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A Natural Foods Revolutionary

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A Natural Foods Revolutionary

Everything starts with a single seed. In 1971 when Alice Waters opened her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, she launched what has now become a North America-wide food revolution.

Everything starts with a single seed. In 1971 when Alice Waters opened her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, she launched what has now become a North America-wide food revolution.

It’s largely thanks to her inspirational example that we search out seasonal fruits and vegetables, that we prepare dishes based on what’s grown locally and raised ethically, and that we ask questions about sustainability. Today, we routinely buy or grow the mix of tiny greens known as mesclun. Waters was the first to introduce this French staple to North American tables.

Starting an Evolution

Often called the mother of the fresh ingredient-inspired California cuisine that eventually swept the continent, her restaurant was meant to make diners feel as though they were eating at a friend’s house. There were no choices, just a single fixed-price menu; that first night, everyone ate the same simple, French-inspired plates of p?, duck with olives, and plum tart for the grand sum of $3.95, coffee included.

Now, more than 36 years later, Chez Panisse’s kitchen principles remain the same. Today’s daily menus (posted online at chezpanisse.com) also list ingredient origins, for example, James Ranch lamb or Paine Farm squab. These days, it’s common for restaurateurs to liaise closely with local farmers dedicated to sustainable agriculture–but Waters was in the vanguard.

In a society used to innumerable edible choices, diners are happy to sit down and simply be fed tasty, real food. “They come and they like it,” Waters says in a phone interview. She sounds relaxed, having breakfasted on caf?u lait and “a piece of delicious homemade bread with plum jam.” But she is anything but calm about the state of the North American diet–and she’s trying to create a bigger change in the way her country, especially young North America, eats.

Starting in the Garden

Were schools to supply breakfast and lunch, she says, “you’d end the problem of childhood hunger.” Waters is also profoundly concerned by the growth of childhood obesity in the US.

Crises in both health and agriculture can be averted, she is convinced, by “bringing the experience and values of truly healthy and delicious food to everyone, beginning with schoolchildren across the country.” In 1995 Waters launched the Edible Schoolyard (edibleschoolyard.org), an organic garden and kitchen that teaches children to grow, harvest, and cook food.

“We have to begin with very young children,” explains Waters. “We have to put eco-gastronomy into the curriculum.” The original Edible Schoolyard has now inspired dozens like it; countless kids have learned first-hand the pleasures of tending a vegetable garden on school property and sharing the results around a table.

“We need to feed every child at school,” says Waters. “That’s an engine for sustainable agriculture. You’re making the kitchen part of the academic program, not a catering system divorced from academia.”

Waters says that the centuries-old connection between farm and table was derailed in the 1950s when consumers started to be exposed to “the unholy marriage of globalization and fast foods. The combination is really deadly.” She also names television as a culprit: “It really interrupted the ritual of the table.” The combined upshots are a loss of the skills that were traditionally handed down from parent to child. “We’ve forgotten how to shop and cook. We’ve even forgotten how to set a table.”

Her role of David pitted against the Goliaths of multinational corporations and fast food purveyors doesn’t faze her. “People could be skeptical about what I’m proposing,” she admits, but cites Montessori schools (she is a former Montessori teacher) and schools in France as evidence that it can be done. If a school demands locally farmed food, farmers will grow it, she says.

Starting to Get the Message Out

Moms and dads play key roles, too. “Parents have to grab their kids and go to the farmers’ markets. They can educate themselves and their kids at the same time. And [they] to make time to sit down at the table. Three days a week, then five.” Waters is also realistic: “Start with one.”

Waters believes that human health, the health of the family, and the health of society are all intertwined—and so is the health of the planet. Earlier this year, Waters stopped serving bottled water at Chez Panisse. The tipping point, she says, was reading Alan Snitow, Deborah Kaufman, and Michael Fox’s Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water (Jossey-Bass, 2007). “I kind of knew the conspiracy about bottled water,” she says, but reading the book “pushed me to make the decision.”

Surprisingly, customers have not protested; on the contrary, “we have a beautiful decanter and people like having it for free.” She hopes that more restaurants, “enlightened ones,” will follow her example.

The news about the delicious fare at Chez Panisse, and the thinking behind it, spread by word of mouth in the 1970s. These days, Waters believes the Internet can play a role in getting positive messages out.

It’s making consumers aware of where that lettuce or those tomatoes originate, and bringing home how deeply tasty dishes can be that stem from local, ripe ingredients. It’s encouraging folk of all ages to be mini-farmers, even if it’s only cultivating a pot of chives on the windowsill or raising tomatoes, heirloom ones, on the patio.

“It’s educating people” and encouraging “conversations…[about] rare seeds and [growing] techniques,” says Waters. “People are beginning to ask questions. That’s my great hope.”

Cuttings from Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Take Root Across Canada

According to Evergreen, the national nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing nature to cities, about 100 schools in Canada now have food gardens growing, on average, five kinds of vegetables. Startup costs (mostly for required fencing) were under $2,000 for 65 percent of the schools. In Nova Scotia, Chef Michael Howell helped local kids transform their school-grown produce into Italian vegetable soup and Indian curry. Ottawa’s Growing Up Organic is developing a pilot community garden for two schools. BC filmmaker Nick Versteeg’s Edible Schoolyard DVD, which shows kids how to “grow a pizza,” is available free to all schools in BC.

For more about Alice Waters, read Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution by Thomas McNamee (The Penguin Press, 2007).

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