Chef Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard

Chef Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard

Alice Waters, iconic chef and creator of California Cuisine, now brings us a remarkable and profound view of our future. It is a place called the Edible Schoolyard, where students of all ages not only are taught about growing sustainable, healthy crops, but they actually plant, raise and harvest them, right on their school grounds. With such a program in cities across the US, public school students will actually graduate into the world with firsthand knowledge of sustainable agriculture and what it means to share tasty, nutritious meals at the table with friends and family.

“I’ve seen it myself: when kids grow food themselves and cook it, they all want to eat it,” Alice told Organic Connections. “And it could be anything from kale and garlic to little salads or chickpeas. They feel empowered by the circumstances of it. They like the taste and they like serving their friends. That’s a truth I have discovered. If you engage children in a positive way and if you make them something delicious and it comes with care, they want that.”

The Edible Schoolyard program has become Alice’s top priority in a life filled with many amazing accomplishments. Her Berkeley, California, restaurant, Chez Panisse, is legendary for having introduced California Cuisine. President Bill Clinton, when he was in office, once dropped by for dinner with a large contingent of Secret Service agents. Through her restaurant, television appearances, articles and books, and also through her function as an international governor of Slow Food, Alice Waters has been at the forefront of bringing the world to a table at which locally grown organic ingredients are lovingly served.

The Edible Schoolyard Program

The Edible Schoolyard began 13 years ago when Alice, driving daily between her restaurant and Berkeley home, noticed Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, which she described as “a run-down collection of sad old concrete buildings with peeling paint and a hard blacktop playground. Countless windows lay broken with no money to fix them, and a few lawns grew long and wild in the rainy season and then died and dried yellow in the summer.”

She conducted an interview at the time with a journalist visiting her restaurant, and in that interview she brought up the idea of using vacant lots and other unused land as places for growing crops. She pointed out the local school as an example of how not to use land. A few days after the article appeared, she received a handwritten note from the school’s principal. He agreed with much of what she had said and invited her over to the school to perhaps find a way to help.

Alice went for the visit, and during her tour she verbally envisioned a garden where students could grow and harvest wholesome food. She also had the idea that the school could open up a new kitchen to teach students how to cook the food they were growing, and even a cafeteria for sharing it with their classmates. Leftovers could be recycled right back into the soil as compost.

The first reaction of the principal was to laugh out loud. But when he realized that Alice was quite serious, and when she volunteered her personal help for the project, he had to try and get the concept through a resistant school board and parent-teacher association.

The principal succeeded, and one by one the barriers to the project were knocked down. The project grew and grew. Local farmers, including suppliers to Chez Panisse, donated trees and crops. Landscape architects and gardeners pitched in as well.

The account of how the garden was eventually created—and how at first the school and then the entire community pulled together to bring it all about—is an amazing story detailed in Alice Waters’ book Edible Schoolyard. To this day that garden continues, staffed year after year by students coming up through the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Alice’s vision came true in its entirety: food from the garden is prepared in a special kitchen and served to the student body, who seem to never get enough of it.

Beyond Berkeley

While the garden at MLK Middle School continues to thrive, new ones have begun sprouting up all over the country. If Alice has her way (or, as those who know her might say, when she has her way), it will happen at every school in the US.

“I think of the Edible Schoolyard as the way to bring children into a new relationship with food and a set of values that we are all going to need in order to live on this planet together,” Alice explained. “So we are very involved with making models that people can walk into. We made the one in Berkeley, but that’s in Berkeley and it’s for an older group of kids. I think it’s very important that we reach kids when they’re little, so I’m also talking about preschool and kindergarten. We should feed all of our children in school and do it for free. I sort of see this as a stimulus package that deals with preventative medicine, sustainable farming and bringing the children into a sense of their culture, back to their senses. We’re working on an affiliate project in New Orleans that’s been going for a couple of years, and there’s one in North Carolina, one in Los Angeles, and one going to be built in Brooklyn.”

