After 18 years since our founding in New York City, Wellness in the Schools has reached an extraordinary milestone expanding to all NYC public schools for our Chefs in the Schools program! Our Menu Development and Chef Training program, officially named Chefs in the Schools, in partnership with the NYC DOE, Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS), and the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, will officially launch this fall after a year of testing and tasting scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes with our Chef Council.*
We are moving forward in stride after a long history working in NYC public schools and building trust with leadership. Our growth is also possible thanks to a forward-thinking administration that last month released its Food Education Roadmap, a vision to prioritize food education in public schools. The Roadmap’s priorities mirror the core principles of Wellness in the Schools: building students’ knowledge and habits about healthy eating and wellness, ensuring access to healthy food for consumption in schools, and empowering the community with the knowledge and resources to be advocates of health and wellness.
This past year of preparation has been an exciting journey at every step of the way, from hiring 60+ new WITS Chefs to refining recipes into their most nutritious and delicious form. On the hiring side, we have collaborated with Empowered Hospitality to employ over 60 new WITS Chefs who will begin in August. We are inspired by the many extraordinary candidates, all like-minded, talented, passionate, and diverse individuals, who as many remarked “have been looking for something like this all their lives.” These new WITS Chefs will work over the next two years to reach all 1,200 school buildings, training all NYC school cooks on new recipes as well as kitchen skills more broadly.
And in the testing kitchen, the Chef Council has created 100 scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes that move through a comprehensive sampling and tasting process and then make it to the OFNS menu.
One might ask, why would we develop all of these recipes if we don’t know that the students will want to eat them or try new foods? Enter our sampling process, where during this school year, we have collected feedback from students and parents on these new recipes. At these sampling days in cafeterias, each student gets one carnival-style ticket along with their tasting cup. The students try the recipe — and at least take one “thank-you bite” if they are doubtful — and then put their ticket in a thumbs-up or thumbs-down bucket. Students were overall excited to taste something new and felt empowered that they were being asked to help make the decisions for what will be on their lunch menu in the fall. As much as the sampling days are about receiving feedback on how the recipes taste, they are also a chance to introduce some of the cultural background and celebration of these recipes. At a sampling this spring for the Vegetable Pineapple Rice recipe at The New Settlement in the Bronx, WITS Chef Kent went all-out, decorating the table with luaus and putting pineapple stickers with the ingredients and nutrition facts, all around the cafeteria. And yes, there was music, too! This experience was fun for the kids, as they got to taste a recipe while also learning and interacting with the sampling with all of their senses.
The testing and sampling processes have refined the recipes so they are ready for eager tasters at all NYC public schools this fall. Some recipes, like Rajma (Indian Spices Red Kidney Beans), generated a lot of initial feedback: almost every student at the first sampling thought it was too spicy. So, Chef Council member Bill Telepan went back to the drawing board, working with Chef Anup to adjust the spicing blend. At its next sampling, there was a marked improvement in thumbs up votes! Wellness in the Schools Chef/RDN and Chef Council member Ricardo Díaz also appreciated the highlights of the sampling process, noting that some recipes were surprisingly well-liked right from the beginning. Students loved the Sautéed Mushrooms; while mushrooms typically are not a popular vegetable among students, these mushrooms were mixed with sofrito, a common Hispanic seasoning that opened up students to the recipe. When students (and teachers) start coming up to get seconds and thirds of the samples, we know the recipe is a success! And even when the recipe starts with many thumbs-down votes, we thank the students for being honest and helping us to make the recipe even better.
As the new recipes make their way onto the OFNS menu, the Wellness in the Schools team is creating three new WITS Labs that will be a part of our traditional flagship programming model at 30 NYC public schools. The WITS Labs will highlight a “star of the show” ingredient from a Chef Council recipe, diving deep into the nutrition, history, seasonality, and connection to the cafeteria for students. Lessons for Vegetable Pineapple Rice, Jollof Cauliflower, and Kachumber Salad (Spiced Cucumber and Tomato Salad) are in the works and will be taught by WITS Chefs in our demonstration schools this fall.
As this fall ramps up with chefs in the kitchen and recipes on the menu, we are all keen on making these changes sustainable and long-term. Nancy Easton, WITS Executive Director and Co-Founder, states that she has three long-term visions for the program: that after the two years, we maintain a presence at all NYC public schools to support continued implementation; to continue developing and menuing scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes; and last but not least, Wellness in the Schools is looking forward to bringing Chefs in the Schools to other cities all over the country.
* Chef Council: Zoe Adjonyoh, Chef and Food Writer; Yemisi Awosan, Chef and Founder of Egunsi Foods; Kenneth Collins, Chef of Kemited Kitchen; Ricardo Diaz, Program Manager, Chef, and RDN, Wellness in the Schools; Anup Joshi, Chef of Green Top Farms; JJ Johnson, Chef and Television Host; Anita Lo, Chef and Restaurateur; Tyler Harvey, Sakara Production Chef; Grace Ramirez, Chef, Author, and TV Personality; Rachael Ray, Chef Council Chair, Television Personality, Author, and Philanthropist; Anthony T. Solano, Founder and Owner of ZtoJu, Afro-Latino Vegan Restaurant; Bill Telepan, Executive Chef, Wellness in the Schools; Marion Williams, National Program Director, Wellness in the Schools