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.

FEAST with WITS Launches at Bowery Mission

Wellness in the Schools is delighted to announce the official launch of our partnership, FEAST with WITS. Since 2018, we have partnered with FEAST based on our shared belief that everyone should have access to nutritional food, food education, and a community of support. FEAST with WITS brings our partnership to a new level as we officially team up to better serve our communities with a together we are stronger attitude. Through FEAST with WITS, we offer our communities a 12-week program that measurably increases health and wellbeing for families. 

Despite a more tentative school start, FEAST with WITS kicked off in September for parents of the children enrolled in the Mont Lawn City Camp & Summer Camp, a program of The Bowery Mission of New York. Our incredible WITS Lab Instructor Victoria Baluk is teaching a 12-session program to 10 women, all of whom are diving deep into food education and open and shared conversations about healthy eating, shopping, and cooking skills. At every class, Victoria makes a recipe that can be prepared for a family of four for under $10. At the end of every class each participant receives a $10 gift card for the local grocery store. 

While some challenges have presented themselves — almost all participants speak only Spanish, and the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic make group work difficult — the Bowery Mission Program is a collective of women and mothers, each of whom is there for the common goal to improve personal health and the health of their families. This class is two quiet hours of much-needed self-care time, which most mothers and women need after often putting others first. In this class, we partner with a translator, and the participants have already connected in their safe weekly space through sharing and exploring their relationships with food, health, and setting personal goals, all while supporting each other along the way. 

Many of the adults participating in the FEAST with WITS program are not only making the commitment for themselves but also to benefit their families. In FEAST with WITS, we not only offer guidance on what to do to improve health through food but make it a priority to explain why. Speaking about her experience, Chef Victoria says, “I believe that better health is attainable for every person who makes the effort to show up and be vulnerable and open to the possibility.” 

In 2020, at a FEAST program in Harlem, one WITS staff member celebrated the winning recipe emerging from this partnership. The program members discussed making healthier choices when eating out at restaurants and then cooked together, making a Chickpea Salad with Tomatoes & Cucumber and a Sautéed Zucchini, Tomato, and Chickpea Ragout served atop couscous. With a delicious feast shared between program participants and meaningful insights on wellness and healthier habits, a true community support system formed. Our FEAST with WITS partnership aims for all to feel comfortable learning together, taking one step forward at a time to leading healthier lives. 

To learn more about FEAST with WITS, click here

To bring FEAST with WITS to you, click here

Summer BITS of Healthy Fun

 

The extraordinary WITS team has been hard at work all year, and now summer is here — time for a well-deserved break! Read on to hear from a few Chefs, Coaches, and Program Managers about how they are planning to keep healthy WITS habits a part of their summer fun, from delightful infusions of veggies to exciting bursts of exercise. 

 

Errol Jones | WITS Coaches Program Manager, NYC

“Summer’s all about taking care of myself, physically, mentally, emotionally: eating healthy food, understanding what fitness I need for my lifestyle, preparing for the exciting growth happening at WITS, and staying in the game as a coach and working with kids!” 

Errol and his wife just bought their first apartment in Brooklyn, and they’re looking forward to exploring a newfound sense of freedom and bringing the community closer into their lives. He’s befriended the co-op board, pet shop owner, local pub, hairdresser, gym members — no surprise if you know Errol. His ever-present gratitude and kindness for others can now extend to the garden he now has at his new home. He’s growing lots of vegetables: tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, thyme, sage, and more! 

In addition to feeding himself and his community well, he wants to spend the summer valuing the wellness and self-care his body and mind need so that he has the energy and enjoyment to keep up coaching and doing what he loves. For now, this means having a better routine at the gym. WITS’ expanding Coach for Kids program means Errol is eagerly anticipating an active fall with kids back in school!

“You’ve got to take care of yourself, that’s what matters most.” 

 

Ricardo Diaz | WITS Chef Liaison & RDN

When Ricardo thinks of summer, he thinks of the bountiful produce of farmer’s markets! There is a lot of produce available, and it can be bought in bulk, so now’s the time to get excited about all of the colors both savory and sweet! In particular, berries and stone fruits are at their peak. Ricardo is especially keen on the wonderfully fresh strawberries and plums right now (check out this recipe for plum clafoutis, also featured on BronxNext). Lots of healthy treats can be made with fresh fruit all around. Ricardo also looks forward to grilling fruit, peaches in particular — it’s such a unique flavor, and he encourages everyone to add their favorite flavors into dishes this summer. 

