Move for Kids 2019

This January, we’re holding our second annual Move for Kids to raise funds to add one more Coach for Kids program. Fitness studios in NYC and Miami are coming together to support Wellness in the Schools. From January 28 – March 2nd, local studios will dedicate one class during the week to support WITS.  


WITS in our Nation’s Capital In Partnership with FoodPrints

By: Annie Hanrahan, D.C. Program Manager

Thanks to our new partnership with FoodPrints, Wellness in the Schools is now in Washington, D.C! FoodPrints teaches gardening, nutrition and cooking classes to students using an academic approach in the classroom to get them excited to try delicious and healthy food.

As a successful organization started in 2009 in Washington, D.C., FoodPrints wanted to continue elevating their culinary and nutrition program by cooking new recipes for weekly FoodPrints days, which is when the cafeteria served two scratch-cooked FoodPrints recipes. As they began, they quickly realized they needed more support. Enter Wellness in the Schools! We were included in a USDA grant (our first) to help develop and execute the recipes in 10 cafeterias. WITS Chef Jami Bailey works at a different D.C. public school each day, supporting, training and empowering the kitchen staff while encouraging the kids to try the food and get them excited about scratch-cooked meals.

During the last week of August, Chef Jami Bailey and I, along with Megan Geiger, RD from SodexoMagic, visited the four schools that were part of the FreshFarm FoodPrints Cafeteria Project last year. When I was a former WITS Chef visiting new kitchens in NYC, we were oftentimes met with staff who appeared nervous, standoffish or unsure of what to expect of the program. However, these schools were different; I was amazed by how welcoming each kitchen was to us as we were greeted with open arms and big hugs. We started the conversation by asking them which recipes they liked best and which were more challenging, since we wanted to design the menu with their input this year. At Watkins Elementary, lead cook Ms. Green and cook Ms. Byrd told us how they already promote veggies by asking the kids what the magic word is for broccoli, green beans or other vegetables of the day while the kids cheer in response “DELICIOUS!”

We also visited the FoodPrints teaching classrooms, which was a dream. They had their own teaching kitchen with some classrooms specifically designed for FoodPrints programming! Most of the schools also have huge gardens for students to plant, grow and harvest their produce for the classroom.

SodexoMagic has been an extremely supportive partner managing the kitchen staff. Megan, along with the help of Jami, has gone to each school to make sure the staff has all their ingredients, aiding with prep if needed. She also holds weekly conference calls to discuss recipes from the week and go over new ones for the following. SodexoMagic also has some of their own scratch cooked recipes on their menus that goes out to all the schools, such as roasted sweet potato and kale, ginger kale, hummus veggie wraps and sesame carrots. We hope to make classroom versions of her recipes to support all scratch-cooked items on the menu!

This Fall, Special Guest Chef Jose Andres and WITS Executive Chef Bill Telepan will be hosting a very special event to celebrate our partnership with FoodPrints and DCPS, as well as the amazing school cafeteria staff who are changing how meals are prepared for students. Our relationships with DCPS, SodexoMagic and FoodPrints have been a true partnership. As we work together through the challenges and successes of bringing healthy meals to kids, the support is felt across the board.

WITS Walks (and Swims/Bikes/Runs) the Talk

For the Wellness in the Schools leaders, the end of summer means an end to the triathlon season where they each spent many hours swimming, biking, running, and competing…successfully. As we are now well into the hustle and bustle of the new school year – with over 140 schools in 4 main markets (gulp) –  they leave behind a very active summer. A summer that perhaps got them in shape for what was to come this school year.

Nancy is not new to the triathlon scene – she was an age group competitor in the years immediately following university, where she was still seeking that same thrill of competing that she enjoyed in college. For those new to the triathlon world, a triathlon is a race that includes a swim, a bike and a run, in that order. Each race is a different distance – from a sprint to an Ironman distance (the Ironman is a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.22-mile run, or a marathon!).

