Food

Organic Food and Farm-to-Table Pioneer Alice Waters Is Creating a Revolution in School Lunches

The celebrated Chez Panisse founder will not rest until every kid in America has a free, sustainably grown, delicious school lunch.

Photo Credit: Alice Waters via Chez Panisse Restaurant

When I spoke with Alice Waters, we didn’t focus on her famed restaurant, Chez Panisse, or her profound impact on the way we eat today, starting with the concept of farm to table. Rather, we talked about her passionate, decades-long campaign to provide organic school lunches to kids across the country.

Waters has long advocated that growing, preparing and eating food should be considered a centerpiece of the school curriculum, and she is making progress; thousands of schools across America and around the world have adopted some aspect of her Edible Schoolyard Project.

Waters’ vision has become the polar opposite of the fast-food industrial complex. Fast food, fast technology, fast everything is the enemy of Waters' reverence for feeding our bodies and souls in healthy and thoughtful ways. The student body in the U.S. totals somewhere between 50 and 60 million students—the population of a medium-sized country. Waters' attempt to prepare and feed nourishing meals to these kids threatens a system that packages and hurdles our kids through lunchtime.

At a time when Trump and DeVos champion the privatization of the public school system via vouchers and charters, Waters’ vision can almost seem quaint or even a bit far-fetched. The school privatization movement is being aggressively led by the wealthiest people in the country, including the Walmart family, Bill Gates, Mike Bloomberg, Reed Hastings, and many others. DeVos is proud of cutting funding for school lunches for poor kids—and those lunches are not even remotely like the nourishing, locally sourced lunches Waters has in mind.

Interestingly, the wretched political situation many of us find ourselves in doesn’t seem to faze Waters. She does not blink. She is certainly aware of it, but she ignores the Trump apocalypse. She does not wring her hands, waver or go into shock—whatever it is that many of us have done as we suffer symptoms of Trump trauma. Waters simply persists in a straight line with her message, her vision and the eternal hope that eventually people in large numbers will come to understand what is right and true about healthy eating—which is, as far as she is concerned, a hell of a lot of fun.

It was an empty seat that led me to interview Alice Waters. We met a month or so ago. I was at Chez Panisse because Waters’ longtime friend Hamilton Fish threw a luncheon to introduce Win McCormick, the new owner of the New Republic. In effect, Fish was introducing himself as the new publisher. Fish had invited a friendly crowd of local independent journalists and media types, including the likes of powerhouse duo Adam and Arlie Hochschild; Deirdre English, once editor of Mother Jones and now at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism; and the documentary producer Steve Talbot.

I was sitting across from Mark Schapiro, author of countless books and articles about the environmental destruction at our doorstep. Meanwhile Waters was gliding around in the background, making sure all was well with the food and the service. She seemed to have a clear sense that she was going to enjoy the festivities and that everything was under control. At some point, she must have spied the open seat at our table, and gracefully welcomed herself to it. It wasn’t long before our conversation headed in the direction of healthy food for school kids. I had been aware of Waters' relationship with a local junior high in Berkeley, and how she helped transform it into a dynamic expression of equitable food systems, where students learn and engage with healthy, local, organic foods.

A note: I put this interview together after a bit of time off, and in the meantime, I was upstaged by a long profile of Waters in the New York Times, written by Kim Severson, about Waters' new memoir, Coming to My Senses, The Making of a Counter Culture. In the article, Severson lovingly recognizes Waters' outsized role in the food revolution, even as she’s content to be at the controls of just one restaurant. As Severson writes, “Sprinkled with photographs, the book traces Ms. Waters’ years as a European backpacker smitten with France and as a young radical cooking for the Bay Area’s antiwar intelligentsia.”

Qualities and experiences like these have helped Waters become the rarified mind and voice of a new food movement. I offer a few excerpts from Severson's piece to save me the trouble of more biographical material, and to do her work honor:

“Waters has not set foot in a conventional grocery store for 25 years. She remains devoted to the idea that all food should be organic, beautiful and eaten communally. That approach, which once seemed strident and economically tone deaf, has seeped into everyday food culture. Ms. Waters’ image has softened into that of a grandmotherly sage whose wisdom young people especially seem eager to hear.”

[...]

“‘She is responsible for radicchio in the supermarket and the slice of blood orange on your airplane meal,’ said the writer David Kamp."

