Crossing the Finish Line With Our Partners

 

Zucchini carrot cake tastings, Zumba classes, and sprouting greens — this school year has been extra special with the support of our amazing Chef and Fitness Partners. Read on for stories of a few of this school year’s special partnerships. 

Wellness in the Schools hosted a dozen Family Fitness Fun Nights this year, evenings at a school for students and their families with exciting fitness classes led by WITS Coaches and WITS Fitness Partners and a complimentary healthy dinner. PS 70X’s Family Fitness Fun Night this February stands out as a favorite: celebrating wellness, Black History Month, and the power of community, students and families alike were abuzz with excitement and energy. From high-five push-ups with WITS Coach and Program Manager Errol to yoga and Zumba classes, it was an incredible evening with a huge impact on both participants and instructors. Zumba instructor Brianna remarked, “I am honored to have been a part of this. Thank you again for such a great event.” Yogi Beans has also been a core Fitness Partner to Wellness in the Schools at these events, with fabulous yoga instructors who bring a peaceful centering of mind and body to the school room each evening. 

Chop’t deserves an extra-special shoutout for their participation at these Family Fitness Fun Nights, as the evening is not complete until dinner is served! Donated by Chop’t, students, and families enjoy healthy salads to nourish and refuel after fitness activities. The salads, from Kale Caesar to Kebab Cobb Falafel, have been a huge hit — as are the dressings to pair. The Chop’t team made the salad experience even more fabulous by hosting a Cafe Day at PS 70X the next month, where students could taste ranch and honey mustard dressings with cucumbers and pita chips to taste. Thank you, Chop’t, for encouraging salad bar participation and helping us feed kids nourishing food. 

The Chef Partner excitement continues with Anup Joshi of Green Top Farms. In addition to being on our Chef Council, Chef Anup is an amazing presence at our Cafe Days. Anup Joshi – as well as being on our Chef Council (link), Anup also is an amazing Chef Partner of our Cafe Days. This winter, at a Cafe Day at PS 110K, Chef Anup brought a Caesar Salad recipe tasting to the students and taught them about the healthy ingredients in the salad like lemon juice, garlic, and a base of leafy greens. Everyone loved it! Chef Anup then brought his Cafe Day magic to PS 160Q with a Purple Sweet Potatoes with Healing Spices recipe from Green Top Farms. The tastings paired with education on all of the purple sweet potatoes’ vitamins and how they support our bodies. 

Blue Apron brought their Cafe Day to PS 95X/AmPark and PS 294/311X in the Bronx. Two wonderful days of Cafe Days, with a fabulous recipe! The Zucchini Carrot Cake with Yogurt Frosting, vegan version included, was a colorful, tasty sampling for hundreds of students. Principals, teachers, and students alike flocked to the table for this nutrient-rich cake. 

WITS Cafe Day with Blue Apron

This year, Chef Andy Kitko of the restaurant Oceans became our new Chef Partner to PS 3M. In May, with summer approaching and zucchini coming into season, Chef Andy made Kolokithokeftedes, a Greek “zucchini meatballs” dish. Students loved it and asked for seconds and thirds! Bringing a new culture and flavors to students was a big success, and we can’t wait to partner with Chef Andy for more Cafe Day experiences in the coming year. 

Aaron Brooks, our Chef Partner in Florida, put a twist on the Cafe Days to host a special event for school teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week this May at Charles R. Drew K–8 Center in Miami-Dade County. Together with WITS Chefs Leonor and Sara, Chef Aaron put together an amazing garden-to-table culinary experience, harvesting greens and herbs from the school’s garden to make Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho, Avocado Basil Crema, Adobo Chicken with Quinoa, and Corn Salad Chimichurri. 

David Enteman of North River Dry Goods brought some plant-based snacks to Landmark Elementary’s Family Fitness Fun Night in Brooklyn. As a proud public school parent, his passion project became creating a snack for his son that wasn’t highly processed. The resulting snacks, crunchy yellow split peas, come in a range of spiced flavors that students and parents could taste at this event. It was exciting to see kids trying this plant-based snack and either trying yellow split peas for the first time or in a new form. The snacks, and David’s spirit, won over some kids, with the Jalapeño flavor being the most popular. 

Ithaca Hummus has donated many squeeze packets of hummus to our school for kids to taste this year. Ingredients like chickpeas, lemons, garlic, roasted peppers, and beets in the hummus make it nutritious and flavorful. The beet hummus, a bright pink color, was a big surprise for students who realized how delicious beets were! Thank you Ithaca Hummus for providing a creative way to encourage students to eat the rainbow. 