Nancy entered her first triathlon in 1992  and competed in an Ironman in 1998. Soon a career, a family and life took over, but she maintained a healthy lifestyle and decided to get back into the competition two years ago. She picked up immediately where she left off – winning her age group. This summer, Nancy landed back in the water and on the roads and fulfilled an 18 year dream – to compete in the NYC Triathlon – a race with over 7,000 competitors. She clearly recalls the first year the race was held here in NYC, “I was 4-weeks pregnant with my first child and one of my closest friends entered the race. As much as I wanted to join her, I was nervous about competing. I waited 18 years to do this one.” And, the wait was worth it. Nancy not only won her age group, but was also the 38th woman overall, beating athletes who were half her age! “Whether we like it or not, our ages are written on our legs. While on the bike, I somehow thought it was fun to ride past a 25-year old and tell him that I could be his mother. I guess I just have many more years (and miles) on the bike!”

The highlight of the summer triathlon season, however, was the West Point Sprint Tri where Nancy met up with WITS Executive Chef Bill Telepan and Union Square Events Executive Chef John Karangis. This group certainly sets a high standard for what it means to stay healthy – Nancy once again crushed her competition. Perhaps inspired by his over-achieving partner, Bill took on the triathlon challenge and trained with his daughter Leah for West Point. After being on his feet all night, he would get up to train in the summer heat before going back to prepare lunch for his many diners. Bill explains that since his job is so physical he needs to stay in shape. He loves the triathlon training “because it changes everyday, so I never get bored. Plus it pushes me because there is a race at the end. I loved training with my daughter this summer because we got to spend a lot of time together.” Indeed, both Nancy and Bill remain a constant inspiration and role models to not only the many children whom we serve, but also to our adult team of chefs, coaches and change-makers.

But Nancy says she works out to stay happy as much as she does to stay in shape (often the two go hand in hand). She works out to meet up with friends and gets to do both at once. “I was lucky this summer to ride with two amazing girlfriends and strong cyclists. Before we knew it, we had gone 25 miles and had solved all of the world’s problems (or at least our own).”

We no longer harvest tomatoes. We no longer eat chilled cucumber soup. We now get pumpkins and peppers. In the same manner, our workouts change with the season. Nancy is back to running in Central Park, meeting up with good friends and maybe doing a little yoga in her living room on a rainy fall day. Bill sticks to the gym. Regardless, they remain in shape and healthy and ready to continue this fight to end childhood obesity…and to take on any challenge that the school lunch/recess revolution puts in front of them.

Personifying the Power of Coach for Kids

By Wendy Siskin, Senior Program Director

It does not feel that long ago when I joined Wellness in the Schools in 2011 as a coach on the PS 87 recess yard. When I moved into a leadership role, I was charged with building the Coach for Kids program to match the impact of the Cook for Kids program – fighting childhood obesity using two sides of the same coin. I always viewed our Coach for Kids program to be more than a recess program, just like our Cook for Kids program is more than a cafeteria program. The impact we set out to make is a big one. Our vision/end goal stands at the very top of a steep mountain that not only takes tireless miles of steps, but people helping people, holding hands, inspiring one another to keep fighting, and joining forces to become even more resilient. Wellness in the Schools meets communities where they are and shifts their entire school culture, diving deeper than the recess yard and the cafeteria. That is the heart of our program. To support that fully, we have created systems for schools to build a comprehensive wellness model, reaching the mindsets and habits of the administrators, teachers, parents, and the students.

My first step in building a strong Coach for Kids program was to build an even stronger team. We are now heading into our 5th year of our Fellowship program with Adelphi University. Almost 100% of our WITS Coaches are graduate students, earning their Master’s Degree in Sports Based Youth Development Physical Education. This highly competitive fellowship has raised the bar and the expectations of our coach program. And its success has garnered the attention of many other universities interested in similar fellowships. The impact of our work has also positioned us as an expert in this academic space, and we were invited to present at SHAPE America in March, one of the leading conferences on fitness education in this country.

We just launched our first Annual Move for Kids campaign, through which several fitness studios and influencers in NYC and Miami raised money for WITS. I received the opportunity to introduce WITS to the international audience of Daily Burn, an online streaming fitness platform with a membership of approximately 2.5 million. Even though the thought of working out on live video was somewhat frightening, I took on the challenge. After the invigorating workout, I was able to share our work in a 10-minute interview. While I was a little sweaty throughout the entire interview, it certainly helped to build our Coach for Kids network. This campaign highlighted so many passionate groups of people that heard of WITS for the first time, who all genuinely want to join our mission in some way.

