The National Conversation: Alice Waters
Alice Waters has a dream: That one day, preferably soon, all students in American public schools will garden, cook, and sit down together for lunch each day to eat healthy, delicious food—and do so for free.
If that sounds crazy, think again. Waters, the founder of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, among America’s most famous and influential restaurants, and The Edible Schoolyard Project, a nonprofit aiming to bring organic cooking and gardening to public schools across the country, seems to almost always get her way—eventually. That bag of organic mesclun greens you picked up at the store last week? It was Waters’s Delicious Revolution, as she has called it, that made Americans realize there was more out there than iceberg lettuce. You can also thank her for hundreds of farm-to-table restaurants that dot the country. Waters made farming cool.
For all she has achieved—or perhaps because of it—this dreamy, birdlike 72-year-old can be something of a lightning rod. So her plan to combat childhood obesity—currently at an alarming 30 percent in the United States—with gardening and cooking classes is sure to ruffle some feathers. But that hasn’t stopped her. Last fall, Waters took her case to Congress, asking the Democratic Whip Task Force on Poverty, Income Inequality, and Opportunity to provide free food to every child and make school lunches an entitlement equivalent to Social Security or Medicare.
We spoke with Waters about why food is so polarizing, what her hopes are for edible education, and how the good-food movement will move forward after Michelle Obama.
For 45 years, you’ve been an advocate of fresh, local food. Clearly, you’ve made some progress. And yet you’re still being asked to explain over and over again why this matters, which says something about food culture in the United States. Why don’t we value good food?
As Brillat-Savarin said, “You are what you eat,” and I think we’ve really become what we’ve eaten. When you eat fast food, you eat the values of the food as well: Your understanding is that when you’re eating in the car that’s OK. That food should be cheap. That it doesn’t matter what season it is. That it should be the same wherever you get it around the world. That more is better. That the faster you eat, the better it is. And these values are what have imprisoned us.
You believe edible education—teaching kids to cook and garden—can change that. How?
Public education is our last truly democratic institution. It’s a place where we can reach every person. And if you really were to make school lunch an academic subject, if you were to dignify it and connect it to an academic curriculum, you would give the students the time and the attention that is needed to digest the values of that good food and their academics as well.
What do you mean make lunch an academic subject?
What I mean precisely is, it’s no longer a cafeteria where you come in and grab something and eat it in 20 minutes or throw it in the garbage. It becomes a class where you sit down. You go through a line where everyone has the same food and you sit down and eat it together. Maybe it’s a language class and you’re studying Spanish. The place mat might illustrate all the foods that are grown in Mexico and tell you the name in Spanish. You’d be served a tortilla soup and a salad that connects you to that culture and that experience. Or maybe you’re studying the history of the Silk Road and on your place mat is a map of where the Silk Road is and you eat a lentil soup from India and a whole-wheat chapatti. You have a class at the table.
Still, at a time when schools struggle to make ends meet, lots of people say we don’t have the money for edible education. It’s considered an extra. How do you argue with that?
We’re talking with people who are really imprisoned by a fast-food culture. They think you have to be at school so you can learn to use a computer and figure out how to make more money—that that’s the goal of education.
You can’t operate an institution that goes from eight in the morning till three in the afternoon without offering children really good food. It’s immoral. I know the moral case can’t be made. But that’s the reason that I really want to take lunch into academics. You can learn your academics more deeply if you have that association of the food that goes with it. All the cutting-edge school reforms are about applying what you’re learning, forming small groups to solve problems. We do that in edible education.
Is there any proof that this works?
Certainly. Studies show that when kids eat more vegetables, their academics are better. And when they’re educated about what they’re eating, they like all kinds of things. I find it amazing that kids immediately take to whole-wheat pasta, farro, and brown rice. But they’ve been educated about it. [British celebrity chef] Jamie Oliver did all kinds of work to improve school food, but it never quite worked because he didn’t connect it to the curriculum. At the Edible Schoolyard, we have a garden classroom and a kitchen classroom that fortify the cafeteria experience. It also supports the academic courses they’re taking—whether that’s math or science. We’re making lessons that fit.
