Interview with Marion Williams, National Program Director, Wellness in the Schools

by NYC Food Policy Editor

Marion Williams currently works as a Chef & National Program Director for Wellness in the Schools, an organization dedicated to inspiring healthy eating, environmental awareness and fitness as a way of life for children in public schools. She received her degree as a Chef from Peter Kump N.Y. Cooking School in late 80s. She enrolled in the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts to specialize in healthier way to prepare foods. As a Chef, she has worked with Whole Foods Market, James Beard Foundation, City Harvest and several Catering Facilities. She has worked in the food industry for more than twenty years.

Her professional career outside the culinary industry includes a degree from College of New Rochelle as a Paralegal. As a paralegal, she worked for a private law firm and the Social Security Hearing and Appeals Office. Marion continued her education in nutrition with programs at the University of Pittsburgh and University of California, San Francisco, with studies focusing on Nutrition & Physical Activity as it impacts health. Marion’s other pursuits include volunteering with churches, Slow Food NY, Chef’s Move to Schools, NYCNEN (NYC Nutrition Educator’s Network), and being a member of BCA Global mentoring students of color in the food service industry. Continuing to educated, support and mentor the South Bronx community in which she was raised is high priority in her life’s goal.

Food Policy Center: Thank you so much for your time! I wanted to start out by asking about your background in cooking and nutrition. What initially got you interested in this space? 

Marion Williams: My own personal experiences with family members struggles with food and also my own personal illness.

How did you first get involved with Wellness in the Schools? 

I was asked by an instructor at my culinary school (the National Gourmet Institute) to volunteer with a small non-profit looking for help from professional chefs to feed children. I found myself taking time off from work to add more volunteer hours. I fell in love with the mission and saw how I could impact my community in the Bronx, NY.

Wellness in the Schools works in school districts to help children eat healthier. How does a new school get involved? 

Anyone interested in our program visits our website and completes a form titled “Bring WITS to You.”

What does a typical program look like in a school? 

The program plan is to create a community of wellness in the school, to support children, parents, caregivers, teachers, and administration to create this environment. Support the feeding program with training for the kitchen staff, wellness for the kitchen staff and nutrition education. All are supported in WITS Cook for kids, Coach for kids, Green for kids, along with Cookcamp workshops and a partnership program for parents called FEAST with WITS.

How did WITS pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were no longer in schools? 

We moved to virtual programming: scheduling our Cooking Labs, Coach Fit Bit movement breaks, Green for Kids projects, and WITS Bits Nutrition lessons with teachers as an online live or pre-recorded resource. Additionally, we were requested to join a few Bronx schools (including PS 55X Benjamin Franklin School) to provide nutrition education on the BronxNet cable station for shelter families who did not have devices or access to the internet. This has now become a show that is taped and produced by Chef Ricardo Diaz, RDN and called “A Bite of Wellness” broadcast on BronxNet INFORM Monday evenings live. Also, after-school programming was limited, so our school partner, MMCC (Mosholu Montefiore Community Center), asked us to support their pantry distribution. After discussing how we could help, we agreed to provide a two-hour weekly cooking class for parents who needed help making the unfamiliar foods received in pantry bags and taking a healthier approach to preparing common items. We also provided translations for participants. It was very successful. The most rewarding part of this program was the consistent following of the adults and the great questions and the testimonies about improvements in their health results changes. When we finally started in-person classes, most of the adults signed up to attend.

As the National Program Director (WITS currently works in New York, New Jersey, California, and Florida), I’m sure you’ve seen a variety of school meals. What are the differences you have noticed in school meals and children’s knowledge of nutrition knowledge in different states and districts? 

Coincidentally, most of the schools that approach us and our current districts want the same thing: to feed as many students in the school building as possible and to make breakfast, lunch, snacks and sometimes after-school meals that are attractive to the students and healthy. The differences we see in the school meals in the many districts WITS works with are mostly related to the regions that they reside. Most of our California schools have more access to local farm produce, especially because of their longer growing season. Same for Florida. In New York and New Jersey things look a bit different, but more suppliers are asking vendors for more local foods. The meals outside of New York City definitely look regional–more rice bowl options in some, more pasta entrees in others. All our school meals center around a seasonal salad bar. That is where we bring most of our on the ground work–teaching cafeterias and students about fruits and vegetables. We call this “Student Choice.” With the support of student “Salad Bar Rangers” who encourage their peers and help the really small ones to get what they like, the salad bar is successful in providing extra exposure to nutrients.

