CONCORD -- The rules are distinctly different in a classroom at Mt. Diablo High School, where texts include "Passionate Vegetarian" and "Recipes for a Small Planet:" Only healthy foods to be consumed; no sugar in the first three ingredients; no trans fats; and there must be three grams of fiber per 100 calories.
A poster touting eco-literacy on the entrance door features tantalizing, multicultural recipes for Rice Bowls in Five Flavors, including Vegetable Biryani and Kung Pao Chicken.
Students in the new sustainable pathway of the International Hospitality and Tourism Academy don white aprons which state: "Change the Food; Change Everything," with some sporting red pins depicting a snail, signifying them as certified members of the Slow Food Club.
They then commence cutting up seasonal vegetables harvested from the Concord school's garden, or procured at the weekly farmers market at Todos Santos Plaza. The pantry is stocked with faro, lentils and whole milled pasta.
At lunchtime, they, along with the staff, feast on legume, grain and veggie-rich salads -- made from scratch.
Cindy Gershen, a crusader of the farm-to-table movement, and 16 of her culinary graduating seniors crossed the continent to prepare healthy sustainable food with a man who has come to be known as "the pied piper of growing green in urban environments," describes Marc Donald, principal of John V. Lindsay Wildcat Charter School in Manhattan.
The group recently flew to New York City, where they met a kindred soul in Stephen Ritz, founder of the Green Bronx Machine, who with his students in the South Bronx has produced more than 30,000 pounds of produce -- grown via aeroponic and hydroponic technology in vertical planting towers on the fourth floor of a 100-year-old building -- and its yield leaves zero carbon footprint.
Elevating their consciousness and their evolving taste for wholesome fare seemed a better agenda than the run-of-the-mill senior trip to Disneyland.
For a year, the students had fundraised for their recent sojourn to the headquarters of the Slow Food Club and to make tutti-frutti -- raw oats, fruit and yogurt -- for elementary school students by catering events, and from sales of their "Fat Chance Cookbook" they compiled.
The breakfast cuisine they served was a far cry from Mt. Diablo senior John Marquez' one-time belief that sugared cereal was healthy fare.
His classmate Eddie Ruiz, now enlightened about production farms and the importance of a diet with healthy fats, now refers to fast foods as "disgusting."
Meanwhile, senior Michael Rodriguez's daily sugar-laden diet of large-sized energy drinks to stay awake has been abandoned for healthy options, leading to greater mental acuity, focus and an increased grade-point average.
And, senior Cyndy Gomez was already well-versed in Patrick Oliver's environmental science curriculum, including the deleterious effects of factory farming's impact on the environment and on her body.
She describes palpable shift: once consuming a veggie burrito -- because it was all there was to eat on a backpack trip -- and then experiencing a palette change, savoring the same food on a recent four-day Yosemite trip after taking Gershen's class.
The New York trip further cemented her commitment to healthy eating practices.
"It got us all on board with it," she says, "and then to see these students grasp the concept that 'gee, maybe I shouldn't drink all that juice."
"The best way to get climate change is in the classroom," Gershen says, citing that teaching high school students how to cook healthy meals is optimal, as they are the next generation of parents and the workforce. "You can't change the cafeteria successfully unless you change their palette."
Ritz' students, sharing a similar demographic, also experienced a perceptual sea change, entering the program often with no knowledge of what a vegetable was. Ritz contrasted their farm-to-table approach with the prevailing reliance of people consuming produce that often logs "more frequent flier miles than (the students) do."
Both Gershen and Ritz also share a commitment to "change the things (we) can't accept," he says, adding that they are working to further the students' positive outlook.
"They're learning to work collaboratively around issues of global import ... We can transform lives, student by student. What messengers they've become."