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!

 

 

 

Coach For Kids Calls an Audible

For the last 15 years, our Wellness in the Schools programming has transformed the school lunch and recess experience. We have always offered programming that supports our immediate goal to have students receive a healthy lunch followed by an active and positive recess experience so they can return to the classroom focused and ready to learn. Our programming teaches students to adopt these healthy habits to their every day, help them to understand and feel the benefits, and ultimately reach our goal of ending childhood obesity.

As our short term goal of teaching healthy habits to live and learn better and our long term goal of ending childhood obesity has not and will not change, the way in which we have had to stay the course during this pandemic has. 

When schools pivoted to remote, hybrid, in-school, or a sporadic flux of all, we stayed constant in providing them with our support – and pivoted with each play. And what this pandemic highlighted for us is that our programming has never been more needed. For the most part, there was no more lunch in the cafeteria but they were still eating in some way, so our WITS Chefs supported that experience with virtual nutrition education, food access, and cooking classes. However, our schools were not able to provide recess. There was no longer a set time for kids to move, play, socialize, or recharge. There was no longer a place for them to gain physical confidence, work in a team, learn a new movement, perfect a skill, or forge a new friendship. These are the vital components our WITS Coaches teach during WITS Play at recess. Not only was the ability to release pent up energy taken away, but all the social-emotional learning that goes along with it was also missing. Students were now sitting in front of their computer all day, either at a desk in a classroom surrounded by plexiglass or at home far from their peers. 

We quickly pivoted our Coach for Kids curriculum to provide schools with a daily and weekly schedule of movement opportunities. We merged our classroom curriculum of fitness breaks (WITS FIT BITS) with our recess playbook (WITS Play) and created new models that are plugged into school schedules throughout the school day, virtually. We provide a schedule of virtual live classes and/or prerecorded videos that teachers can use when they feel the need. We have also teamed up our WITS Coaches with our WITS Chefs during nutrition and cooking classes so every WITS class includes movement before, during, or after a nutrition or cooking lesson.

It is one thing to be an effective and engaging coach in person but a whole other skill to be able to engage elementary school age and even more challenging, middle school-aged students in physical activity as a class through a screen. The start was definitely a challenge, as we were up against students who were taking our class from their bed and not really in the mood to move, students who didn’t feel comfortable with their camera on, students who were trying to stay quiet so as not to distract adults or siblings trying to work nearby. The challenges were daunting, however, we persevered and found a way to overcome all of it through WITS Play techniques and inclusion. 

We now have concrete schedules with our schools that incorporate movement throughout the day. Our schools have never been more appreciative and our student surveys have proved that this new approach is helping them focus and feel better throughout their school day.

The success that we have found so far in this unprecedented year has given Wellness in the Schools a new digital arm to our programming that we believe will continue even as life gets back to “normal”. Not only does this digital arm help our schools reach their required 60 minutes of physical activity a day, it enables us to reach more students and school communities – it’s especially fun when we see parents join in on the fitness fun.

We will continue to pivot to the needs of our communities. And we will always find a way to continue to Let Kids Play, Feed Kids Real Food, and Get Kids Green.

WITS On the (Virtual) Road

Without leaving our bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms or other makeshift offices, Wellness in the Schools has managed to share our expertise and perspective on wellness issues on a national platform – from Florida to New Jersey to New York, directly from our laptops. In an odd way, the challenges of isolating during the pandemic have opened up opportunities nationwide in this winter season.

First stop, the Global Wellness Summit, in Palm Beach, Florida. Thanks to board member and co-founder of Well+Good, Alexia Brue, we had the great opportunity to introduce our work and our recently launched ScratchWorks at the hybrid event in Florida – where 100 participants gathered in person and over 600 more gathered virtually. The Global Wellness Summit brings together top wellness leaders from around the world to this important conference on the multi trillion dollar wellness industry. This year’s focus was on resetting the world of wellness. Wellness in the Schools was fortunate to be zoomed in for a special “announcement” and introduced by Alexia. See full 6-minute interview here.

Next stop, New York, NY. We joined a local partner, Nazareth Housing as a guest panelist at their Virtual Gala in December. Nazareth Housing is a NYC-based nonprofit that supports the city’s most vulnerable families with housing stability and economic mobility, and we were honored to be called upon as an expert in the food space for their panel.  We shared our thoughts on food insecurity, food access and the value of real, whole food during a pandemic (and always). We were joined by moderator Calvin Sims and fellow panelists Judi Kende from Enterprise Community Partners and Christopher Wimer from The Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy.   Enjoy the full panel here.  

