“I like a difference in texture in my applesauce,” says WITS Chef Kisha. “I’m going to now give it a quick taste, and make sure that I keep stirring to keep it from burning.” Chef Cameo’s Zoom video suddenly pops up on the screen. “Chef Kisha, someone in the class had a question — why would the applesauce burn?” “Anything that is exposed to heat can burn,” replies Chef Kisha, “Apples have a lot of sugar in them, and sugar also tends to burn quite a bit, especially if it’s in contact with the bottom of a pot. So you just have to be mindful of that.” She brings up a spoonful to the screen, so that everyone can see the texture of the applesauce.
Chef Kisha and Chef Cameo are in the middle of a live, virtual WITS Applesauce Lab with 30 students of West Prep Academy. Chef Kisha is busy stirring a steaming pot, with two cameras set up — one in front of her, and one suspended over the pot. Chef Cameo, in the meantime, moderates the Zoom chat room to relay the students’ questions as they come in: How can we make it less chunky? Is it supposed to be liquidy? Do we add water if we want it to be liquidy? There’s really no sugar added in it? Can we put it in a blender? It doesn’t look like ‘normal’ applesauce…it tastes good though, right? One student doesn’t have a question, but types in the chat, “This is fun!”
Our WITS Chefs and Coaches have suddenly turned into script-writers, directors, camera crew, and video subjects all at once. It goes without saying that Wellness in the Schools Programming this school year looks very, very different. We are used to emulsifying salad dressings side-by-side with our students, and high-fiving each other on the recess yard (can you even imagine?! High fives!). This year, our students can find our WITS Chefs and Coaches on their desktop screens and phones, bringing the same level of encouragement and guidance and (virtual) high fives through our virtual WITS Programming.
Of course, the work set-up has been quite a big difference from being in schools. “I look for a ‘golden hour’ when family, pets, neighbors, and construction will not be too loud. I turn off fans and the A/C unit, turn on extra lights, and then it’s go time,” says WITS Chef Kent. Chef Kisha speaks about her makeshift filming station, “Negotiating space has been a bit of a challenge since I don’t live alone. Most days, my workspace has been the bedroom. It is one of the few places that I can shut out the rest of the world. With a box full of chefware sent from the office, I can turn any area into a kitchen!” Says WITS Chef Victoria, “I like to review my script and consider where I can have some fun, and highlight it on the actual script as a reminder. You spend a lot of time in your head to “get it right,” but the downside is that you tend to forget to have some fun. Just as in the classroom, our virtual audience is kids. They expect, and deserve, some fun!”
One of our keys to success has been having a moderator separate from the WITS Chef demoing the recipe or WITS Coach leading the children through an exercise. “Keeping the students engaged with questions in the chat and through video would be incredibly difficult to do while teaching,” says Chef Cameo. Chef Kisha agrees, “The moderator is instrumental in helping the class flow, and reminding the chef or coach if they accidentally miss a key point. The moderator can also work out the lighting and camera angles with you through video.”
Says Program Manager Errol, “The biggest success has been seeing the students’ faces on the screen in real-time; this was equivalent to interacting with students in the recess yard. This adds a new level of excitement for the WITS Coaches, who have waited for student engagement these past few months and are used to seeing happiness in a kid’s face every day. The Coaches found themselves recreating the feeling you get in the recess yard and hoping they’re having fun.” Says Chef Jenee, “As I’ve started this new, unprecedented way of teaching WITS content, one surprising thing that I’ve experienced has been the unbroken connection with students over the shared experience of joy and excitement around delicious and healthy food. It was great to see students’ faces light up when tasting a kale smoothie that they prepared during a virtual WITS Lab.”
Of course, nothing replaces being in schools. Our WITS Chefs and Coaches miss their students terribly. “I hate not being there,” says Chef Anwar, “Nothing beats being there.” However, our ultimate goal is to continue carrying out our mission: teaching kids healthy habits to learn and live better. “We continue to be a part of the communities that we have worked so hard for over the years, especially during a time when familiar relationships are crucial. Our students know that we are truly going through this with them, and that we care about how they are,” says Chef Kisha. While it’s difficult to not be in schools, and virtual teaching (especially live) can feel like a whole new territory, we know that now more than ever, we need to emphasize the importance of health, nutrition, and exercise within our communities. Chef Victoria said it best: “The community, the world, needs to build their immune system now, more than ever. We talk about masks and hand washing, but we’re not talking about our everyday health and what we can do to keep ourselves strong. It’s like two legs of a three legged stool. We have an opportunity here and organizations like ours have the tools and the people to make change. Health needs to be made a priority across the board, beginning with ourselves.”