Looking Back, Moving Forward


A year ago today, in the early days of this pandemic, we could have never predicted what our programming was going to look like. Schools shut their doors in mid March of last year, but we knew that our work was more important than ever. We could not shut the door on our communities; so we went to them. We met outside, we held socially distanced classes, and we adapted our lessons for the virtual world and for communities beyond the walls of a school. 

One WITS Chef put it best: Armed with carrots, beets and cucumbers, we travel into neighborhoods that have been forgotten, and we do this with heart, passion and perseverance.

We became fixtures of virtual and outdoor classrooms. We were honorary guests at farmer markets all across New York City. We turned every room of our house into a kitchen or fitness studio (for the best lighting!). We created not one, but two shows (A Bite of Wellness on BronxNet and Talks with Telepan on Instagram Live). We’ve created engaging workouts that are instrumental in keeping students focused during virtual learning. And yes, we have mastered Zoom breakout rooms. 

When we look back on the year we remember loss and hardship, but looking at the pictures from this year tells a different story. It reminds us that the humans of WITS make the best out of any situation. In that way, looking back has prepared us to move forward.

Below is a slideshow of just a few of the incredible moments from this past year that were captured. Moments that show the heart, passion, and perseverance of Wellness in the Schools.

Tale of Two Nutritionists: A Discussion with WITS Board Member and Dietitian Nutritionist Maya Feller and WITS Chef and Dietitian Nutritionist Ricardo Diaz


The following is an interview conducted by WITS Chef and Resident Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Ricardo Diaz. Ricardo interviewed Maya Feller, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist,a nationally recognized nutrition expert who recently joined the Wellness in the Schools Board of Directors.



Ricardo: Hi Maya, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and answer a few questions. I guess we can just jump right into it with the big question of what led you to want to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist? Was it always your end goal?


Maya: Hi Ricardo! Actually, not at all. I started out studying experimental theater and philosophy as an undergraduate. So it wasn’t what I originally set out to do. The path to becoming an RDN actually started when I was training for the Boston Marathon. I was spending so many hours running and I began to think more about the food that I was eating. What’s happening with the food I eat? Where is it going? How is it metabolized? How is my food turning into fuel? All of these questions fascinated me, and still do. After researching those questions I learned about registered dietitians and knew that it was something that I wanted to study. I come from a family of academics, so I knew immediately I wanted to go for the terminal degree, so that is what I did and I became a dietitian!


Ricardo: Thank you so much for sharing that story with me Maya. It’s also interesting to hear that we both didn’t necessarily look at nutrition and dietetics as a primary goal from the start. Becoming an RDN was something I ended up stumbling into myself. I initially wanted to go pre-med. After taking some requisite classes in nutrition I started using what I was learning in that class in my personal life, and once I saw how these practices were influencing my own health then I thought, “well, maybe I should give this a try instead.”


Maya: Oh, that’s amazing. So do you use any of your knowledge from pre-med classes years ago as you are working with the students now?


Ricardo: Yes I do, but I take what I learned and I simplify it so that students can more easily use that information to make changes within their own life… So we know how you decided on becoming an RDN, but what led you to working in private practice and academia?


Maya: Before private practice and academia I actually started working with my community. Right after becoming an RDN I started working with a community organization where I worked with homeless or unstably housed patients with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. After that, I started working with the New York City Department of Health where I was a part of a program that would go around the 5 boroughs and teach classes on nutrition and body care. That eventually led to me doing 12 week nutrition workshops in New York City housing projects. It was around that time that I decided to start my own private practice. At first, my work really centered around maternal and family nutrition, but over time it has become more general, but I still do a lot of family nutrition work and a lot of it deals with non communicable conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, etc. All of my work is from a very patient-centered, anti-biased lens. I am really there to take the science that I do know and work with a lens of cultural humility so that I can serve the patients efficiently. I don’t know anything about a person’s lived experience, that’s their unique experience, what I do know is the nutrition science, which means I have to walk in with my eyes open and my ears open and honor what they’re telling me so that I can really serve them in the best possible way.


