Alice Waters wants you to ask more questions before you take your next bite of food.
In a society that’s increasingly “at the mercy of fast food culture,” we need to demand transparency about what we eat, said Waters, a world-renowned chef, author, activist and owner of the 46-year-old Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California.
When we go to a restaurant or eat prepared food, Waters wants everyone to ask: Where is this food from? Who grew it? How does the grower or producer define terms that might be important to us, like “grass-fed” or “cage-free”? And if answers are not forthcoming, she said, then we need to bypass prepared foods entirely and do more cooking ourselves.
“We are not only what we eat but how we eat,” she said.
Many of us are used to thinking about the ties between what and how much we eat and our health, but Waters believes we need to think more broadly. She is concerned with the entire chain of production — from soil to sit-down dinner. It’s not just a question of fixing our health and using diet as preventive medicine, as important as those are. For Waters, it’s a question of fixing everything.
The conversation is taking place “within the medicine world rather than in the place of culture and agriculture, and I think those need to be emphasized,” she said. “The real health begins in the ground.”
This week, Waters will travel from Berkeley to Seattle to give the keynote speech at Sunday’s Premier Chefs Dinner, a Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center fundraising event that brings together Northwest celebrity chefs and wineries for an elaborate four-course meal. Now in its 26th year, the event has raised more than $7.7 million to support Fred Hutch research.
This year, the focus of the fundraising event matches closely with Waters’ lifelong passion — disease prevention. Although the public health researchers at Fred Hutch take a different tack, their ultimate goal is the same as Waters’: to improve our health by preventing disease before it starts.
In her speech Sunday, Waters will also talk about a project near and dear to her heart: the Edible Schoolyard Project, a gardening and healthy eating education curriculum she started in a Berkeley middle school more than 20 years ago and which has since spread to thousands of other schools around the world. For Waters, this kind of approach should be at the core of human health.
“We can learn when we’re in kindergarten,” she said. “We don’t have to wait until we get sick.”
The Edible Schoolyard Project got its start through a merging of events in Waters’ life. She’d been running Chez Panisse for 12 years when she had her daughter, Fanny. Waters was already championing the approach to organic, local eating that has since spawned the burgeoning farm-to-table movement, but becoming a parent made her think even more deeply about what the future of American cuisine and eating would look like as her daughter grew up.
And then one day Waters got a call from the San Francisco County Jail. Cathrine Sneed, an attorney, had founded a gardening program for the inmates and wanted to know if Waters would buy their produce for her restaurant. Waters said of course she would, if it was up to her specifications, and Sneed asked if she would come meet the inmates. Waters didn’t really want to go out, she said, but Sneed talked her into it. When she got there, Sneed asked the inmates if some of them would talk to the chef about their work in the garden.
“And this one kid raises his hand,” Waters said. “He says, ‘I shouldn’t be saying anything because it’s my first day in the garden, but it’s the best day of my life.’”
That visit opened her eyes, Waters said. She saw how growing food “could be transformational. And I said, ‘If you can do it in a jail, you can do it in a school.’”
After that, she approached the principal of a Berkeley school near Chez Panisse, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, with an idea for a farm-to-school project similar to what she’d seen at the jail.
“I thought about public education and how it’s our last truly democratic institution,” Waters said. “We have an opportunity to reach every child in school, and that’s an amazing thing.”
To teach her own daughter about food, Waters had drawn on her past training in Montessori education, which emphasizes hands-on learning. She just let Fanny roam free in their vegetable garden, she said, letting her explore what she wanted. Her daughter loved foraging for green beans, peas, and strawberries, and later grew to espouse many of her mother’s approaches to cooking and cuisine. Waters found the same principles to be true on a larger scale, with the older children she worked with at the middle school.
“The big lesson from the edible schoolyard is, if you grow it and you cook it, you eat it, and that’s without exception,” she said. “If they grow it and they cook it, they eat it. … No matter what it is. They’re that invested; they’re that empowered.”
What she and her fellow activists and educators have built in the years since ties together many aspects of Waters’ personality and background: the Montessori school teacher, the chef, the organic and local food advocate, the mother.
Students who participate in the Edible Schoolyard Project not only learn about organic gardening, they learn about cooking, healthy eating, slow food, diverse cultures, and nutrition around the world, Waters said. Just as she thinks what we eat should be part of a healthy, nourishing web that connects earth to farmer to consumer, so too is the schoolyard project vision integrated through the children’s school experience.
“We can teach about nutritious foods around the world and learn about different cultures as part of our school lunch program,” Waters said. “We can discover it all together as a state or as a nation and really embrace the diversity and the biodiversity.”
Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.