The following guest blog, part of our Cafeteria Stories series, highlights the work of Wellness in the Schools, a non-profit organization working on school nutrition in New York City. Organizations such as this can be a great resource for teachers and students in creating healthier school environments.
By Chef Greg Silverman, Managing Director, Wellness in the Schools
This year, as school came to a close, the kids at PS145/West Prep Academy in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood were feeling healthier, more fit, and more focused, thanks to two programs offered through Wellness in the Schools (WITS), a non-profit organization dedicated to making public schools healthier places to learn and grow. The programs are through WITS Cook for Kids and Coach for Kids programs, chefs and coaches support school wellness by providing staff training in the cafeteria and recess yard, and helping schools to transition to healthier meals and more active play times.
PS145/West Prep Academy is a co-located public school with over 580 students in a high-poverty area where all of their students qualify for free lunches. When the school first brought on the programs last year, it was hard to know what to expect. Principals Carland Washington and Dr. Natalia Garcia were a little anxious when their schools first started the WITS programs in the fall–and so were their students and staff, but they knew they had to take a leap of faith to transform their lunch and recess programs and get their kids healthier and better prepared to learn.
Now one year later, PS145/West Prep Academy is a model WITS school. With training and support from WITS Chef Katie, the kitchen staff is now empowered to execute the “Alternative Menu,” a menu which eliminates highly processed items and emphasizes healthy, scratch-cooked recipes. The Alternative Menu, developed in partnership between WITS and the NYC Office of School Food, conforms to the USDA’s updated meal standards without increased cost. The Alternative Menu currently serves 60 schools and 30,000 children in New York City.
"Overall things in the kitchen are moving really smooth now,” says WITS Chef Katie, “I think we have hit a good rhythm with the staff and now they’re excited to try new things instead of being afraid of the change.”
Chef Katie gets students excited about the healthy menu items by offering special tasting portions of recipes and regularly sitting down to eat lunch with them. Students also have the opportunity to make some of the healthy recipes themselves during their WITS Labs, nutrition and culinary education classes focused on seasonal ingredients and taught in the classroom by WITS Chefs.
WITS is also active on the recess yard, where WITS Coach Rob Sanders has reinvented the playground culture. WITS Coach for Kids Director and personal trainer, Wendy Siskin, specially trains her WITS Coaches to provide structured play opportunities, mitigate conflicts, and engage the schools' Recess Aides. At PS145/West Prep Academy Coach Rob leads the students in fun and rigorous games that use up lots of surplus energy, helping kids to be calmer and more focused when they return to the classroom. The kids know that in order to participate in the fun activities Coach Rob plans each day they must also behave in the lunchroom and classroom, a policy that has greatly improved behavior.
"Coach Rob has really improved things throughout the year, he engages all the kids in activities,” says Principal Washington, “In the beginning of the year, there were only a select group of kids that would always participate, but now recess is fully active and positive.”
Looking forward to the 2015-2016 school year, PS145/West Prep Academy students and staff are no longer anxious, they are confident. School staff are confident in their new abilities to prepare healthful meals, lead engaging fitness activities, and represent as wellness leaders. Students are confident too- confident that their food will be healthy and delicious, that recess will be fun and intimidation-free, and that next year will be full of new and exciting things to learn and do.
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school lunches should give more food than what they give. Schools never give enough food to students and leave them wanting more food.