Finally, our last stop on this virtual tour brought us to Princeton, NJ, where we designed a wellness panel for the Campus Life employees’ retreat. The participants – all employees of the university – enjoyed a discussion moderated by WITS’ Executive Director and Co-Founder Nancy Easton, and highlighted by an all-star panel of Maya Feller, Marcus Samulesson and Jenna Wolfe. This team was not only full of excellent advice and wisdom on how to be well during a pandemic, but mostly their collective combination of knowledge, passion and humor was educational, inspiring and entertaining all at once.  Or, as described by Jess Deustch, Associate Director of Princeton Campus Life, “ . . .   through the magic of the essence of Nancy, it all [came] together in the most incredible way – you all [found] a way to reflect all of it – the messy, the painful, the funny, the profound. Just all of it.” Enjoy this panel discussion here.

Our travels in the wellness world continue to solidify our leadership and our partnerships with others doing such important work.  The pandemic has taught us many things, one of which is the reminder that we are all in this together.  Lending our expertise and support to those doing this good work is both a rewarding and important part of driving change.

WITS On the Small Screen

When schools across the country closed their doors in March of last year, we knew that we had to adapt our programming. We quickly went from in-person to virtual. As an article from our last newsletter described it, “Our WITS Chefs and Coaches have suddenly turned into script-writers, directors, camera crew, and video subjects all at once.” The virtual classroom was new territory for both students and educators alike. 

There are many obstacles in virtual learning, but one that became apparent for some of our communities was technological and broadband accessibility. We had trained to teach our classes virtually over conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but how could we continue to work with our most vulnerable communities who could not access our content in an online format? 

The answer to that question actually takes us back to 2015. WITS Chef Ricardo Diaz had just started at Wellness in the Schools and was teaching WITS Bits and WITS Labs at PS 55X, The Benjamin Franklin School in the Bronx. As Ricardo continued to work in the school over the years, his talents caught the attention of Principal Luis Torres. 

In April of last year, Principal Torres shared with Ricardo that many students in the Bronx were unable to participate in virtual learning fully due to lack of technology and limited broadband. Data collected from the City of New York corroborates Principal Torres’ claim; nearly one third of New York City households lack a home broadband subscription. Furthermore, approximately 12% of New York City households do not have home access to a computing device of any kind. These percentages are even higher in many of the communities we work in, such as Claremont Village in The Bronx where PS 55X is located.

Principal Torres connected Ricardo with the staff at BronxNet, a public, educational, and government access cable TV network in The Bronx. The network was putting together a string of programming to air throughout the school day called Edulution, which airs educational content created by New York City teachers to help bring virtual education into homes where device or internet access was limited. BronxNet was looking for health and wellness content on Edulution, so we were invited to submit a pilot episode. 

Not long after submitting a 15 minute pilot episode, a WITS BronxNet show was born! We were immediately featured bi-monthly for 30-minutes during prime time. The show has proven to be so popular that we were recently upgraded to a weekly 30 minute episode. 

Starring WITS Chef and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Ricardo Diaz, often accompanied by his sous Chef (and nephew) Sebastian, A Bite of Wellness puts some of our regular WITS programming on display, while also modifying the content to make sure it is relevant for the audience at this moment. WITS National Program Director Marion Williams, who produces the show, said that, “before developing an episode idea we always ask ourselves ‘What do the people need right now?’” This aspect of the show comes through clearly. The food that is cooked in episodes of A Bite of Wellness is always in season, featuring Green Market tours and local produce. Currently, during the cold winter months, we have featured a series on immunity, and ways you can incorporate immunity boosting ingredients into your diet. It’s not just a cooking show.

To Ricardo and Marion, A Bite of Wellness is all about accessibility. They know that in order to make cooking accessible, they need to show how to access the ingredients. There are multiple episodes of A Bite of Wellness that start in farmers markets. Marion and Ricardo have been to so many farmers markets in their WITS regalia that they are now recognized by market patrons! Farmers market episodes explain how one can use EBT and Pandemic EBT to pay for fresh produce at GrowNYC markets, and how to ask questions about the produce. By demystifying the farmers market and showing alternative ways to pay, Ricardo and Marion have made it easier for Bronx residents to access healthy ingredients and cook delicious meals.

This isn’t only empowering to viewers, but to Marion and Ricardo as well. Marion said that, “What A Bite of Wellness allowed us to do was to engage our communities and to see families in the Bronx at farmers markets to let them know that we are still here. Even though we have not been going into their schools in person, we’re still here…we’re still doing this work.”

