Chef-activist and author Alice Waters is perhaps best known for opening the Berkeley, Calif.-based restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971. As a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement, she stressed the importance of simple, sustainable and local food. But Waters is also a passionate educator. She founded the nonprofit Edible Schoolyard in Berkely more than two decades ago to teach children how to grow and cook their own food as a way of strengthening their connection to the environment and encouraging them to make healthy food choices.
Waters was honored on April 15 at Edible Schoolyard NYC’s annual spring benefit. The NYC branch of the nonprofit partners with city schools, serving over 5,000 kids a year as it weaves gardening and kitchen classes into the curriculum. It also conducts cafeteria tastings, works with partner organizations to improve cafeteria food and hosts community days and daily programs in wellness education, according to its website. The organization also offers professional development to support educators and administrators to develop and expand programming in their own schools.
There were 376 guest at this year’s benefit, with tickets going for a minimum of $1,500. Guests had the privilege of eating a multi-course meal prepared by an impressive collection of chefs, curated by restaurateur David Chang, founder of the Momofuku restaurant group.
I’ve never had the pleasure of eating at Chez Panisse, but I did have the honor of meeting Waters prior to the dinner. As we were finishing up our chat, her friend and kindred spirit, Bette Midler, an all-around entertainment legend who founded her own nonprofit to restore city parks, wandered by to grab a few selfies with Waters, and later introduced her as the featured speaker. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Schatz: How has the Edible Schoolyard evolved over the years?
Waters: It’s been 25 years since we started the project in Berkeley, and the idea was always in my mind that there would be a garden classroom and a kitchen classroom. But the cafeteria would be the place where the children would get a sustainable delicious lunch.
Schatz: Why is that lunch so important?
Waters: We even connected that lunch with the academic curriculum, so that you could get credit for eating it. It’s been enormously successful in terms of bringing children back to their senses, back to nature.When they do a math class in the garden, they’re eating the raspberry at the same time. And when they do a history class in the kitchen about China or the Middle East, they might be eating food of that place.
For me, the best way for all of us to address climate [change], to educate our children and feed them the best possible food and teach them the values they need to live on this planet, would be to give them a free sustainable school lunch.
Schatz: How are you making that happen?
Waters: I’m very excited I was honored at the Forbes 400, and I fed a school lunch to all the people present, and the mayor of Stockton [Calif.] came up to me afterwards and said. ‘We are gonna do it in all 53 schools in Stockton.” He had a philanthropist at his side and she said, ‘We’ll help,’ and we started to make a model in California. We want to buy the food directly from the people who take care of the land, we want to give them the money and we want to bring their values in through the cafeteria. That’s the plan.
Schatz: You’ve got quite an impressive program here in New York City.
Waters: It’s wonderful that they’re feeding everybody. I’m hoping to influence them to support the farmer. I want to connect every school with a farmer. That’s where our hope for the climate is. Transportation of food and the way we farm food in this country is a major cost. If we take all the scraps from the schools back to the farms they can regenerate our soil and bring the carbon down.
Schatz: Why do you teach school kids to grow and prepare their own food?
Waters: It’s the best way we can address climate because we’re educating the next generation. It’s more important than it has ever been. After 25 years of Edible Schoolyard, I know one truth: if kids grow it and cook it, they all eat it. If they only grow it, 95% eat it. It’s something that they love, and I know we can let nature be our teacher.
Schatz: Do we need policy changes on a national level?
Waters: We need a systemic change. We need to go from kindergarten to bring the next generation to a different way of thinking, to cherish the value of stewardship and nourishment.. This program, we have a website, and ..there are 6500 schools that have put their information there, not because we solicited them. it’s people understanding the necessity and the pleasure. I call it ‘delicious revolution.’
Schatz: You have quite an amazing crowd here.
Waters: I’m a little intimidated by it.
Schatz: The world of a chef is so rarified. I like that you’ve tried through your organization to make good food accessible to everyone.
Waters: You can’t be an island unto yourself, and I was thinking about great and our last truly democratic institution, the public schools. I was a Montessori teacher. It fit like a glove with edible education, learning by doing, education of the senses. [Marie Montessori] was somebody at the turn of the last century who was worried about sensorial deprivation of children in poor communities. She devised this pedagogy to engage them and it worked. I think we have a sensorially deprived nation because of fast food. People have no idea where their food comes from. I’m just a believer that public education can address our great needs–deliciously.
Schatz: You have a lot of farmers here at the benefit this year.
Waters: I’m excited that they are here. They are my friends, and they need to be at my side. Whenever I’m at an event, I want a farmer and a child.