Also on Ricardo’s mind are tomatoes, his favorite summer vegetable. Coming in at the peak of the summer harvest, tomatoes are a signal that everything else is in abundance, too. He’s thinking about turning some into tomato sauce so that he can hold onto some of the flavor for a preserve later on in the winter. Preserving foods is a great way to lengthen summer treats into the colder months! 

Another keeper recipe from this online year is a marinated salad mix. Coleslaw and cabbage, potatoes, leafy greens, and more are great to rub with some vinaigrette dressing and/or marinade, and then that all sits so the flavor sinks into the vegetables. It can be served warmed up or just cold/refrigerated (especially to beat the summer heat). 

His favorite summer activity is biking, though spending time outdoors in general has been a great way to ease back into social life safely and get a good dose of vitamin D. Sunlight is necessary for skin health and the body’s ability to function well and at its best. Even just a walk outside at the end of the day is a great way to get in some sunlight. 

Herb bundle — a great way to preserve herbs into the fall and winter!
Clafoutis: the finished baked plum dish (Ricardo recommends using a cast iron to make it if you’ve got one handy). 
Fruit salad: a summer fruit salad prepared during a virtual WITS class this spring. 
A grilled veggie dinner, shared with family. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cameo Fucci | WITS Chef

Cameo offers a recipe for Burst Cherry Tomato Salsa as a tasty treat! 

Ingredients 

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 6 oz cherry tomatoes
  • Half bunch scallions, chopped
  • Half bunch cilantro, chopped (no stems)
  • 2 Tbsp goat cheese or mashed avocado

Method: Add olive oil to a small sauce/sauté pan and put on medium-high heat. Once warm, add the cherry tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes or until beginning to slightly char. Turn heat down to medium-low and cover. Cook for about 5 more minutes until you notice the tomato skin beginning to tear and the tomatoes beginning to pop. Take off the heat and add to a mixing bowl. Slightly smash the tomatoes with the back of a spoon to break them up. Add in your scallions, cilantro, and crumbled goat cheese or avocado. Mix; add a little lemon juice to your taste preference. Pour into a small serving dish and dip with your favorite chips, put over pasta, or eat however else you’d like. 

The finished Burst Tomato Cherry Salsa recipe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wendy Siskin | WITS National Program Director

Summer has always been Wendy’s favorite season — it has her birthday month and also brings many memories of competitive swimming throughout childhood. Her favorite summer activities all include a water theme! She loves shared time with friends and family, like kayaking with her nephews, which provides both a great workout and an exciting adventure. This is followed up, of course, with a rewarding swim in the pool or ocean to cool off and then a healthy, delicious meal to replenish and hydrate. 

Wendy also has an affinity for summertime BBQs, which can absolutely be a healthy option! She shares a recent BBQ meal of cauliflower steak, grilled corn salad and eggplant, a lentil bean patty, and papaya salad. Yum! 

Her words of advice for this summer: “Try new challenges as often as you can. You will always learn something about yourself. And you may find your new favorite activity or food that keeps your body, mind, and spirit happy and healthy!” 

Wendy kayaking with her nephew
Wendy’s vegetarian BBQ meal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kisha Figueroa Cromarite | WITS Chef Liaison

Right now, Kisha is really into pickling and the process of fermenting foods, which has led to lots of fun experiments with friends, including an incidence of very bubbly sauerkraut (a good sign — that means the food is very much alive and the culture is active)! She’s looking forward to the abundance of produce that the summer offers and is learning about fermentation to preserve foods so that she may enjoy them beyond the summer and into the fall. 

She’s also looking forward to air-pruning tomatoes in her garden. The process involves putting plants in pots with holes so that they may breathe more, and the roots grow very quickly and healthily. It’s a very cool process and makes the plants able to soak up more nutrition and increase their yield, as well as live longer, going with Kisha’s summer theme of preservation.

