The 2021–2022 school year started off strong at West Prep Academy (MS421) and PS 145 when Wellness in the Schools helped launch their year with a two-week Social Emotional Learning curricula. We are deeply aligned with our approaches to learning as experiential and integrated into all aspects of life. Kudos to the West Prep and PS 145 leadership for beginning this unique new year with classes and workshops that address not only the academic but also the social-emotional aspect of learning. And, we were honored to join them!
The Wellness in the Schools team spent two days doing what we do best — teaching hands-on culinary and nutrition classes as well as fitness activities. Students were coring apples, seasoning them with cinnamon or nutmeg, and noticing the tartness or sweetness of apple flavors, depending on the variety. The smell of apple sauce was emanating throughout the halls of West Prep and PS 145. In the gym, kids were navigating the great skill of teamwork while playing rugby basketball, helicopter, and Gaga ball — all games that were new to many and therefore “level the playing field”.
Students were not the only beneficiaries of this experiential learning. Because this was so early in a tentative school year, the Wellness in the Schools team used this opportunity with long-time partners as a training experience. Our new WITS Chefs and WITS Coaches observed and worked alongside our veterans to learn from their peers by watching and doing. And, they are fast learners! Before we knew it, rookie WITS Coach Naika was leading her own Rugby Relay activity while veteran WITS Coach Jamel participated with the kids (he’s a kid at heart). Middle school is not exactly the easiest age to start on your first day, but the support of team members combined with active learning turned Naika into a pro overnight.
In the end, students, school administration, and the Wellness in the Schools team all benefited from the experience provided through social-emotional learning. The skills gained from this type of learning — developing self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and self-control — are vital for success in school and life! West Prep Principal Carland Washington says it best: “As a school community, West Prep prides itself on creating a positive, affirming school culture that is woven into every aspect of the student’s day. Recognizing the need for more social and emotional support for our students during the pandemic, we partnered with Wellness in the Schools to teach our students about healthier food options and to offer structured physical activity to promote their overall wellness. Over a two-day period, WITS provided the school with coaches and chefs to engage and inspire our students, many of whom had not been inside a school building since the pandemic began.”
Even the District 3 Superintendent appreciated our partnership. After her visit (and smelling the apple sauce), she featured West Prep and Wellness in the Schools SEL workshops on the District 3 Website. Thanks to this welcome-back opportunity, we are even more excited to be back in school and to get to cooking and playing.
With the return of an in-person school year, school kitchen staff have been preparing for the students to be back in cafeterias. Happy and hungry kids are sitting down at the cafeteria tables and Wellness in the Schools wants to make sure they’re fed delicious and real food. Enter CookCamps: our intensive, up-front training for school cooks, where they hone their scratch cooking skills and workshop the lessons we teach to children. We support all chefs to be able to cook at their best and communicate with students the importance of real food.
This year, exciting kitchen upgrades and new equipment brought our CookCamps in California and New Jersey to a new level.
In San Rafael, CA, the San Rafael City Schools recently completed construction of its 43,000-sq.-ft. kitchen project, incorporating a large central kitchen and student common areas and classrooms. For San Rafael High School, this means enhanced meal production for district schools, while giving the students a college-style dining space — comfortable seating, study spaces, and “The Bulldog Bistro”, serving both hot and cold meal selections. New facilities were also completed for several smaller schools and elementary schools where WITS implements programming, like Terra Linda High School. These facilities will give cooks more resources to expand meal preparation and scratch cooking.
The WITS Chef team of Cait Olesky, Hollie Greene Rottman, and Marion Williams kicked off the California CookCamps in coordination with Alan Downing, the Director of Nutrition Services for San Rafael City Schools. The team of WITS Chefs and school cooks produced a dazzling dream menu of scratch-cooked items: four new salad dressings, a Mediterranean Vegetable Hummus Wrap, Pasta with Colorful Marinara Sauce, a Sofrito Rice Bowl, Chicken with Spinach-Basil Pesto Panini, Broccoli Cranberry Salad, and Black Bean and Corn Salad. Not only did cooks learn to prepare these delicious recipes, but they learned clever ways to use leftover vegetables and kitchen skills that will last a lifetime. The recipes are simple to make and packed with flavor — so much so that during the tastings the cooks all wanted seconds. The school staff is excited to prepare their salads and delicious entrees with students this year.
In Camden, NJ, we were led by another dream team of WITS Chefs, namely Ricardo Diaz, Rebecca Johnson, Gisselle Madariaga, Anwar Rasheed, and Marion Williams. WITS Chefs and school cafeteria staff similarly worked side by side to learn kitchen techniques and prepare scratch-cooked meals. The CookCamp teams created a salad with cucumbers and onions in the starring role, pasta with spinach and a vegetable medley, yummy muffins, and more — all seasoned and baked to perfection. Everyone enjoyed the sense of community fostered by a delicious lunch. Camden Cooks can’t wait to keep creating more scratch-cooked recipes for students all year long!
CookCamps have already led to some fun new promotional events, including “Try Day Friday” where students tasted pico de gallo in Camden. School cafeteria workers and WITS Chefs collaborated with our partner, Food Corps, introducing students to the combination of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and spices that create pico de gallo. Tastings were accompanied by illustrations of the ingredients’ health benefits: tomatoes give you healthy skin, peppers have a great variety of micronutrients for your body in all their various colors, and onions keep your heart strong (as well as giving pico de gallo a boost in intensity)! Students were able to express how they felt about eating specific vegetables. A huge thank you to the superstar WITS Chefs Camden school cafeteria staff and our Food Corps partners who are infusing these schools with positivity, scratch cooking, and a celebration of yummy vegetables.
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.
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
Open and drain cans of pineapple tidbits and mandarin oranges.
In clear plastic cups, add the following ingredients in layers: ⅓ cup pineapple tidbits, ⅓ cup mandarin oranges, ⅓ cup yogurt.
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.
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 theirHiking Trails pageto 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cameo Fucci | WITS Chef
Cameo offers a recipe for Burst Cherry Tomato Salsa as a tasty treat!
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.
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!”
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.