At PS 145 this spring, WITS Chef Victoria partnered with Gotham Greens to plant basil seedlings. Students learned basil care tips like repotting, watering, and making sure plants get enough sunlight. Plus, basil is perfect for a minty touch in any recipe! 

Last but not least, a lucky group of students from PS 145M, along with WITS Chefs Kisha and Victoria, visited the Sakara Life kitchen at Long Island City this spring. They got a behind-the-scenes look at Sakara’s production and research & development — including all that goes into making nutritious, delicious meals — and even made their own plant-rich cookie dough creation to take home. Throughout this year, Sakara’s team of Chefs and volunteers have hosted numerous Cafe Days and events and continue to be a valuable partner to Wellness in the School’s work on the ground. 

PS 145 students making plant-rich cookie dough creations at the Sakara Life kitchen

Thank you, WITS Chef and Fitness Partners, for a fabulous school year! Happy summer, and we can’t wait to dive into another school year with you all. 

WITS CookCamp Takes the Show on the Road

In English and Spanish

In the Fall of 2018, WITS Chef Ricardo was preparing for his first CookCamp training at his first WITS school, CS 55X. Excited but cautious, he knew from his time in the kitchen that there was not yet a strong relationship between himself and the school cooks, and he was nervous if the CookCamp training would go well. But it turned out what the kitchen really needed was skills-based training and leadership building — and CookCamp did just that. Many years later, those nerves turn into success in all different forms. School cooks are excited to try recipes but have never tried those foods and don’t think the kids will, but then, they make a recipe and marvel at how easy it is to make while being fresh and tasty. WITS National Program Director Marion Williams remarks, “At all the CookCamps, the success is the transformation from the disbelief of scratch-cooked recipes to the ease and confidence of making a nutritious, tasty dish.” 

This August, Wellness in the Schools is bringing the CookCamp training experience nationwide: Redwood City School District (CA), San Rafael City Schools (CA), D.C. Bilingual School (DC), and New York City (NY), and a pilot CookCamp at D.C. Bilingual School (DC), with additional CookCamps in the fall expected in Camden City School District (NJ) and Newark City School District (NJ). These CookCamps will train school cooks on topics such as scratch-cooking techniques, knife skills, menu planning, personal development and wellbeing, and learning the why of the work we do together to ensure access to nourishing food for students. As Wellness in the Schools’ national footprint is growing, we have developed a CookCamp travel team to lead on all trainings and provide a flexible follow-up support experience for school kitchens nationally. In addition to expanding to more school districts, this model creates a larger network of support and one where we can learn from other districts. 

The star for innovation in this year’s CookCamp tour is at The Bilingual School in Washington, D.C., where the entire WITS CookCamp training will be conducted in both English and Spanish for the first time. This approach allows our formal training program to adapt to the community, with all-bilingual side-by-side training, hands-on demonstrations, and materials like printed recipes and instructional videos. 

WITS Chefs often speak some Spanish in kitchens where most cooks speak Spanish, colloquially known as ‘kitchen Spanish,’ and WITS recipe brochures are printed in both languages to students after WITS Labs. Yet as now WITS Program Manager and RDN Ricardo Díaz describes, “the process of preparing for a CookCamp in Spanish is all hands on deck. It involves a lot of time spent developing our own notes so we feel confident delivering that material bilingually. Many WITS Chefs and a network of partners have been extremely helpful in reviewing the translations and making sure the language accurately reflects Wellness in the Schools’ mission clearly and concisely.” 

All of the upfront preparation is ready to soar at The Bilingual School’s WITS CookCamp training next month. Ricardo visited the school earlier this summer to assess kitchen and cafeteria needs, as well as to understand the school wellness culture as a whole. “I am excited for the opportunity to come back and cook with them and interact with the students,” Ricardo remarked. “Getting to know the cooks and integrating our training with their culture will be very impactful.” 

This new approach will echo to other CookCamps following D.C. Ricardo continues, “Our approach is important because we don’t really see school cook training programs like CookCamp anywhere else. It’s important we are going through this process and developing material that provides an effective training experience for Spanish-speaking populations, which is often the primary language in school kitchens and among students in all of our markets.” From D.C. to New York City, California, and Florida — we will soon be reaching all of our school kitchens and cooks with the CookCamp experience in both English and Spanish!

