09/16/2013 08:36 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

The Challenges of Growing Up Unhealthy

By Paul Day, Communications Manager, DC Central Kitchen

Growing up, I rarely had a home-cooked meal. Since I'm from a single-parent household, my mom was so busy working to support my sister and me that she couldn't set the table when she came home from work. It wasn't until my 20's that I realized what an impact this had on my health.

Rather than eating healthy meals cooked at home, I would subsist off of vending machines and fast food. By the time I was in high school, my grades suffered. I had always been a good student, but clearly something was wrong with me - my attention span and energy level were all lacking. I'd come home and sleep for hours and when I did eat, it would be in front of the television.

It didn't help that the food at my school was terrible - mushy hamburgers, microwaved pizza, soggy tater tots, and greasy pasta with overcooked vegetables. It's no wonder that I would often choose to eat at Wendy's or down a bag of potato chips from a gas station instead of eating that slop. My knowledge of nutrition was pretty limited. This was not something they taught us in school.

Not only was I used to eating junk, I never developed a palate for healthy eating. Making healthy choices is a very difficult thing when you're not used to it. I was lucky that I had met friends that showed me how to eat better and how joyful it was to cook and prepare my own meals using fresh ingredients. Without those people in my life, I would have been on a downward spiral of poor health.

I'm 30 years old. I'm very happy now that politicians and the government have taken more an active interest in making school food healthier. That wasn't the case when I was a kid and vending machines stocked full of soda and candy were the norm. It's great that now there's a focus on putting healthy food in schools.

I grew up in a very working class family in Detroit, Michigan. The cost of food was always an issue, though perhaps not so much then as it is now. It was often easier to go with a cheaper option than a healthier one. And certainly, I don't come from a family full of gourmands who could teach me about the joys of arugula and organic heirloom tomatoes. I was lucky if I got real mashed potatoes for dinner.

So I can imagine that the experience is even more difficult for children living in DC's poorest neighborhoods, which are quite unlike the quaint suburban Detroit neighborhood where I grew up. This is a very expensive city to live in compared to Detroit and grocery stores are lacking in many neighborhoods. With the abundance of cheap processed food, many kids rarely get home cooked meals made with fresh ingredients. This is why I am amazed by the work of my organization, DC Central Kitchen, which has an innovative school food program that serves 5,500 healthy breakfasts, lunches, and suppers each day to 10 DC public and private schools.

In my first weeks at DCCK, I was able to visit a few of the schools we serve and try some of the incredible healthy meals we prepare every day. I was completely shocked at how different this experience was from my own. Fresh vegetables, whole grain bread, chicken that isn't fried or saturated in butter and oil - this is a very different experience from what I was used to. The real amazing thing is not the food itself, but that the kids were enjoying it! One time, I visited a school when our own Chef Anand prepared a fresh kale salad for our students. Kale wasn't something I'd touch as a kid, but these kids were lapping it up and going back for seconds.

This experience really challenges my own stereotypes about kids and healthy eating. I had always assumed that my avoidance of healthy choices was "normal", but seeing our work really changes that perception. If I had access to not only healthy meals, but all of the cooking classes, taste tests, and nutrition education that these kids are getting through our work, I might have developed those healthy habits much sooner.

Like many kids here in DC, I would often stop at a gas station before school and use my allowance to purchase doughnuts, potato chips, and soda. The small party stores and gas stations in Detroit didn't stock healthy snacks like fresh pineapple and grapes, which were well within my comfort zone even as a kid. It's no different here DC, and even on my way to work I've seen kids picking up the same kinds of unhealthy items in large quantities from corner stores. It reminds me a lot of how I grew up.

This experience is why DC Central Kitchen's Healthy Corners initiative is such an important part of our mission to combat hunger and poor health. We've partnered with 30 DC corner stores to provide affordable, healthy grab-and-go snacks and fresh produce, bridging the divide between our scratch-cooked meals in DC schools and the lack of healthy options in too many homes.

Kids grow up in all kinds of situations where health and wellness take a backseat to affordability and convenience. This is not just a problem in DC, where the obesity rate in some neighborhoods tops 40 percent. Parents are doing the best they can with the resources they have to make sure their kids are healthy. But our system does not always provide adequate support, especially when parents have to work hard just to put any kind of food on the table. Kids don't just need access to healthy food, but the educational resources and experiences that will set them on a healthy course for life. DC Central Kitchen's model unites schools, businesses, and community organizations around a set of solutions that can help children and parents facing serious challenges to break the cycle of poverty, hunger, and poor health for good.