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Innovators | Education

A health champion and his school without junk food

Mbakwe Okafor, Codman Academy

A STUDENT at Codman Academy, a charter public high school in Dorchester, once wrote a paper about buying some fresh fruit for lunch. She’d have to take a bus for miles, past fast food restaurants and liquor stores, to get to a produce market.

It was a call to action for Mbakwe Okafor, Codman’s wellness director. His mission: to pull students with few options for healthy eating off the road to obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

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But that was a challenge at Codman, which has no athletic facilities, and no kitchen or cafeteria.

Okafor, 33, began with a whole-school approach to wellness. Every student was weighed and measured, with follow-up resources offered to parents. “I want to help kids reach their potential, whether through exercise or eating right. It’s both a personal and professional mission,’’ he said.

By 2009, Codman had eliminated junk food from its free lunch plan. This year, the entire school was designated a junk food-free zone: Candy, cookies, and soda are banned.

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And to graduate, every Codman student must pass a nutrition competency exam.

Okafor grew up in the South Bronx, and knows the temptations of fast food. But as a basketball player and coach, he learned standards of fitness and proper diet. Today, he’s a role model.

“I work out several times a week, live the kind of lifestyle that we’re asking the kids here to follow,’’ he said. “I can’t remember the last time I drank soda.’’

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