An Ounce of Prevention Equals a Pound of Cure

At Wellness in the Schools, we are all about teaching children how to keep their bodies and minds healthy. March is National Nutrition Month, so we’ve asked WITS Chef Ricardo, who is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, for some expert insight into how to choose healthy foods. All month, Ricardo, our WITS Chef at several schools in the Bronx (CS 55X, PS 73X, Ampark Neighborhood School PS 344X, and PS/MS 95X), will tell us why certain foods are beneficial for our bodies in his weekly #TuesdayTips on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In this post, he explains how the makeup of our digestive tract allows our bodies to make the most of the nutrients we consume.

Nourishing the gut

By Ricardo Diaz, RDN

Did you know that our gastrointestinal tract does more than take in nutrients? While our guts mainly let in the elements of food that allow us to survive and thrive, our guts are also similar to our skin: the gut prevents inappropriate elements of our outside environment from entering our bodies (like harmful bacteria and allergens).

While our intestines have an extensive and sensitive network of immune cells to immediately handle threats to our body, that’s not the only player in determining our gut health. We are also tremendously impacted by the population of bacteria that reside in our gut — collectively known as the microbiome.

What we eat has a major impact on the balance of bacteria in our microbiome. Eating large amounts of sugar promotes the growth of “bad” bacteria over the “good” bacteria, which can impair digestion and cause inflammation. Over time, this contributes to diseases like gluten sensitivity, obesity, fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease.

At WITS, we teach children about the dangers of consuming too much sugar through bite-sized interactive lessons called WITS BITS. While staying away from sweet treats is a challenge, involving children in food decisions and offering healthier alternatives can help build a framework for a healthy lifestyle.  

We also emphasize the importance of “eating the rainbow,” or aiming for a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. Fruits and veggies are full of fiber, which promotes more diverse bacteria in our guts, supporting our overall health.

Keeping balance between the beneficial and detrimental types of bacteria can have a positive impact on our health. Next time you are searching for a snack, trade in a sugary snack for cut up apple slices and yogurt dip (recipe below), and your gut will thank you!

We teach this simple yogurt dip recipe during our WITS Labs. Kids love the added flavor of the cinnamon and lemon zest.

Yogurt Dip for Fruit
Makes about 1 cup

1 cup Greek-style low fat yogurt, or 1 ½ cups plain low fat yogurt
2 Tbsp honey
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp fresh grated lemon zest

In a small bowl, stir together all ingredients. Serve as a dip for fresh fruit.

WITS Joins the Campbell’s Healthy Communities Collective in Camden

by Ellen Emerson, Chef Coordinator

In the spring, WITS joined the Healthy Communities collective in Camden, NJ, an initiative sponsored by Campbell Soup Foundation to address childhood obesity and hunger in their hometown communities. Our WITS team is working as part of a collective impact model at KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, alongside FoodCorps leading gardening efforts, the Food Bank of South Jersey teaching Cooking Matters and other programs, and the Food Trust promoting HYPE (healthy you, positive energy) teen engagement and other programs. We are collaborating to connect these programs to the cafeteria, and vice versa.

Our part-time chef, Brian Ricci, a seasoned chef who has worked in top Philadelphia restaurants, joined our team in late September. He’s based in the Aramark-led cafeteria kitchen at KIPP in Camden, busy spreading the WITS mission. Brian works side by side with the cafeteria staff to help serve more than 900 lunches daily. “I am a shiny new object, and have said to the school staff, ‘use me how you can to make yourselves and your school better’. We all have the same mission to do good – to encourage everyone to be healthy.” Brian understands the importance of kids eating well – he has two children of his own, and says, “half the battle is familiarizing them with fresh food – exposing them over and over again to new ingredients.”

WITS joined the other partners in leading a professional development session for teachers at the KIPP campus, telling them about the various programs the Collective is bringing to the campus, from tastings to nutrition classes to a focus on the menu. In addition we’ve regularly joined students for lunch and have had a lot of fun sharing stories and jokes. What do you call a fake noodle? An impasta!

WITS has teamed with FoodCorps, the Food Bank and Food Trust on a series of tastings, from a recent corn salsa to an upcoming spiced apple crunch, with lots more tempting bites in planning! “My goal is to show the school how easy it is to eat healthy – both at school, and at home,” said Chef Brian. “And they are so excited to have us onboard to make wellness a reality.”

