It Takes a Community to Change a Food System

Mt. Diablo High School Students and Contra Costa County Leaders Test Their Hypotheses for Changing the Way We Eat in Washington, D.C.

Mt. Diablo High School students and other leaders in Contra Costa County are audacious enough to believe that food and nutrition is primary to education, not peripheral. Cindy Gershen, Culinary Arts instructor at Mt. Diablo High School, states that “If you change the food, you change the future. Strong science-based nutrition must be essential and central elements of the educational model for all schools and grade levels.”

If you think this sounds radical, Mrs. Gershen is not alone; 13 students and adults from the Concord community took their ideas for changing the food system to Washington, D.C. April 5-11, visiting with Members of Congress, representatives at the USDA, and shared their innovative curriculum “Pathways to Healthy Living” with Ballou High School, one of the high schools in the District of Columbia with the highest enrollment. The Vice Mayor of Concord, Laura Hoffmeister accompanied the group along with other community leaders including Chuck Carpenter, Vice-Chair of the Workforce Development Board, Anna Fisher, Director of Food Services for the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, Pamela Singh, Executive Director of Wellness City Challenge, and Wolfram Alderson, Executive Director of the Institute for Responsible Nutrition.

 “Food system change must occur from within multiple key sectors of our society such as health, business, and the environment.  One of the most powerful and important epicenters of change is within the schools. I appreciate what is going on at Mt. Diablo High School because they understand that good food and nutrition isn’t just a concern in the cafeteria – it is also the basis for teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math,” stated Anna Fisher, Food Service Director for MDUSD that delivers over 16,000 meals every school day.

 MDHS Student and President of the Environmental Club Karina Alvarado stated that “Mt. Diablo High School students believe in sustainable approaches to solving problems such as fixing our food system. We think truly sustainable change only occurs when there is a triple bottom line that serves the interests of business, people and the planet.”

 “In the past we believed that there were two types of diabetes: the type you’re born with (type 1 diabetes) and the type you “get.” That’s called type 2 diabetes, and was called “adult onset” until it started ravaging kids over the last thirty years. Now over 20,000 children in the U.S. have type 2 diabetes, resulting from a combination of factors including processed food and a massive overload of added sugar in the diet. Now evidence is building that Alzheimer’s might be type 3 diabetes, and the connection between poor diet and brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s is becoming more convincing and we are beginning to realize that what we eat has a lot to do with brain health. Children and adults think and learn better when eating real, whole, fresh, natural food. Seeing how the students and community leaders in Contra Costa County are addressing issues like these is truly remarkable, and we are honored to support their efforts” stated Wolfram Alderson, Founding Executive Director of the Institute for Responsible Nutrition, based in San Francisco.

Vice Mayor Laura Hoffmeister states that “The Mt. Diablo High School students demonstrate how to change the food system through learning and teaching others – both children and adults. We can all learn from the MDHS students and how they are overcoming the challenges of unhealthy eating. I was proud to accompany these students that I represent to the nation’s capitol, and support them while they presented practical solutions to their elected leaders and government representatives. I was so impressed to see the students present their capstone project “Pathways to Healthy Living” to their peers at Ballou High School in Washington D.C. which will now serve as a “sister” high school. The student designed curriculum was offered to help jump start Ballou’s new culinary program, with the intent of changing lives through better diet, health, and educational outcomes.”

The Mt. Diablo High School students have developed interactive activities for their peers, including a theatrical production called "Eat and Learn" that includes Sugar Smart Training: The 6 Essential Nutrients, Safety and Sanitation and Sugar Smart & Label Reading. Their creative teaching methods have been applied successfully with 200 elementary school age students and 300 high school freshmen. 

The Mt. Diablo High School students presented their curriculum to the USDA and lobbied for a new type of “21st Century Home Economics” that will enable young people to benefit from current nutrition science and research, learn the facts of healthy eating, and incorporate preventative health into their lives. The Mt. Diablo High School students believe better nutrition, education and exercise are the keys to living healthier lives and want their curriculum and methodology to become a model program that supports the best of Health and Nutrition Policies in the United States. According to student leader, Celeste Rios, “We are advocating for modernizing Home Economics with curriculum based on sound nutritional science and disease prevention.

The students visited many of the major Washington sites, including the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. One highlight of the trip included the students preparing a dinner for distinguished guests including Ms. Lea Claye, Nutritionist for the USDA Nutrition Education and Technical Assistance Division, Dr. Michele Mietus-Snyder, Pediatrician and Co-Director of the Children’s National Obesity Institute,Paul Monteiro, the National Director of AmeriCorps VISTA and a former Public Engagement Officer for the White House, and Harpreet Sandhu, Executive Director of Friends of the American Sikh Caucus.

Dr. Mietus-Snyder stated “It is so impressive to see how these young leaders are translating the science into practice and policy. There is no question that the model for change these students are presenting is worthy of national attention. Seeing them present their curriculum to the students at Ballou High School was impressive – these young leaders are stepping up to connect the dots between educational and health outcomes, and are showing that is never too early to adopt the yoke of leadership that is needed to effectuate change on a systemic level.”

Pamela Singh, Executive Director of Wellness City Challenge, stated that “Community-wide support has made it possible for these programs to occur and we are so grateful that partners such as the Hofmann Family Foundation and Wardrobe for Opportunity have chosen to support this trip to Washington, not only for the students but for all the stakeholders in our community seeking to promote healthy living. These are programs that impact all sectors.” The City of Concord has also played an integral role in promoting healthy lifestyles as co-founders of the Annual Contra Costa County Mayors’ Healthy Cook-off hosted by Wellness City Challenge. They have enthusiastically accepted the challenge of making our food system healthier.” said Singh.

Read more in the Concord Pioneer.


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