Alice Waters occupies a special space in the sustainable food movement. Part world-famous chef, part educator, part slow-food advocate, her reach is broad and her message is simple: We must respect the land. We must respect our farmers. And we must educate ourselves about what we put in our bodies.
Much of Waters’s philosophy, not to mention her celebrity status within the food community, can be traced back to taste. When she opened Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley in 1971, it was her search for fresh, delicious produce that led her to organic farmers, and that ultimately made her a pioneer in the organic food movement. In 1995, it was her belief that you could reach children through the garden – and their taste buds – that inspired her to establish The Edible Schoolyard Project, which advocates for edible education and free, nutritious lunches in schools nationwide. Waters believes that good tasting food can be a powerful entry point to environmentalism. It can inspire interest in where our food comes from, nurture a deeper understanding of how we depend on the land for sustenance, and motivate us to be better stewards of the Earth.
The sustainable food movement has come a long way since Waters first started touting the benefits of organic produce. And of course, it still has a long way to go. But when it comes to growing edible education programs in our public schools, Waters is as dedicated as ever. When I spoke with her in late August, she told me that whatever it takes to make that happen, “It’s worth doing.”
You’ve been a sustainable food advocate for more than 40 years now. We’ve come a long way during that time, but still, there is some pushback around local and organic food, and particularly around the cost and this sense that it’s kind of elitist. How we can overcome this perception?
Well it’s kind of been elitist because about six companies own the whole food system. I think people need to learn the whole story of their food, where it comes from. I’m shocked that we cannot put everything on the label. We need to know where our food comes from, and we need to meet the people who grow our food.
Now, I’m convinced that if you learn how to cook, that you can make food that is as inexpensive as fast food. I can get one organic chicken that costs $25, and I can make it into three meals for six people. But you have to know how to do that. And you have to know how to take vegetables and use the stems, and make a stock. You need [to know] the basics of cooking to really make affordable, nutritious food.
What about the time to do that?
I can cook a meal in 10 minutes if I’ve gone to the market on the weekend, and I have those things in my pantry that I need – the spices, the olive oil, the vinegar. I can do that. But if I’m not prepared, it makes it very difficult.
But I find that when I go to the [farmers] market, it’s so enjoyable. It’s a moment in the week that I treasure. It’s not like shopping in the supermarket, carrying all the things to your car in bags. It’s about an interaction with people that you really like. And it’s seeing the beauty of nature. It’s about meeting your friends there, and having a drink with them. It’s about a whole lot of things that make my life meaningful. So all of the sudden you like spending four hours of a Saturday or a Sunday [at the market].
Tell me a bit about what first got you interested in local and organic food.
It really began with taste. I went to France when I was 19, and… I had this awakening to food. I got a loaf of hot baguette, and that was kind of it.
I went to the little restaurants and ate everything from oysters that I’d never had, to a frisée salad with little bacon lardons, and beautiful plum tarts. I think it was not just, of course, the food, but it was the slow food culture that embraced me, and I felt like I wanted to live like the French.
I came back here to Berkeley, and I knew [what I wanted] to do with food. I started inviting people over for dinner, and I started looking for the ingredients that tasted like those in France, and I couldn’t find them. It was just that point in the ‘60s really when we were moving into a fast food culture. I could still go to fancy French restaurants in the city, if I found the money to do it, but generally there wasn’t that taste [that I was looking for].
Ultimately, I became a Montessori teacher, and spent a year in England, which again, was part of my edible education. [Europe] was not yet destroyed by the onslaught of fast food. [But] I got to a point where I wasn’t passionate about teaching, and I thought, well, maybe I should just open a restaurant. And I thought, certainly there are ways that people get food that tastes good. But of course, when I started the restaurant, I couldn’t find them. So that led us ultimately to the organic farmers and ranchers. And I never looked back.
So you opened Chez Panisse and then you circled back to education. What prompted you to delve into this idea of edible education?
Well it certainly began with getting to know the farmers. I didn’t really understand the whole way that food was grown and brought to the city and distributed. It was through my close friendship with [farmers like] Bob Canard and Mas Masumoto, and some of the extraordinary farmers in Northern California, that I came to understand that I depended on them for the success of the restaurant, and for my own nourishment.
But when I had a child and started to think about her future, I remembered what Gloria Steinem had said, that public education is our last truly democratic institution and it would be a place where we could reach every child. I thought, you know, that Berkeley couldn’t be an island unto itself, Chez Panisse couldn’t be [so either]. It was really important to reach out.
The public school system and all of my Montessori training sort of had me focused on schools and where [my daughter] would be going, and certainly what she would be eating. And it was just by good luck that I met the principal of [Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School], which is just around the corner from the restaurant, and he was willing to let me make an experiment of edible education.
So it just seemed like destiny.
There’s no such thing as cheap food. It can be affordable, but it can never be cheap. I think that’s something we’ve been indoctrinated by fast food culture to believe, that it can be cheap – that it can be fast, cheap, and easy. But every culture since the beginning of time has thought of food as something precious, and that’s the way I think about it. I want to give my money to the people who take care of the land, and who grow that food.
