WITS Executive Director and Co-Founder Nancy Easton and Executive Chef Bill Telepan Share Their Insights
Founded in 2005, Wellness in the Schools (WITS) is a national nonprofit organization that partners with school districts to promote healthy habits among children, enhancing their learning and overall well-being.
Through their programs, WITS provides nutrition and fitness education, prepares healthy scratch-cooked meals, and encourages active recess periods. By transforming menus and educating students and families about cooking and nutrition, WITS aims to improve academic performance, foster lasting change, and combat childhood obesity in school environments.
During the 2021-2022 school year, WITS programs benefited over 86,000 children in nearly 200 schools nationwide. In New York City, these programs are currently implemented in 38 schools across the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.
Last September, WITS joined forces with the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS) to launch the Chef Council, a collaborative effort aimed at developing scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes to feed almost one million schoolchildren.
With back-to-school season just around the corner, we reached out to Nancy Easton, WITS Executive Director and Co-Founder, and Executive Chef Bill Telepan to gain their insights on what to expect from the upcoming back to school menus this September.
Nancy, could you please elaborate on WITS’ unique role in its partnership with NYC’s DOE OFNS?
This partnership is built on nearly 20 years of work with the NYC DOE. In our 20 years, we have worked in kitchens, cafeterias, classrooms, recess yards – and with all levels of stakeholders. For this program, we hire chefs, who are uniquely qualified to prepare meals from whole ingredients, which is what we will be doing in school kitchens across the city.
Chef Telepan, could you share with Total Food Service readers how the Chefs Council members collaborated to create over 100 culturally relevant recipes that will be served to nearly one million schoolchildren? Please name three of your favorite recipes.
I’m not sure I could pick just three! We are working with some great chefs on recipe development, and they have all contributed in a very personal, thoughtful way. From Grace Ramirez’s Sofrito to Zoe Adjonyoh’s Cowboy Caviar Salad to Anup Joshi’s Kachumber Salad to Yessemi Awosan’s Jollof Cauliflower Wings — we have some fun, exciting recipes for the kids to eat.
Working with our Chef Council has really helped Wellness in the Schools to expand our repertoire and allows us to bring the best flavors and delicious recipes to NYC public schools.
Nancy, how did WITS gather feedback from students and parents regarding the recipes, and how did both WITS and OFNS respond to this feedback?
Together, we tested the 100 recipes that were developed by the Chef Council and brought 15 to schools for samplings. We offered sampling tables at the selected schools, highlighting the “star of the show”, or the featured produce, such as sweet potatoes or cucumber or cauliflower. In addition to the sampling tables, our teams moved through the cafeteria tables to deliver samples.
We then provided students with tickets to place in the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” buckets. We also conducted taste testing at OFNS headquarters, where a finite number of students came on a “field trip” to test. In these cases, we used an application called “plicker” where we could scan the room for test results and take votes via an app. This was our “hard” data and the collection at the schools was considered “soft”. We used the feedback to inform the fall menu.
Chef Telepan, could you provide details about the specific training that the school cooks are undergoing to implement the new recipes in all public school locations?
As with all of Wellness in the Schools’ training, we test and evaluate the recipes ourselves to ensure they are appropriate for a school kitchen and meet nutrition standards. We then talk through techniques, ingredients, and the best ways to prepare a recipe with the OFNS development team.
We are also making training videos that detail each step of the recipe, with different knife cuts or cooking techniques that will bring out the best in each recipe. Then from there, our team of WITS Chefs begins training the school cooks on the specific recipes as well as general kitchen techniques. WITS Chefs will continue side-by-side support in schools throughout the next two school years, rotating through schools as the recipes roll out on the menu.
Nancy, what can students in schools affiliated with WITS look forward to in terms of the back-to-school menus this fall?
All students in NYC public school can look forward to trying out the new scratch-cooked, plant-forward and culturally relevant recipes. Wellness in the Schools will also work in 30 schools, providing our educational programming — cooking and nutrition classes, plus fitness breaks. The cooking classes are based on recipes they will see on their menus, to help increase participation.
For information on bringing Wellness in the Schools to your school, school district, or organization, please visit their website