When I was running the 12 week nutrition workshops that is when I started teaching at NYU. I started teaching life cycle nutrition there in 2012 and I am still teaching it. So that’s how I ended up in private practice and academia!


Ricardo: I really like the point you bring up on cultural humility. I feel like that is something I had to gradually learn to appreciate a lot more, especially when working with different cultures all over New York City. So how did you end up working with the populations that you work with now?


Maya: I think that as a black woman dietitian many of my patients have sought me out because I am not the majority. So I have a large group of patients that were looking for someone who is representative of them. I also have a large group of patients that identify as LGBTQ+ because my work is through an anti-biased approach. Patients want someone who will listen to them, and because I work with an anti-racist, anti-biased lens that takes cultural humility into account I am better able to serve my patients. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “thank you for listening.” That’s not generally a part of how we are trained as RDNs. We engage in motivational interviewing, which may work for some but might not work for others, and we are taught that we are supposed to educate, which is true, but we also need to educate ourselves by listening to and learning from our patients. I am always willing to say “I can learn from you,” and I think that’s why a lot of my patients come to me. 


Ricardo: The listening is so crucial. I find that especially with my work with the students, you have to listen closely to them so that you can meet them where they are at, but as you say, people don’t focus enough on the listening aspect of our work. We also never really got guidance on working with the LGBTQ+ community as you mentioned –


Maya: Not at all. We are told that so many of those conversations that we have with patients from the LGBTQ+ fall under “social issues,” and are not classified as dietetics work, when in fact, people’s identities are deeply entwined with how they interact with food. I think that as we start to teach a new generation of dietitians we need to begin to build all of this into the fabric of dietetics so that students are better equipped to work with diverse populations.


Ricardo: Absolutely. One thing that comes to mind is looking at different cultures and how different cultures eat healthily. Looking back, I never really knew how to address how individuals from different cultures could eat healthy while consuming traditional cultural foods. As a preceptor, professor, and a mentor, how do you challenge and broaden the perspective with regard to how your students and future RDNs could better serve these diverse populations while keeping cultural traditions intact?


Maya: That’s an incredible question. The academy loves to say that “there is no one size that fits all.” And they’re right. There is no one size that fits all. When new patients come in we should be asking them, “what is it that you are engaged in eating, what are some of your favorite foods?” Let’s start by asking and listening, before we start to prescribe. We should take into account what is accessible in their communities.


Ricardo: That is such a good point. Chef Marion and I have to factor this into our pantry work in the Bronx. We have to take into account what kind of food and ingredients that people like to eat, along with what they have access to, and try to help them from there while being fully aware of their cultural traditions. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me Maya. It was so great to hear about your journey to becoming an RDN and how our paths had a few similarities. 

Maya: Thank you so much for having me! Always happy to support Wellness in the Schools.

How Disconnecting Can Help Your Family Connect


This article was initially published in the Whole Kids Foundation Blog of March 2021.

Life is full of unpredictable events, most of which we have no control over. However, the year 2020 will be forever remembered as the one that forced a world to stop in its tracks and alter every aspect of life that was considered normal, familiar, planned, and even mandatory. It challenged everyone, even the most inspiring optimist, to find comfort and stability.

As the long days turn into long months during this Covid-19 pandemic, it continues to radically change the way we live, work, learn, socialize, and the way we take care of our loved ones. Above all, the most important factor that this pandemic has highlighted is our health which happens to be the one thing we DO have control over. With all the anxieties, fears, and stresses, we are grasping at everything that brings us comfort, relief, and happiness. Self-care is not selfish, it is mandatory. Now that we are one year in, the dependency on technology has taken its toll and the desire to find easy ways to unplug is even more in demand. The quarantine trends of baking bread, learning a musical instrument, or hosting drive-by parties are all great ways to unplug for one’s mental health. However, taking care of our physical health requires a little more creativity.

