Big Wins in the Garden State

By Jesse Kramer

Wellness in the Schools is midway through its second year working with New Jersey public schools in Camden and Trenton. Already, our team has made incredible progress in a collaborative effort to create systemic change in these communities.

Our work in New Jersey began in Spring 2016 upon joining the Campbell Soup Foundation’s Healthy Communities program, a collective initiative where our team works as one of 25 partners in Camden alongside organizations such as FoodCorps, Food Bank of South Jersey, and others in Aramark-led kitchens. Then, in the 2016-17 school year, WITS joined the Novo Nordisk Community Health Collaborative in Trenton as one of eight partners.

“The mission is all about helping a community get healthier,” says WITS Program Manager Marion Williams, “and our focus within the collective is the kitchen and cafeteria. We are bringing these schools healthy recipes that are cost-effective, school-tested, and use food they already have.”

In Camden, WITS Chef Christina Martin has spent this school year working in the KIPP charter school system at Whittier Middle and Lanning Square Primary. Chef Christina had the opportunity to provide monthly tastings in the cafeteria in 2017. Thanks to the kids’ positive feedback, some of the recipes will become items on the new 2018 menu!

“We have much positive feedback from scholars at Whittier on a few of the WITS recipes,” says Aramark food service director Devida Bailey. “Scholars really liked the chicken/vegetable fried rice and chicken cacciatore. I look forward to offering more WITS recipes to our scholars.”

Starting in January 2018, we are thrilled to introduce a new menu at the KIPP schools, one that we developed with Aramark, to provide increased healthy options for students on a daily basis at breakfast and lunch. Some of the changes include removing Pop Tarts from breakfast offerings in favor of fresh fruit and hot sandwiches. The KIPP schools have also removed options like hot dogs and popcorn chicken from the lunch menu. In addition to the fried rice and chicken cacciatore, other items like chicken Caesar wraps and chicken sabroso with rice and beans are on the new menu, with vegetable lasagna, lemon pepper cod, and roasted vegetable wraps joining them soon.

To support our cafeteria work, WITS staff has trained 5th to 8th grade students on salad bar etiquette and “Eating the Rainbow” of fruits and vegetables so they can take advantage of another new offering – the salad bar!

Meanwhile in Trenton, WITS Chef Anwar Rasheed has vigorously tackled the challenging task of working in four different schools. Chef Anwar splits his time between Jefferson Elementary, MLK Elementary, Robbins Elementary, and Columbus Elementary. He spends one week per month at each school, testing one dish with the students and teaching skills to the cafeteria staff.

“The most rewarding part of my work in Trenton is making an impact on the youth and their diet,” Anwar says. “I enjoy helping and educating families so they understand how home and school work hand-in-hand, so that entire communities will be healthy and future generations will be aware to make healthy choices.”

The staff has found that students are receptive to the changes in the cafeteria – butternut squash was a favorite among the Trenton tastings. Even at tastings that may not be as big of a hit, most importantly the students are still eager to try the new dishes.

“Kids are excited when they see us show up in the classroom!” Marion says. “That’s a big win.”

While exposing students to healthy options is an important first step, instilling a culture of wellness in these communities is the ultimate goal. That change is already beginning to occur. For example, an architectural design club in Whittier Middle School has decided to build a farm stand as an upcoming project.

There is still more work to do in both cities to create lasting change, but these new developments bring important progress in our mission to teach healthy habits to a growing number of children each year.