Alice Waters' Delicious Revolution
In Berkeley, California a movement is underway, but it is not like the movements of old. Students have not taken to the street. No one is protesting a war or blocking a building before a phalanx of cameras. The movement that is taking hold in America's most progressive city is softer and friendlier this time -- and in some ways it is unapologetically bourgeois.
That is because this new movement involves food.Last summer, Berkeley became the first city in the country to define junk food an enemy and mandate a full menu of organic food for its public school cafeterias.
The person behind this unusual plan is a pale, petite restauranteur from Chatham, New Jersey, who speaks with soft assurance and works around the clock. Her name is Alice Waters. And she is largely known for the restaurant she started 28 years ago in Berkeley, Chez Panisse, which has won countless awards and given birth to the Mediterranean-inspired cooking style called California Cuisine.Waters never intended to spawn a movement, though was a crusading free speech activist when she was a student at UC Berkeley. She opened Chez Panisse because she wanted to give her radical friends a homey salon, a California version of the bistros she fell in love with when she was 19 and traveling through France. "All I cared about," Waters explained in the introduction to her best-selling "Chez Panisse Cookbook," "was a place to sit down with my friends and enjoy good food while discussing the politics of the day. This was during the late sixties, in Berkeley. We all believed in community and personal commitment and quality. Chez Panisse was born out of those ideals."Waters is a phenomenon in the food world not only because she has brought mesclun salad and goat cheese to the American table, but because she has stuck to her ideals. She believes that sharing nutritious food strengthens relationships and draws people away from the strip mall and back to the natural world. "I think food brings people together," she said. "And that's what we're missing. And that's what we're longing for. It's about a sense of belonging in a family, being part of a community, being part of a culture."Her Thoreau-like quest began when she became the first American chef to champion organic ingredients and the first to insist that the best cuisine is based on food that is seasonal and locally grown. She has created a network of organic farmers in northern California, who supply her restaurant and who she in turn keeps in business. On staff at Chez Panisse is no less than a full-time "forager," whose sole job is to seek out organic growers of the freshest, most delectable produce.Waters is certainly the high priestess of the American culinary world, the "Materfamilias to a generation of chefs," as Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker put it, but she is increasingly being seen an environmentalist. In a 1999 speech she gave to the Environmental Grantmakers Association, she advocated that food education become part of the national curriculum. "In order for there to be a future to the environmental movement," she said, "we must teach children that taking care of the land and learning to feed yourself is just as important as a reading, writing and arithmetic."Waters is dead serious about this. She believes that bad eating habits and industrial farming have put the nation on the brink of disaster -- and that a "Delicious Revolution," as she calls it, must be launched to save Americans from further harming themselves and their environment."How can most people submit so unthinkingly to the dehumanizing experiences of food ... the lifeless fast food that is everywhere in our lives?" she said in her speech. "How can you marvel at the world and then feed yourself in a completely unmarvelous way? To me, food is the one central thing about human experience which can open up both our senses and our consciences to our place in the world. Food and nourishment are right at the point where human rights and the environment intersect."Waters views on food politics have become the object of both reverence and ridicule. Her supporters applaud her efforts to connect food to environmentalism. But there are also those who find her enthusiasm for the life-changing organic peach absurd and note that her political beliefs are possible only in a rich university town like Berkeley, where passion for healthy food is extreme. Her critics also argue that she is working from the most elitist of pulpits. Chez Panisse's prix fixe dinners run up to $68 a head; her most loyal clientele used to be 1960s radicals but they are now the movers and shakers of the San Francisco Bay Area -- all of which make her political views suspect to a cushy form of progressivism.Yet Waters refuses to let her idealism be crushed by these contradictions. To devote herself to her cause, she has spent more and more time away from the daily operation of Chez Panisse during the past decade. She has lobbied the White House, urging President Clinton to "promote the value of organically grown fruits and vegetables" in order to "reaffirm Thomas Jefferson's ideals of a nation of small farmers." She has helped devise new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for