Three Generations of RDNs

Each March we celebrate National Nutrition Month, a campaign by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics dedicated to educating on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits. 

At Wellness in the Schools, nutrition and fitness education are at the heart of our vision to ensure access to nourishing food and active play in public schools. To make the month extra special, we hosted a conversation with three nutrition experts whom Wellness in the Schools is lucky to work with every day and who provide their training and insight to many students, patients, and community members daily. 

Listen below to our conversation with Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN (WITS Board Member); Ricardo Díaz, RDN (WITS Chef/Program Manager); and Tiffany Wei, a Dietetic Intern who worked with us this spring. 

Garden to Café in the Sunshine State

On the school grounds of Charles R. Drew K–8 Center in South Florida, you’ll find all the expected scenes: students skipping with excitement between classes, student-painted murals along the walls, and students eagerly participating in classrooms and clubs. Another image powerfully forms this school’s ethos: students working in and harvesting from the garden, a green haven in the courtyard students frequently pass through. 

WITS Chef Leonor has worked alongside these students for 8 years leading hands-on garden education experiences as well as culinary and nutrition education lessons in the classroom, with WITS Labs like Roasted Potatoes and Potato Salad earning high praise from students. 

This year, students are connecting their science lessons with WITS Chef Leonor’s instruction to learn more about the plants they are tasting. Mrs. Richelene Joseph, Drew’s Science Coach, explains, “The students understand how valuable it is to have a garden at the school site. Students can visualize and make connections with the life science topics covered in class by observing the garden outdoors; we recently studied how we could eat all the parts of a plant and went to the garden to look at the different parts, like the seeds.” 

Triplet students showing off rosemary harvested from the school garden

Some of the students’ favorite seeds they planted in prior seasons are now becoming the produce they can observe and pick, with herbs growing in abundance and even some papayas in the mix. Most recently, WITS Chef Leonor led the students in a tomato tasting as they ripened on their vines in the garden, with one fourth-grader expressing, “The taste of tomatoes is dancing in my mouth!” Green onions and rosemary were ready to pick this spring as well, and students got their hands in the dirt to harvest the produce just in time for their WITS Roasted Potato and Potato Salad Labs. 

The WITS Potato Labs quickly became a favorite among students, with the combination of potatoes and fresh ingredients like rosemary and green onions from the garden cementing students’ interest in plants and how food grows. In the WITS Lab, students are encouraged to get hands-on with the ingredients just as they are in the garden, learning to strip the rosemary leaves off the stem to make the delicious seasoning for the potatoes. The classroom is a buzz of newfound knowledge. As the recipe is being prepared, WITS Chef Leonor talks to students about the nutritional and medicinal power of herbs. One student shared, “I did not know herbs are so magic. They smell, taste, and look delicious!” 

Once the potatoes have finished roasting in the mini oven, WITS Chef Leonor takes them out and the classrooms’ attention is drawn to the tray of perfectly-seasoned potatoes. The students’ voices are quiet while samples are passed out and the first bites are taken, but only for a moment — the excited voices return instantly to say, “This is the best recipe in the world!” And the best part of all is the student involvement every step of the way, from garden to café.

WITS Roasted Potato Lab with Rosemary

WITS Play Day Empowers a New School

Wellness in the Schools Play Days are known to draw excited crowds: from the outdoor recess yard of CS 55 in the Bronx to the classroom and auditorium takeovers at West Prep Academy in Manhattan and PS 160 in Queens, the energy is abundant. The WITS Play Day itself is a celebration, as WITS schools “win” the special event by demonstrating the most consistent participation in daily fitness breaks. 

This year, Wellness in the Schools began its programming at a new school in the Bronx: Samara Community School. Samara is a Spanish/English Dual Language elementary school serving around 300 students. In September, WITS Coach Errol Jones eagerly introduced himself to the students and staff, knowing it could take time before WITS programming became a staple in the school environment. 

