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A Wellness Challenge

08 November 2013 Written by  Cindy Gershen
Published in November 2013 Articles

I am owner and head chef at Walnut Creek’s Sunrise Bistro, but for the past three years I’ve been wearing another hat as a teacher at Concord’s Mt. Diablo High School. The school body is sub-divided into academies. Our particular career and technical education pathway is Sustainable Hospitality and Tourism. 

MY STORY
I was born in Oakland and grew up in the Bay Area. My mom’s folks were immigrants from Italy and neither Dad nor Mom ever graduated from high school. I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, surrounded by people of various colors, languages, and social norms. It was a shock when, at age 13, we moved to San Ramon and I enrolled in a high school with a basically Caucasian student body. The people were fine and some of my fellow graduates became life-long friends, but I missed the excitement and energy of those ethnically diverse years. It was like going from spicy cioppino to a diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I never understand the temptation of parents to pull their children out of a school when a student body begins to become ethnically diverse. Doing so robs their children of opportunities to encounter social, cultural, and speech patterns that would broaden them and prepare them for living in the Real World.

I hold myself up as an example of healthy eating for my students, showing them how making healthy diet choices increases energy, makes them less-susceptible to disease, and creates barriers to premature aging. I really am an ideal example because, judging from my size 6 dress, nobody could imagine today that I battled obesity for most of my life. I am only 5' 3" but at one point weighed 210 pounds. I waged constant warfare against my condition and tried all the diets and weight loss programs that I could find in an attempt to find a Three years ago I took my concern for helping young people into public education, getting some grant money, and teaching classes on principles of nutrition and healthy food preparation at Mt. Diablo High. I chose the school because it was the first one to buy into my plans for revolutionizing the way nutrition is taught in high school. I had been pestering all the school districts in the area and was relieved when Mt. Diablo finally let me come onboard. The school district built us a classroom and gave us two acres to be set aside as teaching gardens.

PROMOTING WELLNESS IN PRACTICE AND PROFESSION
Our program, Sustainable Hospitality & Tourism, has become remarkably effective because it brings theories and principles together with hands-on professional-level activities. Students in our classroom prepare nutritious meals that are then served to other students and faculty members. We are currently working together with students to design a Visitor’s Center that will give them hands-on experience in creating a real-world business.

Our academy has been an effective educational experience for the students and a rewarding teaching experience for all of us on the staff. We meet in the school’s Home Economics building, but what we are doing does not resemble grandmothers’ Home Ec Class. Our curriculum reflects the remarkable “do no harm” revolution that is taking place in the hospitality industry — referred to as “the triple bottom line” and promoting a standard of business that will be good for the environment, good for workers, as well as good for the individual being served. This is opposed to the ultimately selfish traditional concern for only those things that impact me as an individual. I continually give students the message that they should “Eat well to be well out in the world.”

Our senior high Sustainable Tourism Science class focuses upon such topics as healthy food service, eco-tourism and greening that is taking place in the hospitality industry. More than half of our students are bilingual, and we show them that businesses are desperately seeking to hire any bilingual person who has a good education, and will give them a great job working in a foreign country or in thousands of bilingual places in our own country.

Our pathway covers all the educational disciplines including Reading, Composi­tion, Science, History, Geography, Political Science, and Math from the perspective of the health and nutrition industry. We employ a wealth of non-intrusive cross-disciplinary learning. Students learn without knowing they are being taught.

We teach practical lessons on Geography through such things as encouraging students to improve the breadth and width of their learning by showing them the educational advantages of foreign travel — and how, with a little planning, any of them could someday spend some weeks or months abroad, engaging with the practices, styles, and behaviors of other lands, plus showing them what wonderful destinations some of those “other lands” would be.

We especially study health issues in depth so students can grasp the underlying physiology of health and wellness. For example, our seniors are exposed to a potentially life-changing wealth of information from a detailed textbook called Nutrition & Wellness for Life with chapters that include food habits, lifestyle choices, energy nutrients, nutrition management, and the science of wellness.

They do not simply learn by rote what healthy ingredients to embrace and which to avoid, but come to understand the chemistry and biological science that underlie and inform the choices. We study such things as the body’s requirements for carbohydrate needs and the best sources for meeting those needs. Our classes add practical hands-on behaviors to the foundations laid by the science with such tasks as assigning students to track the foods that they eat and then recording the responses their bodies make to each of the foods that they ingest.

The education of students in our pathway is augmented by an on-campus garden in which they grow vegetables, fruits, and flowers some of which become fresh ingredients for use in on-campus meals. We can sell surplus to local farmers markets. We further emphasize the “sustainable” part of our teaching by such things as putting wet garbage on the school’s compost heap.

GETTING OUT THE MESSAGE
State Assemblyperson Susan Bonilla became one of our main supporters and has pushed our cause in various ways in Sacramento with the result that two years ago we became the first public school in the Bay Area to become a publically certified Ag School. This required compliance with a number of regulations, including enclosing the site with an animal-proof fence and tracking all the substances that went into the garden in order to qualify it as organic. The certifi­cation permitted us to then feed students with products grown in our garden and to sell any surplus at farmers markets.

We promoted our garden products at the Mayor’s Healthy Cook off and attracted some attention to our efforts. Our example challenged schools throughout the county to adopt a program like ours. My goal is to create a transportable curricula that can be adopted by other schools, or at least to provide an educational template that other schools can adapt to their own teaching environments. We’re off to a dramatic start because, as a result of our example, we became pioneers at the head of what has turned into an important movement. By the end of the subsequent year, 60 other schools in the county had become Ag-certified.

The great success of our garden is due in large part to the efforts of a co-teacher, Patrick Oliver, who teaches Environmental Science as well as our Sustainable Tourism class. Patrick brings to the project five years experience in farming organically grown vegetables, culinary herbs, fruit, and cut flowers. Patrick has a resumé that is wide and deep, including his former role as editor of the Earth First Journal.

A great part of the success of my vision came about because for the past three years Kristin Zellhart has been my assistant. She has a degree in Nutrition from Cal Poly and serves my programs in a number of ways, including carrying out such intellec­tually demanding tasks as compiling Nutritional Analyses. Kristin is a wonderful resource because of her high energy together with her experience, training, and profound commitment to promoting a revolutionary change in our society’s attitude towards food, health, and wellness. All of this makes her an ideal companion in my adventure — playing a perfect Watson to my Sherlock Holmes, perhaps, or Girl Friday to my Robinson Caruso. I can’t imagine trying to do all this without her.

Dr. Lustig and I have been working together on our health projects throughout the seven years since we first met. Now he has written a book on the subject, called Fat Chance. A co-author, Heather Millar, and I are collaborating on a companion volume that will be called The Fat Chance Cookbook, which will be published at the end of December.

Reversing the decline in nutrition and healthy eating that has been going on in our country for the past five decades is a monumental challenge. However, I am part of a growing number of people who are throwing time, talent, and energy into the goal of turning our revolutionary ideas into accepted practice and attitudes. It won’t be easy; on my bad days I don’t know if it will be possible. But the goal of actually making health and wellness available for all Americans is worth any amount of sacrifice.

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