alice_watersI had the pleasure of talking with Alice Waters, pioneering American chef, author, and the proprietor of Chez Panisse restaurant. A passionate advocate for a food economy that is “good, clean, and fair”, Alice has inspired so many to rethink the way we grow, how we shop and what we eat. I was especially interested to hear from her about her efforts to transform the school lunch program. She is fierce in her determination to bring fresh, wholesome healthy foods into all schools, and sees “democratizing healthy eating” in schools across America as goal number one in the battle to end childhood obesity. (Her words have been edited and condensed):

WG: With the restaurant, Chez Panisse, the Edible School Yard, the Chez Panisse Foundation, with every thing you do, you have been a guiding light, a “true north” if you will in the movement to rethink the way we eat. Playing on this concept, you warn in the foreword to True Food (a book recently published by National Geographic) that “our nation has veered out of true, out of alignment, especially in the ways we grow, buy, eat and think about food” and that “we must cultivate the connection between plate and planet.” If coming into true with our food is a process, what’s the first step?

AW: I think of how I was first influenced. It happened in a farmer’s market. And it happened eating. I think there is a great possibility of going into that farmer’s market in the summer or early fall and finding something and experiencing a taste sensation. It can just be a light bulb going off.

President Clinton was here not to long ago. He’s had real issues with food and what he eats and health problems as a result. When I think of what I wanted to do when he visited, I wanted to feed him a peach. I wanted him to experience a kind of pleasure that is connected with food. Food that is wholesome and seasonal can really, really make that impression. It’s the sensual engagement, the interactive experience that can be self-revelatory.

WG: Last fall, you and I had lunch together here in New York, and you ordered a big juicy hamburger. It was made with pasture-fed beef, of course, but it surprised me nonetheless. What’s your view on America’s love for red meat?

AW: I eat meat, but no meat that isn’t pastured is acceptable, and we probably need to eat a whole lot less. But by choosing to eat only pasture-fed, that encourages you to eat differently: “If I can’t get real meat, I don’t want it.” And since it’s more expensive, you’re inclined to eat less.

WG: Realistically what do you think it will take to get red meat loving Americans to eat less red meat? What is it about red meat that makes us eat so much of it? Is it the fat?

AW: Yes, the fat. Everything tastes better with butter. Meat that has fat in it is tender in a certain way, flavorful in a certain way. It’s hard to deny the flavor quotient there.

WG: Does grass-fed beef have the same amount of fat as grain-fed beef? Does it taste as good?

AW: Grass fed cattle are leaner. But it’s not true that they are less flavorful. You do want to learn how to cook them, because grass-fed is less tender – less fat, less tender. So if you take the tenderloin – I buy that every so often, they cook wonderfully – we salt them a little bit, we put herbs on them, we’ll grill them or pan fry them. They’re tender and I think incredibly flavorful. Once you discover the flavor of a cut like a hanger steak, or short ribs, which are naturally more fatty, you can just cook up something divine.

WG: Can you imagine Americans cutting back on portion size?

AW: We’ve got to. I think the ecological impact is pretty powerful. When you see those animals packed into the feedlot, and you learn about the waste, you begin to see things a bit differently. And then you come to understand why it is more expensive to pasture feed these animals, but why it is so important, and then you accept the smaller portion.

And then you discover other animals that are very flavorful like pigs. We serve very little beef or chicken at the restaurant. We do a lot of pork at the restaurant. And we do lamb (try the recipe: Roast Leg of Lamb). We do a lot of birds and fish.

Editors’ note: Raising pigs on factory farming comes with its own set of environmental and health problems. Get to know what the claims on meat mean using Label Lookup to be sure you are buying pasture fed beef and humane-raised pork from small farms that don’t have the sewage problems. Simple Steps provides a Label Lookup for fish and one for poultry and eggs as well. All these are available on our iPhone app.

WG: Imagine you are in a kitchen with a typical American family coming together after school and work. They are dragging at the end of the day, feeling a bit hassled and there is still homework and housework to be done. They’ve got some heat-and-eat food on their shelves and tired-looking vegetables in the fridge. Take out is sounding pretty tempting right now. How does this family begin to change? What is going to convince them that changing what and how they eat is going to make any difference?

AW: When we are thinking of a way to get engaged, I think baking bread is one of those things (try the recipe: No-Knead Bread). It’s so aromatic, it’s so universally understood. Whenever I am thinking about how to go into a community that doesn’t have a farmer’s market, I think of setting up a wood oven. Because people know that smell, they’re invited in. We want to open the senses.

Even if you don’t succeed in bread, you have succeeded in an aroma, and a hands-on experience…your hands are really in it. And it’s cheap. You don’t have to do anything. Mind you, you should start with a bread that is easier rather than harder. You can make a soda bread in an hour. It’s the hands in it, and bringing people into that process.

WG: Changing people’s eating habits is really not about denial, is it?