Day by day, students became more familiar with the daily fitness breaks, looking forward to physical activity and the fun classroom games WITS Coach Errol taught them. By the spring, the entire school’s participation in daily fitness breaks was outstanding and so many classes were signing on to move together that they won a WITS Play Day! 

If you have ever found yourself in a classroom of excited elementary students, it’s hard to imagine anything that could top that energy level. In this April’s Play Day, the energy multiplied over and over again in Samara’s auditorium as groups of students participated in yoga and Zumba. 

A group of kindergarteners learning yoga 

Most groups of students who walked into the auditorium were eager but shy, watching the instructors with awe but still a little nervous about moving around in the space. Yogi Beans instructor Caitlin Borek led students through a series of stretches: Be a Cat! A cow! Into downward dog! Students explored their balance in the Eagle Pose, and giggles started spreading around the room with the fun challenge of staying upright on one leg. As students’ confidence increased, Caitlin led the room through guided positive affirmations, having everyone repeat after her: 

“Put your hands on your head and say I am very smart.” I am very smart!

“Hands on your heart and say I am very kind.” I am very kind! 

“Hands on your legs and say I am very strong.” I am very strong!

With a room full of brave voices, yoga turned into Zumba, and students jumped up to dance to music. Song after song, students learned new dance moves and invented their own moves, too. Samara’s Principal Danielle Derrig joined in with her students during Zumba, dancing along and proudly watching her students express creativity on the dance floor. 

Yoga pose by yoga pose, dance step by dance step, hundreds of students learned to express themselves through movement and having fun with their classmates. These eager students will return to classrooms more inspired, focused, and ready to engage with all the new lessons elementary school will bring them.

Salad Bar Stories

As the first school year of our Chefs in the Schools culinary training and menu development initiative nears its end, we look back on some of the favorite memories shared by our WITS Chefs. A team of 72 strong this year, WITS Chefs have been a wonderful presence in kitchens, cafeterias, and classrooms across all NYC boroughs, providing training to cooks, nutrition education to students, and sharing the joy of nourishing food with the entire school community. Salad bars in cafeterias have been the location of pivotal change for Wellness in the Schools’ students this year as they try new foods, gain confidence, and build the healthy habits that will help them to thrive. We would like to highlight some of these stories below. 

WITS Chef Benjamin Dawson with OFNS Cook Yvonne at PS 244, Brooklyn

“My favorite WITS memory so far is from my very first school; there was a fourth grader I noticed right away, he was very bright and sweet, a bit overweight, seemed to get picked on a bit, and often ate lunch alone. I started interacting with him daily, talking about food and nutrition, making him special salads and new recipes, and encouraging him to try different veggies. I’d go sit with him and get his review of the day’s lunch, and just generally treated him like a VIP. Before I knew it he started serving himself a big salad every day, gaining confidence, and little by little when I’d go visit his table other kids saw the fun we were having and started to join us at lunch. By the end of the rotation he was eating healthy, and he was eating with a bunch of his new friends.  Little things like these are why WITS is truly meaningful work.” – WITS Chef Benjamin Dawson

One of my favorite comments from a student has been, “The salad bar looks so sunny!” Another student told me they wanted to try what other kids were eating on the salad bar, learned her favorite was the Cucumber Strawberry Salad, and over time tried so many different salad bar items every day. I love listening to their feedback and being a part of their neighborhood.” – WITS Chef Isabel Ramirez-Inniss 

WITS Chef Chandala Waters at PS 128, Manhattan 

“Working here, I’ve found that my favorite recipe and food is kale salad. I love seeing the kids’ faces when they try the new recipes and like them. So far, the Pineapple Rice Medley and Kale Salad Recipes are big favorites!” – WITS Chef Chandala Waters