[...]

“Yet she continues to play a kind of small ball that, over the years, has proved powerful. She has never expanded Chez Panisse to other cities, or jumped fully into celebrity in ways that could have promoted her agenda. Rather, she prefers to personally cajole every politician, journalist and philanthropist she meets."

And Diego Galicia, owner of San Antonio’s Mixtli, calls her, “one of the titans of the mythical chefs in this country."

As Severson makes claim, “Ms. Waters is the reason restaurants started naming farms on menus and serving mesclun salads and American-made goat cheese.”

Such a reverent profile is no surprise, and I found it easy to engage with Waters’ charm, intellect and passion for equitable food systems and her creativity to engage students. With that in mind, on to our interview.

Don Hazen: Let’s start out at the beginning with you telling us a little bit about the Edible Schoolyard Project and how it came to be.

Alice Waters: The program came to be about 22 years ago when Neil Smith, the principal of Kings School, called and asked me if I would like to come and help him beautify the school. I had been interviewed by someone and I was asked about public education at Berkeley and I said, it's just so depressing that I go by this middle school every day on my way to the restaurant and it looks like it's abandoned. There's graffiti on the walls. The grass isn't kept. It just looks ... What's happened in this city so close to the University of California? How could this happen?

So he invited me over to his school.

DH: He read the interview.

AW: He read the interview. Yes. And so we took a walk around the school and all of a sudden the whole idea came to me.

This is a middle school that was built in 1921 for 500 kids. Now, there are 1,000 kids. The middle school kids—sixth, seventh, and eighth graders—they speak 22 different languages at home. So it's a really good mix of kids and they used to eat in the cafeteria that accommodated 500 kids. As the school grew, they abandoned the cafeteria and they had a snack bar. The kids would pick up food there, or not, or bring it from home, or not eat anything.

DH: That does not sound healthy.

AW: I was walking around and seeing the land and there was a vacant lot. But it was a broken-up black top and weeds and just garbage. I imagined immediately a productive vegetable garden here. I just saw it. I looked at the edge of the schoolyard where the snack bar was, it looked like we could build a center for the study of gastronomy there. And I saw a cafeteria that could accommodate all of the kids and big enough so that the kids could sit down every day to eat their school lunch.

I was thinking from the very beginning that school lunch would be part of academia. Every kid could feel connected in this way. They would sit down together and they would eat this organic, nutritious, delicious lunch.

DH: So weaving the education of food into the curriculum was always important?

AW: This is learning by doing. It was always in my mind that there would be a garden, not a garden for growing vegetables, but a classroom where every subject could sort of come alive. Whether it's math or science, an art class or even a history class, it could happen in the lab of the garden. Then I imagined that we would take over the old cafeteria, restore it, and make that a kitchen classroom. So that you would be, again, cooking and measuring. It's a math class. You could be writing down recipes and it's an English class. It could be connected in some way with what you were studying.

DH: And this is probably different from the old model of home economics?

AW: Way different. But I always, from day one, imagined a free, sustainable school lunch for every child. I always wanted it to be sort of in the spirit of the project that you'd buy food locally, seasonally, and that the farmers would come to the school, deliver the food. That their values would come into the institution.  

When Neil Smith, the principal, came back to me he said, "Oh, this is a little big for me right now." He said, "I'll be back to you," and I never expected to hear from him again. When he called back six months later, I said, "Well, Neil, it's all or nothing." You know?

And he said, "I'm ready to do all of it but just don't talk about the free school lunch part right now. That will be our little secret because I think you'll frighten them with that. They'll wonder how you're getting the money. They're wondering how you're gonna do that. Just let that be our secret and we'll begin with the garden classroom."

Which is what we did.

DH: How were you able to amplify that project to 5,500 Edible Schoolyard Projects? There's like a huge leap, right?

AW: I wanted a place that was so compelling that anybody who came to visit would understand it. They'd say, "Oh, I get it. I get that. This is just right as rain. I understand."

And how uncomplicated it is. It really isn't difficult at all. It's a delicious way to think about it.

It really caught on at the school and all the teachers began to use those two rooms as interactive classrooms. They know that when the kids are going to the garden or the kitchen they never miss a class.

