Alice Waters' revolution in the schoolyard

Interview: PERISCOPE / Photography: Michael Piazza, Daniel Dobers, Thomas Heinser

Whether or not you are among the lucky ones who have dined at Chez Panisse, any food related movement familiar to you– from the locavore to Farm-to-table dining– probably has its roots in what Alice Waters started in 1971 with the restaurant Chez Panisse.  Over the past few years, Waters has been on a fierce mission to expand her project, the Edible Schoolyard, from its small, local beginnings at a middle school in Berkeley into a national movement.  She started  the Edible Schoolyard as a way to teach children to grow and eat food through the work of sustainable farming. Alice shared her thoughts about the ideas she is trying to spread across the globe.

Can you tell us about ideas you have been trying to expand into the schools?
It’s not a new idea. It’s an idea that is as old as civilization. The idea of growing food that is good for you, farming the land in a way that allows you to nourish yourself and take care of the land for future generations. It’s about eating in season; it’s about eating with family and friends. It’s about treasuring the farmers, and it’s about understanding that nature is the mother of our souls. We’ve been imprisoned in a way by the fast-food culture that’s not very old. This older idea, these values, are inside all of us. But we have been told that they aren’t important. Everything needs to be fast and easy. We don’t need to pay attention to what’s in the past or in the future, we just need to consume, it doesn’t matter where the food comes from, that cooking is drudgery. All of these ideas have been a part of a fast-food strategy to have us spend money.
You have been practicing these values with Chez Panisse since the 1970’s. Where did they come from?
I was lucky that I learned these values when I went France, when I was 19. I learned them from a culture that was intact at that point; they cared about children, what you would put on your table, where it came from, people went to the market twice a day. It was a way of life. So I brought that back with me and I wanted to live like that. And I realized that what I was doing at Chez Panisse felt unique because we were living in the fast food culture. But it’s not anything unique. It’s the way that people have been eating and thinking about each other for a very long time.
There is a notion that organic and healthy food is a luxury. That it is only available to people in the middle-class and the rich. And your approach is to start with school children.
No question, because you have to begin with little children to engage them, with all of their senses. But it does become more difficult once they become addicted to the ideas of fast, cheap and easy. These values have to be taught to our children because they are going to the stewards. This is their world they are coming into. It’s critical that we bring real food into the schools globally.  It’s not just about the nutrition of the food. It’s about the values that you take in along with the food. When you eat on the run, you’re learning that it’s not important to sit down. And I just think that we have to feed all children at schools for free because that’s the place of social justice. And then they’ll make decisions differently about how they’d spend their money. Maybe they will spend money on food instead of on another cell phone or shoes, whatever you are spending money on.  It’s very hard to hold on to your own culture when you’re being heavily seduced and by a fast-food culture that has dominated whole ways of thinking. And it’s hard to resist the ideas of progress.
One thing you preach is food shouldn’t be cheap.
If it’s cheap, somebody is losing out. Food cannot be cheap. Food can be affordable, but it can never be cheap. Unless, it is subsidized by the government, or it is a part of the big multi-national food companies. They sell them to everybody. They make their money by convincing more people to buy it. It’s quantity, not quality.  When you buy something really cheap, you think anything at the farmer’s market is expensive. You are being taught that you shouldn’t think about this too much.
If you learn to how to feed yourself, you can liberate yourself too. You have more control over yourself.
Exactly. Everything comes in there. Being at a table teaches you about generosity, about listening to other people.  It’s about sharing; it’s about the pleasure of everyday lives. We just have to come back to our senses.
Can you tell me about what you are trying to do with the Edible Schoolyard?
In the beginning, we thought we could put an Edible Schoolyard program in strategic places. But we realized it was very complex to be engaged in the cultures of different cities in the United States. So now we are gathering all the best practices from around the world and trying to maximize the movement so that we can be prepared when the time comes, we’ll have a curriculum to go into the public schools. There have been a lot of schools who are doing this already, Montessori, Waldorf and Steiner schools. Now it has become that those schools are the foundations for what we need to do in the future.  The Edible Schoolyard demonstrates the change can happen very quickly with children.  They can learn these values and understand their importance.  There has to be a criteria in the school for supplying the  food. The schools would support the farm and the farm would support the school. I believe that’s the way to quickly change the food system for at least 20 percent of the population in the United States that’s going to schools.
Do you feel that we are making progress in terms of how we think about food?
In the last 5 years, the movement has multiplied. Young people started to understand the seriousness of this and they worry about the future of their lives, and lives for their children. They are worried about the world. I think they want to be connected to their nature. They want to be a farmer. And this is the most fantastic thing that has happened. People are hungry for connection: human connection and connection to nature. I know this because as soon as you offer that, they’d fall in love. So that’s the other good thing, it’s like falling in love. You just have to prepare the classroom so that children can fall in love.  I’m hopeful that they can impress upon the powers to be.   But we need to do this in a big hurry. 
I understand you have a close connection with Japan.
I feel a kinship with the Japanese because Japan is one of the places that has a deep gastronomic history and has also embraced all of these beautiful ideas of seasonality. That is a deep part of the Japanese culture. And even though the providence of  that food has changed in Japan as it has changed everywhere around the world, there’s still something there about the celebration of new rice, something of giving gifts that represent the ideas of food; how precious food is. And how food can heal you. In the United States, we don’t think that vitamins actually come from plants. We’ve been thinking that only medicines can heal us. It would be so fantastic if you institute this nationally.
It seems you started this big fight, way before most people even noticed what is going on.  Now the Edible Schoolyard is getting more attention, but it still seems like an uphill battle.  What keeps you going?
I have the best kind of job. Because I am talking to young people who are really excited about being filtered through this movement. It’s not even really a movement. People call it a “trend” to eat organic food. It’s not a trend. This is something so basic to human life. So I just get excited every time when I go and see the Edible Schoolyard whether it is in Brazil or Harlem. Kids immediately are involved and are able to talk about it. It’s like they are being let out of jail. Fast-food culture is so narrowing and confining. It’s like you’ve seen the whole world in only two colors, or three colors. And you’re not able to see the world around you. It’s frightening what’s going on right now. It makes my work so much more urgent.  When there was a big article in the Wall Street Journal, in November, it made me feel like this idea is coming back in the mainstream again. People are waking up in a very surprising way.
At the same time, there are some worrying signs about GMO’s.
We just have to not buy from them. And they’d go away because they want to sell. But they are just going to another country and setting up again. It’s something we have to keep talking about it in a global way. 


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