“I love this job because I’m able to have a tangible impact on the very schools and communities I grew up in while cooking dishes that reflect the cultures I’ve grown up around. I enjoy creating different from scratch dressings/marinades made with culturally inspired spices and flavors. My favorite item to put on the salad bar has been marinated kale!” – WITS Chef Fanerra Dupree 

“I think my favorite part of the job is when the kids call me ‘the salad lady’ or try something new from the service line and come back to let me know they really liked it. They loved having a taste of kale chips!” WITS Chef Enoemma Cruz

WITS Chef Michael Singh-Hulse at Midwood High School, Brooklyn

“I joined Wellness in the Schools because I remember walking past the salad bar every day in public school, not knowing what any of the vegetables were. It brings me joy to see a student trying a new vegetable now and coming back to the salad bar the following day.”– WITS Chef Michael Singh-Hulse 

WITS Chef Khadejah Kizer at PS 15, Brooklyn

My favorite foods to cook are those that challenge my creativity as a Chef and use new ingredients — I always tell myself, ‘I will try everything at least twice!’ and encourage my students to do the same. One of my favorite moments as a WITS Chef came after I spent a week making Kale Salad dressings from scratch to complement the specials of the day. The kitchen staff initially believed it wouldn’t be received well based on the past, but encouraged me to try anyhow. When I came back the next week, I was told that students and staff were asking for the Chef and looking forward to my return as they’d had an amazing reception to the recipes the previous week!” – WITS Chef Khadejah Kizer

“I love making culturally relevant foods from scratch and ensuring access to healthy fresh food for the children in my neighborhood. I depended on school breakfast and lunch as a child, so it brings me joy to see them line up for the salad bar and choose fresh vegetables. … One of my favorite moments was at P.S. 57, where school staff were all looking for me — and asked me to please make some more dressing from scratch! The Honey Vinaigrette dressing was enjoyed by kids, staff, and everyone. I was so proud and happy the kids were enjoying homemade salad dressing, something most of them have never had.” – WITS Chef Janelle Mitchell 

Read more stories from WITS Chefs on our Instagram @wellnessintheschools.

A Health-Supportive Tidbit: The Gut-Brain Connection

By Tiffany Wei, RDN

 

Do you ever feel the “butterfly” in your stomach when you’re nervous? Do you ever experience a reduced appetite when you’re feeling down on one of those days? Maybe you have come across a TikTok video or a headline on this mysterious connection between our gut and brain. So what exactly is this connection that’s been so hyped? 

Did you know that there is indeed a close connection between our brain and the digestive tract? Our guts and brains can communicate with each other – this is known as the gut-brain connection. The brain sends signals to the digestive tract to control the speed of digestion, nutrient absorption, and level of inflammation. On the other hand, our guts are lined with nerve cells that produce 95% of the serotonin in our bodies — a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, appetite, and mood. As a result, what our digestive tract experiences during and after meals will “talk back” to our brains, and affect our mood and emotions.

An essential “manager” of our gut health is the microbiome, a community of good and bad bacteria that coexist in the gut. The good bacteria in our microbiome play a critical role in our health by:

  • Protecting the lining of the gut from harmful toxins and “bad” bacteria 
  • Reducing inflammation and improving nutrient absorption 
  • Activating the direct neural pathways between the gut and brain

The presence of good bacteria impacts the functions of the neural cells lining the digestive tract, and their production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Because there is limited surface area for both good and bad bacteria to proliferate in our guts, it is important to boost the good bacteria and reduce the bad.

How can we do that? This is when prebiotics come into play. Prebiotics are a type of fiber that is not easily digested until it reaches our small intestines. They specifically feed the good bacteria and help them thrive, limiting the space for bad bacteria to grow. When the good bacteria consume the prebiotics, the good bacteria produce a variety of compounds beneficial to our health, including short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), hydrogen, methane, carbon dioxide, and lactate. 

SCFA in particular helps fuel our brain and muscles, enhances vitamin and mineral absorption in the digestive tract, and boosts our immunity. Additionally, SCFA creates a challenging environment for bad bacteria, inhibiting their growth. A win-win situation!

