Extra Special Exos Coach Joins our Team

There is a significant truth to the saying, “Timing is Everything”! There is also truth in the saying, “Every Cloud has a Silver Lining.” Both of these cliches play a role in the new addition to our WITS Coach for Kids program. As the world, and more specifically, our public schools across the nation, recover from the setbacks and challenges of the Covid pandemic, the need for wellness programming and access to resources are at an all-time high. Now that all schools are back in person, the ability for them to meet daily physical activity requirements and access consistent physical education remains challenging due to lack of time, space, and school staffing. 

During the pandemic, we pivoted our curriculum and school engagements to a virtual platform. And although we missed the impact of in-person lessons, we learned of the many benefits that a virtual platform offers. We learned that when students feel like they are part of something bigger than just their own classroom, they are inspired to engage more. We learned that students like the feeling of virtual connection. We learned that virtual programming helps students retain information, as they are able to track and replay lessons to help support their learning. We learned that the addition of a virtual engagement to in-person learning brings more teamwork into the classroom. 

Post-pandemic, schools are back in session, now equipped with an added skill that they didn’t have before; the tech-savvy knowledge and IT ability to easily stream virtual content directly into the classroom. 

As Wellness in the Schools has always proved itself to evolve with the times and meet schools where they are to provide the necessary solutions, this new and exciting partnership — Exos Coach for Good —  comes at the perfect time. As an addition to our Coach for Kids program, the Exos Coach for Good program provides public school classrooms with a virtual, consistent Exos Coach, Eric Dannenberg, who will facilitate daily interactive, engaging, competitive, and educational physical activity breaks. These daily classes engage students and teachers, they create healthy competitions between schools, they are age-specific, they focus on fun, movement, social, and emotional learning, and best of all, students are able to return back to their academic time focused and ready to learn.  “As a performance coach for the past 15 years who has worked with pro athletes, adults, and youth I have always said my favorite population is youth. The skill set I have acquired around Movement, Mindset, Nutrition, and Recovery techniques fits really well into the needs of the students. The ability to now not just influence and educate the 1-10 athletes in front of me but to influence and educate hundreds of youth at once becomes really powerful towards making individuals better people physically and mentally.” – Coach Eric Dannenberg, Exos Manager of Coach Education Virtual. As an incentive to all participating schools, a special in-person event will be awarded to the schools that participate in the most classes each quarter. 

With close to 50 years of combined experience in delivering wellness education & programming, Exos and Wellness in the Schools are partnering up to bring the Exos Coach for Good program to life through virtual on-demand and live-streamed Exos Fit classes in NYC Public Schools.

Less Makes Room for More

Written by: Nancy Easton

Another year, another moment to reflect. Although, as I get older, I feel like all I do is reflect; and then rework and obsess! This year, I feel a decade younger as I have not had the “luxury” to stop and think, and somehow have found energy reserves that have been unleashed! I am almost giddy, nonstop and digging deep as we expand our work in very direct ways, beginning in NYC.

Last summer, the NYC’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS), together with The Mayor’s Office of Food Policy and the Mayor’s Office, asked us to create a Chef Council to develop plant-based, scratch-cooked, and culturally relevant recipes. This next fall (bring it on, 2023!), we will hire 100 new WITS Chefs to train the OFNS cooks on the preparation of these recipes. Truly a dream come true. And, truly a testimony to our team who have worked in partnership with NYC for nearly two decades, building bridges and trust along the way. The leadership of the great city of NY, from our Mayor to the CEO of OFNS, have embraced us with like minds and open arms. 

In parallel, our Coach for Kids program will launch a partnership with Exos and the NYC Office of School Wellness to bring virtual on-demand and live-streamed Exos Fit movement breaks to 7,500 students across 15 New York City public schools in a pilot program, poised to expand nationwide. Exos joined as a partner last summer with a WITS Play Day at PS 55 in the Bronx, and we have continued to build on that to co-create a program bringing fitness breaks to more students in a more efficient manner. Fittingly, we have worked with the NYC Office of School Wellness since our inception and this moment, too, is a testimony to the trust and reputation building of our team. Bring it on 2023.

