New WITS Labs are a Home Run


With students back in school this year, we brought new labs to the WITS curriculum. All three of our new WITS Labs — Squash Soup, Spaghetti Squash, and Seasonal Herbs — along with our nutrition education and in-class tastings have brought students much joy amidst the ongoing stressors of the COVID pandemic. WITS Chefs continue to be outstanding role models and positive forces in all of our markets. Equally wonderful are all of our partners, especially Baldor Specialty Foods, who have donated ingredients to the Labs. Read on for the amazing highlights and experiences of our Chefs in classrooms throughout NYC and Florida these past few months. 

Chef Ricardo’s Squash Soup at PS/MS95, Bronx, NY

This November, I had the pleasure and privilege to bring Labs back to one of my schools in the Bronx, PS/MS 95X. I taught 6th through 8th grade over the course of a week. After eight years of WITS programming, the students are familiar with our message and curriculum. But more than anything else, after watching me cook over Zoom in the last school year they were simply excited to roll up their sleeves, grab a knife and cutting board and prepare and taste some of the food! 

The star of this Lab was Butternut Squash, an immune-boosting superstar packed with Vitamins A and C, and dietary fiber. As an orange veggie, I had to take a moment in class to point out the similarities and differences between squash and sweet potatoes (more commonly seen in PS95’s school lunch and surrounding supermarkets). The squash was prepared as a soup, which was a first for any of my schools. Seasoned with thyme and garlic, I particularly enjoyed the flavor and warming qualities of the soup. It was also easy to prepare. 

WITS Labs in the age of COVID have required a major overhaul from pre-pandemic times. Ordinarily, students would get to see a meal actively prepared in front of them and participate in its development by cutting vegetables, adding seasoning, stirring the pot, and much more. This time around, I prepared all of the soup ahead of time so it could be reheated and served in sealed containers to my classes. To balance the pandemic guidelines around serving food against providing as many experiential learning opportunities in the lesson, I found it most effective to allow students to engage with individual elements of the recipe as we read through it. Students got an opportunity to practice their knife skills dicing apples, tried to identify thyme by sight and smell from a selection of herbs, and tasted squash a couple of different ways. 

All in all, the students generally enjoyed the opportunity to engage with an ingredient that was either new to them or prepared in a way they had never tried before. Teachers happily allowed children to take out their phones at the end of the class to get a snapshot of the recipe while doing the same themselves. And even the parents got to see the Lab in action when I was invited for an encore (virtual) demonstration at the following Parent Association meeting.

Chef Laurielle’s Spaghetti Squash at PS 151, Brooklyn, NY

Finally back in the Labs at one of my favorite schools in Brooklyn — PS151! This was my first in-person WITS Lab with the students since June 2020. The students were full of excitement as they knew to expect a fun class of Labs and instead of trying to imagine the aromas and taste of the recipe virtually, they were actually going to experience a LIVE class.

For this round of Labs, the students were learning about and making a recipe using spaghetti squash. This particular squash is in season in the Fall and Winter and it was important to introduce and learn about a new item that grows during this season. Students were very familiar with pumpkins and apples but spaghetti squash was a new fruit (because it has seeds) for most of them. We talked about the nutritional components like fiber and Vitamin C which is usually a discussion for most of the Lab classes. We talked about its comparison to pumpkins but also how unique and different the texture of the spaghetti squash is. We also chatted about the seeds and reminded students that they are edible and make a great healthy snack, once roasted. I had a display of other types of squash including gourds, acorns, delicata, and kabocha. But what really stood out for the students was that this recipe actually looks like SPAGHETTI! The students were able to pull the flesh of the squash with a fork and create the spaghetti noodles, which is quite unique for a squash. They loved it! They had a choice to sprinkle parmesan cheese, pepitas, and/or pan-fried sage as a garnish. I received many positive comments from the students and staff: “I wish that this recipe would be available for lunch at school!” “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted!” “It really does look like SPAGHETTI!”

The process of preparing and production for this Lab was quite involved. All of the squash (50 pounds) had to be cut, seeds removed, seasoned, cooked, and stored on the Monday before classes began. I prepared another 50 pounds of squash mid-week for the remainder of the classes. I taught a total of 20 classes for students in grades Kindergarten through 5th grade.

Overall this was an extraordinary Lab experience for the entire school community and I can’t wait to hear from the students once they’ve tried the recipe with a loved one.

Chef Sara’s Apple Labs, Colbert Elementary, Hollywood, FL

This December our first in-person Labs were taught by chef Sara at Colbert Elementary in Broward County, Florida Colbert is a special school and there is so much support from the administration, faculty, and cafeteria staff that our programs really have a chance to shine through and connect with students. This is largely due to Sara’s excellent work. She presents the class with so much clarity and warmth that you can sense the students’ engagement. We were also lucky to have the support of our Broward Food & Nutrition staff who were onsite and really happy with how it had been managed. Here is how it went for Sara:

It was fun to be back in full swing. The kids were excited and the teachers were looking forward to being back to the cooking classes. Almost all the groups missed our in-person cooking activities.  We were able to accomplish what we set out to do — 360 students learned about apples. We also made applesauce and everyone got to taste it. They liked that applesauce and enjoyed the wonderful smell coming from the classroom. A third-grade student told me, “Yes!! We are finally cooking again!”

Chef Victoria’s Herb Labs, PS555 & PS145M, Bronx/Manhattan, NY

WITS Lab curriculum includes many recipes with herbs as an ingredient. We discuss herbs during all of our Lab lessons but never before have we focused on them exclusively. Our Bouquet Garni Lab included four herbs — thyme, parsley, rosemary, and oregano — and these four fresh ingredients open up a world of possibilities for WITS Lab instructors and the children we teach. In addition to discussing herbs’ role in flavoring food and providing nutrients, our discussions are also tailored to the various curricula of each grade: we explored how and where they are grown (in the wild, in gardens and on farms, and in pots at home) and their properties, when they are fresh, versus dried; aromatherapeutic uses; medicinal applications including that of Native Americans and the Chinese. We used our senses to explore: smell, sight, feel and taste. 

After exploring the herbs and learning the nutrition, medicinal and culinary values, and uses, each child created their own Bouquet Garni or bundle of herbs, and we discussed ways to use the fresh bundle and/or dry the herb for future use. 

One teacher shared that the kids in her class kept pulling their bouquet garni out of their bags to look at them throughout the day, Another teacher told me that at afterschool the kids were talking about their bouquet and the Lab at the after school program. And a dear student said, “This class gets 11,000 out of 10!”