To see the work for yourself, tune into BronxNet’s BX Inform channel (channel 70 on Optimum, 36 on Fios, or the live stream link here) on Monday at 6:30 PM ET. If you want to view clips or full episodes that have already aired then check out the A Bite of Wellness Youtube channel.

Well Earned Wellness Workshops

When school buildings closed nearly one year ago, many people feared the impact it would have on food accessibility – millions of students depend on school meals for at least one of their meals a day. Although school buildings remained closed for learning for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year, many of them opened their doors to act as feeding centers. School food managers, cooks, and staff from the Office of Food & Nutrition Services (OFNS) in NYC became frontline heroes, putting their own health at risk to keep New York City’s children and community fed.

Wellness in the Schools created Wellness Camp: Taking Care of You, in partnership with OFNS to support school managers and cooks as they continued to work daily to feed children in NYC, whether in school or not. The Wellness Camp – which was co-designed by NYC school cooks themselves – teaches tips for mindfulness and personal health, to help school cooks take care of themselves so that they can better take care of others. The classes introduce simple at-home recipes,fitness activities and breathing techniques.

Wellness Camp is a six workshop series, 100% virtual. Each workshop is driven by the five senses, where we teach mindfulness techniques and holistic health strategies that can be used to mitigate the stress that comes with working on the frontlines of this pandemic.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the first workshop in October, which focused on the sense of sight. WITS Chefs Rebecca Johnson and Victoria Baluk led the class by discussing the importance of sight in the scope of wellness. “Before we eat what’s on our plate, we see it. One of the best things we can do for our health is eat a variety of fruits and vegetables that come in many different colors,” Rebecca instructed. 

Next, Rebecca demonstrated how to make overnight oats and all of the ways that we can customize it to make it to suit our tastes, while also being a healthy and filling breakfast that you can take on the go. 

Chef Victoria then led everyone through a stretching routine that was devised specifically for school cooks. Hours of leaning over counters and looking down at cutting boards when preparing food can create a good deal of muscular tension and soreness. We therefore began with simple wrist stretches. Cooks also spend much of their day standing, which takes a toll on the body. Taking small stretch breaks throughout the day mitigates the soreness cooks often experience, and also allows them to set aside time for their own wellness. Chef Victoria reminded attendees that, “it’s important to breathe mindfully as you stretch, it makes the stretching easier but it also makes the stretching become a form of moving meditation.”

At the end of the session, Chef Rebecca reminded everyone that, “how we see things is often determined by our mindset,” bringing back the connection between sight and our overall well being. The school food chefs in attendance left rejuvenated. One cook stated, “I am constantly thinking about the job. I have dreams about it, but this training helps me turn off my brain.” Another attendee said, “I feel that these workshops show that people outside the kitchen really care about us.” Stephen O’Brien, the Director of Strategic Partnerships for OFNS said, “Our kitchen staff have done an exceptional job under exceptional circumstances and deserve our support. This training is one way that we can do that.”

What does Wellness in the Schools see for the future of Wellness Camps? We will grow the Camps and expand them to other districts, as well as outside of the cook space. On the coach side, Wellness in the Schools will host Wellness Bootcamps; sessions similar to Wellness Camp that are designed for those providing physical activity in schools (or virtually). We have also received requests from principals to host wellness sessions with their teachers. In short, we see ourselves spreading wellness wherever needed.

As for what Wellness Camp means to us, Rebecca put it best, “Wellness Camps are a phenomenal opportunity to provide some of NYC’s most essential workers with tools to keep themselves well at the most critical time of our generation, during a pandemic. We all remember the tremendous impact of Cook Camps, so to be invited back into OFNS kitchens virtually in support of frontline worker’s wellness goals is nothing short of magical. It’s humbling after all these years, to still be together with school food service managers and cooks cooking, moving, breathing and laughing. I see it as a wellness community that even these socially distanced times could not separate.”

Sakara Life’s Superfood Cookie Dough Bites

Sakara Life, one of our Chef Partners, has graciously included a delicious and easy recipe for ‘Superfood Cookie Dough Bites.’ Sakara Life specializes in delicious, organic meals delivered to your home or office. They are also some of our biggest cheerleaders, and we are so grateful for their partnership. They will be donating a percentage of their proceeds to Wellness in the Schools on Giving Tuesday, so please keep an eye out! 

Superfood Cookie Dough Bites

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup almond butter
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup coconut flour
  • 3 tablespoons flaxseed meal
  • 1/4 teaspoon Himalayan salt
  • 1/4 cup cacao nibs
  • 2 tablespoons hemp seeds
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut

Directions:

  1. In a large bowl, stir together the almond butter, maple syrup, and vanilla until creamy. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, flaxseed meal, and salt.
  2. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix well to combine. Use the back of your spoon to work in the cacao nibs. Use your hands to roll the dough into 1-inch (2.5 cm) balls.
  3. In a small bowl or on a plate, mix together the hemp seeds and shredded coconut. Roll each ball in mixture until fully coated. Refrigerate the bites for at least 30 minutes before serving. Store leftovers in the fridge for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 1 month.