At Wellness in the Schools, we bring food & fitness programming into the classroom. Our short-term goal is to teach healthy habits to live and learn better. Our long-term bold mission is to end childhood obesity. In order for our programming to have a lasting impact, ideally the habits we teach continue at home. Fortunately, the Covid silver lining for WITS is that we have been able to do just that. Our WITS Chefs and Coaches have been able to stream live lessons into the bedrooms, kitchens, and/or family rooms of our students.

We’ve curated a list of fun ideas for parents and teachers to use at home with their families:




  1. Have each member of the household rotate nights of the week and cook for each other, then give ratings on yumminess, healthiness, and presentation! If some are too young to cook, partner up in teams. Tally the scores at the end of the week for a prize – fruit dipped in chocolate and rolled in coconut anyone?
  2. Want dessert? That’s ok, take a poll and make rules around how much is too much. For example, 3 dessert nights/week and urge homemade and/or fresh fruits. If you have teens at home, you know teens like being part of the decision-making process, and having them choose usually leads to a successful outcome. You can also hold “healthy competitions” for who can make the most delicious cookie that is filled with healthy and yummy ingredients! 
  3. If the tradition of cooking for each other is a success, start keeping track of all the highest rated recipes made from each family member and create your own cookbook! This is a wonderful tradition as well as something to use again when you want to recreate the dish together – or to share among friends. 
  4. What better way to clean up after dinner than with a dance party? Turn on your favorite music, create an assembly line, and dance while you clean. If the kids are too young, give them a little area to “clean” while you clean and the happiness of the dancing will keep them included. A great way to get moving, laughing, with the reward of a clean kitchen.




  1. Obstacle courses! This can be modified to be perfect for any household. Let the kids lead for optimum success. The course can be set up inside or outside. One leader designs the course and the whole family has to complete it. Each course usually consists of 5 obstacles. It can include everything from crawling under chairs to hopping over a row of pillows. Depending on the athleticism of your household, the obstacles can be at any level of ease or difficulty, as long as it gets everyone moving. Have everyone do the course once, clock each run, then have each person do it again trying to beat his/her last time. Want to challenge teamwork? Partner up! 
  2. Take a daily walk, with a twist. Many kids find walks boring. So jazz it up and make it a game. Bring the dog, if you have. Bring a football and play catch while walking. Or, end the walk with family competition (football, wiffle ball) – adults against the kids! 
  3. Turn chores into a game. Instead of saying “I have to do something”, try switching your perspective to “I get to do something.” Just this slight word change can change the amount of energy you bring to the task. If you said, “I get to do laundry today”, it sounds exciting, right? For example, when putting away your laundry, grab a partner and make it a relay! Maybe open up your sock drawer and see how many balled up socks you can make it in your drawer from 6 feet away. Get creative with your chores and you will find you and your family genuinely saying, ”I get to do chores today!” 
  4. Get outside in nature. Of course, respecting social distancing, find a peaceful spot outside. Enjoy the air. If you haven’t already, this is the perfect time to bring the healthy habit of meditation into your day. An easy way to start is to go outside, find a tree, and have a seat. Focus on just one leaf on the tree, watch it blow in the wind, and intently listen to hear the noise of that one leaf blowing in the wind. This will help the start of blocking out all other noise in that one moment.


From our team to yours, stay present, safe, healthy, and have fun!

Taste the Rainbow: The New Rainbow Salad Lab in California’s Lu Sutton Elementary


Wellness in the Schools continually adapts our lessons to meet the needs of our communities. In some cases, the partnership between WITS Chefs and schools is so strong that an entire new curriculum is created. The Rainbow Salad Lab is one of those colorful cases. 

The idea was born from a collaboration between WITS Chef Cait Olesky and Lu Sutton Elementary School garden coordinator Erin Compton. Erin and Chef Cait decided to refresh a Greens Lab taught a few years ago with a new, colorful twist – adding the bounty of locally grown California produce and a “mix-and-match create your class salad” activity.

Why is Lu Sutton Elementary such a great place for the Rainbow Salad Lab? Lu Sutton Elementary has a fantastic garden, and gardening is a regular part of the school curriculum. Students are familiar with the yearly life cycle of the garden and all it has to offer. Erin keeps the school garden bountiful year-round with greens (lettuces, chard, and kale), apples, beets, squashes, pumpkins, herbs, and more. 


