One of the many wonderful images evoked when thinking about food is a table full of family and friends, sharing a meal, nourished by each others’ joy just as the food nourishes us. Our work resonates with this image: we strive to operate as one organization at a table of many, and as chefs with a diversity of experiences, cultures, and gifts to bring to the table. This diverse gathering allows us to truly serve our communities as we listen and lean in. With Fall traditions of giving gratitude, we extend a heartfelt thank you to the many partners and efforts that make Wellness in the Schools who and what we are.
One such partnership seed we are grateful to have planted is with The Common Market, beginning our work together in Camden, New Jersey over seven years ago. Fresh, local produce from The Common Market is a staple in the recipes we develop for students in Camden. In our CookCamp training, seasonal availability from The Common Market means we use and uplift what local farmers are growing in our recipes, and share the importance of eating seasonally to students on the lunch line. It also means that when the fall season is underway, all partners share the excitement of the fan-favorite recipes coming to the menu, like WITS Butternut Squash Soup and Vegetarian Chili.
The Common Market is also a strong partner in Wellness in the School’s newest district, Newark, New Jersey, where we are thrilled to bring our programming in partnership with The Common Market, Food Corp NJ, The Greater Newark Conservancy, Urban Agriculture Cooperative, and funding from Novo Nordisk. The Common Market has begun the work to increase access to fresh, local, and seasonal produce in the school community, allowing us to then develop recipes, train school cooks on preparing these scratch-cooked recipes, and increase student engagement with the same ingredients and recipes. We look forward to continuing our partnership in a new district.
Heading to Washington, D.C., Wellness in the Schools brought a pilot bilingual CookCamp training to the D.C. Bilingual School this summer, the first of its kind. Entering a new market, all of the elements of a WITS CookCamp were there: training on 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. The highlight of this partnership was providing the training in both English and Spanish for the first time, emblematic of our ethos to meet people where they are. This bilingual approach allows our formal training program to adapt to school cooks and the community, with all-bilingual side-by-side training, hands-on demonstrations, and materials like printed recipes and instructional videos.
In the three-day CookCamp, school cooks prepared 14 WITS recipes side-by-side with WITS Chefs, learned kitchen hacks, and became more confident in reading and implementing recipes throughout the training. WITS Chef and Program Manager Ricardo Díaz, RDN, reflected, “It was rewarding to see the staff take away so much from the training, especially regarding wellness and self-care being integral to the kitchen curriculum.”
In a recent update from the School Nutrition Manager at the D.C. Bilingual School, one of the recipes prepared in CookCamp — Mac and Cheese with Broccoli Trees — has already been placed on the menu. We are encouraged to see a strong partnership between school cooks and school nutrition staff, and we look forward to continuing conversations in the district. This pilot will echo to other CookCamps following D.C. Nationally, we are streamlining into a CookCamp model with ongoing (virtual) technical support, allowing our staff to support more school cooks and school districts.
Traveling to California, October brought a celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day with recipes honoring ingredients from the indigenous land. WITS Chef and Program Manager Cait Olesky prepared a Miwok Bowl for elementary school students to learn about and taste for a week of WITS Labs, honoring the Miwok tribe who originate in Central California where the Labs were taught. The Miwok Bowl combines wild and brown rice, pumpkin seeds, corn, and greens, and in the Lab, raisins and a dressing were added to the bowl for additional textures and flavors. The students learned to assemble the bowl from the ingredients, with one exclaiming, “I gotta try it ’cause I gotta be adventurous!” The tasting received many thumbs up and much excitement about trying more recipes with these ingredients in the future.
And soaring back to NYC, WITS Chefs honored Indigenous Peoples Day with a culinary demonstration at the New York Botanical Garden’s Edible Academy in their “Sensational Seeds” series for families. Ingredients from the earth were again uplifted, this time in a Fruit and Seed Bar: dried apricots and cherries paired with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and flaxseed meal, combining other baking ingredients to make this nutritious snack. WITS Chefs Marion Williams, Ricardo Diaz, and Kent Gifford spoke to attendees of all ages about how seeds grow, their nutritional power, and the many ways to use seeds (especially after pumpkin carving!). When the Fruit and Seed Bar tastings were shared, there was surprise at how simple ingredients could create a recipe so rich — rich in texture, flavor, nutritional value, and cultural significance.
Wellness in the Schools fully embraces the many ways to partner with others, listen in multiple languages, and connect across communities thousands of miles apart. We are grateful to the many partners who help us to bring our vision to life.