What exactly should we eat to improve our gut health and elevate our mood? Prebiotics generally come from a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, including:

Looking for more food for thought? Here are some suggestions for happy brain food:

We would love to share with you our favorite happy gut-brain recipes to make at home!

  • Jollof Cauliflower with the main ingredient cauliflower rich in a type of prebiotic fiber called inulin, which helps feed the good bacteria in our gut.
  • Ginger Kale Salad uses kale–a dark leafy green–that is rich in brain power-enhancing nutrients, such as lutein, folate, and beta-carotene.
  • Berry Power Water helps us keep hydrated and provides us with anthocyanin from berries, which is a type of antioxidant that helps improve our memory.

Of course, these are just some examples. A general rule of thumb is to include:

  • Fresh veggies or fruits rich in dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals (at least 5 servings/day)
  • Whole grains high in dietary fiber (3-4 servings/day)
  • Animal-based protein (e.g. salmon, tuna) or plant-based protein (e.g. nuts and seeds) high in omega-3 fatty acids (2-3 servings/day)

When considering servings, the serving size of your meals is also important to make sure we are not eating too much of any particular food. For a handy guide to portion sizes, we can estimate serving sizes and compare them to the foods we eat using our own hands:  

Make your gut and brain happy and healthy!

It’s a Family Affair

 

Our team of WITS Chefs is 72 strong this year, working in kitchens and classrooms, training and educating on recipes and nutrition. 60 WITS Chefs in our Chefs in the Schools culinary training program join 12 WITS Chefs from our Cook for Kids Flagship program. All are skilled and passionate individuals with backgrounds spanning work in New York City’s best restaurants to establishments of their own. All are working in or near the neighborhoods where they live, training kitchen staff and serving students who walk the same streets they do. But a few bring something even more special to the WITS workplace: the bond of a sister, a mother, and a daughter! 

Meet two very special pairs of WITS Chefs: sisters Alexis and Patricia Rosa, and mother/daughter Rhonda Ferguson and Arisha Miller.

From left to right: WITS Chef Alexis Rosa, Patricia Rosa, Rhonda Ferguson, and Arisha Miller.

The bond among these pairs of chefs is inspirational both in and out of the school kitchens. For the Rosa sisters, it was Patricia who joined the Wellness in the Schools team first and she wouldn’t stop talking to her sister about her love for her work Alexis remarked, “I was hesitant at first, as I was on another path in my career. But, hearing about the mission, it was impossible for me to not sign up for this opportunity!” 

Both have kickstarted incredibly memorable career paths at this organization. WITS Chef Patricia’s expertise in the public school kitchens of Staten Island is nothing short of stellar. She crafts strong relationships with the Cook-in-Charge at each school kitchen, teaches knife skills like a pro, and brings the salad bar to life. Her signature Arugula and Tomato Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette is a student favorite. It is both decadently delicious and is a simple recipe that students can make at home, with their families. 

Across a few bridges to the Bronx, WITS Chef Alexis Rosa knows a thing or two about making salad bars a sensation. Her interest in experimenting with different ingredients led her to work both in catering for weddings and then as a Chef at Facebook (along with her sister), where the menu rotated daily. Now a WITS Chef, one of her favorite moments in a school so far has been refreshing the salad bar experience and watching students line up to take salad in numbers. To their delight, these are numbers the staff had never seen before. Alexis laughs, sharing that the salad bar magic and other shenanigans come from the fact that she and Patricia “have worked together our entire career and we love it; we feed off each other so much. We help each other out with any challenges we come across in schools, and my sister gives me the encouragement I need to put myself out there more and interact with the students and kitchen staff with ease (I’m the more laid-back of us two). We also send each other photos daily of the work we do in these kitchens to inspire each other since we can’t actually be side by side.” 

