Walking the halls of his Baltimore high school with a backpack full of chips, soda and other goodies, Damonte was known to his friends as the “junk food king.”
Like many of his classmates, he shied away from the school’s lunch offerings, opting instead for the most accessible alternative: processed snack foods from the corner store, two blocks away. Damonte’s diet wasn’t much healthier at home. An aspiring chef, he liked to cook meals inspired by his family’s Georgia roots.
“Being from down south, you know, it’s a lot of country food and butter,” he said.
But eventually his habits caught up with him. At a routine doctor’s visit in 2011, Damonte learned he had high blood pressure.
That fall, the Institute for Integrative Health partnered with Dr. Mehmet Oz’s HealthCorps® to bring a full-time health mentor-activist to Damonte’s high school. The young college graduate led a wide range of activities promoting physical fitness, healthy eating, and mental resilience in the school community.
Damonte got involved in an after-school cooking program, where he gained nutrition knowledge and culinary skills that have helped him take charge of his well-being. He got his blood pressure under control and learned how to make healthier versions of southern favorites for his family.
Now known for his talent at the stove instead of his reign over junk food, Damonte has emerged as a leader in the cooking program. “It gives me the opportunity to do what I love to do,” he said.
On top of shifting his eating habits, Damonte says he’s seen other changes in himself. “The most important lesson I’ve learned is not to quit.”
That perseverance may help him land a job in a professional kitchen someday.