CONCORD -- Mt. Diablo High is cultivating a field of dreams that could end up revolutionizing students' diets, while also providing cutting-edge restaurant job training.
"Ever since I was little, I've liked planting gardens," said 16-year-old Eduardo Cruz, after he explained the importance of leafy green kale, how heathy it is, where it comes from and how good it tastes, to a group of visitors in the school's organic garden on Monday. "I eat it all the time with thyme from the garden or savory herbs from my kitchen."
Cruz and his classmates in the school's summer enrichment program are harvesting, cooking and eating their crops this summer, while Walnut Creek restaurant owner Cindy Gershen and environmental science and biology teacher Patrick Oliver are cooking up culinary and sustainable tourism courses to unveil in the fall. Their pilot program will train students in job skills they can use in local restaurants or hotels that are "going green."
"This is priority," said Gershen, who owns Sunrise Bistro and helped found the Wellness City Challenge, a program that promotes healthful eating and physical fitness throughout the county. "We want to be the gold standard here."
Cruz's love of gardening and veggies makes him an enthusiastic ambassador for the program. He told the visitors that kale -- a crinkly, leafy vegetable in the cabbage family -- first came to the United States from Russia and Canada. Although it grows best in the
Oliver proudly showed off peppers, kale, tomatoes and other crops growing in a garden alongside the school's Serendipity Restaurant, where students learn to cook and serve food through an International Hospitality and Tourism Academy.
He and Gershen are expanding the existing program to heighten awareness of nutrition and give students a "farm to table" experience, in which they can grow, prepare and serve healthful meals.
"You have to learn how to eat these foods, such as chard and collards," Oliver said, pointing to fresh vegetables with fingers soiled from garden dirt. "This is environmental science with a food and nutrition and tourism emphasis."
The campus is joining with Diablo Valley College, the Concord Hilton, Contra Costa County office of education's regional occupational program, county foster youth services, the Mt. Diablo school district's food and nutrition department, and the Wellness City Challenge to expand its reach beyond Mt. Diablo High. Students can transition into Diablo Valley College's culinary program after graduation, where they will be able to earn Healthy Restaurant Association certificates, Gershen said.
Matt Hohenstreet, director of sales and marketing for the Concord Hilton, said sustainable tourism is a growing industry that his hotel has embraced in part by opening a new restaurant, Plate & Vine. The restaurant serves locally grown food.
"It's a trend; it's not a fad," he said. "There is a growing need in the restaurant and hotel and hospitality realm for workers -- whether chefs, servers, bar tenders or prep cooks -- that are familiar with and educated on how to cook, prepare, handle and process local and sustainable food."
The program could give more employment options to students who are foster youths once they graduate from high school, said Don Graves, who coordinates the county's independent living services for foster youths. In addition, Gershen's emphasis on nutrition could lead to healthier lifestyles, he said.
"We understand not all of our youth want to go to college, but all of our youth have to have some sort of job skills," he said. "But what's most important about this is she's trying to change the culture of how we eat. This is not only for employment, but for life."
Cruz agreed, saying junk food diets have led to obesity in the United States. Mt. Diablo High's program, he said, will set an example that could help reverse that.
"Eating healthier means living longer," Cruz said. "So, we'll be helping to save lives."