Looking nationally, this year we will host our inaugural ScratchWorks conference in Austin, Texas, where 100 food service operators will gather to learn from and with each other. They will then bring back this learning to their home kitchens in order to improve their scratch cooking methodologies. WITS launched this initiative in 2019 and thanks to the collective work of our many partners, we are bringing another dream to fruition this year. Bring it on 2023. Our partner districts from around the country will join this collective effort in April.

Each year in January, I am asked to share resolutions and suggestions for a healthy year ahead. If you have read even one of my many sentences, you would know that “resolutions” are not exactly in my vernacular. Wellness in the Schools works on lifestyle changes, on creating healthy habits to learn and live better. Resolutions feel more like diets or trends of the moment. Instead, I like to share some lifestyle tips. And, in this big year, I enlisted our extraordinary WITS team members to share some of the habits they have developed over time that power them to do this great work each day. Here they are (I share just a few):

Something I do now and want to work on more is taking the first 5 minutes of my day to stretch — no phone, no email, just movement to inspire all that is possible every day.

Abby de Riel, Development Manager

I want to spend 10 minutes each day in meditation and 10 minutes stretching.

Alexina Cather, Chefs in the Schools Manager

My goal for wellness this year is to keep doing my “prehab” exercises several times a week so I can keep doing all the things I love to do that beat me up! I have a twenty-minute routine and whenever I slack on it it comes back to bite me.

Cait Olesky, California Program Manager

Drink more water daily, spend more time with friends and family, and meditate for 10 minutes before bed every night.

Wendy Siskin, National Program Director

I like to drink a cold tea made with turmeric, apple cider vinegar, black pepper, a little chili flake and honey. I make a big batch and bring a cup to work every day. I also like to wake up in the morning and do a 20-minute weight workout and stretch. It’s a good way to start the day and get my blood flowing; also if I end up working late and can’t do a regular workout, I at least get something in that day.

Bill Telepan, Executive Chef

Drink more water.

Gisselle Madariaga, Program Operations Manager

This year, I am downsizing the portion sizes and plate sizes of my home-cooked meals. In addition to helping us be more mindful of how much food is on our plates (and if we *really* need that second or third serving), I’ve found that I’ve simply been prepping too much of a dish when cooking for my loved ones. Sometimes these leftovers escape my radar and go bad in the fridge, so making less ensures that there is less waste to go into the trash bin or compost pile at the end of the day.

Ricardo Diaz, Program Manager

No new resolutions, keeping things simple, less stress.

Marion Williams, National Program Director

My new year goal is to stretch daily (hopefully several times). 

–Marjorie Wolfson, Chief of Staff

I trust you see the same themes emerge as I do — keep it simple (drink water). Ground yourself each day (meditation, technology break, morning stretch). I love how two of our members point out that if they miss their stretch or morning routine, they are set off for the day. This says so much about how our resolutions have become habits — threaded into our lives, as habitual as brushing our teeth. I share big plans, clashing against simple lifestyle goals. This all seems to make good sense. In order to accomplish our big dreams, we must hydrate, stretch and ground ourselves each day. Bring. It. On. 2023.

WITS Work Comes Full Circle with New Board Member Rachel Alkon

Rachel Alkon joined our Board of Directors a month ago. A leader in the food and sustainability space, she specializes in communications and public affairs. She is the Founding Principal of Alkon & Co., with numerous prior positions held at food and farming companies. Deeply motivated by this work, Rachel has been a member of the Wellness in the Schools family and it is a pleasure to now officially welcome her to our Board. 

What brought you to Wellness in the Schools? 

My great aunt Marilyn Katz, a talented writer and retired academic, was one of Wellness in the Schools’ original volunteers over a decade ago. In the early days she advised WITS on communications. Years later, while pursuing a master’s in Food Policy at New York University, I had the opportunity to join WITS as a communications advisor and build on Marilyn’s work. 

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

My father’s side of the family is devoted to “healthy” habits that increase the odds of living well into old age. This means eating mostly nutritious food, cooking with high-quality ingredients, exercising daily, and spending time enjoying the great outdoors. As a kid, Poppy Morris showed me how to select the perfect produce at the Sweet Pea Fruit Exchange on Long Island; introduced me to long walks; and my grandma Norma (now 97) taught me about stretching and yoga. Every time I see my grandma, even today, she asks, “do you have time to exercise?” Grandma swam into her 90s! 

