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.
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.”