a more nutrition-minded school lunch program. Waters has even worked with food managers of American Airlines; now the company's in-flight meals serve organic carrots.Although Waters' food politics campaign has attracted plenty of press and some nods from Washington, her most successful efforts have taken place in her home turf of Berkeley, where she is a Mother Theresa-like figure who has made things happen. Through her Chez Panisse Foundation, which she started in 1996, she has supported such initiatives as the Garden Project of the San Francisco County Jail, which trains inmates in landscaping and organic farming and provides them with work after they are released; the Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture in Berkeley, which operates San Francisco's largest farmer's market; and, most notably, the Edible Schoolyard at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School -- Waters' brainchild, which has become the testing ground for all her ideas about food politics and environmental education.Waters stumbled upon the idea for the Edible Schoolyard in 1994, when she discovered her neighborhood school's cafeteria had long been closed and students were getting lunch from fast food vendors like Taco Bell. "When I saw the Martin Luther King School, with graffiti on the windows and the burned-out lawn, I thought it was abandoned," Waters said. "The cafeteria was abandoned. Most of the kids didn't eat breakfast or lunch. What I envisioned was a place where kids could serve each other the lunch they'd grow."At the invitation of MLK's principal, Waters launched an ambitious food education program, which sets students to digging in the school's adjoining organic garden and brings them into a cooking class, where they eat what they grow. Thanks to the support of the Chez Panisse Foundation and companies like Macy's and Newman's Own, the school also has begun plans to create an "ecologically designed cafeteria," which will provide students balanced meals and allow them to participate in their preparation.Says Waters of the effect on students: "I've seen the kids sitting around the picnic tables in the schoolyard, eating salads they've grown themselves ... They want these rituals of the table. They like them. I've seen troubled kids who've been given a second chance to work in the garden be so transformed by the experience that they return to the King School to act as mentors to the new students." Waters wants to see an edible schoolyard attached to cooking classes and a healthful cafeteria at every public school in the country.Yet one wonders if this is an idea that can go past Berkeley. Ene Osteraas-Constable, the Edible Schoolyard's program coordinator, admits that the success of the project has much to do with the fact that Waters is behind it. But she also points out, "This is the way most cultural change happens in the U.S. It starts on the coasts and takes root around the country."Whether the United States is about to see a burgeoning of edible schoolyards remains to be seen. But one thing for certain is that people in Berkeley are Alice Waters converts. As of last summer the Berkeley Unified School District, which is responsible for the education of 9,500 students at 16 schools, has instituted a new food policy which mandates its cafeterias to serve organic food and basically incorporates all of Waters' ideas about nutrition, education and environmentalism. In addition to eating meals rich in vitamins and minerals, Berkeley students will soon be given lessons on food production, nutrition, preparation, waste reduction and composting. Math, history, science, literature, writing and music will be associated with activities in the garden.Waters is thrilled by this turn of events, as well as a little shocked that the district plans to institute organic-only meals. As she put it, "It's a little bit the cart before the horse. We may not be ready for this." Her main concern is that the policy will put too much pressure on local organic farmers. "To provide just for the King School, we're talking 250 pounds of potatoes. That's a potato times 10,000 for the 16 schools. Indeed for Berkeley this is a revolution. In terms of organic farming, though, I'm not sure how it's going to happen."Yet for Waters and her followers the Berkeley public school food revolution is ultimate proof that her ideas resonate beyond her upscale eatery. "It is important to remember that Alice is a product of the social idealism of the sixties," said Tom Luddy, a San Francisco film producer and close friend. "Most people got cynical and sold out, but not Alice. Other people in her position would open up a chain of restaurants, develop a gourmet fast food line and get really busy building an empire. Alice has never done that. Her whole inspiration is political. She is a crusader for organic food and sustainable agriculture."In Berkeley, Waters' campaign is won. Public school officials agree that food is an important educational tool -- they are making arrangements with organic farmers, hiring cooking teachers and launching a food-oriented curriculum that would make Wendell Berry blush. Waters has given birth to a movement, and as is often the case, it is now out of her hands.