It’s not only a sense of food to Alice, but a sense of community. “I think that this is a universal idea. I’m not talking about anything new—people have been living and eating together since the beginning of time. But I mean eating what’s local and seasonal, and feeding children things that are delicious, and cooking these with family and friends. Being close to nature and celebrating traditions of the table—these are meaningful things in everybody’s life. And I just think we have lost our way and we need to come back there, because that’s where we learn how to take care of the land. We learn to be good stewards and we learn to cook for ourselves, nourish ourselves, and sit there at the table and communicate with one another.”

Free School Lunches

In addition to the Edible Schoolyard program, Alice has been championing a school stimulus package that would provide a free healthy breakfast, lunch and snack for every student in US public schools. “It has not yet been adopted, but it should be,” Alice said. “We’re paying with the health of the nation, and instead we need to pay up front. I think that putting more money into school lunches is a step in the right direction, which we hope to accomplish this fall. There are issues of diabetes in children and obesity as well, and these medical emergencies are not being addressed.”

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The medical industry, which eventually has to treat the casualties of non-nutrition, is starting to take notice. One of the sponsors of the Edible Schoolyard program is, believe it or not, Kaiser Permanente. “It’s great when healthcare organizations like Kaiser start to promote preventative medicine and talk a lot about the quality of one’s life, because they don’t see how they can take care of everybody who’s going to be sick,” Alice stated. “That’s where we have to go.”

Alice sees the problem—and its potential solution—in the light of a program that occurred some 46 years ago. “It has been done before, when President Kennedy put physical education in the schools because we weren’t physically fit. We spent lots of money then. We built tracks and gymnasiums and hired teachers and made it part of the curriculum of every school in this country. We now have a huge need to teach gastronomy and ecology, and we need to feed all children because we don’t want childhood hunger to be an issue for why children aren’t learning. We need school reform and this brings it along with feeding the children.”

The Larger Issue

With all the world’s problems at the moment, such as climate change and the economy, how does Alice see the problem of proper nutrition for children—and everyone, for that matter—stacking up?

“We need food for our survival,” said Alice. “And we need to protect the planet because that is the source of our food. It is unimaginable to me that people could think about global warming without talking about food, because 40 percent of the emissions—the bad kind—come from the wrong sort of farming, ranching and distribution of food around this planet. So if we were all to be asked to support the people who take care of the land, to buy our food carefully with intention, I think we could make a dramatic difference. Because once you get into that place of farmers’ markets and communities that care about nourishment, you begin to make different decisions about everything you do. It teaches you a different set of values. And so I may end up walking to the farmers’ market instead of driving my car to the supermarket. I bring all my bags to pick up the groceries; I don’t use any of the wrappings in the farmers’ markets—I just put the vegetables right in my basket. All of these are contributors to the big picture. And I think it’s the easy and delicious way to help people understand deeply the frightening possibilities of global warming and to feel empowered to do something about it.”

Alice sees a great deal of positive change occurring today, beginning right at the top of our own government. In March of this year, assisted by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and a group of local fifth graders, Michelle Obama broke ground on the south lawn of the White House to plant that esteemed institution’s very first organic vegetable garden. “I think that Michelle Obama putting her shovel in the garden with a lot of children is probably the first time that we’ve taken the ie out of foodie,” Alice said. “We’ve all of a sudden started to look to the land and connect where our food comes from. I really believe that the president and his family care about how we eat as a nation, and maybe we’re moving slowly toward that ultimate decision to feed all children at schools.”

Reaching John Q. Public

While all this is going on, there are still numerous average citizens who yet seem oblivious of the need for natural food and good nutrition, who carry on supporting industrialized fast food and cheap supermarket produce transported from far-distant locales. To try and wake them up, some of us loudly preach, some stage protests, others write books and articles, and yet others attempt to get the message across through television, radio and even music.

In her very unique and ingenious way, Alice sees the problem being solved with a simple, very direct yet very effective approach. “I’ve thought about this a lot,” she said. “I believe the most effective way of waking people up is just to cook for them. I think that we need to cook very simply and seasonally and really gather those people at the table. I did a project in Washington a few years ago, and we invited senators and congressmen to the table and we cooked from the garden and from the farmers’ market. They stayed at the table and they had a conversation. That’s the easiest way to do this.”

See you at the table, Alice.

Photos by Katie Standke—