I think that’s the fundamental idea that I was planting in the Edible Schoolyard – to teach the values of sustainability, of nourishment, and of communication. I think that those are the basic values that everyone needs to digest – to really learn – to live on this planet together.
How do you respond to criticism that edible education programs sometimes take kids’ time and attention away from traditional academics?
Well, I have come to understand that when children like what they are doing they learn it much more quickly. So when they are in the garden or the kitchen and they are learning math, they don’t forget it. We’ve had studies done by the University of California that show that when children are introduced to concepts [in a more interactive way], maybe it’s through the kitchen classroom, that they not only learn them more easily, but they also learn about fruits and vegetables, and they eat more of them.
So I really dismiss that argument. In fact, I feel like it was almost an invention by a fast food culture to focus kids’ attention on getting ahead and making money, [to convince them] that school is about that. That it’s not about empowering yourself to be all that you can be, about really finding your place in the world. And that is certainly what the intention of an edible education is about. It’s about opening your senses so that you can see nature, see the beauty of the world, and connect with it.
So you don’t think it takes away from the academics.
Never, never! It just sparks your interest in botany. It makes math real when you’re planting seeds, counting them, calculating – you’re having a practical application in the world. You’re learning every day work, which is cooking, and feeding people that are around the table, learning life skills that everyone needs to know. And we always sort of put it in home economics, or shop class.
How do you think we can integrate edible education into every school nationwide, considering that most public schools are strapped for cash?
I think we have to decide that it’s our number one priority. And when one-in-two kids is going to have diabetes, and the health costs are through the roof, it seems like it should be a national imperative.
We have the most urgent crisis: the crisis of equality, of nourishment, of unhappiness. I mean, we are in a very serious place, and we have to come back home and take care of our children, and show them that we really care about them. That means really rebuilding schools, painting them, making them beautiful. Maybe we have people coming in and volunteering to shell peas and fava beans and doing the handwork of preparing vegetables, and then they could sit and eat a school lunch along with the kids.
We haven’t even begun to think about how this can be accomplished, but the military helped when we had that physical fitness crisis under [President] Kennedy, and we decided to put physical education into the public school system. The government didn’t put money into it, they put enthusiasm and cheerleading and they got all the agencies to help to brainstorm how it could happen.
It is something that we just have buried, this idea that public education is not taking care of our children. It’s not the fault of the hard-working teachers. They don’t even have the honor that they should have for teaching our children.
You mentioned that when we started integrating physical education into schools, it didn’t take a lot of money from the government. Do you think that that’s the case with edible education?
We don’t know what it will take, but whatever it takes, it’s worth doing. Because I know how easily children remember and fall in love with nature, and with each other. It’s just almost [like] coming back to your senses.
Our children have really been deprived of nature. And they’ve been imprisoned by this addictive fast food culture that keeps them on their Internet even when they go on vacation. And when you can’t see it, you’re afraid of nature. You have to buy all this equipment in order to go out in nature. It’s a way to, again, spend all this money.
I never understand why environmentalists don’t use food as a way to bring people into an understanding of nature. I mean, everybody is eating every day, and when you eat that perfect peach, you want to have another one, and you want to know where it came from, and you keep looking for that taste again, and it takes you to the peach tree. And then you want to plant more of them. And then all of a sudden it’s just so clear that taking care of the land is deeply about what you are eating, and this pleasure that you receive.
In the past few years, you’ve been lending your voice to issues that intersect more broadly with environmental degradation. You helped start a petition against fracking in California, and recently you took a stance against water bills in Congress that might threaten salmon in California. How do you place your work in the larger environmental movement?
I’m really a slow food advocate, which is bringing people to very difficult understandings of biodiversity and sustainability through pleasure.
And that is how you preserve the biodiversity, and how you understand the big picture of sustainability.
I just happen to be in love with salmon, local salmon. One of the biggest changes we made at Chez Panisse about 20 years ago was to only eat fish in season. And we never got salmon again all year long from all different sources. We decided we’d only have it when it was available locally.
I just had it, yesterday, and I can’t say enough about it. I’ll just wait until next year to have it again. I was so excited that I had that taste.
I believe that everybody can cultivate his or her palette, and that we can gather around the table, which we need to do, and solve the problems of our culture. It seems idealistic and to many, unrealistic, but this is our forty-fifth year of Chez Panisse, and the number of people that we have reached and the number of people that have worked at the restaurant, and the number of people that I know around the country who are engaged in this very important work gives me great hope.
So you see the food issue, and palette, as really an entry point to reach a broader audience?
I do. If we do this in the schools, and we really focus on learning to cook delicious meals that are wholesome and sustainable [children are] going to be changed. When they grow it and they cook it, all of them eat it. All of them eat it, and they never look back.