What are the needs and resources available in these different regions? 

The main need is consistency in supplies. Right now, supply-chain issues are an issue. Hopefully, more local produce can be integrated into the schools. Seasonality has to be driving the menu rotation, if we are speaking about getting students to try something new. In our New Jersey schools, the district is supported by The Common Market, which supplies local farm produce. It has brought asparagus, varieties of mushrooms, radishes, and other interesting produce to the students. Because it is local, the students get direct information about the seasonality of the food, the farm, and the farmers, whom they sometimes get to meet in person. During the pandemic, some of our California schools received a large amount of stone fruits, so that was a great opportunity to send them new recipes and lessons to teach in the classroom.

In recent years, many NYC schools have undergone kitchen renovations and upgrades, through the Cafeteria Enhancement Experience, to improve facilities for from-scratch cooking of healthy, culturally appropriate meals for students. Have any WITS schools undergone enhancement, and if so, what was the effect? 

I have seen a few, but the Cafeteria Enhancement Experience program is now going to be citywide. Where I have seen the change, it changes the mood of the eating space and provides more positive social engagement. I’m looking forward to seeing the full lunch experience changed as outlined by Mayor Eric Adams and New York City Department of Education Chancellor David C. Banks.

How do municipal procurement policies affect school meals?

The policies are set to protect the quality of food. I feel there is room for updates to the food policy to allow for the inclusion of more culturally relevant foods while still restricting harmful ingredients including allergens.

What could policymakers change to make it easier for schools to implement healthy food programs?

We could open up the opportunity for more vendors to participate and also add more requirements for local foods to be added to school menus.

Wellness in the Schools partnered with the Mayor’s Office to launch the first-ever Chefs Council, of which you are a member. Can you talk a little bit about your work on this council?

As a part of the Council, I have the privilege of collaborating with the DOE on developing new recipes and helping to edit and test the new recipes provided by the Council members. I also go to the schools that are piloting recipes and training the kitchen staff on how to prepare them.

How is menu development different in institutional settings such as schools, compared to menus at restaurants or in other settings?

There are government standards to meet for a community that is usually considered the most vulnerable, and protections such as limiting common food allergens as well as foods high in fat, sodium and/or sugar.

The Chefs Council also has a number of famous and otherwise noteworthy culinary professionals. Can you talk a bit about developing recipes with people who have such varying backgrounds and culinary experience? 

The experience was very exciting. Hearing their reasons “why” they contribute recipes to this program is so important. They basically want to reach their communities, people who are similar to their own families, change the experience of children from the same ethnic backgrounds and expand the knowledge of the children they play with.

What is the dynamic like in the kitchen?

Kitchens across the country are the same; they are our Aunties, Grandmas, Mothers, Fathers, Uncles, and most of all our neighbors. The neighbors of the children. They know each other and are a family themselves. If we are lucky, our WITS chefs get a chance to become part of those families. We care about one another’s well being; we look out for one another, and most of all we care about the children and want them to enjoy the meals. 

New York City has universal free school meals for all public school students. Many other states and municipalities also have either passed universal free meals or are considering such legislation. What are some of the benefits of universal free school meals? 

Access to food for all students, especially for those in the many communities where we think there is equity but there are still a few students who go home hungry.

What are some barriers that municipalities face in adopting universal free school meals? 

The adjustment takes time to be adopted in the kitchens. During the transition it is difficult to know how many students to prepare for. Some judge the meal without even tasting it. Mostly the adults are skeptical, have too much pride to accept the free meals, which they view as a hand-out, so the children are not encouraged to try the meal.

What is your proudest food advocacy moment?

Being able to bring the story of “why” from the team I work with to the women and men with whom we partner, and to the children, principals, teachers, caregivers, parents and anyone who touches a child. I also leave them with this: “Creating a Good Food memory in the bodies of the children we feed will always help them heal from illnesses they may face!”

Fast Facts

Grew up in: Bronx, New York
City or town you call home: New York
Job title: Chef/National Program Director
Background and education: Graduated from College of New Rochelle, Culinary Ed at Peter Crumps and the Natural Gourmet Institute
One word you would use to describe our food system: Malnourished
Food policy hero: Karen Washington & Marion Nestle
Your breakfast this morning: 2 eggs and whole grain toast
Favorite food: Anything French
Favorite last meal on Earth: My grandmother’s soup
Favorite food hangout: Super Restaurant, NYC
Food policy social media must follow:

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