Celebrating Food Day by Welcoming Wellness in the Schools to Miami

Originally posted by Jackie Sayet on The Genuine Kitchen

Today is Food Day, and we are excited to welcome Wellness in the Schools to Miami. United around the conviction that healthier bodies make healthier minds and that, conversely, unhealthy school environments interfere with student health, school attendance and academic achievement, Executive Director and Co-Founder Nancy Easton is armed with a strong troop of supporters, many of them chefs.  For good reason!  Chef Bill Telepan, a champion of this nonprofit’s efforts in NYC to improve school lunch and educate kids about healthy eating, asked his friend Michael Schwartz for help in bringing this great work to South Florida.  Of course his reply was, I’m in!

About a year later, Nancy is in town giving a keynote at University of Miami this evening marking Food Day and a milestone for the organization’s arrival here.  Over lunch at Michael’s Genuine®, we met the four chefs who have been hired by WITS and trained to work on-site with cafeteria staff to prepare daily scratch-cooked meals and educate families about the importance of eating healthy food.  Across Miami-Dade and Broward County, chefs Michael, Bradley Kilgore (Alter), Aaron Brooks (Edge Steak & Bar at the Four Seasons Miami) and Clark Bowen (DB Bistro) will each visit their respective schools for special “Café Days” throughout the school year, where they can make an impact first hand with their cheffy know-how.  Think special recipe demos and tastings, dishes for school lunch menus based around fresh ingredients, farmers market visits to see first hand where food comes from, and more…  As we well know through early work with Phyllis Wheatley Elementary and Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools, the smallest things can sometimes have the biggest impact.  Michael’s school chef partner Leonor Azpurua at McNicol Middle School in South Broward pointed to recently popping into classrooms to taste basil harvested from a nearby community garden with students.  And that’s not even in the cafeteria! “The principal is very supportive, but it’s the kids that really want this,” she shared.

In the past eleven years, WITS has cooked over 11 million school meals and led more than 54,000 hours of play.  We had lots of questions for Nancy, as you might imagine, especially about what we can expect here in Miami.  Here’s a little taste of what’s to come!


The Genuine Kitchen:  What’s the most rewarding part of the job? Can you provide one anecdote that says it all?

Nancy Easton: I often say that I keep at this year after year because it is indeed, so rewarding. I see “victories” every day – from kids wanting seconds and thirds of kale salad to principals telling us how much our program is changing their school culture. It sounds silly, but when I walk into schools and see bags of chips and sleeves of cookies on the cafeteria floor, it just makes me so happy to see these same kids wanting more and more kale. They are hungry. They will eat what is in front of them.

A recent reward was actually from a principal. Our focus is not necessarily on the adults in our communities and we do not focus on weight or appearance, but we do hope that our work is making everyone think twice about their own health, starting with the kids. A principal recently told us that thanks to our program, she lost 30 pounds over the summer and that she has so much more energy and feels so healthy.

TGK: What gets kids to eat healthy? Describe a kid’s palate!

NE: As an educator, I always insist on pairing a very good education program with the changes we want to make. It is tough to put organic tofu in front of a kid (or anyone) without educating on the “why”. While our focus is in the kitchen and on the recess yard, we support this centerpiece with a robust educational program – from WITS Labs to WITS BITS to FIT BITS to Family Fitness Fun Nights.  I also want to make it loud and clear that most kids are very open to new discoveries (and they are hungry!).  If you continue to provide kids with delicious healthy choices, they will devour them. Do not give up. It can take persistence.

TGK:  What’s a favorite dish or ingredient that has won them over from your experience in NYC?

NE: I think at this point our vegetarian chili is our signature dish! Everyone loves it. It is served in the cafeteria regularly and we make it on our winter WITS Lab (seasonal cooking class). It is so well spiced and seasoned that the kids don;t even miss the meat. We use three different beans as our protein source. Kids also love hummus, another dish made with a bean (chickpea).

TGK:  Why Miami?

NE: The story of coming to South Florida is actually a sweet one. We obviously look for like-minded markets that are ready of change. And, in the case of South Florida, the head of a local community foundation (Melissa White) was asked by a community member help to create a healthier local school. Melissa googled and found Wellness in the Schools, an organization founded by her camp counselor (yours truly)! I guess she thought that if I could teach her how to swim and play tennis that I could possibly run a wellness organization. Melissa helped us to find 3 others schools in South Florida so that it was worth our efforts and resources to come down.


TGK:  What’s the biggest challenge entering a new market, and describe your approach

NE: We look to new markets as the building new networks – we spend a good deal of time getting to know people and learning about their needs and assets. For the work we do, and to bring about change in general, we rely heavily on the building of relationships and in the case of a new market, on the needs of that community. We are not here to say: “Here is the only way that works. Do it now.” We are here to listen to the specific needs of a community, to tap into the resources of that community (both human and otherwise) and to build relationships and trust in that community so that we can share/implement our models together. We have been incredibly fortunate to hire a staff in South Florida who are dedicated and talented and fabulous. They have learned from our team in NYC and have executed with precision and frankly, with patience. Change is happening at a pace slower than they want, but we have high standards and they are driven to meet those standards, working with local resources and local change agents.

