TURIN, Italy – Alice Waters has been a pioneer of the local, organic and sustainable food movement since the 1970s, first through her world-renowned restaurant, Chez Panisse, which has been serving locally sourced food for nearly 40 years, then through her Edible Schoolyard project, which began bringing healthy, organic cooking to public schools back in 1995. Waters is now the vice president of Slow Food International, an organization dedicated to preserving local food culture and protecting the environment. Need to Know’s Lauren Feeney caught up with Waters at Terra Madre, the biannual meeting of the Slow Food movement, held in Turin, Italy.
Lauren Feeney: How would you define slow food?
Alice Waters: I came to all the realizations about sustainability and biodiversity because I fell in love with the way food tastes. That was it. And because I was looking for that taste I feel at the doorsteps of the organic, local, sustainable farmers, dairy people and fisherman.
Feeney: So you think that kind of food tastes best?
Waters: It does! I mean, not necessarily. It depends on what variety is planted and where, how it’s raised, when it’s picked and slaughtered. So there are all these variables, and sometimes the organic farmers don’t pick when it’s ripe and some of the conventional farmers do. But when you’re really considering all the qualities of food, purity is right there at the top of the list. I’m unwilling to eat food that has been adulterated.
Feeney: Some people hear the term “slow food” and they think truffle oil and aged cheeses. Can you talk about how the movement has evolved and where it’s going?
Waters: People in our country cooked with a certain integrity before fast food, 50 or 60 years ago. But when the cheap food arrived, and we didn’t have the education and deep cultural roots to hold on, we got swept away by fast, cheap and easy. And this movement, in my mind, is sort of bringing us back to our senses, bringing us back to the earth, understanding where our food comes from, understanding what it means to cook something simply, for your family and friends.
Feeney: Do you believe that food should cost more?
Waters: I do feel like food should cost more, because we aren’t paying farmers a living wage. It has to cost more. Even to arrive at the right price for conventionally priced food we have to pay more. But if we want organic food, if we want people to really care about nourishment and to take care of the land, we have to pay more for our food. And every country in the world pays more for its food. It’s simply that we don’t value food. We don’t think of it as something precious and the people who grow it as indispensable. I think the biggest impediment to fixing the food system in the United States is that we expect food to be cheap. We want to by other things with our money. We’re so disconnected from agriculture – from the culture in agriculture.
Feeney: What about the flip side – the families struggling to make ends meet. If food is more expensive, how do they access the kind of healthy, organic food you value so much?
Waters: Well that’s why I want to go to the public school system. I believe there should be breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack, all for free and for every child that goes to school. And all food that is good, clean and fair. It’s unfair to charge for food in schools, especially to charge for food that is making children sick.
Feeney: Can you tell us about your Edible School project in Berkeley and the results that were just published?
Waters: Well I’ve been involved in a project at Martin Luther King Middle School for the last 15 years. It’s a very good test case for a curriculum of ecology and gastronomy. I didn’t want just a garden, or just an upgrade to the cafeteria. I wanted the whole system, from garden to kitchen to table, so that we could teach kids the values of stewardship, communication, what we need to live together on the planet. And very happily, the kids responded.
We commissioned a study to be done by the U.C. Berkeley weight and health center and they really proved what we kind of knew from common sense, that when kids are engaged in a hands-on way with food, they end up eating more fruits and vegetables. So I feel very validated.
It is a program that could completely stimulate organic farming, because if the schools bought directly from the farms, we could pay the right price for food. At the same time it’s kind of a stimulus package to the parents who won’t have to worry about the nourishment of their kids while they’re at school. And ultimately it’s a way to teach the values that we’re going to need for our survival on the planet.
Feeney: Berkeley is a pretty unique place – how do you replicate this on a larger scale?
Waters: We just became an affiliate at an edible school in Brooklyn, N.Y., and we also have one in New Orleans, two in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco and one in North Carolina, all of them sort of strategically chosen for the different climates, different urban environments, because we wanted to demonstrate the universality of this idea.
Feeney: What is the next frontier? What about bringing sustainable food to hospitals or corner stores?
Waters: Well I’m just beginning at the beginning. We have to teach these values to every child who lives in this country. Of course, we need to simultaneously address institutional cooking and corner stores, but I’m betting that when children are brought up in this way, they will not only teach their parents, but when they grow up, they’ll decide to spend their money differently. I see it happening already. So it seems to me you have to begin in the public school system – our last truly democratic institution. We all go there. And if you can touch each child at an early age, you can change what they eat.
Feeney: Do you really think our entire public school system can change, or will we just have these isolated, wonderful little schools that only serve a select few?
Waters: I believe that it can really change. I use the example of when President Kennedy helped make physical education part of the core curriculum at every school in this country. Now, the federal government didn’t spend money on that exactly, they just used all their agencies and all the power of the president to encourage schools to incorporate physical education and make it a subject that every child has to take and get graded on. We built gymnasiums and hired teachers and made it an every day activity. So I see eco-gastronomy coming into the public schools in that way. I’m looking to the people in this country who have deep powers of persuasion to make this the number one priority in the country. There are a lot of serious problems that push us in this direction: the environment, childhood hunger, our crumbling school system, the health of the nation. Everything is conspiring, and we need to find a delicious solution.
Right now, the cafeteria door is wide open.