You now see this whole generation of young people, and they are amazing in how they live their lives and how they’re taking care of their children. And it’s just multiplying out there, because now those children are coming of age, and they know what’s happening in the world, and they know that every day you have a choice about what you’re going to buy, and if you support the people who are taking care of the land and building community, you are putting your money into that place. And if you make another kind of decision, you are destroying communities, and health, and the land. You feel very empowered by that choice. You know how to feed yourself, and you know what that means.
That’s something that we can teach in school, and it’s something that hasn’t been taken away from us yet – those genes from way back in civilization since the beginning of time when we ate together, we built a fire, we cooked our food, we took care of the land because we knew that’s where the food came from. We celebrated the harvest, we loved children – I mean, these are universal values, and we can come back to them very easily.
You’ve said that you see young farmers especially as an integral part of the sustainable food movement. I know several young people who tried farming and ultimately moved on because the workload was so overwhelming and their profits were low. How can we help these young farmers?
If we have all the schools in this country buying food from local sustainable farms and giving the farmers the real [value] for their work, it would change farming overnight and give jobs to many, many, many, many young people.
The most exciting thing for me is to see the farmers inviting the people from the city out to the farms, and creating a culture of farming, a collaborative of farming, if you will, where you’re teaching and making money from teaching, where you’re inviting interns to help with the work who are learning, and you’re becoming somebody invaluable to the culture because your work is valued. And it hasn’t been before.
I mean, way back when, maybe farmers were treasured, but it was always kind of solitary work, it was like the ma and pa and their family – they all had to work the farm. But that’s not what’s happening. [Now] groups of families are getting together to work the farm. You know, we’re having wine tastings with chefs out on the farms. We’re having diners out there. We’re showing films. We’re engaging a rich farm community of young people. And that makes your life on the farm very different than it was 50 or 100 years ago.
You mentioned having schools buy from local and sustainable farms, and paying for the real cost of the work. Do you see any barriers in terms of the costs for the schools?
Well that is where we are going to have to find our way. We’re going to have to figure out how to cook well so that we use all of the parts of the vegetables, and all of the parts of the animal. We are going to have to do that wisely. We are going to have to really focus on affordable food, which is mostly getting our protein from vegetables and legumes. We’re going to look at peasant food around the world, especially from the Middle East and China. And I think that without the middleman, or with a nonprofit in the middle helping us, that we will be able to get the right price to the farmer.
It’s not food costs at Chez Panisse that are a problem, and we probably pay more than a lot of people for our food. In fact, I’m willing to pay anything the farmer asks. We pay a lot. But our costs are really in preparation of the food. [For schools,] that is where we can enlist the kids. I want there to be a student run cafeteria in high school. I want the kids to make the budget. I want them to run the whole business themselves: I want them designing the dining room, doing all the writing about it, doing the outreach to the farms, doing the statistics, and really learning how to run a business. I want them doing all the psychology of how to engage the students in eating the food, and working in the kitchen together, and all that’s involved with that.
But it certainly would help to underwrite the costs of it too, and to have the people who work in the kitchen become teachers, and have everybody learn how to make a loaf of bread.
When you say we need to get more protein from vegetables, are you suggesting less meat consumption overall?
I think we have to [reduce meat consumption]. We know that we have to. But I’m judging that the kids will have a lot of different things [to eat]. I mean, eggs are of course a great source [of protein]. Eggs absolutely have to be part of the school lunch. But I’m counting on the kids learning about all of this in their edible education, and really being able to help their parents understand.
Do you think there is any risk of terms like “local” and “sustainable” and “farm-to-table” being overused and losing their meaning?
Yes. You mean hijacked by the fast food culture. (Laughs.) Yes. I do. They hijack all the terms and they use them indiscriminately and they confuse people. That’s what’s going on right now, and we have to be aware of that, and really question [their meaning]. Is that animal grass fed its entire life, or [only for] two weeks? Is it being given organic feed? What does local mean? Does that mean 10 miles or 500?
They are trying to confuse us with the idea that it’s either one or the other, you can have either local or organic, you can’t have both. I want both. You can have both. But that’s how they get into the local market.
So it all is about education. And it can be delicious and edible.
What do you think is the biggest environmental issue of our time? Where should focus our attention first and foremost?
Everything goes back to global warming. And I think that all considered, I know that farming and the way that food is transported and grown around the world is a big contributor – like up to 40 percent – to global warming. So it seems like the easiest place to make a gigantic change.
But everything is so critical at this point. Everything is so endangered that I’m just hoping by changing the way we eat that we can digest the big picture of sustainability and make the right choices about what we do every day.
On a lighter note, when you are cooking for yourself and your family, do you have a go to meal?
Well I always have salad. So I cook something very quickly, like, you know, I’ll roast a chicken and I’ll make a beautiful salad with it. Maybe right now it’s with tomatoes. And I like to grill. So I make a little fire and I grill bread. A go-to breakfast is a little tortilla, and I put it on the fire on the stove, and I fill it with avocado and Mexican spices, and I just eat it right there.
Sounds pretty good.
Zoe Loftus-Farren is associate editor of Earth Island Journal.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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