Not being able to teach in person this year hasn’t stopped Erin’s creativity. She has found many innovative ways to keep students involved, even if they couldn’t be weeding and harvesting as they usually do. One of these innovations was to focus on California agriculture, as it is a considerable producer of greens, citrus, stone fruits, berries, nuts, and floriculture. California grows nearly 100% of the U.S. artichoke crop, with 80% of that produced in Monterey County – not far from Lu Sutton!  

For the Rainbow Salad Lab, Chefs Cait and Nancy Larson teach a virtual-live lab to each class. Chef Cait demonstrates making the same salad and herb vinaigrette for all classes. All of the Lab ingredients are grown in California and can frequently be found in the school’s garden. The Lab also includes items often in the cafeteria lunches that students take home, such as sunflower seeds, craisins, and apples. 

As with all our Labs, we discuss the health benefits of each ingredient in the salad. This nutrition lesson  includes information on the vitamins and nutrients of the leafy greens, fruits, vegetables, and the benefits of the healthy fats such as avocado and olive oil.

The fun and learning continues with the “mix-and-match create your class salad recipe” activity. Each class collectively chooses from a list of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, plus items such as cheese, olives, and herbs. Their choices are then added to a green salad base.  At the end of the week, class recipes are put into a hat, and Chef Cait blindly chooses one to distribute to the entire school, as “Class XXXX’s California Rainbow Salad”. Students will even get a take-home spice packet to mix into oil and vinegar at home for a delicious dressing.

It is an action-packed lesson with gardening, cooking, nutrition, local agriculture, and an element of surprise all wrapped into one. What makes the lesson memorable, like all WITS Labs, is that it is a complete sensory experience: students are smelling and tasting the ingredients that they are hearing about, and forming these connections.

Chef Cait says of the Rainbow Salad Lab, “this Lab is a fun and creative way to motivate kids to make and eat a big beautiful salad with local ingredients and also ones that are easily accessible to all of our families.” 

It turns out that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, is actually a bowl. And that bowl is filled with salad.

How We Show Up


On the backdrop of a deadly pandemic that exposed the underlying economic and health disparities that have long impacted the high poverty and minority communities we serve, we then witnessed tragedy after tragedy which continued to highlight the broken systems that harm our Black and Brown families.  Wellness in the Schools pledges to fight this systemic injustice by doing what we do best – nourish (#feedkidsrealfood), strengthen (#letkidsplay) and sustain (#getkidsgreen) the communities we serve. 


And we acknowledge that is not that simple. Our first step is to center the experiences and perspectives of our Black and Brown colleagues and communities.  We are committed to actively listening with facilitator support to ensure that our work reflects the diverse resources and team talents of our Black and Brown colleagues. This will ultimately make us better and stronger.


The events during the last three months have impacted our entire team deeply. As the school year ends, we want to thank the amazingly talented, passionate, committed and wonderfully diverse Wellness in the Schools team. On March 13th, the work as they knew it came to an end. They could no longer engage face to face with children, with school cooks, or with recess aides. They could no longer find reward in the day-to-day challenges that made up their jobs. Instead, they pivoted and kept Wellness in the Schools thriving with reinvention of roles and teams. Some did this while sharing computers with their own school age children, while juggling other jobs, while mourning the loss of loved ones. They showed up in an extraordinary way, giving us a greater view into the very resourcefulness they have used everyday in our schools. For that, we are grateful.


Although upon tragedy, we are taking this opportunity to learn, be more responsive and ultimately, be more impactful.


Nancy, Bill, Marion

Winter Chef Partner Recipe

Chef Raquel graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education after completing her externship at Le Bernardin.

In 2009, Chef Raquel created A Pinch of Salt, which offers hands-on cooking instruction focused on healthy, delicious meals. Chef Raquel’s commitment to healthy cooking was recognized both near and far, leading to an invitation to the South Lawn for Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign. She then joined Wellness in the Schools as a WITS Chef, and worked with us for several years.