Overall, Kisha gives the advice to be proud of what you eat and to celebrate the joy of a colorful vegetable spread across the table! It’s good to be excited about the fresh produce you love to eat, as well as slowly tweaking comfort foods to be more nutritious, which Kisha is now doing with her mother’s candied cassava dish. Simple replacements like coconut oil instead of so much butter and adding just a little bit of sweetener like maple syrup make the recipe more healthy and just as yummy. She’s hoping to continue cooking for her extended family this summer in a health-conscious way, even if it’s not something that everyone is used to or similarly excited about (yet). She wants to spread good health to the people she loves so that they may learn to appreciate her thoughtfulness and build healthy habits, too. “You have to prepare good food for the people you love.” 

 

Jamel Brundidge | WITS Coach 

Jamel is most looking forward to early mornings with the sun shining, no better time to enjoy the outdoors! Enjoy part of his routine for “explosiveness” and training for personal fitness: 

Hydrate and stretch first! 

3-4 laps of light jogging around a track (if there’s no track available, a 10-minute jog anywhere works just as well)

Mountain climbers: 30 seconds, 2 sets

Squat jumps: 10 reps, 2 sets

20-yard sprints, 3 times

40-yard sprints, 2 times 

2 laps of walking the track

Cool down and of course, rehydrate! 

 

A good workout, indeed. Why not take a stretch and give it a try? 

 

We are so proud of everyone — our WITS team and extended students and families — for persevering this school year. Stay healthy, nourished, and active, and enjoy some summer fun!

DeMarco Murray Named WITS Chief Athletic Officer

 

In our Winter newsletter earlier this year, Wellness in the Schools National Program Director Wendy Siskin outlined the ways in which the Coach for Kids program is Calling an Audible; taking what was learned over the past year, and coming back in September to reach new heights. 

One new addition to the Coach for Kids program is the role of Chief Athletic Officer. This role serves as the face of the Wellness in the Schools Coach for Kids program for schools across the country. There is nobody more fit for this role (literally!) than Wellness in the Schools Board Member and former NFL running back, DeMarco Murray. 

DeMarco Murray is a retired NFL Running Back who played for the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and Tennessee Titans. He currently serves as the Running Backs Coach at his Alma Mater, Oklahoma University. Before retiring from the NFL in 2018, Murray was a 3x Pro Bowler, 2015 Player of the year, and All-Pro. With an inherent passion for health and fitness, DeMarco sought to invest and grow the national salad chain, Chopt Creative Salad Company. DeMarco’s passion for health and fitness is what led him to join the board of directors of Wellness in the Schools earlier this year, and makes him the perfect candidate for the Chief Athletic Officer role.

Over the next year, DeMarco will be helping to grow the Coach for Kids program in his role as Chief Athletics Officer. DeMarco is excited to be taking on his new role: “What attracted me to Wellness in the Schools was their sense of urgency to address children’s health, especially how they approach it in schools with both fitness and nutrition: Two very important things that have helped me along the way… I am very excited to help propel their mission as the Chief Athletic Officer and really make a difference!” 

But DeMarco brings more to the table than enthusiasm. His first-hand experience as the Running Back Coach at Oklahoma University proves that he is capable of getting the youth inspired to perform their best. By sharing coaching strategies with our WITS Coaches, the Coach for Kids program will have new material in its arsenal for the long-awaited return to the schoolyard. 

Perhaps most importantly, DeMarco understands that in order to perform your best, you have to give your body the fuel it needs. His investment in Chopt is a testament to his belief in whole healthy foods being a pivotal part of health and wellness. Furthermore, DeMarco loves to cook! And what is more akin to WITS than a coach who loves to cook? 

DeMarco shared a few of his favorite meals to keep him energized and ready for a full day of coaching and fitness: 

Breakfast: Proteins, veggies, and fruit. For example, I like egg whites, turkey sausage, and some grilled veggies.  

Lunch: Something light and green, a Chopt salad usually does the trick! 

Dinner: Usually a grilled fish (Branzino, Chilean sea bass, etc.) with veggies like asparagus or brussels sprouts. Throw in a caesar salad or crab cake, and I’m good to go! Of course, a brisket or steak is always a nice treat too! Especially if I make it!

 

Want to stay up to date on all the great things DeMarco will be bringing to Wellness in the Schools as our Chief Athletic Officer? Be sure to follow us on Instagram at @wellnessintheschools for the latest updates. 

