Wellness in the Garden State


Spring is a celebration of many things: it acknowledges the resilience through winter months, honors the trust among the soil, sun, and water that collectively nourish the plants, and the warm spring weather finally brings buds to the surface that transform into beautiful flowers. Spring is also a perfect symbol for all the WITS programming growing in the Garden State. In New Jersey, Camden and Newark are incredibly strong markets with impactful CookCamp trainings and phenomenal tastings. Though one city is seasoned with WITS and one is new, both are growing in special ways. Read on for the inside scoop! 

Our roots begin in Camden, where we are in our seventh year of programming and our second year of the Full Futures collective. Working alongside other community partners like The Common Market and Whitsons Culinary Group and with generous funding from Campbell Soup Company, our goal is to build the school nutrition mindset, advance food service infrastructure and nutrition education, and implement recipes and menu changes. Working with our partners for several years, through the pandemic and in the ever-changing environments that schools are, our trust for and communication among each other has grown. 

As each school district is unique, our work in Camden focuses on kitchen staff training and student tastings. Each year we offer WITS CookCamp Professional Development and Training days. This is where the school’s kitchen staff learn new recipes, knife skills, and food presentation, as well as how to give and receive feedback, reduce food waste in the kitchen, and all about local food in Camden. Thanks to our collaboration with The Common Market, WITS CookCamp helps school food staff understand where the food coming into their kitchens is from, how to work with it to make delicious and nutritious recipes, and understand how nutrition ties into the food — knowledge that helps them be their best at work, and also communicate better with the children they serve across the lunch line. Our Camden CookCamp in the fall — featuring WITS Butternut Squash Soup, Seasoned Herb Rice, Sofrito, Spinach and Blueberry Salad, Vegan Cornbread, Vegetable Wraps, and Vegetarian Chili — gathered over 128 cooks to present this scratch-cooked and colorful menu for lunch, with much excitement from all participants to work with new recipes and incorporate new cooking methods and techniques. 

WITS’ special ingredient in Camden is our tastings, where students receive a new item to try from the lunch line or in workshop groups and provide their feedback. Favorite WITS recipes this year feature local ingredients from The Common Market: butternut squash has turned into a soup, salad with blackberries, and oat cookies, and kale has turned into a salad, a saute, and chips for a healthy snack. Breakfast items have expanded, with muffins using local ingredients like sweet potatoes and oats for students to enjoy. Our New Jersey WITS Chefs also conduct tastings and cooking demonstrations outside of the lunchroom for a few students, teachers, and parents at a time. Participants appreciate having a voice and feel empowered to be a part of the school’s wellness community and learn firsthand the value of local ingredients and making a recipe from scratch. The impact of WITS Chefs is felt by many school communities; one note from a teacher, who helped facilitate student group demonstrations, gave gratitude to WITS Chefs Debra Williams and Angel Jones, saying “Thank you for helping me get control of my life by starting to pay close attention to my eating and by choosing healthier eating habits. I have been attending your demos and trying the recipes, making them for me and my family. I am proud to say I am feeling great!” 

WITS Chef Shani Porter guides a Newark Head Cook in preparing sweet potatoes.

New roots are growing this year in Newark, with March bringing the official launch of our partnership with the Newark City School District at a WITS CookCamp Training. School food service staff in attendance represented all 66 schools in the district, making for an unprecedented day of learning together. The day was focused on knife skills and kitchen safety and sanitation. Cooks developed teamwork and problem-solving skills by making a spread of WITS Recipes — recipes so well enjoyed that in the days following WITS CookCamp, the Newark City School District permanently added the WITS Pasta Primavera recipe to their menu, reaching students district-wide! For the remainder of this school year, we will continue weekly side-by-side kitchen training in seven pilot schools. Cooks expressed enthusiasm to incorporate their learnings from CookCamp moving forward, comments ranging from the versatility provided to them by learning different cooking techniques, to cooks learning a salad dressing preparation with local blueberries and wanting to make it again. 100% of participants reported that CookCamp increased their interest in learning more about the food and nutrition connection through preparing these nutritious recipes — Wellness in the Schools will be back soon to further guide Newark cooks on teaching across the lunch line so students understand the importance of eating a nutritious lunch, too. 

Similar to Camden, our work in Newark is successful thanks to a strong partnership between The Common Market, Food Corps, The Greater Newark Conservancy, and a generous donation from Novo Nordisk. It is inspiring to work as a collective in both cities and watch changes being made daily in schools to create healthier and more creative kitchens and learning environments. With our roots growing in the Garden State, we are excited about what the future will bring.