Workout for Kids – Daily Burn

Does your kiddo love working out with you? Here’s an exercise routine led by Wendy Siskin, Senior Director of Wellness in the Schools, that will get both you and your little one moving.

Posted by Daily Burn on Wednesday, February 28, 2018

It is an exciting time for Wellness in the Schools. I continue to follow the inspiration from our fearless leader and founder, Nancy Easton. I am honored and inspired daily by the leadership role I have been given. My role this year as Senior Program Director has allowed me to view our work with an even broader lens, and as a thought leader. Our work in NYC, the largest school district in the country, remains an incredibly valuable testing market as we develop more programs across the country.

Our WITS culture lives by the Phil Jackson quote, “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” In order for our programs to be successful, we must empower our teams to give our schools the tools, the knowledge, and the confidence to be able to sustain them. We are now at a place where our Chefs and Coaches work together as equals, both sides of the coin, teaching as a team to show the power of good food and fitness to end childhood obesity.

I’m consistently challenged and inspired by the work we do and everyone who holds hands with us to empower our younger generations. This is just the beginning.

Renowned Chef Emily Luchetti Joins WITS West

By Jesse Kramer

Pastry chef Emily Luchetti has followed the work of Wellness in the Schools for years, but living and working in California had prevented her from getting involved in a hands-on way. So when WITS expanded our CookCamps to the Bay Area in 2017, the opportunity to make an impact excited her.

“I’d always wished I could be more involved in WITS because I believe so much in the work,” Luchetti said. “So when WITS arrived in California, I was the first one to raise my hand to get involved.”

Luchetti began her culinary career working in some of New York City’s top restaurants. After seven years in NYC, she moved to San Francisco in 1984 as part of the opening team at Stars Restaurant. Three years later, she transitioned to a pastry chef role and immediately found a renewed sense of creativity and inspiration on that side of the kitchen.

Currently, Luchetti works as the Chief Pastry Officer for Big Night Restaurant Group in San Francisco, overseeing dessert programs at the company’s four restaurants.

While Luchetti enjoys her sweets, she stresses the importance of balancing dessert within a healthy diet for both children and adults. She feels our society has come to expect dessert as a daily occurrence when it really should be a treat. This belief inspired her to found the “dessertworthy” movement to empower people to be more mindful of their sugar and fat indulgences.

“I’ve always been interested in kids eating healthy food because none of us, as adults, can work productively if we haven’t eaten or have been eating poorly,” Luchetti said. “You get really ‘hangry’ and just can’t function. So how can we expect our kids to perform well in school if they’re not eating well?”

Partnering with Luchetti, who has amassed more than 30 years of restaurant experience, brings a special combination of expertise, credibility, and exposure to our work in California.

“Emily brings decades of restaurant experience to our work out west,” California Program Director Hollie Greene said. “Our partners are thrilled to benefit from not only her knowledge but also her hands-on and practical approach to supporting our district cooks.”

WITS brought our Labs to California in 2015 when Hollie, one of our very first NYC cooks, moved out west. Hollie worked in one school, then six schools with the support of Food and Nutrition Services Director Miguel Villarreal. This fall, we launched our CookCamp model and have begun working with school food staff in the kitchen toward the goal of creating a full-year, seasonal menu.

Through the Golden Gate Dietetic program, a dozen dietetic interns have joined WITS in a win-win partnership, as our powerful but small California team gets some extra help and the interns receive an opportunity for hands-on experience with child nutrition.

Pictured: A dietetic intern helps out during second grade Kale Labs.

“The interns get an up-close view of the preventive side of nutrition,” Hollie said. “It’s amazing when they see how much of a change they can make. A kid will come in saying he hates broccoli, and by the end of the day he’ll be stuffing his mouth with it.”

Wellness in the Schools’ vision of working in partnership with schools and driving systemic change resonates with Luchetti.

“WITS looks at the way the overall system works, and that’s how to make it a win-win for everybody,” Luchetti said. “It’s so important to recognize that the existing school workers and cooks are a valuable part of the solution. The people that are working in there are doing a really good job, and we just have to give them the tools and the resources to do an even better job.”

Pictured: Chef Hollie leads Kale Labs with second graders

WITS will continue to grow in California next school year with the implantation of CookCamp, which Luchetti will help organize. CookCamp provides intensive, upfront training for school cooks so they can gain the necessary skills to prepare healthy, scratch-cooked meals for students on their own. The pilot program in Brooklyn last September was a major success.