 

Bounty of the Bronx: New Settlement Farmstand

 

This past year saw WITS programming go beyond the classroom and schoolyard. WITS Chefs could now be seen on television at BronxNet and on our Instagram @wellnessintheschools, cooking for wider audiences than ever before. But as we all know, you can’t feed people through a screen. A big part of our relationship with food is sensory. Being able to touch, smell, and taste our food is really what cooking is all about. Few places tell the story of food from farm to plate and allow for a sensory experience quite like a farmers market. With help from the New Settlement Community Center in the Bronx and many more partners, Wellness in the Schools has been able to bring the bounty to the Bronx. This is the story of how during this covid year we have been able to transcend screens and bring fresh produce and other ingredients to a community in need in person. 

The story begins seven years ago when Wellness in the Schools began working with a handful of Community School District 9 schools (Mt. Eden Children’s Academy, M.S. 327, and P10X). Our Cook for Kids programming garnered the attention of the New Settlement Community Center, which was also closely involved in the area’s schools, offering after-school programs. Over time we began to collaborate with the New Settlement Community Center and supported their Community Food Action program. In fact, we shared our vision for a kitchen design when New Settlement was drawing plans for their new school.

Fast forward to March of 2020. The world comes to a halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and many find themselves in need of food and other necessities due to the cessation of work. “We had to do something. These are our communities and they are in need. We couldn’t do our usual work in the schools, but I just knew we had to figure out another way to be there for our people,” said Marion Williams, National Program Director of Wellness in the Schools. 

During the pandemic, community centers like New Settlement did what they could to provide for their communities like they usually do, but the demand was now too difficult to accommodate. Marion began working with Carmen Hernandez-Rugama, the Program Director of the Creative Leaders Afterschool Program (CLASP) at New Settlement, to try to find a way that Wellness in the Schools could leverage its relationships with our existing chef partners to help bring food to the New Settlement community.

Wellness in the Schools began providing pantry items to New Settlement Community Center and worked with chef partner GrowNYC to help get fresh produce. With this, the New Settlement Community Center Farmstand was officially open. 

Program Operations Manager Gisselle Madariaga says, “Not only does the New Settlement Farmstand provide pantry staples like pasta and canned vegetables, but we are also able to provide fresh produce, and best of all, we offer live cooking demonstrations and an ‘Ask A Chef’ booth where people can learn recipes and cooking tips that utilize the same ingredients that they are taking home with them.” 

Other chef partners include Capatriti Olive Oil and Bob’s Red Mill, who have generously provided in-kind donations of their products to the New Settlement Community Center Farmstand. 

Now, the New Settlement Farmstand distributes 200 grocery bags of food items every time they are open, carefully weighed out and proportioned to ensure everybody who comes is getting their fair share. Our partners Feed the Frontlines have even been able to provide hot meals to families at the New Settlement Community Center. 

At Wellness in the Schools, we regularly talk about the power of partnerships, and this is the perfect example of that. What started as just a question – how can we help? – soon blossomed into the creation of a welcoming space at the New Settlement Community Center that provided food to members of the community for free, along with cooking instruction to make the most of the ingredients. And none of it would have been possible without the help of our friends at New Settlement Community Center, GrowNYC, Capatriti Olive Oil, Bob’s Red Mill, and Feed the Frontlines. Thank you to everyone who has helped to make the New Settlement Farmstand a reality: bringing the bounty to the Bronx.

WITS Talks: A Variety of the Virtual

 

This past school year has been virtually…well…virtual. In-person events and activities had to be adapted for a virtual format, and while this was difficult at times, it also gave us the opportunity to have conversations more easily with people who no longer had to travel to take part in Wellness in the Schools engagements. Our WITS Talks panel series this past Spring brought together chefs and food entrepreneurs from around the country such as Nicole Dawes, Caroline Schiff, and Pierre Thiam to share their stories with the Wellness in the Schools audience. From these discussions, we learned how nimble the food industry has been in the face of a global pandemic, and how it continues to adapt when confronted with other obstacles such as providing affordable and accessible healthy foods. If you missed the series, do not fear! We recorded these forward-thinking conversations, moderated by WITS Board Member and Almanac Insights Partner, Elly Truesdell. Tune in for some great inspiration and insight, combined with humor and hope for the future of food from these chefs (and other panelists) who think and act beyond the kitchen: Chefs Beyond the Kitchen, Forward-Thinking Food Founders, and Pandemic Pages: Cookbooks and Home Cooking in Quarantine are all a treat to the mind and heart. 

