09/27/2012 05:43 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

A Wealthy Student Is a Healthy Student

In my eight years as an educator, I can honestly say that each year I can recall various initiatives intended to battle and reverse the obesity and health concerns facing America's students. Now, what was once growing concern has become part of a full-fledged epidemic. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has calculated that nearly 35 percent of Americans are obese and type 2 diabetes is becoming the number one cause of preventable death. None of this is news to any of us, and there are just as many expert solutions to this tragic diagnosis as there are items on the Wendy's, McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell value menus combined. From attacking fast food chains directly to banning and eliminating items that are high in sugar and fat from schools, it appears that we are trying nearly everything to improve the health of both children and adults as well.

As an educator, who continues to witness the health of his students decline year after year, it has become obvious that all the experts, politicians and school boards fail to do the one thing that will not only reverse the obesity epidemic, but provide children and students with the information and understanding of which they are in dire need through educating them on nutrition. Providing nutrition education and an understanding about proper nutrition is the only way to change what is becoming a self-inflicted and historic crisis for Americans. It is imperative to educate students, not only in a high school health class, but as early as possible. History reveals than banning or restricting the consumption of anything (especially alcohol like during the Prohibition) has not only had an adverse effect, but is useless and only immediate, and not effective in the long term.

Over the past few years, I have noticed certain food choices replaced and portion sizes reduced, but this has only led to students purchasing two portions of fries instead of one. Mayor Bloomberg will learn quickly that by eliminating a "super-sized" cup, people will not make healthier choices nor will they be more nutrition savvy. Instead of telling people, and students, what they can't eat, we should in fact advise and inform them on what they should eat. We must teach them to choose wisely via education and not force them to choose wisely by restriction, especially if we care about their long term health and lifestyle.

Unfortunately, educating children on how to make wise and healthy food choices can only be effective and successful if they have healthy and nutritious options. However, this isn't the case in most public and inner city schools. School boards do not choose food vendors who provide the healthiest and most nutritious ingredients and foods; they often have to go with the lowest bidder. Education is a business and, like most businesses, the operating officers (in this case, the school boards) don't have the luxury or funding to choose the food vendors who provide the healthiest meal choices for students. It's very simple: the lowest bidders provide the lowest quality of food. This is another reason where economic status comes into play in education. This is also why schools, even public schools, that are made up of children from middle to upper class families are far healthier than students who are relying on school lunch paid for by the state. My students who "brown bag" their lunches have much better quality and much healthier lunch options than those who receive a "free lunch," which is provided by the contracted vendors and paid for through state and federal funds. So, unless we can provide a much healthier and nutritious selection for our students, it will not matter if they are all expert nutritionists or completely ignorant to what is healthy and what's not.

The other alarming statistic stated by the CDC is the fact that nearly half of those suffering from obesity are African American or "Non-Hispanic blacks." Again, this is a fact that easily can be justified by economics and not genetics. Since African Americans make up the majority in most inner city and urban public schools, they are far more likely to be forced to eat food provided by contracted vendors chosen because it was the lowest bidder. The high school where I teach, though mainly middle class, is made up of mostly African American students. It is 60 percent to be exact. Many of these students rely on the school's food vendor, not only for lunch but, in many cases, breakfast as well. With limited nutritional options and education (nutrition is only briefly touched upon in health class), students have no choice but to consume poor quality foods, which have a direct effect on their academic performance and ability to focus throughout the school day. "We are what we eat," and our quality of life is directly related to the quality of food we consume.

Nutrition education and nutritious food options are only part of the problem, though a large part; it's the declining standards and requirements needed in physical education classes that also have a large effect on the declining health of our children and students. Instead of increasing the levels of activity required in a PE class, it seems that states are decreasing the levels in order to cater to our larger number of inactive and obese students. So, they are literally doing the complete opposite of what they should do and, in turn, are making children more unhealthy. It's a fair assumption that our generation was far more active outside of school than the current generation of students is. This is unfortunate, but it is becoming the cultural norm. So, knowing this, states should increase the level of activity required and assume that PE classes may be the only form of physical activity that students receive on a daily basis, excluding those involved in sports and other after school activities. If you combine poor quality food options with a declining requirement needed in physical education classes, it is literally a formula for a tragic and inevitable "Generation Obese."

Though I teach history, I find myself spending over an hour a week discussing nutrition, health and the best choices of food to fuel their physical growth and improve their mental health. As someone who has the rare and unique honor of being named one of Men's Fitness' "25 Fittest Men in the World," my students often turn to me with all of their nutrition questions, especially those that apply to athletics. I always have protein bars, which I buy myself, in my desk drawer for my students who are hungry, or weren't able to have breakfast. As long as schools give their food vendor contracts to the lowest bidder, and not those that have the highest quality, students will not only continue to decline in health, but their academics will be affected as well. By feeding children poor food we should expect that test scores and academics will be linked more to their diet than a teacher's performance. Until this is reversed, I, along with nearly every other teacher, will find ourselves combating students and their inability to focus, not because of their lack of interest, but due to their lethargic behavior which is absolutely related to their school lunch.