CONCORD -- About five years ago, Cindy Gershen and some friends sat around her kitchen table discussing their concerns about the toll processed foods were taking on the community's health.
Soon after, she founded The Wellness City Challenge in Walnut Creek, which encouraged restaurants in the city to eliminate trans fats and challenged community members to exercise. As part of her outreach, Gershen, who owns the Sunrise Bistro in Walnut Creek, invited UC San Francisco researcher Dr. Robert Lustig to speak at Las Lomas High in Walnut Creek.
Lustig said obesity is caused by biochemical alterations in the body triggered by foods that are high in refined carbohydrates and sugar. He joined the board of the Wellness City Challenge and became a strong supporter of Gershen's community activism.
Meanwhile, Lustig became nationally known as a nutritional "rock star" based partially on a viral YouTube video featuring his lecture "Sugar: The Bitter Truth."
However, Lustig says Gershen deserves that title.
"She's the rock star because she gets people to do things that they didn't know they could do," he said. "She's unbelievably motivational. She has leadership capabilities like no one else. Never bet against Cindy Gershen. You do so at your own risk."
Since eating habits start in childhood, Gershen dreamed of finding a way to educate students and their parents about healthy foods with the hope that they would change the way they eat. After working with Las Lomas High and the Martinez school district, she offered to feed Mt. Diablo High School's staff healthy foods for one year.
This led to a pilot healthy cooking class in the school's International Hospitality and Tourism Academy, which is partially funded through grants from Kaiser Permanente. The school received Mt. Diablo district funding for the kitchen, which was recently completed.
And this week, Gershen launched an after-school cooking class for teachers, food service workers and others interested in finding healthy alternatives to fast foods. Kaiser wants to fund similar classes for its employees and for Concord residents, Gershen said.
Lustig marvels at what Gershen has been able to accomplish.
"Our food environment has been completely contaminated, so we need personal intervention and we need societal intervention," he said. "Cindy's on the personal intervention side, and I'm on the societal intervention side. I'm happy to be a cog in Cindy's wheel."
Although Gershen has many more ideas for community partnerships, she's bolstered by the successes of her programs so far.
"I'm living the dream," she said.