But before we had the WITS Talks panel series, we had Talks with Telepan. In late Spring of 2020, Executive Chef of Wellness in the Schools Bill Telepan sought to take advantage of the fact that everyone was at home on their phones. “It was a difficult time for everyone, but especially for chefs. I wanted a way to catch up with people in the WITS community who we got separated from because of the pandemic, while also promoting whatever they had going on at the moment.” That was the beginning of Talks with Telepan.

Talks with Telepan has been a regular fixture on the @wellnessintheschools Instagram ever since Bill came up with the idea. Bill has spoken with, cooked with, and even worked out with friends of WITS ranging from Mark Bittman, Kate Bock, Barkha Cardoz, Gail Simmons, and many more! 

Of course, we know this year has been busy for many people, and not everyone has been able to tune in at 6pm to watch Bill with his guests, so we decided to put together some highlights from this year’s season of Talks with Telepan.

We hope you enjoy some of the best moments that Talks with Telepan had to offer this year, and be on the lookout for more Talks with Telepan in the Fall!

 

 

 

Looking Back, Moving Forward

 

A year ago today, in the early days of this pandemic, we could have never predicted what our programming was going to look like. Schools shut their doors in mid March of last year, but we knew that our work was more important than ever. We could not shut the door on our communities; so we went to them. We met outside, we held socially distanced classes, and we adapted our lessons for the virtual world and for communities beyond the walls of a school. 

One WITS Chef put it best: Armed with carrots, beets and cucumbers, we travel into neighborhoods that have been forgotten, and we do this with heart, passion and perseverance.

We became fixtures of virtual and outdoor classrooms. We were honorary guests at farmer markets all across New York City. We turned every room of our house into a kitchen or fitness studio (for the best lighting!). We created not one, but two shows (A Bite of Wellness on BronxNet and Talks with Telepan on Instagram Live). We’ve created engaging workouts that are instrumental in keeping students focused during virtual learning. And yes, we have mastered Zoom breakout rooms. 

When we look back on the year we remember loss and hardship, but looking at the pictures from this year tells a different story. It reminds us that the humans of WITS make the best out of any situation. In that way, looking back has prepared us to move forward.

Below is a slideshow of just a few of the incredible moments from this past year that were captured. Moments that show the heart, passion, and perseverance of Wellness in the Schools.

Tale of Two Nutritionists: A Discussion with WITS Board Member and Dietitian Nutritionist Maya Feller and WITS Chef and Dietitian Nutritionist Ricardo Diaz

 

The following is an interview conducted by WITS Chef and Resident Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Ricardo Diaz. Ricardo interviewed Maya Feller, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist,a nationally recognized nutrition expert who recently joined the Wellness in the Schools Board of Directors.

 

 

Ricardo: Hi Maya, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and answer a few questions. I guess we can just jump right into it with the big question of what led you to want to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist? Was it always your end goal?

 

Maya: Hi Ricardo! Actually, not at all. I started out studying experimental theater and philosophy as an undergraduate. So it wasn’t what I originally set out to do. The path to becoming an RDN actually started when I was training for the Boston Marathon. I was spending so many hours running and I began to think more about the food that I was eating. What’s happening with the food I eat? Where is it going? How is it metabolized? How is my food turning into fuel? All of these questions fascinated me, and still do. After researching those questions I learned about registered dietitians and knew that it was something that I wanted to study. I come from a family of academics, so I knew immediately I wanted to go for the terminal degree, so that is what I did and I became a dietitian!

 

Ricardo: Thank you so much for sharing that story with me Maya. It’s also interesting to hear that we both didn’t necessarily look at nutrition and dietetics as a primary goal from the start. Becoming an RDN was something I ended up stumbling into myself. I initially wanted to go pre-med. After taking some requisite classes in nutrition I started using what I was learning in that class in my personal life, and once I saw how these practices were influencing my own health then I thought, “well, maybe I should give this a try instead.”

 

Maya: Oh, that’s amazing. So do you use any of your knowledge from pre-med classes years ago as you are working with the students now?