Alexia Brue, WITS Board Member and Well+Good Co-Founder

Alexia Brue is the co-founder of Well+Good, a lifestyle media company devoted to health and wellness that reaches over 15 million people a month across its website, email newsletters, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and various other channels. 

She officially joined the Wellness in the Schools Board of Directors in early 2020, after years of supporting our organization. Her extensive experience in content creation, marketing, communications, and partnerships makes her such a valuable member of our team. The following is a lightly edited interview.  

WITS: Please share with us why you entered the wellness space.

AB:  We started Well+Good in 2009 as a media company focused on the wellness lifestyle that was emerging around that time. Before the wellness movement really picked up steam, healthy eating was thought of as punitive, not as delicious; working out was to get a flat belly instead of working out to make yourself feel great, and for your mental health. So, we were a part of that paradigm shift of wellness being seen as a fun, social, joyful, and accessible lifestyle. 

We know that food is a huge part of feeling energetic and focused. Nutrition is the bedrock and foundation of a healthy lifestyle. You can be exercising, sleeping well, meditating, doing all these different beneficial practices, but if your nutrition isn’t serving you well, you don’t get the full benefits. With my own children, I really see first-hand how from a young age there are so many cultural and societal forces at work making it hard for children to eat nutritiously. We’ve seen how making the healthier choice has become more convenient and more affordable, but we still have a long way to go. 

WITS: Did you have this intuitive sense that ‘wellness’ would become the booming industry that it is today?

AB: My cofounder and I had been covering wellness–all facets of the lifestyle, from fitness and food to financial and mental wellness—and the experts in this space for so long, so it didn’t seem as niche to us as it seemed to other people. I still think the wellness industry is in its very early early days and ultimately it’ll just be synonymous with life. Nancy [Easton] talks about how at some happy juncture in the future WITS will be obsolete because everything WITS teaches will be part of the system. We feel the same way about Well+Good. 

 WITS: The “business of wellness” has been criticized in the past for seeming like it’s catering to a certain demographic. We’d be curious to know – what does wellness mean to you? 

AB: Like you are saying, wellness is a $4.5 trillion dollar industry. It has been commodified in a lot of ways. But for us, from the beginning at W+G, wellness was always about practices, not products. Practices such as walking, yoga, running, all types of exercise, meditation, sleeping well, cooking. These are all accessible practices that create a wellness lifestyle and are financially accessible. It’s as simple as having a pair of running shoes and a yoga mat. Wellbeing is someone’s birthright, and wellness is how we get there. The other stuff is window dressing, you know? No-one needs to go to SoulCycle. No-one needs a $12 green juice. 

WITS: How did you get involved with WITS? 

AB: Nancy and I have friends in common, and we met four or so years ago and I immediately fell in love with her and wanted to help the organization however I could. I was really familiar with Wellness in the Schools already; there was a lot of overlap in terms of core values between W+G and WITS.  

Also, children’s nutrition is an area that I feel increasingly passionate about. And as my kids have gotten older, I’ve gotten more interested in how food is at the center of what it means to be healthy. I love what Wellness in the Schools is doing, and seeing how the WITS Programming intersects with Scratchworks. And I love the holistic vision of nutrition and fitness together.  

WITS: You recently got to see our video work in-person at the Met, right? 

AB: Yes, it was really awesome and inspiring to see the team at work! COVID-19 hit right when I was about to go to the schools to see a Lab, so, it was great to get to go to the Met and finally meet Marion and see the content being created. Chef Ricardo was making a cauliflower soup that looked amazing, and I can’t wait to try the recipe. 

WITS: What is one thing that excites you about our work?

AB: I love how WITS celebrates school chefs, and gives them the support and recognition they need and deserve to do their jobs well. And, of course, the WITS Labs. I love how the Labs take wholesome ingredients and unpack them nutritionally, and then include hands-on education of how to cook and create something delicious with them. It’s education that doesn’t come up in the regular curriculum.  In my opinion, we should be teaching kids nutrition the same way we’re teaching history. 

 WITS: What are your favorite ways to stay active?

AB: I enjoy hiking, running, paddleboarding and weightlifting.  

WITS: Favorite healthy snack? 

AB: Air-popped popcorn with nutritional yeast!