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Breaking the Cycle: Let's Make Healthy Living Habits a Focus in Urban Schools

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Edited by La’Quitia Denson

Recently we had a chance to talk with Melonya Johnson of Be Smart Coaching. Melonya is a coach, trainer, and consultant strategist based in Buffalo, New York. We chatted about health education, how health affects different communities, and creating a focus on healthy living habits in urban schools. It was such a great discussion we wanted to share it here too.

Melonya J of B Smart Coaching headshot


My company is Be Smart Coaching and I'm a leadership development practice and I am a professional certified coach. I'm certified as a social and emotional intelligence coach as well as a pro-side change management practitioner. We focus on helping individuals, managers, and leaders build competencies in the areas of social and emotional intelligence, intercultural competency, as well as building savvy communication skills and exemplary behavioral practices in terms of their management skills. We do that so that we can create best places to work environments where people feel psychologically, physically safe, feel fully engaged in their work and in what they do.


What's the one compelling idea that you want to share with us around this particular space? What's the burning idea that we really should be thinking about when we think about health and students pre-K through 12 and education?


I've worked with both the healthcare industry and nonprofits. I've also worked with schools and school systems. I think that there needs to be a holistic approach. It's not just about the mind; it's also about the body. You know, when I think about the real inequities that exist for African-Americans and people of color in the healthcare industry. We have to be advocates for ourselves. How do you begin that conversation? How do you have an awareness that you are responsible for your health? And I believe that it starts with education.

I believe that you start with educating students as well as parents in our school systems. You start early on so that they develop lifelong habits of health and prevention.


I just want to kind of go into a little bit more depth around prevention. When we think about health, we can't think about health without thinking that healthcare is going to be the answer to issues with your health and wellness.

What programs have you seen when you've worked with schools or organizations that are focused on educating early on prevention that involves students and parents?


There isn't a unified approach to education regarding our bodies and health. Or an emphasis on the value of practicing and developing lifelong healthy habits, like good nutrition. Health providers will ask about family history, but sometimes the connection to chronic diseases and prevention may not be a focus. Sometimes they make recommendations without assessing

if the client has the resources to follow them. Or schools talk about the importance of fresh fruits

Produce in a grocery store

and vegetables with students but failing to acknowledge under-resourced communities often are in food deserts without access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Schools also are guilty of addressing cultural differences performatively with "cultural" foods, but they use stereotypical foods. A school in New York had to apologize because on the first day of African American history month, they had a meal of fried chicken, waffles, and watermelon. People became incensed because it was so stereotypical and potentially unhealthy. This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to diversity and inclusion programs and creating programs that resonate, are needed, and wanted.

Also, that type of performative gesture does nothing to address real issues in the community, such as childhood obesity. Obesity is a prevalent issue in African American communities, where 24.2% of the children are obese, and also in Hispanic communities, where 25.6% are obese.

To combat this issue, schools can provide nutritional information to students and train them to differentiate between whole and processed foods. In addition, they can read food labels. By doing so, children can develop a relationship with food and understand how it affects their bodies.

Providing meals with low or no carbohydrates would also help students with diabetes. Schools in the US serve more processed foods than other countries. By educating children about nutrition, we can connect what we eat with consequences.


A big piece of that, like you mentioned, is the education piece and getting people more aware of how these different components fit together. I grew up in an urban area, and I think some of my teachers did not know how to connect nutrition, to my environment in the context of what I was learning. They would show us the pyramid, but not explain how it was interrelated tell to other aspects of your life. Like many things taught in school around nutrition and eating and healthy behaviors, sex education, mental health, and exercising, they all seem to be siloed. It's the same way we teach adults, right? Like we don't make connections and say, well, to be healthy, it isn't just one focus but changes and tweaks in multiple areas. These seem like basic things, but we don't emphasize enough how interconnected to multiple factors our ability to be our healthiest version really is.

So, when we think about equity and health, some things that we've seen shifting are how we discuss mental health in schools and approach sex education. What do you think could be the impact of these shifts on creating inclusive and comprehensive health education programs?


Well, again, I say that schools are tasked with more responsibility for our children than in the past. I think during the COVID pandemic, when schools could not accept children, we understood how important schools are and their connection to our economy. Schools often spend more time with our children than the parents do on a given day, so I think there is an opportunity and a necessity for them to look at who they are educating in a holistic way.

They did a study in Texas requiring children to exercise daily. They did it for about three years, and the outcomes were not what they expected, partially due to bullying. When you exercise, you go to the locker room. It's not supervised, which leads to bullying if you're obese or not athletic. Children experience those things. And so, they became more absent, or had more disturbances.

An African American child holding anti-bully message.