 

Ricardo: Yes I do, but I take what I learned and I simplify it so that students can more easily use that information to make changes within their own life… So we know how you decided on becoming an RDN, but what led you to working in private practice and academia?

 

Maya: Before private practice and academia I actually started working with my community. Right after becoming an RDN I started working with a community organization where I worked with homeless or unstably housed patients with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. After that, I started working with the New York City Department of Health where I was a part of a program that would go around the 5 boroughs and teach classes on nutrition and body care. That eventually led to me doing 12 week nutrition workshops in New York City housing projects. It was around that time that I decided to start my own private practice. At first, my work really centered around maternal and family nutrition, but over time it has become more general, but I still do a lot of family nutrition work and a lot of it deals with non communicable conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, etc. All of my work is from a very patient-centered, anti-biased lens. I am really there to take the science that I do know and work with a lens of cultural humility so that I can serve the patients efficiently. I don’t know anything about a person’s lived experience, that’s their unique experience, what I do know is the nutrition science, which means I have to walk in with my eyes open and my ears open and honor what they’re telling me so that I can really serve them in the best possible way.

 

When I was running the 12 week nutrition workshops that is when I started teaching at NYU. I started teaching life cycle nutrition there in 2012 and I am still teaching it. So that’s how I ended up in private practice and academia!

 

Ricardo: I really like the point you bring up on cultural humility. I feel like that is something I had to gradually learn to appreciate a lot more, especially when working with different cultures all over New York City. So how did you end up working with the populations that you work with now?

 

Maya: I think that as a black woman dietitian many of my patients have sought me out because I am not the majority. So I have a large group of patients that were looking for someone who is representative of them. I also have a large group of patients that identify as LGBTQ+ because my work is through an anti-biased approach. Patients want someone who will listen to them, and because I work with an anti-racist, anti-biased lens that takes cultural humility into account I am better able to serve my patients. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “thank you for listening.” That’s not generally a part of how we are trained as RDNs. We engage in motivational interviewing, which may work for some but might not work for others, and we are taught that we are supposed to educate, which is true, but we also need to educate ourselves by listening to and learning from our patients. I am always willing to say “I can learn from you,” and I think that’s why a lot of my patients come to me. 

 

Ricardo: The listening is so crucial. I find that especially with my work with the students, you have to listen closely to them so that you can meet them where they are at, but as you say, people don’t focus enough on the listening aspect of our work. We also never really got guidance on working with the LGBTQ+ community as you mentioned –

 

Maya: Not at all. We are told that so many of those conversations that we have with patients from the LGBTQ+ fall under “social issues,” and are not classified as dietetics work, when in fact, people’s identities are deeply entwined with how they interact with food. I think that as we start to teach a new generation of dietitians we need to begin to build all of this into the fabric of dietetics so that students are better equipped to work with diverse populations.

 

Ricardo: Absolutely. One thing that comes to mind is looking at different cultures and how different cultures eat healthily. Looking back, I never really knew how to address how individuals from different cultures could eat healthy while consuming traditional cultural foods. As a preceptor, professor, and a mentor, how do you challenge and broaden the perspective with regard to how your students and future RDNs could better serve these diverse populations while keeping cultural traditions intact?

 

Maya: That’s an incredible question. The academy loves to say that “there is no one size that fits all.” And they’re right. There is no one size that fits all. When new patients come in we should be asking them, “what is it that you are engaged in eating, what are some of your favorite foods?” Let’s start by asking and listening, before we start to prescribe. We should take into account what is accessible in their communities.

 

Ricardo: That is such a good point. Chef Marion and I have to factor this into our pantry work in the Bronx. We have to take into account what kind of food and ingredients that people like to eat, along with what they have access to, and try to help them from there while being fully aware of their cultural traditions. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me Maya. It was so great to hear about your journey to becoming an RDN and how our paths had a few similarities. 

Maya: Thank you so much for having me! Always happy to support Wellness in the Schools.

How Disconnecting Can Help Your Family Connect

 

This article was initially published in the Whole Kids Foundation Blog of March 2021.

Life is full of unpredictable events, most of which we have no control over. However, the year 2020 will be forever remembered as the one that forced a world to stop in its tracks and alter every aspect of life that was considered normal, familiar, planned, and even mandatory. It challenged everyone, even the most inspiring optimist, to find comfort and stability.