Inspired by these early experiences, today, as a mom of two young kids, I’m figuring out my own family wellness routine: a balance of healthy fun and a bit of indulgence. 

What has your experience been like founding your own communications firm? How does it apply to your experience at WITS?

My firm Alkon & Co. partners with purpose-driven founders and CEOs to raise awareness of their businesses; solutions to some of the most pressing global issues, from climate change and gender equality to the global nutrition epidemic.  During the pandemic, I took a leap of faith to launch the firm, with only one client. Reflecting on the decision, it was the best one I’ve made. I’ve never found work to be so rewarding. I’m partnering with brands I admire and have the opportunity to weave my passion for food, sustainability, and social impact issues into my work every single day. 

What are you most looking forward to doing on the board with WITS in the future? 

WITS is paving a better future for millions of school-age kids. I’m excited to partner with the team to help spread awareness of the mission so that the organization can continue to expand its reach and impact on the next generation. 

What is your favorite wellness practice? 

I am addicted to movement; it is an integral part of my daily life. Some days this means leaving my desk to take walking virtual meetings with clients and colleagues, and others it is a hike with my family, or a yoga or pilates class. 

What is your favorite meal or healthy snack to make?

Cookie and Kate’s healthy banana muffins. I rarely have the right ingredients, so I often modify based on what’s actually in my pantry.

Our Newest WITS Lab is Made with Amore

This fall we launched Made With Amore WITS Labs. In a partnership with AOP Agriform, we are bringing farm-raised, “made with amore” cheese from Europe to thousands of students in Novato, California, Camden, NJ and New York City. 

At the core of these Labs are two new WITS Lab recipes: Amore Cheesy Pomodori Salad and Pesto Made With Amore. Both use Parmigiano Reggiano PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) as well as other ingredients like basil, olive oil, salt and pepper, grape tomatoes (in the salad) and spinach and lemon juice (in the pesto). Using whole, fresh ingredients, students learn how to prepare a simple recipe that can be also made at home. The produce, seasoning, and hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano PDO combine for a nutritious and delicious snack. So delicious, in fact, that students asked for seconds and thirds. Chef Victoria Baluk shared from her New York City Labs that “Eyes were wide with each bite, registering the kind of bliss that is exclusive to a taste of something delicious. I was met with chants of ‘More! More please!’ in every class, from both the children and adults.” And as one student comically exclaimed in our California Labs, “I want to marry this — it’s so good!” 

Excitement pairs with Lab lessons rich in nutrition education and geography. Students learn about the nutrients in cheese – like protein, calcium, zinc, and many vitamins. Then, the classroom learns how to use these cheeses as ingredients in healthy recipes, just like the WITS Amore Cheesy Pomodori Salad and WITS Pesto Made With Amore. WITS Chefs teach safe knife skills and best practices in the kitchen when they are using cheese and other ingredients in recipes. AOP Agriform not only brings Parmigiano Reggiano PDO to our recipes, but in the WITS Labs students are also tasting Grana Padano PDO, Piave PDO, Asiago PDO Fresco, Asiago PDO Stagionato, and Montasio PDO cheeses. Students learn which regions different cheeses come from and that these cheeses are all made with milk from ethically treated animals. 

Students are able to talk about the differences between the cheeses offered to them – for example, the “umami” flavors from the aged cheeses like Asiago PDO Stagionato and Parmigiano Reggiano PDO as compared to the fresh Asiago PDO. They also learn a little about what kinds of dishes might feature those cheeses. Also discussed are other foods that have “umami” flavors and why they might be featured in a dish.

Most interesting for students has been learning the concept of “terroir,” meaning that food is unique to the region and environment in which it is produced or grown. Chef Cait Olesky reflected, “I was happily surprised by how ‘terroir’ resonated with all of the students and sparked great discussions. They could put ‘terroir’ into context by naming other food like the cheese from Europe, like how the taste of grapes from Napa is unique. Our very diverse student population named foods that had terroir from places they call home, whether that be mangoes from Mexico, pupusas from Guatemala, or even strawberries that grow locally here in Novato.”  

Learning, tasting, enjoying – students can feel the amore! 