Chef Raquel is passionate about helping start up food entrepreneurs succeed. She consults, provides ServSafe training and culinary training for small businesses in Fairfield County. She can also be found doing cooking demos, workshops and classes for The Bridgeport Farmers Market Collaborative, local organizations, recreational centers, food pantries and senior centers.

Recipe: Three Sister Tacos

Recipe Prepared by Chef Raquel Rivera-Pablo

Serves: 6


1 small spaghetti squash, halved lengthwise

1 small red onion, minced

1-2 cloves of garlic, minced

1-15 oz. can of low-sodium black beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 lime, zest and juice

olive oil

salt & pepper to taste

1 bunch of cilantro, chopped


1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  

2. Rub each half of the spaghetti squash with olive oil.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place spaghetti squash cut side down on a baking dish lined with foil and roast until tender, approximately 35-40 minutes. Remove from oven, cool slightly. Use a fork to scrape the inside flesh until it shreds into spaghetti strands. Set aside.

3. In a pan, warm 1 Tbs. of olive oil and cook onion until softened and translucent. Add garlic and cumin and cook for 30 seconds then add beans and corn. Remove from heat and cool.  

4. Add the zest and juice of the lime and cilantro to the bean-corn mixture.

5. To assemble: Heat a corn tortilla in a pan. Fill tortilla with spaghetti squash and bean-corn mixture over the top and more cilantro. Enjoy!

Chef Notes: To make spaghetti squash in a hurry, cut a slit in the squash lengthwise then use a fork to poke holes throughout.  Place in the microwave and cook on High for 5 minutes. Remove and then cut completely in half where you make the slit. Remove seeds. Take one or both halves and place cut side down in a baking dish. Fill with water, covering the squash by 1 inch. Microwave on High for 5 minutes, and then in 2 minute intervals until squash is tender. Remove, drain, and scrape the pulp and season with salt and pepper!

Winter Fitness Partner Tip

“To all my KerboomKidz out there, always remember to be yourself and do great things for others! Being a leader isn’t always easy but it is worth it! You can do whatever you set your mind to whether it is in school, activities or at home. Always remember, you are great!

“One easy way that you can stay active every day is starting your morning with 10 jumping jacks! They are simple, fun, and will help you start your day!”- Kershel Anthony, CEO of KerboomKidz

WITS West Chefs “Wok” the Line

By: Hollie Greene

January 2019

This January, our WITS Chefs out West rang in the New Year with a healthy concept to excite Novato California high school students about their cafeteria menu: a featured chef pop-up where they can build their own grain, protein and vegetable bowl. The build-a-bowl food trend of 2018 remains popular in fast-casual restaurants across the Bay Area where Poke Bowls, Quinoa Bowls, and Sushi Bowls are colorful, crunchy, and packed with healthy options.

Working with their restaurant partners, Chefs Bruce Hill and Ethan Howard, WITS Chefs Cait Olesky and Nancy Larson “wok’d the line,” serving up healthy stir fry dishes for the first one hundred students that could locate the pop-up station in the Novato High and San Marin cafeterias. Students chose as many vegetables as they wished in their stir fry from their salad bar. Options included favorites like baby corn, water chestnuts, spinach, sugar snap peas, and shredded carrots. Next, they brought their selections up to the wok, where in just under sixty seconds WITS Chefs quickly sauteed their veggies with a splash of signature garlic ginger soy sauce, serving it over whole grain brown rice. Students who wanted to create an even more plant-forward meal chose the pre-cooked ginger tofu protein option, and those looking for a little more kick opted for the sriracha chicken option. Grace Nakashima, President of the Cultural Culinary Club, says, “I’m excited about the chef pop-up bars because they introduce healthy ways to introduce cultural foods that aren’t typically represented in the cafeteria and may also encourage students to cook and eat healthier at home.” Members of the school administration staff also got to participate in the event. Says Campus Supervisor Monique Bethel, “This meal was delicious! I especially enjoyed the tofu. I don’t usually eat tofu!”

