Lunch lady goes to Washington

On the heels of Congress’ Child Nutrition Act, Alice Waters chats healthy school eats, vegetarianism and Sacramento’s food carts

Alice Waters, shown here in Napa in 2007, established the Edible Schoolyard Program in 1995. Last week, Congress funded a $40 million program to plant gardens in schools as part of the country’s largest school-food overhaul in three decades.

Alice Waters, shown here in Napa in 2007, established the Edible Schoolyard Program in 1995. Last week, Congress funded a $40 million program to plant gardens in schools as part of the country’s largest school-food overhaul in three decades.

Photo By david sifry

Even for a woman as busy and accustomed to making her mark on American food culture as Alice Waters, this past week was eventful. Congress passed the Child Nutrition Act, a $4.5 billion, 10-year program that includes a $40 million provision for school gardens—a cause that Waters has championed as part of her plan for the “edible education” of U.S. children. The act also eliminates junk food and soda from school campuses nationwide. Waters spoke at the mayor’s monthly Greenwise Sacramento event last Tuesday and also made time for a quick chat with SN&R via telephone from her office at Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

Where did you get the seed for the idea to get involved with school lunch and gardening programs?

Fifteen years ago or so, I was really inspired by the program at the San Francisco County Jail called The Garden Project. The inmates ran a 7-acre garden and produced food that was given away to the homeless in San Francisco. It was such a transformational experience that the inmates wanted to stay in the garden—stay in jail! It gave me the idea that we should work in schools and we should make a program, not just something that’s an upgrade in the cafeteria, but something that is completely woven into the whole curriculum, like physical education was back in the ’60s. … I really think this is a program that should begin in kindergarten and bring children into a new relationship with food where every child participates, and they eat school lunch for free.

How do you respond when people say that children will reject healthy, nutritious food and go for high-fat choices?

Well, they will unless the whole culture of food is changed, and unless they’re brought into very tasty alternatives and empowered to grow the food and cook it themselves. I think that’s the lesson of the edible schoolyard … that when they grow it and they cook, they all eat it. It’s kind of amazing—and these are teenagers!

Is this a victory, and what happens next?

I think it’s an accomplishment, but … to give 16 or whatever it is cents to school lunch is tiny. But the focus on farms at school and the fact that the first lady has planted a garden—the fact that people seem to care about both food safety and feeding children—it seems like something very significant in terms of a changing our food system.

It’s the big picture that I’m looking for, and I’m not willing to settle for a small upgrade. I want the whole thing. I want every child to eat something that’s wholesome and delicious, and I want them to really understand that the decisions that they make about food every day are the most important decisions of their lives.

You lectured at Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Greenwise event. What are your thoughts on his program?

You know, I just have an overall impression of the mayor’s program, but I love this idea and I think it needs to be organized at the highest level of government. The federal government, of course, but the state government and the mayors of cities have so much influence and possibility. … I’ve been involved with a lot of garden projects, including one right there at the governor’s mansion in Sacramento some years ago. We planted a small but important edible garden there with children. … It’s where we have to go. We need cheerleading! We need good ideas, but we need cheerleading.

Suppose one is taking pains to eat only ethically sourced meat. What would you say is the role of meat in this person’s diet?

You know, I’m of a little bit of the Michael Pollan thinking. Eat mostly vegetables and use meat as a condiment, which is how most people have eaten meat on the planet since the beginning of time, and especially around the Mediterranean. It’s something that is expensive, and you might make a broth out of bones and a piece of something else. I’ll never forget when my French friend had 10 people over to dinner and she wanted to buy one chicken, and I said, “You need two, you probably need three chickens for 10 people.” And she said, “No, I just need one.” And it was positively delicious, but she had all kinds of other things on the plate. And the chicken was part of it, and it was a very big lesson for me.

One last thing: We have a food-truck and food-cart ban in effect in Sacramento.

Why is that?

Officials argued it was unfair competition to brick-and-mortar businesses.

Oh, that’s too bad. Well, I have strong opinions. I think that there should be criteria for the provenance of the food that they serve in the food trucks, and maybe that’s a way to bring them back. To have that kind of criteria of finding food, I mean, again, you’re thinking about the “greening of Sacramento.” You could have green food trucks. And bring back food that’s good, clean and fair. It could be tacos, but they’re just buying the meat from the right people. It could be organic tortillas and they’re supporting the farmers’ markets. That would be a great thing. Green food trucks. I think it’s a really important idea to have something that’s portable, something where people who can’t make an investment in a restaurant can have an experience of cooking and feeding people. I like those little portable trucks, but … I would love them to be regulated in that way. Not regulated—shall we say, inspired—in that way.