The importance of cooking has always been central to your argument. Can we eat well without cooking? The data shows over and over that people just don’t want to cook!
The data isn’t correct. It’s calculated by people who want that to be a result. We think we don’t want to cook because our culture has told us not to: that it’s drudgery. Just order out. Bring it in.
But if I didn’t have cooking in my life, I don’t know what I’d do. I would feel so unable to take care of myself. It gives you confidence when you know how to feed yourself. When you’re not at the mercy of the restaurant or the corner store. And I think most people feel a great sense of accomplishment when they offer a meal to their families.
Another thing I hear often is that, well, it’s easy for Alice Waters to say that. You’re in the Republic of Berkeley, a place where everything grows all year round. Is this really viable? For everyone? Everywhere?
We have lost our ability to cook. And so we don’t know how to use the stems and the leaves of the vegetables. We don’t know how to make the chicken stock out of the bones and make a whole other meal from it. How to cook polenta and beans and things that are incredibly affordable. If I’ve bought the right things, I can make a meal in 10 minutes for four. If you know what you need to have on hand, then you can cook food wherever you are. We all have the microwaves and blenders and all the equipment but no know-how.
Michelle Obama put an organic garden on the White House lawn, which was long a dream for you. She is without doubt the highest-profile political figure advocating for good food. But now she’s gone. Who, if anyone, can replace her?
I think we will never replace her. We all have to be advocates for this. I wish FDR’s backyard gardens movement [in which 18 million Americans planted gardens to grow food during World War II] could be revived. We could put Michelle Obama gardens in our backyards. Or take out the front lawn and grow food.
Without such a powerful advocate in the White House, what is your movement’s strategy to make change?
I’m focusing on the local. I’m looking to make a model and let people in and see it for themselves. We need to be the change we want to make in the world. So if we want to change the school system, we need to have something that demonstrates what we’re talking about.
When I say we have to think locally, I don’t just mean in California but locally around the country. We’re focusing in California because we’re here. We have that long history of the organic food movement in California. We have a diverse population that is very needy. We have the great University of California to help us. We have an enlightened governor. What happens in California very often goes elsewhere. So if we can prove [edible education] works here, maybe it will go elsewhere.
Last fall, you spoke to a task force on Capitol Hill and asked its members to consider universally free school lunch. Why is free lunch for every child so important?
I really believe that the destiny of nations depends on how we nourish our children. We need to learn the values of stewardship and nourishment and communication to live on this planet. Everybody knows that the food we’ve been feeding children is not good for them. It’s universally understood that they are eating leftovers and fast food, basically. I want an experience that’s completely different. Where the smells bring you in and the children’s art is on the walls and the tables are set and the students help with the serving. The one door that is open in the schools is the cafeteria. I’m trying to go through that door.
Chefs have become effective advocates and that’s great. But ultimately kids learn to eat from their parents. How do you motivate parents to push for this?
It’s the kids. The kids in the middle school take home the recipes to their parents. They make them at home. It’s sort of the opposite of smoking. The kids understand it, and they bring it back to their parents. It’s in the schools that we as a country are going to learn to cook affordable, nutritious, delicious food. I so believe in winning people over. That’s how it happened to me when I went to France. I was 19; I had things I had never tasted before; I never had a piece of bread out of an oven, hot; never had an apricot; I’d never had an oyster.
I always call it a Delicious Revolution. It’s not about reading a little red book. It’s not about homework. It’s not about demonstrating on the street. It’s about going down a path that at every step becomes more and more interesting and more and more delicious. You find yourself meeting people that you like and that you depend on, like the farmers. You learn about nature, and you want to take care of it. And you treasure it. It just feels so right to do. You just have to begin to do it.