Well-respected, passionate chef partners like Luchetti have been crucial in launching our work to new heights in other parts of the country. We’re excited to advance our impact in California as she blazes new trails with WITS.

Emily Luchetti’s Oatmeal Almond Cookies

  • 1 cup sliced almonds
  • 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 1/4 cups old-fashioned oats
  • 1 1/14 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line the baking sheets with parchment paper.

Spread the almonds in one layer in a small baking pan and put in the (preheated) oven. Set a timer for 10 minutes and check the almonds to see if they’re a light golden brown. If not, toast 2 minutes longer. Set aside to cool.

With an electric mixer or by hand, beat the butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar until smooth. Add 1 egg, mix until well combined, and then add the second egg. Stir in the toasted almonds, oats, flour, baking soda, and salt until well combined.

Put 2 racks in the upper and lower thirds of the (preheated) oven. Place 1-tablespoon (slightly rounded, not flat, not heaping) mounds of dough 2 inches apart on the parchment-lined baking sheets. If you have one you can also use a small ice cream scoop to form the cookies and plop them out onto the sheets (it’s much faster and easier).

Flatten the mounds slightly with your hands or the bottom of a glass. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the cookies have browned lightly on the edges but still are soft in the middle if you press them lightly with your finger. Although they may seem underdone, don’t be tempted to let them bake longer— they’ll firm up as they cool. So that the cookies bake evenly you may need to rotate the pans in the oven or switch racks halfway through.

Let the cookies cool to room temperature before removing them from the parchment (if you can wait that long).


Kung Fu Master Pedro Goncalves Shares His Gifts with WITS

By Rodrigo Rabanal

As a waiter working double-shifts at Oceana Mondays through Thursdays, Pedro Goncalves had been looking for a place to volunteer on his Fridays off. When Chef Bill Telepan joined Oceana, Pedro learned about Wellness in the Schools and looked no further.

“I was looking for a way to donate my time specifically to young people in need,” stated Pedro. “When I learned about WITS, I thought it was the perfect match.”


Pedro was raised in a military family and had been exposed to martial arts from a very young age. From Karate, Judo, and Taekwondo, he was doing it all. It wasn’t until the 1980s however, when he moved to NYC that he met his sisu (teacher) Danny Cuevas, who introduced him to Kung Fu. He has since dedicated his mind, body, and spirit to learning from Cuevas and his Grand-Master Leung Shum at Ying Jow Pai. He has spent more than 30 years perfecting the art.

Now, a master of Eagle Claw Kung Fu, a style of Chinese martial arts known for its gripping techniques and pressure point strikes, Pedro is using his skills to teach kids and their families at our Family Fitness Fun Nights. “Kids sometimes don’t get an outlet to express themselves, and learn something that’s not only fun but also healthy. I thought teaching them Kung Fu would address all of that.”

Pedro looked up to his grandmother his entire life. From her, he learned that “without work, there is nothing. Sometimes, life is not just about the work you do for yourself but the work you do to help others.” Pedro has truly embraced this motto by working on his days off to help empower kids and families at our schools. He says he learns just as much from kids as they would from him, on lessons ranging from patience to self-empowerment.

Although Wellness in the Schools is in its 13th year, Pedro believes the organization is just getting started when it comes to the potential impact on children all over the country. “The kids that started with WITS will impact more lives as they get older. Every generation needs to pass something good to the next. I think WITS is helping our youth today plant a healthy seed by educating them on how to cultivate it and nurture it, and by helping them grow it into a beautiful garden of health and wellness.

“You need a big heart, and a giving heart, to be working for an organization like WITS. I’m glad I can volunteer and be a part of this amazing movement. I’m just one of the gardeners.”

A master gardener at that.

WITS Warrior: Dr. Natalia Russo

By Joan Chung

Dr. Natalia Russo is the principal at PS 145. This is her 5th year as principal, and she has been with the New York City Department of Education since 2001. She brought us to her building in 2013, and thanks to a grant by Goldman Sachs Assets Management, we were able to provide our flagship program to both PS 145 and West Prep Academy Middle School. Dr. Russo is one of our strongest advocates – her support for our programs is instrumental, and has helped us to pilot our initiatives such as nutrition education and cafeteria branding. We are grateful to the school for always keeping their doors wide open for Wellness in the Schools, and we are honored to feature Dr. Russo as a WITS Warrior.