As the long days turn into long months during this Covid-19 pandemic, it continues to radically change the way we live, work, learn, socialize, and the way we take care of our loved ones. Above all, the most important factor that this pandemic has highlighted is our health which happens to be the one thing we DO have control over. With all the anxieties, fears, and stresses, we are grasping at everything that brings us comfort, relief, and happiness. Self-care is not selfish, it is mandatory. Now that we are one year in, the dependency on technology has taken its toll and the desire to find easy ways to unplug is even more in demand. The quarantine trends of baking bread, learning a musical instrument, or hosting drive-by parties are all great ways to unplug for one’s mental health. However, taking care of our physical health requires a little more creativity.

At Wellness in the Schools, we bring food & fitness programming into the classroom. Our short-term goal is to teach healthy habits to live and learn better. Our long-term bold mission is to end childhood obesity. In order for our programming to have a lasting impact, ideally the habits we teach continue at home. Fortunately, the Covid silver lining for WITS is that we have been able to do just that. Our WITS Chefs and Coaches have been able to stream live lessons into the bedrooms, kitchens, and/or family rooms of our students.

We’ve curated a list of fun ideas for parents and teachers to use at home with their families:

 

OUR TOP 4 MEALTIME TRADITIONS:

 

  1. Have each member of the household rotate nights of the week and cook for each other, then give ratings on yumminess, healthiness, and presentation! If some are too young to cook, partner up in teams. Tally the scores at the end of the week for a prize – fruit dipped in chocolate and rolled in coconut anyone?
  2. Want dessert? That’s ok, take a poll and make rules around how much is too much. For example, 3 dessert nights/week and urge homemade and/or fresh fruits. If you have teens at home, you know teens like being part of the decision-making process, and having them choose usually leads to a successful outcome. You can also hold “healthy competitions” for who can make the most delicious cookie that is filled with healthy and yummy ingredients! 
  3. If the tradition of cooking for each other is a success, start keeping track of all the highest rated recipes made from each family member and create your own cookbook! This is a wonderful tradition as well as something to use again when you want to recreate the dish together – or to share among friends. 
  4. What better way to clean up after dinner than with a dance party? Turn on your favorite music, create an assembly line, and dance while you clean. If the kids are too young, give them a little area to “clean” while you clean and the happiness of the dancing will keep them included. A great way to get moving, laughing, with the reward of a clean kitchen.

 

OUR TOP 4 FITNESS-FUN TRADITIONS:

 

  1. Obstacle courses! This can be modified to be perfect for any household. Let the kids lead for optimum success. The course can be set up inside or outside. One leader designs the course and the whole family has to complete it. Each course usually consists of 5 obstacles. It can include everything from crawling under chairs to hopping over a row of pillows. Depending on the athleticism of your household, the obstacles can be at any level of ease or difficulty, as long as it gets everyone moving. Have everyone do the course once, clock each run, then have each person do it again trying to beat his/her last time. Want to challenge teamwork? Partner up! 
  2. Take a daily walk, with a twist. Many kids find walks boring. So jazz it up and make it a game. Bring the dog, if you have. Bring a football and play catch while walking. Or, end the walk with family competition (football, wiffle ball) – adults against the kids! 
  3. Turn chores into a game. Instead of saying “I have to do something”, try switching your perspective to “I get to do something.” Just this slight word change can change the amount of energy you bring to the task. If you said, “I get to do laundry today”, it sounds exciting, right? For example, when putting away your laundry, grab a partner and make it a relay! Maybe open up your sock drawer and see how many balled up socks you can make it in your drawer from 6 feet away. Get creative with your chores and you will find you and your family genuinely saying, ”I get to do chores today!” 
  4. Get outside in nature. Of course, respecting social distancing, find a peaceful spot outside. Enjoy the air. If you haven’t already, this is the perfect time to bring the healthy habit of meditation into your day. An easy way to start is to go outside, find a tree, and have a seat. Focus on just one leaf on the tree, watch it blow in the wind, and intently listen to hear the noise of that one leaf blowing in the wind. This will help the start of blocking out all other noise in that one moment.

 

From our team to yours, stay present, safe, healthy, and have fun!