Read the full piece here

NYC Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks Announce the Launch of the WITS Chef Council

 

17 years in the making, Wellness in the Schools is becoming the little nonprofit that could. 

This summer, Wellness in the Schools assembled New York City’s first-ever Chef Council, to develop scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes to children in all NYC public schools within the next year. The Council, an initiative designed by Wellness in the Schools, is chaired by Rachael Ray, a longtime friend and donor partner. On board are celebrated chefs, culinary industry professionals, and food activists. 

Together, we are creating over 100 recipes that will be tested in schools across all five boroughs during this school year. After feedback from students and parents, the recipes will be introduced as a monthly seasonal menu and WITS Chefs will then train school cooks on implementing the new recipes onsite in all public school locations. 

NYC Department of Education (DOE) Chancellor David C. Banks shared the news together with Executive Director Nancy Easton to a crowd of WITS family members, friends, and amazing supporters at our 13th Annual Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Top NYC Chefs and dear friends surrounded the room, enjoying stellar dishes of roasted squash from Lighthouse, “Eat the Rainbow” wraps from Sakara, an insalata stagionale from Barbuto & Jams, and more. Eating healthy and eating well was a highlight of the night and a sneak peek of the delicious and nutritious foods that will make a presence in school cafeterias soon. 

“Healthy and nourishing meals are essential in ensuring our students can succeed both inside and outside the classroom,” said Chancellor Banks. “I’m grateful to the Chefs Council for the work they will do as part of this initiative and to our food service workers, who work day in and day out to ensure our students are well fed and cared for.” 

This announcement comes at a time when the excitement of back to school is here for all of us, and as we are all still recovering from and learning to adapt to the challenges a pandemic brought to the world, this city, and in making sure every child has access to food that is both nutritious and that tastes good. We are here to do just that: it is a new school year and a new chance to feed kids real food on an even larger scale. 

We tell the story of our work by featuring one extraordinary school partner. PS 70X, under the care of Principal Roxanne Ledda and the leadership of Head Cook Fitzroy Abraham, is a great example of how Wellness in the Schools partners with each of our schools. See our video with PS 70X here

NY Jets Quincy Williams Joins WITS for a Play Day

 

“Workout whenever,” says Quincy Williams of the New York Jets. In his Exos t-shirt and sunglasses, Williams spent the day doing just that: celebrating a WITS Play Day at CS 55 in the Bronx with the whole community of students and parents. 

WITS Play Days bring fun movement to everybody, making healthy habits like exercise enjoyable and memorable. WITS Coaches and Fitness Partners host a special activity day designed to teach kids positive play, athletic skills, and sportsmanship. Even in the hot summer sun, everyone had a great time learning and moving! 

As Einstein once said, “Play is the highest form of research.” Whether children are playing a sport or just a fun game, there is no better place for children to develop stronger social-emotional skills and confidence, emotionally and physically. Highlights of the day were relay races, capture the flag, and hula-hooping. Adults and kids alike enjoyed the crawling mats, racing around the playground with so much enthusiasm. To complement the physical activity (and high temperature!), WITS set up a hydration station with water and plenty of fresh fruit. This helped bring even more wellness to the day, reminding everyone to stay hydrated and enjoy all the watermelon in the world during summer days like these. 

The power of partnership brought together this fabulous event over the summer. Noelle Peart, Head of DEI at Exos exclaimed excitement over “spending some time with some great kids in their summer program, and teaching them about health and wellness.” Demitra Carter, a Communications Intern at Exos, also reflected that the day cemented “the importance of wellness, no matter what that looks like … not only the physical wellness, but also of taking care of your mind outside with a mental health break.” 

Our presence and work at CS 55X have blossomed over the last two years thanks to the care Principal Luis Torres takes for his students. On board to lead the WITS Play Day was Exos, an athletic company that believes in the power of positive coaching, wellness, and fitness training. And, NFL Jets linebacker and former Exos Combine athlete Quincy Williams came out to partner with the Exos team and engage the crowd in fun activities. We continue to be grateful for all of our partners who help bring healthy habits and an endless amount of fun to children and communities. 