“I came to PS 145 in the middle of October 2013, and one of the things Cidalia Costa, the Magnet Specialist from our co-located school West Prep Academy, first brought up to me was that she wanted to bring WITS to the school. We just jumped on this immediately. It’s been really great just giving kids the opportunity to be creative, to learn about healthy eating and lifestyles. And in the first year WITS was here, we changed from the processed menu to the alternative menu. It was all just perfect timing. At first, I thought I’d get pushback from the kids with the changed cafeteria food, but they really do love it. WITS has been a key part in the turnaround of the school – they give kids a more well-rounded awareness of what life is about. It’s not just about reading and writing, but about all these other aspects of life; we have to take care of ourselves mentally, physically, and emotionally, and a lot of that stems from nutrition. And WITS really helps make school what it is meant to be – a fun learning environment.”

“When I graduated from college, I went and got a job in investment banking, but it didn’t really do it for me. I ended up in teaching because of my brother – he was a science and math teacher, and the principal at his school needed a teacher. I was offered and accepted a job at MS 44. During the first 90 seconds that I was in front of the class of seventh graders – I don’t know, there was just something about it. I knew that the classroom was where I was supposed to be. After a couple of years in middle school, I ended up in an elementary school, PS 166, where I met an Assistant Principal who would eventually make me his AP when he became Principal. That’s how I stumbled into administration. Someone gave me an opportunity. I’ve always worked in District 3. This is the neighborhood I grew up in. After working as an AP in District 3 for several years, I spent some time working at Central for the Teacher Recruitment and Quality Office. While working at Central, I was eventually tapped to come into this school to take the helm of PS 145 in 2013.”

Pictured: PS 145 Cafeteria Staff

“When I saw some of the lunches, I was so shocked at the stuff they’d give to kids. The hamburger patties were awful, and those processed chicken nuggets! I saw kids coming in with Doritos for breakfast, and those huge cans of Arizona iced teas. I just felt so privileged to have had access to so much physical fitness and proper nutrition while growing up. I just needed to give that opportunity to the kids because they may not have the same opportunities that I was afforded. And that’s why WITS is so important to me. This whole school is kind of a reflection of who I am. It’s not purposeful – it’s just all I know.”

“The work is intense, but I just take it one day at a time. I believe in what I am doing. A big part of me is driven by the fact that not all children have the same opportunities. I could have gone here, to this school. I was just so lucky with my parents, and all my teachers. If I can give these students a slight shot of feeling like they can succeed – that thought is what keeps me going. Just knowing that somewhere down the line, a child might not have been exposed to something had I not been here.”

Pictured: Coach Rob of PS 145

“Sports and nutrition have always been a big part of my life, even as a kid. At the school I went to growing up, I never was served processed food. I remember early in the morning, I would smell the food cooking in the cafeteria, and that was just normal for me. And at home, my family and I never really went out to dinner. We weren’t exactly wealthy – parents worked 2 jobs, money was not a luxury, and we might go out to eat once every 6 months. Home-cooked meals were always just a staple for us, and my mom was always very conscious of not cooking things that were unhealthy. It’s just the way I was wired. And I was always involved in sports, like volleyball, basketball, and track. Physical fitness has been a part of my life since I could remember, and that’s just something I thought all kids had. When I started working in the public school system, I was surprised to see that kids didn’t get Physical Education every day.

Pictured: Chef Katie and Coach Rob, the WITS Chef/Coach at PS 145

“I first learned about WITS at PS 84, when I was an assistant principal there. They had just introduced the program to the school, and I remember falling in love with the program. This whole concept of kids actually cooking, the labs, the importance of nutrition and fitness and leading healthy lifestyles – I thought it was very progressive for a public school. I remember thinking, ‘If I’m ever a principal, I’d definitely call on WITS!’ The program, along with our other after-school programs and extracurricular activities, have changed the culture of the school so much. Students are engaged, and there are so many opportunities for them to express themselves. It’s been a very significant turn-around.”

