Feeding Hearts and Minds—Land&People

In 1971 a Berkeley, California, schoolteacher who loved to cook thought it might be fun to open a restaurant. Alice Waters's approach to cooking–then and now–was to craft a daily menu from fresh food foraged from local, small-scale growers: herbs and vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, fish straight from the sea. Waters helped define California Cuisine and has authored six cookbooks.

Chez Panisse, her now-famous Berkeley bistro, nourishes not only hungry diners but also a philosophy about food and the land. Long before organic food made it to the marketplace, Waters extolled it as both a treat for the palate and a benefit to the land.

Recently Waters established the Chez Panisse Foundation to support community projects that teach the interwoven pleasures of growing, cooking, and sharing food as a way to guide young people to respect and care for the land, their communities, and themselves. Among the programs made possible by the foundation is the Edible Schoolyard, where junior high school students plant, tend, harvest, cook–and, of course, eat–their own wholesome foods. Waters has promoted the program to President Bill Clinton–a Chez Panisse customer–as a model for schools nationwide. Among her many honors, including Best Chef in America and Best Restaurant in America, last year Waters received the national Education Heroes Award at a Capitol Hill ceremony.

Alice Waters oversees her bustling empire from a small office on a shady courtyard behind her restaurant. We sat and talked next to the open kitchen, where a dozen chefs prepared the evening's fare.

Q. What is the Chez Panisse Foundation and what led you to start it?

A. We started the Chez Panisse Foundation in 1996, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the restaurant, largely out of concern that young people increasingly are isolated from the land and deprived of the joys and responsibilities it teaches. A lot of people who come to eat at Chez Panisse really understand the relationship of agriculture and culture. We wanted to offer them a way to contribute to projects that promote that understanding, especially among children. We fund programs that teach sustainability, strengthen community, and reinforce self-esteem by creating opportunities for people to grow, prepare, and share their food. Our main project is the Edible Schoolyard, which grows in what had recently been a vacant lot behind the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley.

Q. What do students learn at the Edible Schoolyard?

A. Most kids really believe that food comes from the supermarket and milk comes out of the carton. Like millions of people today, they are unaware of how, where, and when fresh food is grown. At the Edible Schoolyard they begin to understand–not just with their heads, but with their hands and bodies–the relationship of food and agriculture. They learn where food comes from and how to be good restorers of the land. They see that if they take care of the land, the land will take care of them and they will be nourished. There is something essential and profound about the physical understanding of taking care of plants, harvesting and bringing them into the kitchen and cooking them, and then offering them to your schoolmates. I believe that such learning can transform people and communities, instilling a lifelong appreciation for season and place, the pleasures of the table, and responsible stewardship of the land.

Q. One of the things about your program that's different from other community garden projects is that it doesn't stop with growing the food; it extends to preparing, serving, and eating it. What led you to include this?

A. Our hurried lives and our increased dependence on processed and convenience foods isolate us from the land and deprive us of the joys of preparing and sharing food together. Inevitably, this contributes to apathy about the future of our farms and the quality of our food supply, and to a loss of values and traditions that have bound families and communities together for centuries. The table is where people communicate, where culture is passed on from generation to generation. If it doesn't happen there, it may not happen. Some 85 percent of the kids in this country don't eat one meal together with their families. And this is the first generation where that has happened. The French recognize the relationship of food to their culture and they have a government-sponsored program where a team goes out to schools to educate the children–taking them to farms, bringing chefs in to the school kitchens, having blind tastings. This is the kind of program upon which we based the Edible Schoolyard. We see it as a model curriculum for public schools from preschool all the way through college.

Q. What would such a curriculum look like?

A. We want to see a garden in every school in the country. At the King School, we set up a garden classroom and a kitchen classroom. The children come with their teachers, and whether it's math or science or English, they incorporate that lesson into the work they do in the garden. For instance, they were studying Egyptian history, so they decided to make food from Egypt in the kitchen. They made all these fantastic Egyptian breads and other foods and discussed it while they were eating their lunch. What better way to imprint a lesson, really? The way we get all information into our heads is through our senses. My educational philosophy is that the senses need to be engaged for real learning to take place. I think the experience of gathering and preparing and eating food is a great way to do this.

Like many children in this country, the kids at the King School don't even have a school lunch program. They buy prepackaged fast food from a concession stand at the back of the schoolyard. We need a national school lunch program that has ecological values at its core, so that every day when the kids go into the cafeteria they understand the interrelationships of food, land, and community.

