this was so early in a tentative school year, the Wellness in the Schools team used this opportunity with long-time partners as a training experience. Our new WITS Chefs and WITS Coaches observed and worked alongside our veterans to learn from their peers by watching and doing. And, they are fast learners! Before we knew it, rookie WITS Coach Naika was leading her own Rugby Relay activity while veteran WITS Coach Jamel participated with the kids (he’s a kid at heart). Middle school is not exactly the easiest age to start on your first day, but the support of team members combined with active learning turned Naika into a pro overnight.

In the end, students, school administration, and the Wellness in the Schools team all benefited from the experience provided through social-emotional learning. The skills gained from this type of learning — developing self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and self-control — are vital for success in school and life! West Prep Principal Carland Washington says it best: “As a school community, West Prep prides itself on creating a positive, affirming school culture that is woven into every aspect of the student’s day. Recognizing the need for more social and emotional support for our students during the pandemic, we partnered with Wellness in the Schools to teach our students about healthier food options and to offer structured physical activity to promote their overall wellness. Over a two-day period, WITS provided the school with coaches and chefs to engage and inspire our students, many of whom had not been inside a school building since the pandemic began.”

Even the District 3 Superintendent appreciated our partnership. After her visit (and smelling the apple sauce), she featured West Prep and Wellness in the Schools SEL workshops on the District 3 Website. Thanks to this welcome-back opportunity, we are even more excited to be back in school and to get to cooking and playing.

CookCamps Make a Comeback

With the return of an in-person school year, school kitchen staff have been preparing for the students to be back in cafeterias. Happy and hungry kids are sitting down at the cafeteria tables and Wellness in the Schools wants to make sure they’re fed delicious and real food. Enter CookCamps: our intensive, up-front training for school cooks, where they hone their scratch cooking skills and workshop the lessons we teach to children. We support all chefs to be able to cook at their best and communicate with students the importance of real food. 

This year, exciting kitchen upgrades and new equipment brought our CookCamps in California and New Jersey to a new level.

In San Rafael, CA, the San Rafael City Schools recently completed construction of its 43,000-sq.-ft. kitchen project, incorporating a large central kitchen and student common areas and classrooms. For San Rafael High School, this means enhanced meal production for district schools, while giving the students a college-style dining space — comfortable seating, study spaces, and “The Bulldog Bistro”, serving both hot and cold meal selections. New facilities were also completed for several smaller schools and elementary schools where WITS implements programming, like Terra Linda High School. These facilities will give cooks more resources to expand meal preparation and scratch cooking. 

The WITS Chef team of Cait Olesky, Hollie Greene Rottman, and Marion Williams kicked off the California CookCamps in coordination with Alan Downing, the Director of Nutrition Services for San Rafael City Schools. The team of WITS Chefs and school cooks produced a dazzling dream menu of scratch-cooked items: four new salad dressings, a Mediterranean Vegetable Hummus Wrap, Pasta with Colorful Marinara Sauce, a Sofrito Rice Bowl, Chicken with Spinach-Basil Pesto Panini, Broccoli Cranberry Salad, and Black Bean and Corn Salad. Not only did cooks learn to prepare these delicious recipes, but they learned clever ways to use leftover vegetables and kitchen skills that will last a lifetime. The recipes are simple to make and packed with flavor — so much so that during the tastings the cooks all wanted seconds. The school staff is excited to prepare their salads and delicious entrees with students this year. 

At Terra Linda High School in San Rafael, Fabiola learned to prepare a delicious, vegetable-packed black bean and corn salad at WITS CookCamp.

In Camden, NJ, we were led by another dream team of WITS Chefs, namely Ricardo Diaz, Rebecca Johnson, Gisselle Madariaga, Anwar Rasheed, and Marion Williams. WITS Chefs and school cafeteria staff similarly worked side by side to learn kitchen techniques and prepare scratch-cooked meals. The CookCamp teams created a salad with cucumbers and onions in the starring role, pasta with spinach and a vegetable medley, yummy muffins, and more — all seasoned and baked to perfection. Everyone enjoyed the sense of community fostered by a delicious lunch. Camden Cooks can’t wait to keep creating more scratch-cooked recipes for students all year long! 

The healthy and colorful lunch WITS Chefs and school cooks prepared during CookCamp in Camden.

CookCamps have already led to some fun new promotional events, including “Try Day Friday” where students tasted pico de gallo in Camden. School cafeteria workers and WITS Chefs collaborated with our partner, Food Corps, introducing students to the combination of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and spices that create pico de gallo. Tastings were accompanied by illustrations of the ingredients’ health benefits: tomatoes give you healthy skin, peppers have a great variety of micronutrients for your body in all their various colors, and onions keep your heart strong (as well as giving pico de gallo a boost in intensity)! Students were able to express how they felt about eating specific vegetables. A huge thank you to the superstar WITS Chefs Camden school cafeteria staff and our Food Corps partners who are infusing these schools with positivity, scratch cooking, and a celebration of yummy vegetables. 

Tricks and Treats for the Fall

The best season — back-to-school season — is here! Thanks to a year of planning, a strong collective, and most importantly, a partnership with Camden City Public Schools’ Food Service Director Arlethia Brown and the Food Service Team led by Aramark in Camden, NJ, we were able to hit the ground running and have already introduced new recipes to the Camden students. One such recipe is a breakfast parfait, shared by WITS Chef Angel Jones. As the new year starts, it is a great opportunity to set healthy habits for students so that they can adapt to the school environment with energy and enjoyment. Try out some fun new WITS recipes and hiking adventures we have below! 