Pictured: Dr. Russo with Lux, PS 145’s therapy dog

“This past September, I was out sick for a week, but during that time we had our first “Dads Take your Child to School” day. Fathers were given the chance to participate in the WITS labs. When I came back to work, one father stopped me and said, “Oh my gosh, my kids always told me how much fun they have during WITS labs and I never really understood it, but to actually be there with Chef Katie and cooking with my kid was amazing!” A lot of fathers said similar things to me. And it really helped validate what we do, and the WITS program here. Many of our parents don’t normally have the time to come to instructional events. So it was pretty cool to have WITS be one of the things that impressed them the most while they were here.”

Pictured: Chef Katie of PS 145, in the branded cafeteria

“My favorite part of the WITS programs would have to be the WITS Labs and the Cafe Days. Our partner, Henry Rinehart (owner of Henry’s Restaurant), has been awesome. He’s really tried to hit all the stakeholders in the school. He works with students, and also helps feed our volunteers and teachers. This year, his focus has also been on parents. We’re trying to get parents to come into the school so we can teach them how to create healthy meals. It’s a lot of fun – the team from Henry’s comes in in their chef coats and the kids just get so excited, and are inspired to take ownership of the whole cooking process during the labs. The labs and cafe days really are an amazing experience for the kids, and they look forward to every single one. I just would never get rid of WITS. There’s no reason to ever do away with the program.  WITS should be in every single school.”

Pictured: Ethan and Amy, students at PS 145

“If I could tell one thing to the students, it would be to just figure out what they like. The happiest people in life are those who do what they actually enjoy. Try as many things as possible in life, so you can figure out what you like. I want them to always think that they should work where they want to work, not where they have to work.”

All photos taken by Melanie Dunea.

New Year, Same Optimism

By Nancy Easton, Executive Director

Staring me in the face. Wow. Forgive me, but I have just returned from a 10-day vacation with my daughter (#motherdaughtertime) and am slightly more reflective about the passage of time. Just yesterday, Sadie was entering kindergarten. Now she can beat me in gin rummy and race me to the top of any mountain.

With an incredible year behind us and another one staring us in the face, what have I to highlight? Growth and flexibility. The 2017 school year ended with great success and visions for new growth in the fall. And, the fall began in four states, with new models of implementation and management. Most notable for me this past year was how we grew, not simply the growth itself.  It is both liberating and challenging. Liberating because we took all that we have learned from our typical method of implementation (now called the Flagship Model) and flexed ourselves with new methodologies, with new managers/directors in each new region.  Wellness comes in many variations and in order to meet the needs of a particular school, district or community, we need to be nimble. Hence the BootCamps and Workshops . . . to add to the Flagship Model. With growth and new models, came new school relationships and new levels of management. I observed with pride as members of our team stepped into leadership roles and began to build their own communities of wellness.

With anything new, there are stumbling blocks and learning curves. As I discussed with Sadie on one of our hikes, it is in challenge where we grow most and where we learn most and . . . I love a challenge! It was difficult at times for me to let go and become an observer of our great work this year, yet I welcomed the disequilibrium that comes with this new (at first awkward) stage of our growth. I watched as other leaders dove in, took risks, often stumbled, but learned in the process and had support along the way.

I enter into 2018 with renewed optimism. Most of you know that this is my nature, but this is real. I am looking at a year of evolving the BootCamp model, of growing into new cities and certainly of continuing to grow in our current locations. I am looking forward to entering into new partnerships with our coach program. I am excited to soon share the results of our 2-year evaluation with the team at Columbia University that I know will continue to help drive our work. Spoiler alert: WITS kids are eating more fresh fruits and veggies and less processed food; WITS kids are playing more during recess! I am hopeful to soon be sharing the news of other big projects in the pipeline.  Most importantly, 2018 looks like much of the same as we head into the second half of the school year – new experiences and opportunities that propel us to build a rock solid organization. The work becomes deeper and more meaningful with each day, each year.

I am incredibly optimistic about the more global fight against childhood obesity and all that is happening in our space. The NYC school year began with Free Lunch for All!  What a great way to start the school year.  We ended the calendar year with the announcement of a Meatless Monday pilot in 15 schools in Brooklyn. And, 2018 began with New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to offer incentives to help New York schools purchase healthy food grown on local farms. A great start to 2018.  We also continue to see less consumption of sugary drinks and less spending at fast food restaurants, both pointing towards a win in this fight. Finally, in the fitness space, 2017 brought a big victory to NYC with millions of dollars allocated to ensuring that every elementary school has staff, training and resources to support strong physical education programs.