WITS CookCamp training

No Mas Taki: Meet WITS Chef Kisha Cromartie

 

It’s a Wednesday at PS 145 in Manhattan, which means WITS Chefs Kisha Cromartie and Victoria Baluk are working in perfect harmony to teach WITS BITS. In these WITS BITS, which are shorter than the traditional WITS Lab and focus on a nutrition concept rather than a whole recipe, the two roll a cart into a classroom — or even teach in the hallway — and get kids excited about food and nutrition. Topics vary from Eating the Rainbow to Sugar Overload. This spring, after watching the rise of the infamous Takis snack and the purple bags of ultra-processed ingredients spreading all over school classrooms and lunchrooms, these WITS Chefs are taking action and creating a new WITS BITS lesson: Taki Takedown. 

Taki Takedown teaches kids about the Takis ingredients, what makes a food addictive, and about food-triggered dopamine. But to make it even more special — and a true WITS experience — WITS Chef Kisha has created a spice blend for the kids to taste. Nicknamed the “Nomastaki” (No More Taki) Seasoning, it is made of cayenne pepper, chili powder, paprika, tajin, cumin, onion, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and a squeeze of lime. Paired with whole-grain tortilla chips, it is an excellent Taki dupe and is made of real ingredients that kids can recreate at home. 

This is just one of many stories highlighting the remarkable compassion and nuanced approach Kisha brings to every school and community in which she works. Kisha started as a WITS Chef in the Bronx and Queens, supporting colleagues in the classroom and kitchen. She quickly developed relationships with and respect from the entire school. Now working with Wellness in the Schools for her 11th year, her strengths have spread: she is an incredibly strong chef, a beloved FEAST instructor, and is particularly strong with middle and high school students. 

At Wellness in the Schools, strengths don’t just come from the work we do, but who we are and how we show up. Long-time WITS Chef Victoria reflects, “It is amazing how much love, integrity, passion, and spirit are packed into Kisha. Her smile is generous and her kindness is genuine, but it’s her sneaky sense of humor that I value most. Kisha’s first instinct is to bring the laugh, then we can deal with what needs attention. Kisha is a Go-To for a giggle in work and life.” 

As WITS Chef Kent Gifford puts it, Kisha is wholeheartedly an “amazing woman and force of good.” He remembers back to his first time in the field at a school in 2015, observing Kisha’s WITS Tomato Sauce Lab at PS 69 in the Bronx. When a student got sick all over the desk, without hesitation, the pair of WITS Chefs had the kindergarten class singing “Tomatoes are Good” while the student was escorted to the nurse and Kisha cleaned up the desk. Then, the lab continued without a hitch. It was a fabulous demonstration of teamwork and the humor and positive outlook Kisha has working with kids and her colleagues. 

WITS Chef Laurielle Clark honors Kisha as “a remarkable woman and proud member of the WITS ‘Seasoned Chefs’ team.” She continues, “I find her gentle spirit impactful, passionate, and she’s aware of the cultural needs in our school communities. She is also the ‘Queen’ and creator of the Power Water WITS BIT! We have now seen so many iterations of power water from Chefs and it’s all because of Kisha. She is indeed a true champion of change and we love her!” 

One coworker with a strong memory of that Power Water WITS BIT creation is Errol Jones, now WITS Senior Program Manager. In 2017, Kisha and Errol worked together as respective WITS Chef and Coach at PS M811 The Mickey Mantle School. He says, “We were driven, as always, by our love of collaboration, so we decided that we needed a big event to involve the whole school. We had highly competitive students, so we proposed a basketball tournament! Kisha and I wanted to give our students a hydration station, so we named it Muscle Water (now Power Water). Fast forward to tournament day and Kisha had her Muscle Water Station outside the gym whilst the students were engaged in the basketball tournament!” The event was a beautiful collaboration between the WITS duo and representative of the strong relationships built with the entire school community. Every teacher, administrator, school aide, security, guard, and paraprofessional participated in the evening all about sportsmanship, hydrated with Kisha’s buffet of ingredients making up the muscle water. Power Water has since become a staple WITS BIT. 

Kisha is adored by all, developing these lasting relationships with everyone at her schools and impressing a quiet but incredibly powerful and kind spirit into the WITS workplace. Marion Williams, WITS National Program Director, has mentored Kisha from the start and commends her growing consistency in the work and kindness she brings to work every day. “That consistency helps people learn from her. In schools, they look for her, count on her, and she has such a tight community around her in every school she is in,” she said. Marion fondly remembers when Kisha sent warm socks and a get well soon note — that all of her fellow WITS Chefs had signed, coordinated across many boroughs and busy schedules — to comfort Marion when recovering from a surgery. “It was something so simple but it means so much when Wellness in the Schools is very fast-paced.” Thank you, Kisha, for helping us slow down, appreciate teamwork and friendship, and take care of each other. 

