It’s a Wednesday at PS 145 in Manhattan, which means WITS Chefs Kisha Cromartie and Victoria Baluk are working in perfect harmony to teach WITS BITS. In these WITS BITS, which are shorter than the traditional WITS Lab and focus on a nutrition concept rather than a whole recipe, the two roll a cart into a classroom — or even teach in the hallway — and get kids excited about food and nutrition. Topics vary from Eating the Rainbow to Sugar Overload. This spring, after watching the rise of the infamous Takis snack and the purple bags of ultra-processed ingredients spreading all over school classrooms and lunchrooms, these WITS Chefs are taking action and creating a new WITS BITS lesson: Taki Takedown.
Taki Takedown teaches kids about the Takis ingredients, what makes a food addictive, and about food-triggered dopamine. But to make it even more special — and a true WITS experience — WITS Chef Kisha has created a spice blend for the kids to taste. Nicknamed the “Nomastaki” (No More Taki) Seasoning, it is made of cayenne pepper, chili powder, paprika, tajin, cumin, onion, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and a squeeze of lime. Paired with whole-grain tortilla chips, it is an excellent Taki dupe and is made of real ingredients that kids can recreate at home.
This is just one of many stories highlighting the remarkable compassion and nuanced approach Kisha brings to every school and community in which she works. Kisha started as a WITS Chef in the Bronx and Queens, supporting colleagues in the classroom and kitchen. She quickly developed relationships with and respect from the entire school. Now working with Wellness in the Schools for her 11th year, her strengths have spread: she is an incredibly strong chef, a beloved FEAST instructor, and is particularly strong with middle and high school students.
At Wellness in the Schools, strengths don’t just come from the work we do, but who we are and how we show up. Long-time WITS Chef Victoria reflects, “It is amazing how much love, integrity, passion, and spirit are packed into Kisha. Her smile is generous and her kindness is genuine, but it’s her sneaky sense of humor that I value most. Kisha’s first instinct is to bring the laugh, then we can deal with what needs attention. Kisha is a Go-To for a giggle in work and life.”
As WITS Chef Kent Gifford puts it, Kisha is wholeheartedly an “amazing woman and force of good.” He remembers back to his first time in the field at a school in 2015, observing Kisha’s WITS Tomato Sauce Lab at PS 69 in the Bronx. When a student got sick all over the desk, without hesitation, the pair of WITS Chefs had the kindergarten class singing “Tomatoes are Good” while the student was escorted to the nurse and Kisha cleaned up the desk. Then, the lab continued without a hitch. It was a fabulous demonstration of teamwork and the humor and positive outlook Kisha has working with kids and her colleagues.
WITS Chef Laurielle Clark honors Kisha as “a remarkable woman and proud member of the WITS ‘Seasoned Chefs’ team.” She continues, “I find her gentle spirit impactful, passionate, and she’s aware of the cultural needs in our school communities. She is also the ‘Queen’ and creator of the Power Water WITS BIT! We have now seen so many iterations of power water from Chefs and it’s all because of Kisha. She is indeed a true champion of change and we love her!”
One coworker with a strong memory of that Power Water WITS BIT creation is Errol Jones, now WITS Senior Program Manager. In 2017, Kisha and Errol worked together as respective WITS Chef and Coach at PS M811 The Mickey Mantle School. He says, “We were driven, as always, by our love of collaboration, so we decided that we needed a big event to involve the whole school. We had highly competitive students, so we proposed a basketball tournament! Kisha and I wanted to give our students a hydration station, so we named it Muscle Water (now Power Water). Fast forward to tournament day and Kisha had her Muscle Water Station outside the gym whilst the students were engaged in the basketball tournament!” The event was a beautiful collaboration between the WITS duo and representative of the strong relationships built with the entire school community. Every teacher, administrator, school aide, security, guard, and paraprofessional participated in the evening all about sportsmanship, hydrated with Kisha’s buffet of ingredients making up the muscle water. Power Water has since become a staple WITS BIT.
Kisha is adored by all, developing these lasting relationships with everyone at her schools and impressing a quiet but incredibly powerful and kind spirit into the WITS workplace. Marion Williams, WITS National Program Director, has mentored Kisha from the start and commends her growing consistency in the work and kindness she brings to work every day. “That consistency helps people learn from her. In schools, they look for her, count on her, and she has such a tight community around her in every school she is in,” she said. Marion fondly remembers when Kisha sent warm socks and a get well soon note — that all of her fellow WITS Chefs had signed, coordinated across many boroughs and busy schedules — to comfort Marion when recovering from a surgery. “It was something so simple but it means so much when Wellness in the Schools is very fast-paced.” Thank you, Kisha, for helping us slow down, appreciate teamwork and friendship, and take care of each other.