 

Meet Board Member Chanel Cathey

 

Chanel Cathey joined our Board of Directors this spring. As the founder and CEO of her own PR agency — CJC Insights — she brings her love of communications and storytelling to the Wellness in the Schoolstable. She is a contributor for Fast Company, on the Advisory Board for the Wall Street Journal’s Women in the Workplace Series, and has been named to Forbes and The Observer lists, among many other accolades. Her kind presence has certainly been felt alongside her talent, where she recently played a significant role in the launch of the inaugural Chefs Council Below is an interview with Chanel. 

What brought you to Wellness in the Schools?

Friend and fellow Board Member Alexia Brue (Co-Founder of Well+Good) introduced me to Wellness in the Schools. She told me all about the mission and her support of the organization over the years and I was honestly so thrilled to learn that an organization like this existed. I remember my own school meals (deep-fried and sugar-coated) and I can relate to learning much later in life about my nutrition and establishing a fitness routine. I took the initiative to teach myself healthier ways to make my favorite meals. I was delighted to learn that WITS brings this type of wellness programming and exposure to students nationwide. I met Nancy and Bill and their passion for this work inspired me. I’m honored to collaborate with them, the entire team, the chefs, and the community. 

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

Wellness means so many things to me, and we all have different definitions (as we should). It’s about embracing what makes you whole and happy. My definition has evolved and matured over the years, now I prioritize taking care of my physical body and mental health and there’s always work to do. I have to admit, I grew up almost proud of the fact that I sidelined taking care of myself to focus on work and other priorities. Not resting and overcommitting myself to exhaustion, I wore it like a badge of honor but being busy is never an excuse to ignore your health. We have to take time to nurture our own wellness. Now, I fully recognize the importance of personal wellness because I can’t take care of others if I can’t take care of myself. It’s important to build healthy families and healthy communities but it starts with me — with us.

What has your experience been like founding your own PR agency? How does it apply to your experience at Wellness in the Schools?

I took a leap of faith starting CJC Insights, a communication, strategy, and PR agency based in NYC. I built a practice by leveraging my expertise and tapping into everything I’m passionate about to help brands, founders, and thought leaders. I love to support brands that I believe deeply in and in many ways that commitment applies to WITS. I believe in this programming. We are all partners in this work driving it forward to reach more young people, and families to transform lives.

What are you most looking forward to doing on the board in the future?

All things communications! I’m excited to work with the leadership team and the Board to build greater awareness of the organization, the vision, and the growing impact. I have been a board member for only a few months and it’s been such an incredible and unforgettable experience so far. Joining the host committee to help with the annual gala’s return and helping to amplify the news of the Chef’s Council in partnership with the Mayor of NYC to roll out WITS programming to every single public school in the city. I am really proud of what the team has built and everything to come.

What is your favorite wellness practice?

I have a bunch but I love acupuncture, body massages, and discovering new boutique fitness classes on Class Pass. My favorite workout obsessions are Harlem Cycle, Rumble Boxing, and an entry-level Pilates reformer class.

What is your favorite meal or healthy snack to make?

I love to take my time and cook meals from scratch. I always try to find ways to make my favorite southern and Cajun cuisines a bit healthier without losing flavor. When I’m on the go in the morning, I love to grab a fruit smoothie with almond milk. I love to use dates as my natural sweetener.  

Ricardo Diaz, RDN Wins siggi’s Grant for CS 55X

 

This year at CS 55 in the Bronx is even more special, thanks to a grant from the siggi’s starters program.

Based on the principle that change happens with the right mentorship and support, this program empowers nutrition professionals seeking to improve health in their local communities. There is no one better to take this opportunity and run with it than our very own Ricardo Diaz, WITS Chef/Program Manager and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Ricardo is our lead WITS Chef at the school, bringing his positivity and spirit to the whole community. 

Ricardo is a nutrition professional through and through. He has years of education and training under his belt, including culinary training at the Natural Gourmet Institute. He is currently working toward receiving credentials in school nutrition from the School Nutrition Association. At WITS, he combines his knowledge of food and nutrition, develops recipes tailored for use in school meals, supports the professional development of school nutrition staff, and engages students to help them make the connection between their meals and their performance in the recess yard and classroom. 