Q. How has the Edible Schoolyard changed the way you think about land?

A. For one thing, I now see every place as a place for a garden. I see the potential for growing food in all the meridians that divide the streets. I find myself thinking, couldn't we grow something there? How about that sunny wall? What a wonderful place for a roof garden! Wherever it is, I now see open space in a very, very different way.

Q. How do the children feel about the program?

A. Well, when they had to choose at the end of the year which course they liked best–and there are about 40 different ones to choose from–the Edible Schoolyard came in number three, after gym and field trips. So we have a challenge to be number one.

Recently I was debating whether to take a reporter over to the Edible Schoolyard without calling in advance to tell them I was coming. I didn't know what the children would be involved in, and I wanted them to make a very good impression. In the end, we just went over there. We found the whole class seated around a picnic table in the garden and in front of them they had salad and loaves of bread they had prepared themselves, and they were engaged in the most incredible conversation. One little girl held up a piece of lettuce and said, "Ms. Waters, is this speckled radicchio or is this freckled radicchio?" And I thought, if I had scripted this, I couldn't have done better. Another child said, "I didn't know what arugula was, but now I do, and I get my mom to go to the farmer's market and we have it in our salad." They are having a good time, and we are instilling some absolutely essential values. For me, what they are learning is just as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic. They are learning to take care of the land, they are learning to feed themselves, they are learning how to communicate at the table. So it is working in the way I really had hoped it would.

Q. What can people find at the farmer's market that they can't get at the supermarket?

A. At the farmer's market, freshness is judged by hours, not days. It's a beautiful, sensual experience to go to the market. I know I am going to find something that will inspire me about what I'm going to cook. But it is also about relationships because I know all the people who are selling there. It makes me feel like I am really part of a community–one that shares my goals of providing fresh, perfectly grown food while promoting sustainable agriculture that takes care of the earth. I talk to the farmer who grows those little tomatoes. I talk to the man who makes the cheese. We discuss what it was like the previous week and what he has coming up for the next week. It's not only an exchange of information but a kind of mutual caring. Like any community, we find ourselves bound together by mutual dependence and a feeling of responsibility for each other–a kind of "I'll be there for you and you'll be there for me." It's raining and I have to go because I know he has picked his vegetables at three in the morning and has brought them all the way to market. This kind of information and interaction is nearly impossible to find at the supermarket.

Q. Is this what you mean when you talk about "community agriculture"?

A. The writer and farmer Wendell Berry said it well when he suggested that "Eating is an agricultural act." What I think he means is that there are social and ecological consequences to what we put into our mouths. If you think about what you eat, it leads you directly to the people who are taking care of the land. So when you buy organic food, grown by local farmers, it's not only about making this delicious choice–because it's the best tasting food and the most alive food–it leads you to people who are caring about other people and the future. You may think that what you choose to eat is a small decision about your own life, but if everybody consciously made those decisions it could change the face of agriculture overnight. Imagine, if just one school system decided to buy all its food from local people who were taking care of the land for future generations, how many farms and dairies that would affect, how many ranches? In just one school–we're talking about a thousand kids–they eat 300 pounds of potatoes at one meal. At Chez Panisse we're feeding only 500 people a day, but we help support 75 different purveyors and we've created a marketplace–a network of local farmers who depend on us. To do this at schools across the country would have an astonishing impact.

Q. Do you see that the nation's consciousness around food and land is changing?

A. I think it has changed dramatically since we started Chez Panisse, and certainly within the last five years. People are hungry–not only for food but for meaning in their lives and connection to other people. I think most people don't really understand how food fits into the big picture. We tend to regard food as fuel, just something to keep us going, rather than something that is restoring us. People eat in their cars, at their desks, walking down the street. To really feel good about ourselves physically and mentally, we need to have experiences that are more deeply nourishing. We all have to eat to live, and we can do that in a very degrading, destructive way, destroying not only ourselves but the land around us, or we can do it in a very conscious, pleasurable way. Every time we eat–coming around the table with family and friends–it can reinforce a sense of purpose and meaning in life.

Q. You have written to President Clinton to suggest that he plant organic gardens at the White House. Have you gotten a response to that idea?

A. Well, yes, I mean, along the lines of "What a good idea, what a nice thought…." But the First Lady told me she has tomatoes growing on the roof.

Land & People, Fall, 1999

Susan Ives is editor of Land & People.