WITS Chef Alexis Rosa prepares the salad bar at New Settlement, Bronx

Though the sisters work in boroughs across the city from each other, that doesn’t stop them from making time to be together outside of work. From each “Good morning!” check-in to planning of what to do, eat, cook, and weekend plans, the two weave in and out of food and family chatter, nimble and nourishing. Birthdays and holidays are celebrated with Alexis and her two children and Patricia — who is more of a mother figure than an aunt to the kids — right alongside the bunch. Just as Alexis counts it “a blessing to be a part of this mission providing students with healthy, delicious food that will nourish them,” add sisterhood to that list!

WITS Chefs Rhonda Ferguson and Arisha Miller attending Chefs in the Schools Mayoral Launch in October 2023

WITS Chef Arisha Miller comes to Wellness in the Schools from the intersection of culinary, food, and nutrition. Growing up in Guyana, Arisha observed the work her mother, Rhonda Ferguson, put into the restaurant she owned: Rhonda’s Spicy Kitchen. The restaurant was always a whirl of spices and scratch-cooked recipes. Arisha’s love for food and skill of cooking stayed with her through high school. This love drove her to earn a degree in Culinary and Baking & Pastry Arts, learning the science behind food and what it can do for you. Arisha said, “It all clicked when I realized that our eating habits start as a child and things like illness and disease can be easily prevented and reversed in their early stage with good food.” And, it was daughter Arisha who showed her role model and mother the way this time. Rhonda joined Wellness in the Schools after Arisha shared her stories.

Rhonda and Arisha have built incredible relationships in and out of the kitchen, and now infuse their joy for food into schools across the Brooklyn borough. WITS Program Manager Laurielle Clark highlights Arisha as “a treat to have in the kitchen,” with endless recipe inspiration for the school cooks she works with. “With her persistence, hard work, patience, and a ‘get it done’ spirit, Arisha creates an atmosphere for the kitchens to thrive in.” Rhonda, too, utilizes her knowledge of running a restaurant as well as teaching culinary arts in after-school programs to implement side-by-side training with school cooks that is uplifting and engaging. Outside of work, the two always find time to bond and hang out either baking at home, cooking, watching a movie, or just hanging out. With the many wins and challenges that come with this work, Arisha and Rhonda add that this close bond “makes us able to discuss our goals and give each other valuable advice, making the school kitchen experience comfortable and fun!”

New WITS Lab: Pineapple Rice Medley

 

A new WITS Lab has premiered to students all across the country this year: Pineapple Rice Medley. 

Thanks to our Chefs in the Schools program and NYC’s inaugural Chef Council, Pineapple Rice Medley is one of many new recipes on NYC’s public school lunch menu. It’s also the first of three new WITS Labs this year that Wellness in the Schools has created for students through our traditional flagship programming model. These WITS Labs highlight a “star of the show” ingredient from a recipe and dive deep into the nutrition, history, seasonality, and connection to the cafeteria for students. Chef Council member Tyler Ranson of Sakara Life developed this Pineapple Rice Medley recipe that adds fruit, vegetables, and whole grains to students’ plates. 

To design the Pineapple Rice Medley Lab, a team of WITS Chefs, Lab Instructors, and Managers translate the recipe into an experience for students in the classroom. The logistics of making a recipe in a school kitchen versus a classroom are different; in the classroom, chefs set up a table display of all of the recipe’s ingredients and then give students the ownership to make the recipe themselves. In the Lab, we highlight the star ingredient, brown rice. We talk about the benefits of whole grains, what a whole grain is and its many varieties, how it helps our digestion, and how it has a nutty flavor. We introduce the other ingredients: sweet pineapple, crunchy string beans, carrots, peas, corn and a zesty seasoning of soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. We give students a “chef’s job” of chopping string beans and allow them to add spices to the pot and help mix up the recipe. 

