Delicious Revolution: An Interview With Alice Walters

For 40 years, Alice Waters has pioneered new thinking about sustainable cooking based on fresh, seasonal, local ingredients. She is an acclaimed chef and author who launched the farm-to-table movement when she opened her Berkeley, CA., restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971. Her 14 books include The Art of Simple Food: Notes and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution (Clarkson Potter, 2007). She is also bringing sustainable food and ideas into the K-12 public schools nationwide with an “edible education” initiative. The Edible Schoolyard Project offers curricula to create gardens and kitchens as interactive classrooms for all academic subjects. Waters helped start the Yale Sustainable Food Project in the early 2000s, when daughter Fanny Singer was at Yale College. Today it operates the Yale Farm, promotes hands-on food learning, and makes sustainable food available at every Yale dining hall.

REFLECTIONS: People comment about the high price of healthy food. Must nutritious food and cheap food contradict?

WATERS: When you have cheap food, it means someone isn’t being paid for his or her work, usually the farmer or the farmworker in the field. This is a social justice issue. And cheap food isn’t cheap. We are paying heavily right now – diabetes, obesity, a collapsing health system, devastation of the land. If we don’t pay up front for food, we pay at the back end.

REFLECTIONS: Can the world afford healthier food?

WATERS: Food can be affordable if you eat seasonally, eat whole grains, and change your habits so you aren’t eating meat every day.

We have to break this cycle of unhealthy eating. It starts with children as young as kindergarten. Our vision is for students to have nourishing food at school, food grown by local farmers, and paid for by our tax money so all children can eat for free.

REFLECTIONS: You’re describing edible education in schools across the country.

WATERS: That’s my stimulus plan. It would benefit the farmers who grow the food and the parents who don’t have to spend money to buy it. With edible education, children would not only be getting healthy food – they would learn where it comes from and how to eat together and be good neighbors. As it is now, we’re imprisoned by fast-food culture, eating on the run, eating alone.

REFLECTIONS: What gives you hope we can break old habits of eating?

WATERS: A younger generation really gets this. People around the world are waking up. Eleven-year-olds are giving TED talks, asking why they can’t get better food to eat! I grew up in the 1960s and saw the radical changes that young people can effect. We made things happen. I’ve been thinking about food this way since 1971. I haven’t lost my idealism.

REFLECTIONS: Can edible education become, as you describe it, a “delicious revolution”?

WATERS: The key is making a model that people can walk into, so they can really see how edible education works. That was the idea behind the original six founding Edible Schoolyard programs – they are beacons of expertise and mentorship in places like New Orleans, upstate New York, Berkeley, LA, North Carolina. We want to collect best practices so people know how to teach the kitchen staff and build beautiful cafeterias that are at the center of the school. We want to integrate curricula so schools can teach math in the garden and English in the cooking class. We want to teach children so they have a sense of pleasure about these things. And the kids are already responding in amazing ways. We’ve already connected with almost 4,000 edible education programs around the world – in all 50 states, and in more than 50 countries. We’re bringing slow-food values into a fast-food culture.

I take inspiration from the physical education movement in the early 60s. Look at what President Kennedy did. He saw that young people weren’t physically fit for the New Frontier, so he said let’s make PE a national priority and integrate it into all the school districts. He didn’t have money for it, but people got the message and became cheerleaders for it. Today, what could be more important than feeding children in healthy and sustainable ways?

REFLECTIONS: What would a sustainable, responsible future look like?

WATERS: I think it’s important to go back to the history of this country. A Ken Burns PBS documentary has come out, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History – I think everyone should see it. It’s about what happened in difficult times of war and economic depression in this country: People agreed on important goals. It was about engaging people in meaningful work – victory gardens, public art. It was about culture and democracy – ideals of equality, nourishment, reciprocity. People in America came together.

For a sustainable future, we should plant wherever we are – community gardens, roof gardens, backyards, fire escapes. We should eat with intention, supporting local farmers and farmers’ markets. All the staple foods should be organic and subsidized by the government – milk, butter, salads, whole grains, eggs. And we should put edible education in every school district and feed every child a free healthy lunch. Let’s bring the table back to the center of the schools.