Healthy Food, Healthy Lives

Grantee Name

Wellness in the Schools

Funding Area

Healthy Food, Healthy Lives

Publication Date

May 2024

Grant Amount


Grant Date:

December 2022–August 2023

Students who eat school meals daily have better diets than students who do not; they consume more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Additionally, when meals are free to all, the stigma and shame associated with school lunch decreases. Improving the quality and appeal of school food and cafeteria environments is important to fulfill the promise of free lunch for all.  

Recently, New York City committed to transform school meals from frozen and pre-prepared items to freshly cooked meals in partnership with Wellness in the Schools (WITS). The initiative, called Chefs Move to NYC Schools, revises the New York City school food menu and its purchasing agreements in favor of fresh foods. In 2022, NYHealth awarded WITS a grant to support the implementation of freshly cooked meals in New York City schools.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

  • Launched the inaugural NYC Chef Council, composed of 10 celebrated chefs and food activists to develop recipes that reflect the diverse backgrounds of New York City students. 
  • Developed 111 plant-forward, culturally relevant recipes that can be cooked from scratch using ingredients from the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) procurement list. 
  • Secured approval for 36 new items to add to the citywide school food menu, including Kidney Bean Rajma, Pineapple Rice Medley, Jollof Cauliflower, and Kachumber Salad. 
  • Selected as an official member of the NYC DOE Menu Development team.  
  • Hired 72 new chefs to teach existing NYC DOE school food staff scratch-cooking skills and techniques such as knife skills, mise en place, batch cooking, and storage. 
  • Completed scratch cooking training in 112 of the City’s more than 1,800 schools, with a plan to expand training to more schools in the second year. 
  • Worked with 27 schools to provide educational programming to market to students and increase consumption of the new recipes. 

Rolling out a new initiative across the nation’s largest school district is no easy feat; it requires flexibility and persistence to make changes for 1.1 million students. WITS initially planned to introduce 100 scratch-cooked, plant-based, culturally relevant recipes to the citywide school food menu in the initiative’s first year. However, challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, ingredient restrictions, replicability concerns, and supply chain issues slowed the pace of the project, and the district approved only one-third of these recipes in that timeframe. Despite these constraints, WITS started developing additional recipes to exceed its initial goal of 100 recipes. Cumbersome agency hiring processes and staffing shortages also slowed WITS’ pace of progress initially. However, the organization was able to rethink its original staffing plan to train school food staff on the new recipes successfully.  

WITS had an unexpected win during the grant period. When WITS was looking for funding for nutrition education partners, the NYC DOE agreed to provide schools with nutrition education grants to encourage consumption of school meals. Recognizing that education and marketing are needed to increase school meals consumption, the Mayor’s Office released a Food Education Roadmap outlining a vision for nutrition education in schools, and NYC DOE established a new position to provide $10,000 grants to schools to purchase nutrition education programs during the school year. 

Co-Funding and Additional Funds Leveraged: New York City has committed $10.5 million over the next two years to support the program. Additional grant funding was provided by the Jonathan and Jennifer Allen Soros Foundation ($180,000), the Rachel Ray Foundation ($50,000), and an anonymous family foundation ($35,000).