Our team dreamed up this concept after learning from the best practices of Vermont Food Services Director, Doug Davis, of the Burlington School Food Project. When Burlington High Schools started offering made to order solutions during the 2015-2016 school year, they saw their vegetable consumption go up, students started lining up early for lunch, and in a surprising twist, they saw students taking the tofu protein option most often. Our vision for the Novato pilot is to create an opportunity to engage with students in a new way, learning which global flavor profiles and creative custom meal solutions they would vote to see in future chef pop-ups, with a goal of three to four new K-12 fully reimbursable menu options to be rolled out during the 2019-2020 school year.

Let Kids Play, and Let’s Move for Kids!

By: Wendy Siskin

January 2019

Through first-hand experience and personal testimonials from students, parents, and teachers, we have always believed that the Wellness in the Schools Coach for Kids program reinvents the outdoor recess experience, and gets kids more active. Our evaluation from Tisch Food Center shows strong data points that support and affirm this belief as truth. Our program leads to a 10-fold increase of activity levels, when recess is indoors due to inclement weather. Studies have also proven that our programming increases activity levels throughout the whole school day. The overall increase of positive play encourages and increases pro-social behaviors. Teachers have reported that there has been a significant decrease in the time it takes for students to be ready to learn, after returning to the classroom from a Wellness in the Schools lunch and recess.

As our Coach for Kids Flagship program continues to grow, and we continue to analyze its impact, we have been able to expand our reach with the pilot of our BootCamp program.  BootCamp is a district wide 3-day workshop, designed to train teachers and recess aides on how to provide more opportunities for movement. Our curriculum extensively covers topics such as how to create a healthy recess environment, and how to implement classroom fitness tools. Once trained, a Wellness in the Schools Coach provides weekly follow up support for the duration of the school year. School wellness leaders can change the culture of schools by developing a holistic plan for year-long wellness events and activities. The BootCamp program equips the school wellness leaders with these tools in a sustainable way.

With all the excitement around the Coach for Kids program and its success, the demand for the programming continues to rise. Our 2nd Annual Move for Kids fundraiser is around the corner. During the week of January 28th, fitness studios throughout NYC and Miami will be hosting charity classes with all proceeds going to bring Coach for Kids to a high-need school! Come join the fun, click here for more details, and sweat with us so we can get more kids moving!

School Food Innovation Lab: A Collaborative Effort to Revolutionize School Food

By: Joan Chung

January 2019

This year, Wellness in the Schools will spearhead a truly collaborative effort to change the future of school food in this country. Wellness in the Schools, along with the Life Time Foundation, will kick off the School Food Innovation Lab (SFIL) this spring. SFIL will gather School Food Service Directors across the nation, as well as leaders of organizations in the school lunch space, to combine independent efforts in order to make greater change.

The school food landscape has seen significant changes over the years. Due to rising childhood obesity rates and, subsequently, a louder push for health initiatives, there has been greater scrutiny on the future of school food. In response, a number of nonprofits, for-profits, school districts, and other innovators have devised programs and tested groundbreaking models in schools across the country. As a result, scratch-cooked items are being incorporated into school cafeteria menus, edible gardens are cropping up all over the country, and nutrition education is being integrated into the school day. Yet, the question remains – how can we combine these independent efforts to better feed this upcoming generation? SFIL aims to address that very question.

The preliminary planning process has already begun, and the call to action has been sent out. Once participants are finalized, SFIL will officially begin with a two-day, in-person meeting in the summer, and then will be followed by three subsequent calls that will take place throughout the following year. WITS has engaged a facilitator to lead the participants in the discussions and to guide the team in devising a collaborative roadmap for systemic change.

After a year of planning and conversation, the team will produce a roadmap to implement programming of best practices in a “test” school district, as well as strategies for overcoming barriers to innovation. This pilot program will be put to the test for the 2020 – 2021 school year, and will be monitored and supported by the SFIL team.

The 31 million school children receiving school lunch deserve better, and nationwide reform cannot be fully achieved through a singular endeavor. Through a combined effort, and as a collective team, we will be able to make a sustainable and powerful change that transforms the school food landscape, one plate at a time.