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An Interview with Alice Waters: Crusader for a Better School Lunch

Alice Waters, the culinary visionary who opened Berkeley, California's famed Chez Panisse restaurant over 30 years ago, is also an activist for healthy eating and education in our nation's schools. For years she has been involved in the development of an edible garden and kitchen classroom at Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School in Berkeley. This project, the Edible Schoolyard, get kids involved in planting, gardening, harvesting, cooking and eating, with the goal of creating a connection between food and caring for the planet.

Alice is now going a step further. She recently presented a proposal to the Berkeley school board to create a school lunch curriculum. The plan would create a dining commons at King that would serve students breakfast, lunch and a snack from local organic ingredients. Alice's goal is to set an example of how all Americans should eat—not simply those wealthy enough to afford it. We caught up with Alice at her restaurant to get to the heart of what fuels her passion.

FoodFit   What has been the biggest challenge in trying to change students' eating behaviors at Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School?
 

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ALICE WATERS:   Changing the culture of the school so that it can embrace the ideas that we put forth. We want to make school lunch an academic subject. Take it out of the fast food zone and breathe eco-gastronomic life into it. We want to make food interactive and hands on, from the kitchen to the garden, to the dining room. Kids need to become engaged in a sensory way.
 

FoodFit   What are the most important values or principles that children should learn about food in school?

ALICE WATERS:

  Where the food comes from—sustainability. Nourishment and communication at the table. That's where we talk about ideas and communicate our culture.
 

FoodFit   So many schools have shortened their lunchtime to 10 or 15 minutes, barely giving kids enough time to wolf down their food. What do you think is the appropriate amount of time for kids to eat?

ALICE WATERS:

  They need an hour and that's what we're proposing at King. The kids could also have another hour that's related to the whole eating experience in another class. They might be in the garden classroom, or spend time talking about food in a history course, or working in the kitchen.
 

FoodFit   How could the federal school lunch program be changed to be healthier?

ALICE WATERS:

  Very simply, schools could buy from local, organic sources. They could take out Coke machines and bring people in who know and care about cooking [to work in food service]. The real issue is changing eating habits and the only way that works is through education. The food has to be inviting and accessible and has to be for every child. Lunch needs to be compulsory. It's the kids who don't come to the lunchroom who need it the most. We need a school lunch curriculum.
 

FoodFit   Did your own daughter, Fanny, ever have any food dislikes as a kid? How did you get her to move past them?
ALICE WATERS:   Not so many. She was picky at times, but she was a pretty good eater. You need to engage kids in a delicious experience to get them to eat. Don't tell them what they shouldn't eat, but offer them new and interesting things to try. They will eat if they are involved in the preparation, serving and growing of food. It gives them a sense of pride.
 

FoodFit   What motivates you to keep working towards a goal that may seem far-reaching at times?
ALICE WATERS:   It just terribly worries me what is going on in the world. I see this as the path to peace, the path to the beauty of our culture. What we're doing addresses issues concerning the quality of life. Good health is the end result. It's the evidence. Food is an everyday experience we can connect to a set of values.
 

FoodFit   You worked with our CEO, Ellen Haas, when she was Undersecretary of Agriculture during the Clinton Administration. You and Ellen worked closely to bring about changes to the school lunch program so that kids had healthier meals. How do you think Ellen and FoodFit are making a contribution today towards healthier, delicious eating?
ALICE WATERS:   You have an education program that's a big, important piece. FoodFit is making seasonal recipes accessible to people and what you're doing feeds into the bigger picture. It creates a climate for change.
 

FoodFit   How can parents and other community-minded people get involved?
ALICE WATERS:   They have to go into the schools and see what's going on. Work with the PTA and revitalize them. Make it apparent to school boards that they need to see real food in schools.
 

FoodFit   You'll be receiving the prestigious James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award this year, which is an incredible accomplishment. At this point in your life, do you feel you've achieved everything you've strived for? Do you think you'll ever feel like you've done enough?
ALICE WATERS:   Probably not. I'm just about to begin what's really important to me—changing the pedagogy in the school through school lunch curriculum. The program we'll be putting in place in Berkeley will be a great model for the country if it works.
 

FoodFit   You've been recognized by every culinary organization for your work at Chez Panisse, as well as your work with the Edible Schoolyard. What would be the biggest personal and professional honor for you?
ALICE WATERS:   If the curriculum we're presenting to Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School is accepted by public schools in Berkeley, that would be amazing. If it were accepted in the state of California, that would be incredible and if it were used nationwide, that would just be phenomenal. That would be incredibly satisfying to me. That would be amazing. I'm going to give it 10 years to work in Berkeley.
 

— Frances Largeman
 

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