We're operating on the Montessori principle that children need to be won over. You don't tell them what they can't eat or can't do, you just bring them into a relationship. There's something irresistible. They are empowered and engaged differently and that's really what has happened. It really is the truth that if kids grow it and cook it, they all eat it. My priorities have been teaching three values that we need in order to live on this planet together: stewardship of the land, nourishment, and communication.

So that's at the base of what we're doing. That no matter what class they're taking, they're deeply engaged with nature. That three years they're in school there, they know about real food. They're eating whole grains. They're eating vegetables and fruits. They're falling in love with them. They're really learning how to cook them. They're also doing their math class, yeah.

DH: And of course, those are things they can take on for the rest of their life.

AW: I always say they could give a TED talk… they're very able.

When 85% of the kids in this country don't have one meal with their family, just imagine what that means. Just imagine, life is like a run-on sentence, you never pause. You're always grabbing something. You're eating in front of the television. You're out grazing with your friends, and you're learning and digesting the values of the fast-food culture. And that's what I really believe is destroying this world. We've been indoctrinated from early childhood that more is better.

DH: Do you see any ray of hope that the fast-food industry is coming to understand any of these principles?

AW: You know, people would be hopeful saying, "Well it seems that they're focusing more on health" or "They're not putting so many additives in the food." It's not that there couldn't be fast slow food. I remember this guy who was selling little fish sandwiches on the street. I just thought, "Yeah, that's fresh. That's fast slow food."

It’s the way we're packaging and selling. It's as if advertising confers value, and that time is money. You don't want to stand in line anymore. If that guy can make that sandwich faster....

DH: You gotta get out of your car.

AW: Twenty-five percent of people eat in their cars. Of course, it's okay to do that. You know, time is money. Kitchen work is treachery. You know, just order in. Part of it is about taste. The other part is that I want people to come back to their senses. I want them to have the time and focus to really digest the human values. The touching, the smelling.

Maria Montessori was about the education of the senses. That was her big thing. She was very successful in the slums of Naples and in India where people were very poor, very hungry and very deprived. It's interesting that we are sensorially deprived. And not always because of poverty or hunger, but because we have been really indoctrinated into such a way that we don’t sit in the present. Technology takes the place of food often.

So it's something way bigger that we're attempting to do. These 5,500 [Edible Schoolyard Projects] are schools that have found us on the internet. They've heard about us in some way and they have taken the time to put their information onto our internet site.

Every time I travel there are people that had never even heard of the Edible Schoolyard, but they have gardens at schools or kitchens or they’re doing something about the cafeteria. And in other countries around the world. I was just talking to someone on the phone in South Africa and they want to come and study the Edible Schoolyard Project, but they mentioned three or four garden projects that were happening in Cape Town and I said, "Please tell them to put them on the internet."

DH: I want to hear you say that this movement has so much momentum it's not stoppable, because as you know, we are now in the dark ages politically.

AW: I know. We are. But this is kind of an underground movement. I feel like we're in the underground, and we're passing notes back or we're passing meals to each other. You know, take this and tell that person and do that thing. When I was in Italy last, I heard about the forest schools. This has been going on for probably 10 years, it started in Germany.

Kids are dropped off at the edge of a park or a forest and they are preschool age particularly, three to six, and they just play in nature. Somebody brings in the food that they cook. They're kind of being watched so they don't do something really dangerous. But they're just playing in nature.

And they just started the ocean schools where they go to the seaside and the same thing.... Get reconnected. There's a waiting list of a couple hundred at the school in Rome. It's an international movement.

It allows us to fall in love with nature because she's our mother.

DH: But isn’t everybody worried about insurance and accidents and protecting, so that needs to be overcome.

AW: Well everybody is, but that is the fast-food culture indoctrinating us to buy equipment from the stores rather than go out into nature. Make sure you have a backpack. Make sure you have rain umbrellas. Get the special kind of hiking boots, the really expensive kind cause you don't want to fall. Get all of the equipment in case you're in a dark place in the middle of the night and you have to put up a flare. You're so overburdened by the thought of the expense that you don't want to go out there.

DH: Some critics are saying kids do not like the food. Now, under Trump, all the Obama school food programs are hitting a stone wall. What do you think about all this?

AW: You can only imagine what I think.

DH: But for the record …

AW: In terms of kids not liking the food, I am shocked. I know that it's not true. I know that when kids are not educated about healthy food, they have a resistance to it. The resistance comes, again, from the fast-food culture.

