By Theresa Harrington
Friday, July 20th, 2012 at 4:44 pm in Education.
Ever since Cindy Gershen called me several years ago to tell me about the Wellness City Challenge and Healthy Restaurant Association she was spearheading, I have witnessed her amazing ability to light a fire in others and convert them to her cause — which is ultimately to change what the community eats.
That’s no small task. But Gershen — who owns the Sunrise Bistro in Walnut Creek — is undaunted.
I wrote a “Hometown Hero” story about her four years ago, in which I described her as a “petite dynamo” who was sweeping people up in her mission to transform the way people eat, exercise and think about health and wellness.
“I’m an agent for change,” she said at the time.
She based her commitment on her own transformation from an overweight, unhappy woman to a healthy, energetic 56-year-old grandmother who looks years younger than her age. After she cut down on sugar and began eating whole foods and fresh veggies — and reduced the size of her portions — she was able to lose 100 pounds and keep it off.
She invited Dr. Robert Lustig, a UC San Franciso pediatrician, to speak at Las Lomas High about his groundbreaking research on the effects of sugar in the body, years before he was plunged into the national spotlight in 2011 when The New York Times wrote about his video gone viral, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth.”
Gershen was also spreading her message about healthy eating years before Jamie Oliver launched his “Food Revolution” in 2010.
Although she hasn’t gained national attention yet, Gershen has a cookbook deal in the works with a freelance writer who said during a recent garden tour at Mt. Diablo High that she was sucked into Gershen’s vortex.
Others on the tour smiled knowingly. Gershen approaches people with tornado-like force, intent on opening their eyes to the problems that result from unhealthy eating and sedentary lifestyles. Then, she persuades them to work alongside her.
Childhood obesity and diabetes are two of the ills she aims to eradicate through her relentless commitment to nutrition and health.
She started slowly at Mt. Diablo High, with a grant from the Mt. Diablo Healthcare District that enabled students in the culinary arts program to cook nutritious meals for the school’s staff. Some detractors criticized the project because it didn’t feed students.
But Gershen and those who embraced the idea said the project helped build a foundation that could be passed onto students, after teachers saw for themselves how changing their diets helped them feel better.
The project culminated with an event in May called “Come to the Table,” which included healthy meals prepared by Mt. Diablo High students, motivational speakers and panel discussions.
It garnered support from Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin and officials including city council members, state Superintendent Tom Torlakson and Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez.
“That brought a lot of people to the table,” said Concord Councilwoman Laura Hoffmeister, who attended that event and the recent garden tour. “That was the ‘aha’ moment.’”
Gershen seized the moment to build momentum. She is helping teach students at Mt. Diablo High how to grow their own food, cook it and eat it, through a pilot healthy cuisine and sustainable tourism program.
The pilot is a partnership between the Wellness City Challenge, the Mt. Diablo CARES summer program, the school’s International Hospitality and Tourism Academy and Contra Costa County Office of Education’s Regional Occupational Program. Environmental science teacher Patrick Oliver, who has worked as an organic farmer, is hoping someone will donate an orchard quality tractor to the school so he and his students can plant crops more easily.
Gershen is also working with the Mt. Diablo school district’s food services department, with another grant from the Mt. Diablo Healthcare District, to bring healthier foods to other schools.
Leading by example, she has earned the respect of those who have partnered with her, including Don Graves, who works with foster youth in Contra Costa County.
“She doesn’t have to do this,” said Graves, after the garden tour. “What strikes me — and what’s important — is her passion.”
Four years ago, Gershen threw down the gauntlet.
“If everyone’s got the same information,” she said earnestly, “in five years, you’ll see a change in the way we eat, which will impact our health.”
She’s got one year to make that prediction come true.
Do you think she can do it?
JULY 25 UPDATE: Here is a note I received from Roy Larkin, who sits on the Mt. Diablo Heathcare District Board, which provided the grant that funded Gershen’s first project at Mt. Diablo High:
“I do hope that the Wellness City Challenge is successful in the MDUSD. The initial program went well and the cost of good nourishing food was about $1 per person. With the annual increase in student fees for meals and the rise in obesity, wouldn’t it be nice to see lower student fees, healthy foods and lower obesity rates spread randomly throughout our schools?
AUG. 20 UPDATE: Here is a link to a story by our sports reporter Ben Enos about how Gershen is feeding the MDHS football team to change the way they eat: http://bit.ly/POEQ4C