Wellness in the Garden State

 

Spring is a celebration of many things: it acknowledges the resilience through winter months, honors the trust among the soil, sun, and water that collectively nourish the plants, and the warm spring weather finally brings buds to the surface that transform into beautiful flowers. Spring is also a perfect symbol for all the WITS programming growing in the Garden State. In New Jersey, Camden and Newark are incredibly strong markets with impactful CookCamp trainings and phenomenal tastings. Though one city is seasoned with WITS and one is new, both are growing in special ways. Read on for the inside scoop! 

Our roots begin in Camden, where we are in our seventh year of programming and our second year of the Full Futures collective. Working alongside other community partners like The Common Market and Whitsons Culinary Group and with generous funding from Campbell Soup Company, our goal is to build the school nutrition mindset, advance food service infrastructure and nutrition education, and implement recipes and menu changes. Working with our partners for several years, through the pandemic and in the ever-changing environments that schools are, our trust for and communication among each other has grown. 

As each school district is unique, our work in Camden focuses on kitchen staff training and student tastings. Each year we offer WITS CookCamp Professional Development and Training days. This is where the school’s kitchen staff learn new recipes, knife skills, and food presentation, as well as how to give and receive feedback, reduce food waste in the kitchen, and all about local food in Camden. Thanks to our collaboration with The Common Market, WITS CookCamp helps school food staff understand where the food coming into their kitchens is from, how to work with it to make delicious and nutritious recipes, and understand how nutrition ties into the food — knowledge that helps them be their best at work, and also communicate better with the children they serve across the lunch line. Our Camden CookCamp in the fall — featuring WITS Butternut Squash Soup, Seasoned Herb Rice, Sofrito, Spinach and Blueberry Salad, Vegan Cornbread, Vegetable Wraps, and Vegetarian Chili — gathered over 128 cooks to present this scratch-cooked and colorful menu for lunch, with much excitement from all participants to work with new recipes and incorporate new cooking methods and techniques. 

WITS’ special ingredient in Camden is our tastings, where students receive a new item to try from the lunch line or in workshop groups and provide their feedback. Favorite WITS recipes this year feature local ingredients from The Common Market: butternut squash has turned into a soup, salad with blackberries, and oat cookies, and kale has turned into a salad, a saute, and chips for a healthy snack. Breakfast items have expanded, with muffins using local ingredients like sweet potatoes and oats for students to enjoy. Our New Jersey WITS Chefs also conduct tastings and cooking demonstrations outside of the lunchroom for a few students, teachers, and parents at a time. Participants appreciate having a voice and feel empowered to be a part of the school’s wellness community and learn firsthand the value of local ingredients and making a recipe from scratch. The impact of WITS Chefs is felt by many school communities; one note from a teacher, who helped facilitate student group demonstrations, gave gratitude to WITS Chefs Debra Williams and Angel Jones, saying “Thank you for helping me get control of my life by starting to pay close attention to my eating and by choosing healthier eating habits. I have been attending your demos and trying the recipes, making them for me and my family. I am proud to say I am feeling great!” 

WITS Chef Shani Porter guides a Newark Head Cook in preparing sweet potatoes.

New roots are growing this year in Newark, with March bringing the official launch of our partnership with the Newark City School District at a WITS CookCamp Training. School food service staff in attendance represented all 66 schools in the district, making for an unprecedented day of learning together. The day was focused on knife skills and kitchen safety and sanitation. Cooks developed teamwork and problem-solving skills by making a spread of WITS Recipes — recipes so well enjoyed that in the days following WITS CookCamp, the Newark City School District permanently added the WITS Pasta Primavera recipe to their menu, reaching students district-wide! For the remainder of this school year, we will continue weekly side-by-side kitchen training in seven pilot schools. Cooks expressed enthusiasm to incorporate their learnings from CookCamp moving forward, comments ranging from the versatility provided to them by learning different cooking techniques, to cooks learning a salad dressing preparation with local blueberries and wanting to make it again. 100% of participants reported that CookCamp increased their interest in learning more about the food and nutrition connection through preparing these nutritious recipes — Wellness in the Schools will be back soon to further guide Newark cooks on teaching across the lunch line so students understand the importance of eating a nutritious lunch, too. 

Similar to Camden, our work in Newark is successful thanks to a strong partnership between The Common Market, Food Corps, The Greater Newark Conservancy, and a generous donation from Novo Nordisk. It is inspiring to work as a collective in both cities and watch changes being made daily in schools to create healthier and more creative kitchens and learning environments. With our roots growing in the Garden State, we are excited about what the future will bring. 