TGK:  What is food day all about, and where does it fit in in the overall big picture of your objectives at WITS!

NE: Honestly, Food Day to me is like Women’s History Month or Black History Month. One day? One month? Food Day is very day for me but I am of course happy that we give more focus to food on this one day. The topic of “food” touches on so many charged and difficult issues – from children’s health to food insecurity to climate change. WITS comes to food day from the perspective of children’s health and specifically childhood obesity. We bring awareness about the issue through our programming and our activism/advocacy.

WITS is on the Road! Next Stop: South Florida

by Nancy Easton

This section of our website is a place for our leaders and team members to share stories from our journeys as we implement our great work here in NYC and in new destinations across the country.  The ultimate journey is one that we have been on together for over 10 years – to create healthier places for children to learn and grow.  As we do this, we know we are part of a dedicated community working to combat the childhood obesity epidemic.  We know that schools are such an important place to start.  We know that schools should be examples for good health and positive play.  We are helping school leaders set a healthy example – one school, one city, and region at a time.

I think it is quite appropriate that our first entry begins with my hometown, Key Biscayne, Florida.  Full disclosure: this particular “on the road” was not exactly a work trip.  I did meet with some of our new partners in South Florida, but this trip was during my son Will’s school break to spend some time in the sun.  My youngest, Zane, was not on break, but he joined us because we believe that playing sports and riding bikes is just as important as third grade math.  Sadie and my husband stayed behind (someone has to represent at school and work).

And, here is why this trip deserves the first Wellness on the Road entry:

As I rode my bike from my dad’s home on Key Biscayne to my elementary school, showing the kids my childhood route (they rolled their eyes), I realized that there were far fewer bikes on the sidewalks and far fewer bikes parked in the elementary school lot than when I was a kid 40 years ago.  As we biked around, I reflected on my elementary school years (yes, I remember them like they were yesterday).  My favorite subject was Physical Education (PE); and achieving greatness on the Presidential Physical Fitness was my ultimate goal. Remember the Presidential Physical Fitness test? I did set the record for the arm flex hang in 2nd grade (102.8 seconds) and in the 50-yard dash in 6th grade (6.3 seconds).  I still wonder if Glenn Peroni was a bit delayed on hitting those two blocks together at the start, hence causing our beloved Mr. Foster to get my start a bit late from the finish line.  I didn’t argue then, though. Glory days . . .

WITS Coach for Kids Director Wendy Siskin leads a Fit Bit training for teachers in South Florida schools.

Key Biscayne, a small town, produced many college athletes and even a few pros – probably not unlike many small towns in the 70’s.  But that was back when PE was everyone’s favorite subject and when we actually had PE each and every day. That was back when preparing for a competition or a race was treated like the sharpening of #2 pencils or the eating of a good breakfast for the city-wide tests of today.  That was back when kids biked or walked to school and lunches were made from scratch and we drank only water to hydrate.  Really, what kid loses enough electrolytes in a one-hour soccer game to warrant a 32 ounce bottle of a “sports drink” (and the 56 grams of sugar that comes with it)?

So, WITS will begin work at Key Biscayne Community School this month – in my elementary school. The story of how we landed there is a good one, and it is not because I asked. The head of the local foundation, Melissa White, was approached by a donor with the charge to create healthier schools.  Melissa did her Google research and came upon WITS and me.  When she saw that her former camp counselor was now leading a national non-profit, she looked no further. There was also local demand – a (failed) mandate in the state Legislature demanding daily recess in schools, and a petition launched by a group of local moms demanding the same. And, it didn’t hurt that my father is a long time Key Biscayne resident and a big fan and supporter of Melissa’s (like he is to many kids with whom we were raised).  Key Biscayne has become an affluent community and we insisted on bringing our work beyond the community, to several other schools across South Florida, where there is even greater need. WITS has always focused our work in high poverty communities because we know that poverty and obesity are linked, yet we also know that all kids deserve healthy places to learn. Good food and good play are not a privilege, but a right.  Thanks to the help and support of Melissa, of Penny Parham (Administrative Director in the Department of Food and Nutrition for Dade County), of Mary Muldor (Director of Food Nutrition Service for Broward County) and of the Florida Department of Agriculture, we will indeed bring our work to approximately 4,000 more children and 4 more communities.  We are excited and anxious to dive in and do our part to bring wellness back to these communities.