You Are What You Eat

Roberto Fierro '04


As he stood in front of his ninth-grade World History class, ready to begin the day’s discussion on Mayan culture, teacher Roberto Fierro ’04 could feel his anger building. An important exam was right around the corner, and one of his students, Betty, had fallen asleep. Again.

Sure, studying the rise and fall of early civilizations might not be the most riveting topic for the 14- to 15-year-old set, but there were important lessons to be learned from the past, and Betty’s poor academic performance coupled with her penchant for in-class catnaps had become more than just a nuisance.

Frustrated and confused, Fierro decided to broach the subject with his wife and fellow teacher, Natalie, and her assessment was startlingly simple. “She seemed convinced that Betty either wasn’t eating right, or eating at all,” he recalls. “It’s tough to stay focused on an empty stomach, or if your diet isn’t the best. In her case, both were correct.”

Spurred on by their struggles with Betty and students like her, Roberto and Natalie formed the Institute of Student Health (ISH) in December 2011. The plan was simple: Create an organization that provides Generation Y and their families with the education and resources to eat and live healthy. In order to execute that plan, the couple developed an innovative three-pronged approach based on food cultivation, cooking and fitness that Fierro believes is the perfect recipe for student success.

“In a nutshell, the ISH provides students with a better understanding of how food and health directly impact their lives,” says Fierro, who graduated from USD with a degree in international relations, and currently works with the Washington, D.C.-based government relations and advocacy firm, D&P Creative Strategies. “It’s easy to go into your local store and grab food that’s ready-made, just like it’s easy to sit on the couch and watch TV rather than exercise. Easy isn’t always right, though.”

Ever since his childhood days collecting homegrown herbs and vegetables from his grandmother’s garden in Tijuana, Mexico, Fierro has appreciated the value of a good old-fashioned home-cooked meal, and not just because of the taste. “Maybe it was subconscious, but I learned from a young age the connection of food to culture and community,” he says. “Time spent cooking and preparing food was also time spent connecting with my family. I think we’ve moved away from that these days, and there’s real value in that type of experience.”

Whether it’s growing vegetables in a small plot outside a middle-school classroom, promoting their mouth-watering ‘Meatless Mondays’ recipes via the ISH website, or teaching a class that perfectly melds the somewhat incongruous combination of healthy cooking and ballroom dancing, Fierro and the ISH team are constantly looking for ways to promote a healthy lifestyle. For their efforts, the Washington, D.C., Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs awarded them a $20,000 grant to help promote health and wellness practices with and for the city-based Latino community.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity to expand our research and help people live healthier lives,” Fierro says. “That’s why we’re here.” — Mike Sauer

For more information on the Institute of Student Health, please go to

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