A Bronx Ode to the Earth

 

An indoor vertical farm is the newest classroom addition at PS 85 in the Bronx! Thanks to our partnership with AeroFarms, a world leader in vertical farming and working to transform agriculture for people and the planet, the school community is now heading into Earth Day with a place to explore more green education. 

Seeds and nutrients start off the journey to fresh and incredibly local food. WITS Chef Yesenia Arrunategui helped the school install the vertical farm in February, and students are now getting familiar with the garden and plantings. Students are currently growing microgreens and various herbs like cilantro. Chef Yesenia said excitedly, “They have been harvesting from the garden weekly!” 

By bringing a farming unit into an urban school environment, the goal is for every student to have a personal experience with the growing unit through education, harvesting, tasting, and cooking, using produce from the harvest. The indoor vertical farm will be a resource for Chef Yesenia to use in WITS Labs and nutrition lessons, with upcoming Greens Labs in May. The classroom will continue to serve as a space for students to understand concepts like sustainability and where food comes from. 

PS 85X’s bulletin board features students working with the farming unit. 

Hands-on experiences like these are a core part of our Green for Kids programming, where gardening meets environmental sustainability education. We believe that children who are connected to their environment will become aware of the impact of their choices on the world around them. Kids learn about creating healthy, balanced relationships with themselves and the world. “WITS Greens Labs and BITS are versatile: the connection to cooking and nutrition from the garden is there, and we also teach students where food comes, foods from different cultures, and food access and sustainability,” said WITS National Program Director Marion Williams. “Green for Kids impacts students beyond the classroom. We teach them how to be good consumers and shop well, too. Kids love learning how to look at produce labels and the quality of food they see at the supermarket,” she continued. The greens that PS 85X students are able to grow hands-on is a crucial part of developing an understanding and respect for how food grows and affects the environment. 

To celebrate Earth Day this April 22nd, any action big or small makes a difference! For planters, check out this list of native plants and learn why it’s important to support native plants in your garden. Also consider researching community gardens in your area, participating in a litter pick-up, or going to greenmarkets near you to source seasonal and mostly local produce. 

Remember, the most important thing you can do on Earth Day (and every day) is to take the time to step outside and appreciate the beauty of nature!

Lunchables Do Not Belong at Lunch

 

In March, a stomach-churning headline appeared in the news: “Lunchables may soon be available in a school cafeteria near you.” 

Kraft Heinz, the Big Food company that produces ultra-processed snacks like “Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker” and “Extra Cheesy Pizza” Lunchables, has announced a modification of the ingredients of those two products to meet National School Lunch Program guidelines. Recipe changes claim to include “more protein and whole grains,” as well as “reduced saturated fat and sodium, and an increased serving size” (NBC News). Schools will be able to buy the two Lunchables offerings for the 2023–24 school year. 

Marion Nestle, acclaimed public health advocate and nutritionist, wrote a response piece on her Food Politics blog, detailing the ingredient lists and product reformulation of Kraft Heinz. Succinctly, she writes, “It’s still ultra-processed. How about serving kids real food?” 

The Center for Science in the Public Interest announced its disapproval of this move, writing that these “copycat” products will harm school nutrition programs, could potentially replace the hot meals which are a lifeline for 30+ million children, and increase kids’ exposure to cancer-causing ingredients. 

This is a concerning move for school food and nutrition. In February, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced several proposed updates to USDA school meal standards. Though taking only a small step forward, Wellness in the Schools was glad to see new proposed guidelines that recommend limiting added sugars in school meals for the very first time, limiting sodium, and increasing whole grains. Wellness in the School’s core philosophy is that scratch-cooked school meals will naturally limit additives and ultra-processed ingredients and provide school children with the nutrients they need to grow, develop, and learn in and out of the classroom. 

Wellness in the Schools supports strengthening nutrition standards for school meals and is opposed to the inclusion of Lunchables to the school lunch menu, thus issuing the following statement in response: 

“At a time when we should be pushing for more scratch-cooked meals, the rollout of Lunchables in schools weakens school nutrition and has the potential to manipulate and confound children and families. Food marketing in schools imprints the product on the brains of students, raising the odds that when they go grocery shopping with their caregivers they will seek out the product, which does not have the same nutritional profile as the items served in schools. Food brand names have no place in marketing to children in schools. To avoid making school food an avenue for increased risk of obesity the USDA should bar any branding on healthier products that are not widely available outside of school.” 

–Alexina Cather, MPH | Director of Policy and Special Projects, Wellness in the Schools 

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