Each step of the lesson plan gives students a hands-on fun, engaging, and safe experience with a recipe. WITS Chef and Program Manager Cait Olesky works on developing WITS Lab lesson plans and remarked, “It’s amazing to see the entire process from just the beginning idea, to the modifications to a classroom setting and a home recipe in the recipe cards students take home, to seeing it play out in class and having students actively participate and love the end result.” 

In October, this excitement was ready to be put into action with Pineapple Rice Medley being prepared and tasted by students. WITS Lab Instructor Victoria Baluk observed that this Lab piqued students’ curiosity with so many interesting ingredients in one dish and was a perfect opportunity for her to teach the concept of “Eating the Rainbow” to the students. She explained, “The ingredients are so colorful — carrots, peas, corn, green beans, and pineapple — making the dish visually exciting and something where they could gobble up almost every color.”

Students at PS 132M help a WITS Chef prepare the Pineapple Rice Medley recipe

The star ingredient, brown rice, proved to be another favorite of students. WITS Chef, Program Manager, and RDN Ricardo Díaz pointed out that rice is a staple ingredient of multiple cultural cuisines, so students could explore a new variety of a dish they might encounter outside of school. “Students enjoyed learning about and smelling the seasonings we used, and most were drawn to taste the rice of its garnish of pineapples,” Ricardo said. “The middle school students in particular appreciated hearing how they could use leftover rice and a few staple ingredients at home to make this recipe into a side dish or as part of their main meal.” 

WITS Chef Yamilet Limonta taught her first-ever day of WITS Lab classes with this recipe at PS 75 in Manhattan this fall, remarking that “no amount of pre-planning or training can prepare you for the absolute overwhelming excitement from little ones who just learned that they’re going to eat a recipe that has fruit and vegetables in it!”

A PS 75M student in WITS Labs receives an “I tried it!” sticker for her sampling of the Pineapple Rice Medley

Meet WITS Coach Kit Greenberg

 

Over the summer, we welcomed Kit Greenberg to Wellness in the Schools. A force of kindness and charisma, Kit’s background and experiences are the perfect match for the WITS team: varsity diving at a national level, a Master’s degree in sports leadership underway, and a knack for visual art, among many other creative pursuits. She is thriving as a WITS Coach this school year and becoming a role model for many young students in NYC’s public schools. We are thrilled to introduce you to Kit in a lightly edited interview below. 

What brought you to Wellness in the Schools?

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a Marketing Degree, I immediately started my Master’s in Sports Leadership while interning as a strength and conditioning coach. I was an athlete throughout my life, specifically diving for Wisconsin. I value physical activity immensely and continuously see how the benefits are highly dimensional. As a long-time follower of Wellness in the Schools, I saw firsthand how Nancy has created sustainable changes throughout NYC and across the country. I wanted to be a part of that. 

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

Wellness isn’t limited to one thing. Wellness is a holistic integration of fueling the body, the mind, and the soul. I have always valued wellness greatly in my personal life. Each day I prioritize a culmination of activities that feel authentic to me. Whether that’s working out, cold plunging & sweating in a sauna, fueling my body through nutritious food, spending time with loved ones, or drawing & painting, I live my life by doing what brings me joy. I thank my mom for instilling that in me from an early age #whatbringsyoujoy. It is a privilege that I get to incorporate activities surrounded by like-minded passionate people. I am energized by my community and by the world of wellness. 

Recently graduated, you have spent a lot of time both in school and as a varsity athlete. What have you learned about balancing the two, and what advice would you give younger students who want to follow in your footsteps?

As a high-performing athlete, other sectors of life can fall to feeling unbalanced. It can start to feel like to live a balanced life, you have to sacrifice other areas, never maximizing your potential. Instead of succumbing to this idea, we can recognize it. Paying attention to what fulfills you can help you insert routines that take advantage of your strengths. You start to cultivate positive habits that require little energy, giving you more time to focus on the tasks you know you need to accomplish and even who you wish to become. 