These two parfait recipes are perfect for the back-to-school and fall seasons. One of the best features of these simple parfaits is that when the season changes, you can swap out your fruits for a colorful and fresh in-season medley — offering both a variety in taste and in nutrients.

Recipe: Happy Halloween Scarecrow Parfait

Ingredients: 

  • 1 ½ cups lowfat vanilla yogurt, or yogurt of choice
  • ⅓ cup + 1 tbsp Sunbutter (sunflower seed butter)
  • 2 cups lowfat vanilla yogurt, or yogurt of choice (separate from yogurt above)
  • 2 cups freshly-sliced apples (3-4 medium apples, Gala, Honeycrisp, or Fuji varieties)
  • Clear plastic cups 

Procedure: 

  1. In a medium-sized bowl, mix 1 ½ cups yogurt with Sunbutter to make Sunbutter Yogurt. 
  2. Scoop one ½-cup portion of Sunbutter Yogurt into the bottom of each plastic cup. 
  3. Carefully pour one ½-cup portion of plain yogurt on top of Sunbutter yogurt. Keep parfaits in the refrigerator until ready to serve. 
  4. Just before serving, core and slice apples into at least eight equal pieces. Place 6-8 apple slices down into the yogurt. 

Recipe: Homemade “Candy” Corn Fruit Parfait Recipe

Ingredients: 

  • One 20-oz can pineapple tidbits (packed in 100% juice), drained
  • 2 15-oz cans mandarin oranges (packed in water, no sugar added), drained
  • 2 cups nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt, or yogurt of choice
  • 6 pieces candy corn, for garnish (optional) 
  • Clear plastic cups

Procedure: 

  1. Open and drain cans of pineapple tidbits and mandarin oranges. 
  2. In clear plastic cups, add the following ingredients in layers: ⅓ cup pineapple tidbits, ⅓ cup mandarin oranges, ⅓ cup yogurt. 
  3. Keep parfaits in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Optional: garnish each parfait with one candy corn in the center of the cup just before serving. 

 

Fitness Adventures

On the fitness side, and now that children are back in classes, one of our best tips is to break up the daily school work with hikes that you can find even in the most urban of environments. Here we feature NYC, a place that surprises many when it comes to hiking. There are some wonderful and free hiking events and groups that you can sign up for, right in NYC. Hiking is a great way to get active and reduce stress while exploring the city and its neighboring areas. Discover the seasonal and beautiful fall foliage, wildlife, and history not too far from where you live. 

Plan your next hiking trip: NYC Parks offers great options to start your hiking journey through NYC’s natural wonderland. Just pick a park and map out your first or next hiking adventure. Be sure to pack plenty of water, and wear sunscreen and layered clothing. Visit their Hiking Trails page to find more nature trails in parks across New York City. 

If you are able to venture outside of the city, the fall season in New York is the best time to plan a hike Upstate, and Hike With Us – Catskills offers free guided hikes and itineraries to use to plan your own adventure. If you are not sure of where to start, sign up for one of these free guided hikes led by expert hikers. It doesn’t hurt that all participants will go home with additional goodies to help them continue their hiking adventures in the Catskills. 

Have fun planning your fall-themed snacks and adventures, and we wish you a great new school year!

Spreading a Little Wellness in the Sunshine State

Broward County, FL — WITS super Chef Leonor Azpurua says, “never underestimate the power of kindness.” She recalls a story with a teacher she met and helped almost five years ago. This teacher was an 8th-grade administrator at McNicol School, who saw one of her classroom demos and got particularly interested in focusing on reducing the amount of sugar in her meals and drinks. Hearing this, Leonor brought her recipes, healthy snacks, and articles about the benefits of cutting sugar in her diet and how she can reset her system and start afresh. Fast forward a few years, this teacher was now the new school Principal. Needless to say, when she saw Leonor back in school for an open house, she thanked her for her commitment to the school and assured her that she would support all her upcoming initiatives! That is just one of the many instances where the WITS Chefs have touched lives on a personal level; they are back to school with excitement that is through the roof. 

WITS Chef Leonor Azpurua, center, in action with other school staff in Broward County, Florida.

Another WITS Chef, Sara Martinez, wrote in her weekly note to the WITS Team that, “This was my first week back and it did not disappoint. The kids were excited and eager to get back to talking about food. The little ones in Kindergarten were a little shy but got quickly into the spirit.”  

It’s been wonderful to be welcomed back for on-site programming. Most of our schools have requested it and are open to in-person events with all the necessary safety precautions. 

Broward County is heading into exciting programming updates this year. We are partnering with a new Food Forest initiative and are introducing participating schools to our new Green for Kids initiative, along with a fundraising push for Give Miami Day in Miami-Dade County. Our focus in South Florida is on our in-class educational programming — WITS Labs, WITS Bits, and now Green for Kids — and we’re also looking for more ways to get creative and support school events. 

After the virtual year of collaboration, adapting to the new normal, and welcoming new WITS Chefs on board, the Sunshine State is once again starting the year off strong! This school year began with the staff joining forces to establish lesson plans and determine the best activities for our weekly classes. Across Florida, as with all of WITS’ main markets, we have started out wellness classes discussing our mission and what it means to be healthy. We are always thoroughly surprised and happy to hear what the students have to say about their understanding of health and wellness.