And now, we get to do what we do best: dive in! The Bronx community celebrated the beginning of the school year with a Community Partnership event, with Ricardo as the star of the show. He prepared a Black Bean and Corn Salad for everyone to taste, with fresh vegetables and herbs, AND a marinade made from scratch. Students stopping by the table couldn’t wait to share their favorite WITS Labs story with Ricardo and their excitement over his presence in the cafeteria again. Ricardo has been the Chef at CS55X since 2015, so this year we are diving deeper and students are eager for all of the delicious food and nutrition lessons to come. 

Ricardo is such an amazing influence and role model to the entire school community. “I admire all that Wellness in the Schools has done for the students in my school as is doing for kids, nationally. They are passionate about improving the health and happiness of children and have already made such a positive impact,” said Principal Torres of CS 55X. Under Ricardo’s guidance, the students are learning the importance of healthy habits that will last time. We have reopened the cafeteria’s salad bar and kids are trying delicious, colorful foods, also receiving hands-on culinary experience and top nutrition tips. We can’t wait to see the growth our programming undergoes at the school this year — and all the students feeling more confident to lead healthier lives — thanks to the support of siggi’s. 

In the words of Ricardo: “The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our capacity to provide nutrition and culinary education to students throughout the city, while simultaneously underscoring the need to provide health and wellness education to the communities that we serve. We were able to pivot our educational model to a virtual and hybrid platform for the following school year, but we found many of our high-risk communities (CS 55 included) could not as readily participate due to a lack of access to the internet. I am delighted to bring the siggi’s starter grant to CS 55’s community as they reunite with a healthier focus on health and nutrition,  and join in a dialogue with New York City about plant-forward food and recipes.”

Eating the Rainbow at Bahia Vista

Students celebrate Eating the Rainbow with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables!

In California, Wellness in the Schools has been working with existing government programs in order to get students the nutrients they need to learn and live better. Thanks to WITS Chef Cait Olesky and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, the students at Bahia Vista School have had a fun year celebrating Eating the Rainbow with a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. 

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) is a reimbursement grant program that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers at the federal level. At the state level, the California Department of Education Nutrition Services Division administers the FFVP and selects elementary schools to receive a year-long grant, July through the following June, to implement the program. The purpose of this federal assistance program is to provide an additional free fresh fruit or vegetable snack to students during the school day as a supplement to (and not part of) the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program, and to teach students about good nutrition. The FFVP also encourages grantees to develop partnerships at the state and local levels for support in implementing and operating the program.

This school year, San Rafael Food Service Director, Alan Downing, applied for and received this grant for Bahia Vista School, a K–5 school with about 650 students. Through the FFVP program, students are to get a fresh fruit or vegetable three times a week (two raw, one cooked) outside of the normal breakfast or lunch service. Downing engaged WITS to execute and provide educational programming, a key component of the grant. Chef Cait carved out time during recess to deliver the produce and the education.

WITS collaborated with the district on produce selection to create a monthly calendar of vegetable and fruit selections. Always selecting seasonal choices, we had great varieties such as broccoli, sweet potatoes, strawberries, citrus in the winter months, and cucumbers in the spring. We also digitally sent home a recap of what students had eaten that week every Friday with some nutrition information and a simple recipe for families to use at home. 

When the program began in September, only a handful of curious students wandered over to the produce cart at recess — by May, hundreds of students lined up at the cart, making requests and proudly telling us their favorites. We were able to get everyone watermelon on the last day, and students were overjoyed! 

Chef Cait shares, “we were also able to implement WITS BITS and cooking labs at Bahia Vista School, and we tracked our vegetable tastings. Students put a corresponding colored post-it note next to whatever color of the rainbow they had eaten. We filled up both sides, and every week the kids got excited about trying different colors of fruits and vegetables to complete the rainbow.” 

WITS Chef Cait was so grateful to be at this school three times a week and to connect with the students and staff, who all inspired each other to try new things. Students would see Chef Cait down the hallway and run up to ask what would be served that day, or just to tell her that they had eaten blueberries or salad. Said Cait, “their favorites were any fruit and any tangy salad — we had kale with an avocado dressing that they could not get enough of!” 

A greatest hit was with pink grapefruit. This community is no stranger to fruits — they love red watermelons, orange oranges, yellow mangoes, and the rainbow beyond. But grapefruit was definitely new! With some encouragement from Chef Cait, we had some converts, who gleefully added “pink” to the rainbow chart and added a big grapefruit smile to the recess yard.