I knew that some days were harder than others. It’s not easy. No one is saying it is. Recognize that as well. Take time to think about who you want to be and create an environment that energizes that idea. I found that surrounding myself with loved ones, carving out parts of the day to be alone, trying to walk into practice or work with energy and a smile no matter how I was feeling, as well as giving myself at least one ‘treat’ a day was crucial to my happiness. That ‘treat’ ranged from an almond milk latte and vegan cookie to treatment with Stef, my amazing athletic trainer at Wisconsin. It’s little things that make you smile amongst the crazy.

What project are you most looking forward to at Wellness in the Schools? Share a moment so far that you’re excited about building on in 2024. 

There isn’t one project I can pinpoint. Rather, I am regularly excited to give these kids more time to play and have fun. Promoting an environment that allows them to do that is important to me. It’s truly a gift when I see their faces light up when I walk into their classroom each week. Building a sustainable emphasis on physical and mental wellness in collaboration with nutritious food through wellness councils, committees, and events is the big picture. 

What is your favorite wellness practice?

In 2024 I have committed to stretching at least 10-15 minutes every day. I started incorporating it after my nightly 30-minute sauna. I’m trying to cold plunge a little too! 

What’s your favorite workout?

SoulCycle with a mixture of weightlifting and maybe a little pilates or even hot yoga! I love it all. The fitness community I have is the biggest part of it. 

What is your favorite meal or healthy snack to make?

I’m a BIG breakfast food girl. Avocado toast with eggs and Truff hot sauce is a go-to. Can’t go wrong with a doctored-up oatmeal or large breakfast burrito either. 

School Food Policy Perspective

 

On January 16, Mayor Eric Adams released his Preliminary Budget for FY25. We are encouraged to hear that cuts aren’t as dire as were proposed in his November budget. 

However, if the mayor’s proposed budget cuts to school food remain, it will directly impact school meals and undercut our efforts to improve school nutrition with our new Chefs in the Schools initiative–a partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy and the Department of Education’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS).

Just over one year ago we celebrated the formation of the inaugural NYC Chef Council. That council developed 100 scratch-cooked, plant-forward, and culturally inclusive recipes for NYC public school children. In June, we celebrated the launch of the first-ever Food Education Roadmap at PS 75 in Manhattan, to support increased participation in such meals. And, in October, we gathered together at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in East Harlem with more than 100 Wellness in the Schools Chefs and NYC Cook Ambassadors, in their chef coats, to launch Chefs in the Schools, our training program to support NYC school cooks in the preparation of these delicious and nutritious meals.

Since then, children all over NYC have seen an increase in scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally inclusive recipes such as the Kidney Bean Rajma, Pineapple Rice Medley, Jollof Cauliflower, Kachumber Salad, and so many more prepared by NYC school cooks. Simultaneously, NYC school cooks are being taught culinary skills and learning efficiencies to prepare scratch-cooked meals. 

Until now. This menu which was developed through thoughtful partnership, with input from children and parents from all over NYC, is being replaced with processed heat-and-serve menu items, derailing the momentum that has been building for more than two years. These cuts are confusing for children and directly impact their health. The loss of positive momentum will be felt in the classroom, on the playground, in the gym, and in all aspects of children’s lives, as the impact of a healthy meal can go a very long way. And, unfortunately, the converse is all too true, as we witness high rates of diet-related illnesses, impacting even the youngest New Yorkers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 39% of our public school children in grades K through 8 are overweight or obese.

In the 2023-24 school year student participation in school meals has increased, higher than pre-pandemic numbers. Increased student participation will now only hurt the Office of Food and Nutrition Services as they will not only not be reimbursed for those meals, but will now have to make cuts to the menu that compromise the integrity of our innovative, new program and decrease the frequency of nutritious, scratch-cooked meals on children’s plates. 

