Healthy Kids : Green Chef: Alice Waters

A culinary and environmental visionary, Alice Waters is a pioneer of the notion that cooking should be based on the freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally. The proprietor and executive chef of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, Alice is also the founder of the Edible Schoolyard, an innovative program created to transform public education by using sustainably grown food to teach, nurture, and empower children of all ages.

When they hear the term green chef, many culinary-conscious people instantly think of Alice Waters. Little wonder. This iconic chef, restaurateur, author, and activist has dedicated her life to advocating for an environmentally sustainable food economy that is healthful, delicious, and accessible for all. In a world of genetic modification, ecologically harmful farming practices, nutritionally bankrupt convenience foods, and inner city “food deserts,” Alice provides hope.

A remarkable culinary pioneer, Alice has created a profound template for our future—and the future of our children. It can be found at the Edible Schoolyard, a place where students of all ages aren’t just taught about growing healthy and sustainable crops, they actually plant, raise, and harvest them right on their school grounds. With such a program in cities across the United States, public school students will graduate into the world with firsthand knowledge of sustainable agriculture—and what it means to share tasty, nutritious meals at the table with friends and family.

“I’ve seen it myself. When kids grow food themselves and then cook it, they all want to eat it,” says Alice. “It could be anything from kale and garlic to little salads or chickpeas. They feel empowered by the circumstances of it. They like the taste and they like serving their friends. That’s a truth I have discovered:
If you engage children in a positive way and if you make them something delicious that comes with care, then they want that.”

The Edible Schoolyard program has become Alice’s top priority in a life filled with many amazing accomplishments. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, is legendary for having set the standard for California Cuisine. It is so renowned that President Bill Clinton, when he was in office, once dropped by for dinner with a large contingent of Secret Service agents. But Chez Panisse is only part of a larger mission. Through numerous television appearances, articles, and books, as well as in her capacity as an international governor of the Slow Food movement, Alice has been at the forefront of efforts to bring the world back to a table at which completely natural, locally grown ingredients are served.

The Edible Schoolyard Program
The Edible Schoolyard began in 1996 when Alice, driving daily between her restaurant and her Berkeley home, noticed Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, which she describes as “a rundown collection of sad old concrete buildings with peeling paint and a hard blacktop playground. Countless windows lay broken with no money to fix them, and the few lawns grew long and wild in the rainy season and then died to a dried yellow in summer.”

Around that same time, as she conducted an interview with a journalist visiting her restaurant, she brought up the idea of using vacant lots and other unused land as places for growing crops. She pointed out the local school as an example of how not to use land. A few days after the article appeared, she received a handwritten note from the school’s principal. He agreed with much of what she had said and invited her to the school to perhaps find a way to help.

Alice went for the visit and during her tour she verbally envisioned a garden where students could grow and harvest wholesome food. She also had the idea that the school could open up a new kitchen in order to teach the students how to cook the food they were growing, and even establish a cafeteria for sharing it with their classmates. Leftovers could be recycled right back into the soil as compost.

The principal’s first reaction was to laugh out loud. But when he realized that Alice was quite serious—and when she volunteered to help with the project—the principal set forth to get the concept through a resistant school board and parent-teacher association.

The principal succeeded and, one by one, barriers to the project were knocked down. The project grew and grew. Local farmers, including suppliers to Chez Panisse, donated trees and crops. Landscape architects and gardeners pitched in as well.

The account of how the garden was eventually created—and how the school and then the entire community pulled together to bring it all about—is an amazing story detailed in Alice Waters’ book The Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea. To this day that garden continues, staffed year after year by students coming up through the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. Alice’s vision has come true in its entirety: Food from the garden is prepared in a special kitchen and served to the student body, who seem to never get enough of it.

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