2022 Chef Partners: A Small but Steady Team

Chef Partners are necessary to the strength and success of our Cook for Kids program. As students are exposed to new and nutritious foods, the culinary genius and passion for recipes and nutrition by one of our Chef Partners can change a child’s palette and life. 

As we all know, the restaurant industry was one of the most deeply impacted during the pandemic and we were unsure what the Chef Partner program would look like once we returned. We wanted to support our many amazing partners but did not want to tax them, given labor shortages, supply chain issues, and the many pivots that our chef friends had to make. We were particularly thrilled, then, to host a handful of partners who made the extraordinary effort to continue to show up and support us through the Chef Partner program. 

We would like to highlight our mini but mighty 2021-2022 Chef Partners and some of their contributions that brought Wellness in the Schools back into school buildings in an impactful and customary way. These are not in order of favorites because they all are, but instead in order of school calendar appearance.

Chef Ivan Beacco, owner of Red Inside and a longtime friend and partner of WITS, has been improving school food since 2013. Ivan was our first Chef Partner this year to step up to the plate, joining WITS Chefs Kisha and Shani at West Prep Academy and WITS Chef Cameo at DREAM Charter in Manhattan. Chef Ivan, whose mission is to “inspire everyone to cook”, joined in teaching students WITS BITS and a Butternut Squash Lab. The students (and the WITS team) always revel in Ivan’s demonstrations and energetic and loving approach.  His strong Italian accent from coastal northern Trieste transports everyone immediately into his nonna’s kitchen.

Chef Ivan Beacco with WITS Chefs Kisha and Shani

Sakara Life joined us last year both as a core donor and a Chef Partner. They have adopted not one, but TWO WITS schools, joining us as volunteers at WITS Labs and WITS BITS. This spring they shared one of the Sakara pillars of health, “Eat Your Water”, with WITS Chef Victoria and students at PS145. They also donated gifts of gratitude to our school communities – providing plant-based lunches to the entire teaching staff and snacks to both teachers and school cooks. They even provided our year-end gift of teas and treats to the hard-working school cooks. The WITS grapevine has been buzzing with reviews on the Sakara granola and clean salads.

Students at PS 145 enjoy water-dense foods like cucumbers and lettuce.

Our featured Chef Partner Chopt continues to donate delicious salads for our Family Fitness Fun Nights, Cafe Days, and community events, showing participants how important it is to fuel up with nutritious food while enjoying healthy movement throughout the day. These salads — kale caesar, kebab cobb falafel, grilled chicken, vegan, and more — are accompanied by assorted dressings and bread. This year the Chopt Team joined the WITS staff for a cafeteria takeover in the Bronx, NY at PS70 The Max hosting a tasting of cucumber and their White Balsamic dressing featured on the Harvest Salad from which 10% of sales earned were donated to WITS. Thank you to Chopt – our long-time donor and thought partner – for keeping our events green and gorgeous! 

At PS 70X’s Community Carnival Event, Chopt delivered salads!

Longtime friend and Chef Partner Chaka Wilson of Hagou joined WITS Chef Ricardo at his Herb and Spice ID Green BITS at CS 55X in the Bronx. On his first visit to WITS programming, he brought spiced sweet potato cubes, seasoned chickpeas, and baby kale salad for students to taste and entertain their taste buds about how spices can be used to season many dishes expanding their palates with Halal meals. The kids really enjoyed trying new flavors!

Chef Chaka Wilson at CS 55X

Chef Anup from Green Top Farms and Farmer Pauleette from Satur Farms joined WITS Chef Cameo for a Cafe Day at PS 110 in Brooklyn. The cafeteria flourished with a bounty of fresh herbs, greens, and broccoli from Satur Farms and a Broccoli Slaw salad from Green Top Farms. Kids devoured the slaw, taking seconds, thirds, and fourths with glee! There’s nothing like a Chef Partner to prove the power (and deliciousness) of plants! Here’s a second-grader proud to have had his third serving:

A PS 110K student enjoying a healthy Broccoli Slaw recipe at lunch.

Students, administration, WITS Chefs, and all of us at WITS appreciate our chef and restaurant partners for bringing so much joy to our school communities with their passion for food and love of education.