Pandemic Pilot Becomes a Permanent Program: Mosholu Montefiore Community Center

When Covid-19 halted our in-person classes and the world went virtual, Wellness in the Schools naturally pivoted, and early on was asked to participate in a pilot study that Dr. Jessica Reiter from Montefiore Hospital was conducting to measure students’ (and ultimately family‚Äôs) physical activity and eating habits and patterns. 

In March 2020, the team at Mosholu Montefiore Community Center (MMCC) ended in-person programs but kept their food pantry open and asked Wellness in the Schools to help support their efforts to feed healthy and delicious meals to their community members. This meant that the community in and around this area had access to ingredients during the difficult phase of the city-wide lockdowns and could also learn ways in which to turn these ingredients into meals. Our WITS National Program Director Marion Williams and Chef/RDN Ricardo Diaz conducted virtual cooking classes based on weekly ingredients available at the pantries. They used the common pantry ingredients and together with their participants transformed them into delicious meals. After just five sessions, they had quite a following! Today they conduct both in-person and virtual classes and continue to bring value to a simple pantry box. We interviewed one of the participants, Geneice Hodge, to reflect on her experience and share what she has learned.

Did you do in-person classes on just zoom?

I actually did both in-person and zoom, most of them were in-person and that is what I preferred. 

What did you learn during your sessions? 

Ricardo and Marion taught us how to cut veggies and how to make salad dressing. I was so surprised by how just four simple ingredients could make something so delicious. Personally, I didn’t like cauliflower before class but the way Ricardo showed it I was amazed and so were our kids. It was an eye-opening experience and we thoroughly enjoyed the classes. 

Was it a new experience or something that you had expected?

I actually took another cooking class years ago where they did not teach us the basics like the cutting methods, or give us the nutritional information of what we were eating. But with this class, I think it was nice to learn more in-depth, you know?

I also had no idea how to combine different flavors and veggies and fruits that we got from the pantry. My favorite ingredient was the North African spice rub and we made so many delicious meals out of that. The feeling of being in this class was different compared to others. I am someone who loves food and loves to cook for my family. My brother joined in too, so it was nice to learn! 

Would you join again?   

Absolutely yes! It was amazing that it was open to the entire community and we enjoyed learning about using fresh ingredients to make something healthy and still enjoy the taste. The best part was that my kids loved it.

This is a true WITS success story that first started with students, then their parents, and finally the entire community in that area irrespective of whether they had kids in our schools. Chef Marion recalled the first class with parents where some of the participants were living in shelters during the lockdown, and they only had access to a microwave or air fryer. They had to pivot and quickly change the direction of the class because of these limitations. Taking this into consideration, in addition to the limitations of the weekly ingredients, they taught the participants how to make rice in a microwave. Who knew? What began as an activity during the pandemic became a much-appreciated program extending not only to students but also to their families.