When we talk about bullying, a CDC statistic came out this year. It said 57% of girls and 69% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual teenagers reported feeling sadness every day for at least two weeks during the previous year. 14% of girls, up from 12% in 2011, said they have been forced to have sex at some point in their lives. In addition, 20% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents. You cannot talk about health and wellness without talking about sexuality and the impact of that. You also need to have a safe place where our children can have real discussions about what's going on with them.

We talk about our mental health and wellness, and we've learned how important it is because of COVID. Yet we still seem to want to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to real issues facing our kids. We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Like talking about the health issue of pregnancy rates among teenagers and focusing on race and ethnicity as the reason. Yes, African-American and Latino teens have higher rates of teen pregnancy, but saying that alone ignores socioeconomic factors like poverty, which is a major influence. It tells a skewed picture, creates bias, and increases disparities. Or acknowledging that those in lower socioeconomic groups are negatively impacted by a lack of access to confidential health services, contraceptive counseling, and abortion services.

So you have young kids, having kids, who then continue to live in poverty and can't break the cycle because we don't address poverty. Where you live, green spaces, air quality, water quality, socioeconomics, peer and family culture really have an effect on teen pregnancy rates. There is this great opportunity to really educate kids to be healthier citizens, but we have to be comfortable with focusing on issues we traditionally have not wanted to discuss.


I think you mentioned during COVID; we realized how much the schools did when it came to raising children and setting that foundation. Yet, after we were no longer isolating, once the kids were back in school, we said, okay, we want you (schools) to do less, with laws targeted at giving parents more control and restricting school curriculums that may cause discomfort. Even though we know that schools have been doing a lot of difficult discussions in the past. It seemed like the public was surprised when mental health issues reached crisis levels with kids. We were never great with mental health issues, and kids were even worse than prior to the pandemic when you look at some of the statistics. I can't imagine why we would shift to something so illogical. It almost seems like we're moving away from prevention. Kids spend a lot of time at school, like 8-9 hours a day. How can we give kids a bit of emotional and critical thinking skills they may need? Not necessarily in academics, but perhaps in health and wellness, and self-care, and I don't mean to say parents don't have time. And I don't expect you to have the answer to this, but I know you have some thoughts on this.

Diverse classroom listening to teacher.


I don't think it's a priority. We have to stop thinking our schools are currently healthy places for our students to be. Each day, 12 children die from gun violence, there have been 377 mass shootings since Columbine, over 300,000 students have experienced gun violence. Then add in the physical toll that even attending school has it paints a pretty unhealthy picture.


What do you mean physical toll?


During adolescence, children's bodies need more sleep. Our school start times are super early and not conducive to a healthy circadian rhythm. Stop to think. Over the years, we have learned that sedentary lives are unhealthy. So, what do we do? We take children and put them in chairs for how many hours a day to be sedentary. We're not feeding them well. They're not getting the proper amount of exercise. They're living in unhealthy communities. And now they're becoming obese, and then act surprised.

We have this problem because we're not educating kids. Here's the funny thing about children. They're great at teaching their parents. And I'll give you an example. If you've ever tried to implement a swear jar in your house, like any time you say a bad word, you gotta put a quarter in the swear jar, right? Let one slip, and the kid will be the first to say, "Mommy, daddy, you just said a bad word", you better put something in there! They'll remind you every time. But if we teach our children that when someone pulls out a bottle of soda, they say, "We drink water at school because, in our community, obesity leads to diabetes and heart disease." They connect to their real lives, and they'll school their parents on, knowing that we can make healthier choices.

I think we need to arm our children with real knowledge that helps them to make choices and decisions. Such as making green spaces and creating gardens in our schools, so that children learn how to grow food organically, something that many poor communities can't afford.

Diverse children planting flowers in a flower bed

If we can pay attention to what we're eating, and how much exercise we're getting, and make these healthy day-to-day practices into habits, we can see improvement. This will lead to healthy happy kids, and communities, ultimately improving everyone's lives.

This is a real missed opportunity to educate our children because they have the capacity to learn and prevent diseases. Diseases we are now seeing earlier in their lives because of obesity, environmental factors, and socioeconomic disparities.


Melonya, thank you so much. This has been such an insightful discussion. And if people want to contact Melonya, they can reach her at or email her at

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To read more about the Texas study

***( The data from this study was collected as part of the Early Childhood Physical Activity Survey administered by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention Section (HPCDPS) on behalf of the Early Childhood Health and Nutrition Interagency Council (the Council). The study includes statewide non-Head Start Texas ECE center. It is to help discover improvements in practices and policies between physical activity and screen time. Read more

About Teen Pregnancy and Childbearing

Understanding the Differences in Pregnancy and BirthRates for Black and WhiteTeens


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