DH: What is the big picture you see for the future?

AW: I think we need these models around the state of California. Because we want to focus here first. I think there are other right places, you know, in Vermont, maybe even in Virginia, New Orleans, and other places that I have visited recently that have farmers that are organized, that have great need, that love children, and really have interesting people in government positions. And actually have the possibility of growing that food for the schools.

The biggest thing right now, is supporting the people who take care of the environment. We must take care of the people who take care of the land. And so, if 20% of the population is in school, and they are asked to buy this food from farms. I mean at the real cost without a middleman, it could be amazing. It could change farming overnight.

DH: How about one overarching, inspirational, motivational statement about your passion. What would it be? How would you weave all the elements together?

AW: We still need to learn how to talk about food and education, because they haven't been talked about together, really. Education depends on our good health. It depends on our understanding of the environment and somehow we got those separate. I mean, John Dewey understood that. We went down another path and we have to come back to it.

If our public school system is a truly democratic institution. It's the place where we can reach every child in this county from kindergarten. What an opportunity to edibly educate them. I don't just mean a glorified cooking class. I've never thought of it that way. I have always thought of it as a way to empower students to learn, to give them confidence, and to nourish them. So, I think the centerpiece has to be a free, sustainable school lunch for every child.

DH: What about charter schools? What about voucher programs? What about, Reed Hastings, the Netflix guy, who wants kids to sit in front of their computers all day, not even in school, and learn?

AW: Well, I'm talking about every child. I'm talking about equality. That's right, never wrong. We all deserve an education and a nourishing school lunch.

DH: How will we get a free school lunch for every child? Through private programs like the Edible Schoolyard? Or through legislation?

AW: I think it's going to happen through education. We have a health care crisis. One in two kids is going to have diabetes. Now we need to educate children about health basically from birth. It's just ... crazy to think that we don't have to worry about it, the health care cost. So we really need an edible education. It's about kids. It's about getting politicians' attention to help to figure out how this could happen. Maybe it's a soda thing. Maybe it's a real estate tax. Maybe it's a rural development. Maybe it's all of these things together that make this happen, but it's essential that it ... I mean, we're, as Carlos Petrini [founder of the International Slow Food Movement] says, we're on a train and it's going off the edge of the cliff.

We have to stop the track and get off. Now we're in a jungle. We don't know how we're going to get out but we'll find a way. I've always believed in people power. I saw it happen when we organized around the AIDS crisis....We made an AIDS quilt that covered the entire mall. Everybody had a part in it and we can do this. I want to partner with Habitat for Humanity and rebuild every school in the state of California. We haven't paid any attention to what's happened to our schools for at least 30 years.

I remember when I came to Berkeley. That was in '64. We were the number-one university on the planet and we were number one in academic excellence from K-12. We are now number 47. It's so sad. And fast food has taken over our public schools so that we're trying to educate kids to make money. I mean, that's the goal, to get online, to do it fast, cheap, and easy. Whatever it takes.

DH: How about getting a real education?

AW: How about getting to meet, to know the people who are in your class? How they're touching your life. There are other pathways into our minds: touch, taste, smell, hearing, seeing, and we've closed these down. We don't go into a market and see anything out in the open. It's all in a package. You don't smell it.

Unless we go to a farmers' market we don't experience that. We don't cook anymore. We just order in. It's not just what we're eating, it's how we're eating. And that's what I'm really drawn to address with this project. The dinner table is a rite of civilization and we need to participate in that to keep our families together, to keep our communities together.

They're talking about rural development. How to keep people on the land, how to bring them back to the land, which is exactly what we need to be doing in this country and which is exactly what this project could do, this initiative. If we purchase food from local people it will put people into business in Bakersfield. And we're supporting the small local companies.

But fast-food culture would have us believe that this is too much work. Well, at Chez Panisse we have 85 people we buy from during the whole course of a year. We only feed 500 people a day. But it's a pleasure to talk to the farmers. That's my favorite part, always was.

It's really the communication and exchange that builds communities. It's not something you can legislate. It's that you're giving me the best bread I ever had and I'm so happy to give you money for it. I can't think of anything I'd rather do than stand in line and give money for your bread.

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Don Hazen is the former executive editor of AlterNet.