Wow. That was a good deal of information! As I reflect on one year and look ahead to another, I am reminded of all that is happening in our space, both the victories and the challenges. And, this is all happening at twice the speed as when we started on this journey to end childhood obesity.  My word count even a few years ago was half the amount as today! It is an exciting time, and a time of much possibility. Wellness in the Schools remains poised to lead with our deliberate and thoughtful approach.

Amen, Amen. Bring it on, 2018!

Big Wins in the Garden State

By Jesse Kramer

Wellness in the Schools is midway through its second year working with New Jersey public schools in Camden and Trenton. Already, our team has made incredible progress in a collaborative effort to create systemic change in these communities.

Our work in New Jersey began in Spring 2016 upon joining the Campbell Soup Foundation’s Healthy Communities program, a collective initiative where our team works as one of 25 partners in Camden alongside organizations such as FoodCorps, Food Bank of South Jersey, and others in Aramark-led kitchens. Then, in the 2016-17 school year, WITS joined the Novo Nordisk Community Health Collaborative in Trenton as one of eight partners.

“The mission is all about helping a community get healthier,” says WITS Program Manager Marion Williams, “and our focus within the collective is the kitchen and cafeteria. We are bringing these schools healthy recipes that are cost-effective, school-tested, and use food they already have.”

In Camden, WITS Chef Christina Martin has spent this school year working in the KIPP charter school system at Whittier Middle and Lanning Square Primary. Chef Christina had the opportunity to provide monthly tastings in the cafeteria in 2017. Thanks to the kids’ positive feedback, some of the recipes will become items on the new 2018 menu!

“We have much positive feedback from scholars at Whittier on a few of the WITS recipes,” says Aramark food service director Devida Bailey. “Scholars really liked the chicken/vegetable fried rice and chicken cacciatore. I look forward to offering more WITS recipes to our scholars.”

Starting in January 2018, we are thrilled to introduce a new menu at the KIPP schools, one that we developed with Aramark, to provide increased healthy options for students on a daily basis at breakfast and lunch. Some of the changes include removing Pop Tarts from breakfast offerings in favor of fresh fruit and hot sandwiches. The KIPP schools have also removed options like hot dogs and popcorn chicken from the lunch menu. In addition to the fried rice and chicken cacciatore, other items like chicken Caesar wraps and chicken sabroso with rice and beans are on the new menu, with vegetable lasagna, lemon pepper cod, and roasted vegetable wraps joining them soon.

To support our cafeteria work, WITS staff has trained 5th to 8th grade students on salad bar etiquette and “Eating the Rainbow” of fruits and vegetables so they can take advantage of another new offering – the salad bar!

Meanwhile in Trenton, WITS Chef Anwar Rasheed has vigorously tackled the challenging task of working in four different schools. Chef Anwar splits his time between Jefferson Elementary, MLK Elementary, Robbins Elementary, and Columbus Elementary. He spends one week per month at each school, testing one dish with the students and teaching skills to the cafeteria staff.

“The most rewarding part of my work in Trenton is making an impact on the youth and their diet,” Anwar says. “I enjoy helping and educating families so they understand how home and school work hand-in-hand, so that entire communities will be healthy and future generations will be aware to make healthy choices.”

The staff has found that students are receptive to the changes in the cafeteria – butternut squash was a favorite among the Trenton tastings. Even at tastings that may not be as big of a hit, most importantly the students are still eager to try the new dishes.

“Kids are excited when they see us show up in the classroom!” Marion says. “That’s a big win.”

While exposing students to healthy options is an important first step, instilling a culture of wellness in these communities is the ultimate goal. That change is already beginning to occur. For example, an architectural design club in Whittier Middle School has decided to build a farm stand as an upcoming project.

There is still more work to do in both cities to create lasting change, but these new developments bring important progress in our mission to teach healthy habits to a growing number of children each year.

