At the intersection of healthy eating and civic pride stands Cindy Gershen.
The owner of Sunrise Bistro in Walnut Creek, Gershen is organizing the fourth annual Mayors Annual Healthy Cook-off for Thursday, Aug. 23, in Todos Santos Plaza in downtown Concord. She works with the Wellness City Challenge.
"We have a society in which our economy has been built on music, fast food and Levis jeans," said Gershen. "That's what we do really wonderfully and everybody in the world wants it … We're really good at marketing and we get it out there."
Young people are tempted by the enticements of the fast food culture. With processed food and processed sugar and the lack of fiber in the diet, Gershen said, "We are making addicts out of our children."
Because of her concern, Gershen began working with local schools to infuse more local and healthy food into the cafeterias. Gershen promised Mike De Sa, the superintendent of the Walnut Creek School District who died of color cancer in 2006, that she would persevere on the issue of healthy foods in schools. "Please help us change the food," said De Sa, Gershen recalled.
(This fall Gershen will continue teaching a course in healthy and sustainable food at the Serendipity culinary program at Mount Diablo High, including the growth of produce in school gardens at the Concord school; in this she works with science teacher Patrick Oliver.)
Extend the effort
Five years ago, Gershen decided to extend the effort from schools to focus on eating habits of the whole community. With encouragement from then-Walnut Creek Mayor Gary Skrel, Gershen developed nutrition and exercise programs for kids (including walking programs in 26 schools) and for senior citizens at Rossmoor.
Four years ago, the healthy food advocates decided to go after mayors and civic pride. "They really love their cities," Gershen said. "They want to do it right. We're getting them to get behind the health of our children. It makes our community stronger."
She enlisted the help of former Concord Mayor Laura Hoffmeister and Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder. The first mayors cookoff in 2009 was in Concord.
"We're doing social change but it's going to take grassroots effort," said Gershen.
The mayors bring along a hometown chef and sometimes cook themselves. Gershen encourages them to bring a school principal. It takes a village to change eating habits.
This year, at least eight mayors have agreed to participate in the challenge, and Gershen is working on the wobblers. Walnut Creek Mayor Bob Simmons has invited Harvest Market owner/chef Damian de la Rosa to represent the Creek. Most participants are from Contra Costa County, but there was interest from Alameda County as well last year.
More about the Aug. 23 cook-off
The "Iron Chef"-style cook-off starts at 4 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, in Todos Santos Plaza. That's when individual chefs will be given a grab bag of produce selected by Gershen. The produce comes from the Pacific Coast Farmers Market and Vince Scalise, and the Mount Diablo High School Garden in Concord. Grocery Outlet of Concord is donating the whole grains and protein.
Last year's event was in Clayton. Concord and Bravo Bistro Chef Habib El Jacifi brought home the trophy.
This year, each city team will be assigned a sous chef from the Serendipity academy at Mount Diablo High. Chefs are allowed to bring two burners and kitchen equipment but no outside foods other than spices and herbs. Each team receives a grab bag of ingredients that meet federal health rules.
Entires are judged on creativity, presentation and taste. This year a panel of student judges and representatives of school food services will participate in evaluations.
Event sponsors include Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, Grocery Outlet of Concord, the American Heart Association and the City of Concord.
The Wellness City Challenge website has information about healthy food initiatives and healthy recipes.