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Cindy Gershen, center, the culinary instructor at Mount Diablo High School, bring out a tray of cooked chicken with her students during a session of healthy cooking at Mount Diablo High School in Concord, Calif., on Tuesday, June 24, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD -- With a staccato pace, Stephen Ritz, founder of the Green Bronx Machine, continued to feed the minds and appetites of students at Mt. Diablo High School with a bounty of whole foods.

Ritz, students in the sustainable tourism program at the Concord campus, school personnel and local proponents of steering clear of food that's processed, gathered last Tuesday to continue an area campaign started several years ago by educator and restaurant owner Cindy Gershen.

"Hand 'em a strawberry and this is where it starts ... Kids are my seeds. I'm planting them, harvesting hopes and cultivating minds," said Ritz, an eternal optimist, who has been foraging for systemic change in the country's poorest congressional district. "I'm teaching them what counts. Kids learn patience. They learn to nurture ... and we as a society embrace our better nature."

During his visit, Ritz conveyed a deeply internalized conviction that anything's possible when it comes to "making health equality a reality."

Ritz' meeting in Concord was a follow-up excursion to a trip Gershen and her students made to New York City in the spring, where they prepared wholesome meals with some of Ritz' students, and feasted their eyes on his tall towers of high- yielding organic produce grown via aeroponic and hydroponic technologies.

Concord Mayor Tim Grayson was an enthusiastic participant at Tuesday's gathering, and referred to the guest of honor as "an anomaly."

"(For Ritz,) the sky's the potential, not the limit. For him, the sky was only the beginning," Grayson said later.


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The mayor said he resonated with Ritz' articulated model of asset-based community development, whereby abandoned lots and blighted spots are converted into community spaces with verdant plantings, and that he hopes to implement some of these practices in Concord.

He also hopes that the city and school district can collaborate to expand the existing organic garden to a nearly two-acre plot on the Mt. Diablo campus.

Grayson noted his own vested interest in improving the nation's diet, with his possible genetic link to diabetes.

Ritz started from the ground up, referring to himself as a "former junk food junkie" and describing his once daily diet of five meals a day, each a single serving, unlimited shelf-life portion, procured from a Valero minimart or traveling 30 miles for a 99-cent cheeseburger.

In contrast, Ellen Evans, longtime principal of Lafayette's Meher School, which features its own three-quarter acre organic garden, was part of the eating enthusiasts who feasted that day on lentil stew, greens, chili lime chicken and roasted veggies.

"This is the future," Evans said, noting how hands-on cooking, understanding the importance of soil nutrition and composting are integrated into her school's K-5 curriculum.

In the Mt. Diablo School District, Gershen works collaboratively with Suzanne Bernhard, who supervises cafeteria cuisine in all of its high schools and five middle schools, putting kid-tested wholesome items -- the likes of Serendipity fajitas and Cindy's stuffed baked potatoes -- on the menu.

Bernhard said Ritz' visit to Mt. Diablo High School was a catalyst for future ideas about how to introduce students to healthier choices for them to consume.

"When I put healthy food on the menu, if they haven't been exposed to it, they won't eat it," Bernhard said.

The goal is that by elementary-age children having access and the "power to choose fruits and vegetables" with the recently added salad bars in the district, they'll come to anticipate such cuisine in their high school years.

The Wellness City Challenge, a Walnut Creek-based nonprofit started by Gershen, is charged with finding ways to implement such healthy approaches in other local school districts and municipalities.

Pamela Singh, its executive director, noted the appeal of Ritz' methods of controlled environment agriculture, utilizing other resources, given California's water shortage.

"It's important to change the trajectory ... The technology he's utilizing is something you can take to any school," said Singh. "When you bring these things to this generation, you're teaching outside the box. We're taking education to a different level ... and it brings everybody to the table again."

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