Well Earned Wellness Workshops

When school buildings closed nearly one year ago, many people feared the impact it would have on food accessibility – millions of students depend on school meals for at least one of their meals a day. Although school buildings remained closed for learning for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year, many of them opened their doors to act as feeding centers. School food managers, cooks, and staff from the Office of Food & Nutrition Services (OFNS) in NYC became frontline heroes, putting their own health at risk to keep New York City’s children and community fed.

Wellness in the Schools created Wellness Camp: Taking Care of You, in partnership with OFNS to support school managers and cooks as they continued to work daily to feed children in NYC, whether in school or not. The Wellness Camp – which was co-designed by NYC school cooks themselves – teaches tips for mindfulness and personal health, to help school cooks take care of themselves so that they can better take care of others. The classes introduce simple at-home recipes,fitness activities and breathing techniques.

Wellness Camp is a six workshop series, 100% virtual. Each workshop is driven by the five senses, where we teach mindfulness techniques and holistic health strategies that can be used to mitigate the stress that comes with working on the frontlines of this pandemic.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the first workshop in October, which focused on the sense of sight. WITS Chefs Rebecca Johnson and Victoria Baluk led the class by discussing the importance of sight in the scope of wellness. “Before we eat what’s on our plate, we see it. One of the best things we can do for our health is eat a variety of fruits and vegetables that come in many different colors,” Rebecca instructed. 

Next, Rebecca demonstrated how to make overnight oats and all of the ways that we can customize it to make it to suit our tastes, while also being a healthy and filling breakfast that you can take on the go. 

Chef Victoria then led everyone through a stretching routine that was devised specifically for school cooks. Hours of leaning over counters and looking down at cutting boards when preparing food can create a good deal of muscular tension and soreness. We therefore began with simple wrist stretches. Cooks also spend much of their day standing, which takes a toll on the body. Taking small stretch breaks throughout the day mitigates the soreness cooks often experience, and also allows them to set aside time for their own wellness. Chef Victoria reminded attendees that, “it’s important to breathe mindfully as you stretch, it makes the stretching easier but it also makes the stretching become a form of moving meditation.”

At the end of the session, Chef Rebecca reminded everyone that, “how we see things is often determined by our mindset,” bringing back the connection between sight and our overall well being. The school food chefs in attendance left rejuvenated. One cook stated, “I am constantly thinking about the job. I have dreams about it, but this training helps me turn off my brain.” Another attendee said, “I feel that these workshops show that people outside the kitchen really care about us.” Stephen O’Brien, the Director of Strategic Partnerships for OFNS said, “Our kitchen staff have done an exceptional job under exceptional circumstances and deserve our support. This training is one way that we can do that.”

What does Wellness in the Schools see for the future of Wellness Camps? We will grow the Camps and expand them to other districts, as well as outside of the cook space. On the coach side, Wellness in the Schools will host Wellness Bootcamps; sessions similar to Wellness Camp that are designed for those providing physical activity in schools (or virtually). We have also received requests from principals to host wellness sessions with their teachers. In short, we see ourselves spreading wellness wherever needed.

As for what Wellness Camp means to us, Rebecca put it best, “Wellness Camps are a phenomenal opportunity to provide some of NYC’s most essential workers with tools to keep themselves well at the most critical time of our generation, during a pandemic. We all remember the tremendous impact of Cook Camps, so to be invited back into OFNS kitchens virtually in support of frontline worker’s wellness goals is nothing short of magical. It’s humbling after all these years, to still be together with school food service managers and cooks cooking, moving, breathing and laughing. I see it as a wellness community that even these socially distanced times could not separate.”