Made With Love

By Joan Chung

Chef Ivan Beacco is not sure how he heard about Wellness in the Schools, but he knows for certain that he was on the subway. It was more than 6 years ago, and he saw a flyer, or perhaps a WITS bag, while on his commute. He immediately became curious about the organization, and so he went online to learn more information. It’s been an incredible partnership ever since.

Chef Ivan’s talents speak for themselves – he’s been featured in numerous publications, was included in the annual publication of Best Chefs America in 2012, 2014, and 2016, and was also bestowed the title of Master Chef in Italian Cuisine by the Academia Barilla. He started his culinary journey when he was just 13 years old, and it was quite by chance. After completing his mandatory school education in Trieste, a coastal Italian city in which he was raised, he decided to attend culinary school after a conversation with a friend. Food had always been a part of his life; his grandma used to cook up huge feasts for the family, and he often spent time improvising in the kitchen with his cousin while his parents worked during the day. “I didn’t even know culinary school was an option, but the conversation made me realize it was something I wanted to explore,” he says.

Culinary school was definitely not easy. The first week, he washed pots and pans for a school of 80 people, and didn’t come anywhere near a knife. He reluctantly went back the second week after his father told him to give it another chance, and then realized with each passing week, as he started learning more skills, that he was choosing to do what he loved.

When he was 20 years old, he came to the United States to work at a restaurant in Westchester County. He took the train to Grand Central one day, and started walking down 5th Avenue with hopes to find a new job by asking restaurants along the way. He found success with just his second attempt, at a Union Square Hospitality Group establishment called Borgo Antico. While he didn’t speak any English at first (“I often communicated with my coworkers by drawings!”), he grew into the head chef position after starting as a line cook.

He spent 10 years in the restaurant business in New York City, and along the way he became a Chef Partner to WITS. While the restaurant industry is demanding, he realized that cooking for and teaching children was a whole different kind of challenge. “The first couple of classes at PS 7 were pretty intimidating, and it was really eye-opening and put me in my place,” he says. “I learned how to interact with different kinds of humans, in a way. Children don’t have an agenda, they don’t criticize you because they want to show something about themselves – they criticize because they really have something to say, and you really can’t make an excuse in return. It’s a little bit of a slap to reality, and makes you ask the questions like, how good at cooking are you really? How good of a communicator are you? How good of a person? That’s the beauty of it.” While being a Chef Partner gives to WITS, he states that he feels like WITS gives to him.

When asked about his favorite memory from working with WITS, he says there are many, but one interaction with a student stands out. While it’s easy to wow 1st and 2nd graders with vinaigrettes, it is a bit more difficult to engage the older students. Says Chef Ivan, “They want to show that they don’t care much! Some classes are very rowdy. But even in the roughest of classes, there are one or two kids who are very interested in what you have to say. They can’t show it openly, but it’s there.” There was one girl in 4th grade who Chef Ivan could tell was very passionate about what he was teaching. Eventually, she told him that she was thinking about going to culinary school due to what she’d learned in WITS Labs. “That’s something that is priceless. You made a difference, somehow. You can’t forget it – it doesn’t make your day, it makes your whole year,” he says.

He realized that teaching people how to cook was something that he loved to do. The restaurant business had changed a lot over the years, and while he still loved it, it began to feel more like an emergency drill day after day. Raquel, the WITS Chef that he was working with at the time, told him that her friend was looking for a chef instructor. While the first couple of classes were intimidating, he noticed from the beginning that it was something he really enjoyed, and that teaching for WITS had prepared him well for it. He decided to take a leap of faith and start his own cooking classes. “It was scary. You’re leaving behind a fairly well paid job for something that may crash, but I decided that if there was a moment to do something like this, it was now.” And thus, Red Inside was born.

Chef Ivan knows that he wouldn’t be who he is today if he didn’t love what he did, and if he wasn’t committed to his passion. Cooking requires constant dedication, and he often compares it to being more of a parent than an artist. “It’s not 100% playtime – sometimes it involves changing diapers – but if you really love what you’re doing, you do it through the good times and the bad.”

If Chef Ivan could tell any child interested in cooking professionally one thing, he’d tell him or her, “There’s not always a 100% success rate, but it is a work of love. It should not be about the status, or money, or celebrity status. Love is really what will bring you further, and will help you learn from your failures. It’s not as much about innate talent. If you love what you do, there is a high chance you will succeed.”