The budget cuts are hitting school children where it matters most and we are deeply concerned. Wellness in the Schools is already leveraging private dollars to continue to develop and test new recipes, as we will not lose momentum. Private dollars, however, are limited and our city, our public school children, need to be able to rely on public funding to support healthy school meals that can lead to improved learning outcomes and a lifetime of healthy eating habits.

72 New Chefs Bring Culinary Training to NYC Public Schools

 

After nearly two decades of Wellness in the School’s programming in select schools throughout New York City, we have officially embarked on a public-private partnership with the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS) and the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, called Chefs in the Schools. In the last month and a half, the vision of Chefs in the Schools has turned into reality, with WITS Chefs and OFNS school cooks working side-by-side in school kitchens across the city. 

The three-year initiative began last year with the launch of New York City’s first-ever Chef Council, composed of celebrated chefs, culinary industry professionals, and food activists. Our Chef Council created 100 delicious scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes, six of which are featured on the Fall NYC public school menu —  Jollof Cauliflower, Kachumber Salad, Pineapple Rice Medley, Roasted Adobo Chickpeas, Caribbean Spiced Jerk Chicken Thigh, and Sofrito Rice — and will continue to be featured throughout the school year. 

WITS Chefs bring their smiles, spirit, and skills to school kitchens

This year, we onboarded and trained 72 WITS Chefs. Beginning on the first day of school, September 7th, 60 WITS Chefs began our innovative side-by-side training program in NYC public school cafeterias throughout the city. 12 WITS Chefs will continue implementing the traditional WITS Flagship programming model in a select number of schools, inspiring the school’s wellness culture as a whole with work in both the kitchen and in classrooms, teaching WITS Labs and WITS BITS (cooking and nutrition education classes). 

This phase of Chefs in the Schools will take place over two years, with WITS Chefs training NYC public school cooks on how to create the new Chef Council recipes in addition to culinary skills such as scratch cooking, batch cooking, mise en place, storage and organization, and the why behind our work to increase scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant meals in public school cafeterias. 

To officially launch the Chefs in the Schools initiative, on October 3rd NYC Mayor Eric Adams and Chancellor David Banks welcomed an audience of WITS Chefs and staff, OFNS Cook Ambassadors, OFNS and DOE leadership, educators, and many members of City Hall and the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy. Speaking to the crowd, Mayor Adams said: “What we are doing, around food, this whole team — it’s so bold, and when people talk about reimagining schools, they don’t really focus on the power of food.”

He recognized the work that Wellness in the Schools has done in public schools across the city and the importance of our partnership during these many years. When speaking about the Chefs in the Schools program, Mayor Adams noted the value of having WITS Chefs in school cafeterias, saying, “Just the look — the jackets, the caps — that alone is going to tell children something different is happening here.”

Chancellor Banks also recognizes how critical it is to train food service workers and noted the innovative nature of Chefs in the Schools. He said, “When we think about professional development in our schools it’s always been about teachers and reading and math. A level of significant professional development for our food service workers to take their work to another level — that’s never been done before. Not like this!”

The impact of the Chefs in the Schools initiative is immense and felt among students, chefs, and OFNS workers alike. Children across the city are noticing the new menu items in their schools. WITS Chef Heidy Morales at South Bronx Prep sees first-hand how important culturally relevant food is for kids in NYC schools. Recognizing that representation matters, she said, “The day Jollof Cauliflower was on the menu, the kids were open to trying it. Talking across the line I learned a lot of the students are of African descent so they were familiar with jollof and they were the ones who got the other kids to try — all because they were proud of their roots!” 

In addition to children reaping the benefits from the program, WITS chefs are also recognizing how important their work is. WITS Chef Erin Mallare-Lee reflects: “Sometimes we think the system is too big to change, but the goal is the same for all of us — to set a brighter, healthier food culture for kids. If we are all able to make one small, tiny impact in our schools, we’ve covered more ground than we thought.”

Group photo at the October 3rd launch of Chefs in the Schools