AW: I don’t think it ever works to tell people what they can’t eat. They can do it for so long and then they fall off. You have to bring them into a new relationship with food. We can’t have this conversation in the department of the “health and fueling up place.” I believe we have to bring the conversation about food in with an appreciation of the beauty of nature and of agriculture. We have to reconnect with the culture of food. That is how every other country on the planet thinks about food. We are the only ones that have separated this out. It’s just not an everyday pleasure and not thought to be something precious. And that’s the education that we need to have, we need to have this “slow food” education. We need to fall back in love with the beauty of it all.

Unlike the rest of the world, Americans rarely celebrate food, maybe once a year, on Thanksgiving. This may come from our Puritanical roots, I don’t know. Interestingly, I am talking to the people at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia. He loved food and agriculture, was a farmer and quite knowledgeable about wines. They are redoing the restaurant at Monticello. I can’t think of any better way for them to do that than to celebrate the farmer and the farming, and all the things that come from their garden. It would be a celebration of real American food.

WG: Speaking of celebrating food and Thanksgiving, Maira Kalman (in her beautiful Thanksgiving blog post, in which she describes the Edible Schoolyard Project which you conceived) asks whether we can ever achieve a “democracy of healthy eating.” Can you explain what she means?

AW: The idea that we all should have food that is good for us, and delicious, it’s like a bottom line. We should be able to have that in our lives, it should be affordable, delicious and wholesome. I think it should be written into the constitution; it’s the pursuit of happiness.

In her Thanksgiving blog, Maira muses about schools as being the place for the democracy of food to take hold. Why not feed all school children for free? If you give them breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack, you’ve provided them with the majority of calories and good stuff for the entire day. It’s the place where we can end childhood hunger, where we can teach them about empty calories and the real value of wholesome, good food. It’s the place where everybody can learn together. It’s where we need to go.

All the ways that we are trying to bring gardens, set up groceries in poor areas, they are all of a piece, and it’s important but they don’t touch everybody. The schools…they touch all the children, and they are where we must start.

WG: Let’s talk about schools. According to your website, the Chez Panisse Foundation partnered with the Berkeley Unified School District to transform the school lunch program. Inside of three years, and with the help of Ann Cooper (the Lunch Lady), brought on as Director of Nutrition Services for the district, you were able to eliminate nearly all processed foods in the district and introduce fresh and organic foods to the daily menu while remaining within the district’s food service budget. The new Dining Commons at King Middle School now serves as the central kitchen for all 16 schools in the Berkeley Unified School District, providing 8,000 meals per day, made from scratch, with wholesome, fresh and seasonal ingredients. This is an incredible accomplishment and shows the power of your bold idea.

AW: We’ve made an impression, but it is very difficult to make anything really tasty and ripe, when you have such a limited budget. It takes a wizard to do that. Mind you, if we buy food that is local and organic, we are giving money to those farmers who need that money. So whether or not we succeeded on the “taste end”, we have succeeded on the “support end” for the farmers.

But we need to do a curriculum that begins in kindergarten and is completely central to the pedagogy of the school. And we need for the food to be free. Because unless the good food is given for free to every student every day, only the kids who are educated about it will go in and buy anything. The other kids who need it the most will carry their junk around in their backpack, and that’s the sad truth. And even some of the kids who go in and buy something, they have a coke in their backpack. So until we eliminate the discrimination that happens around that, we’ll never succeed.

We have to create criteria for the buying of the food, that’s the bottom line. Then, we need to offer it to every child. Then, we need to tie it to the curriculum, so that when they are eating, they are doing their homework on the nutrition of the place, they are learning the language of the food that is being prepared.

WG: Critics will say this may be possible in Berkeley California, but try making it work in other parts of the country, where the growing season is shorter or where schools are economically strapped. Is there an effort to test the program elsewhere?

AW: We’re bringing the concept to New York City, New Orleans, and to Boys and Girls Clubs. It’s just in a few schools in other parts of the country, and a few clubs, but it’s going to spread.

The vision is complete for all of these places, but they are just getting started. But they are determined to do this and to do it well. They want to serve every child for free, they want to put in a garden and kitchen classr

There is just one school in New Orleans where the program is getting underway, but it’s making a big impression. They are right now putting pressure on their food service person to buy local and organic. In NYC, they’re in the planning phase, but will be breaking ground soon to convert a parking lot into a garden. They pinpointed everything that was most important in our garden here in Berkeley, and in the kitchen, and they figured out how to do that in NYC, plus a whole lot of other things that we hadn’t thought about. That’s the most profound endorsement of what we are doing that I could ever imagine.

WG: Where next?

AW: We’re working to bring it to Washington, DC. A bill has been introduced by the DC City Council, called the Healthy Schools Act and sponsored by Councilwoman Mary Cheh, which would make school meals healthier and more nutritious; increase the amount of local and fresh fruits and vegetables served in schools; increase exercise and physical activity in the schools; as well as promote school gardens, recycling, energy reduction, and other green initiatives. We are part of a coalition of groups, called “DC Schools on the Move,” all working very hard for this. I’m quite hopeful and invite every one of your readers in the DC area to join in supporting this very important effort.

There is also a bill before Congress, the 2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill, which gives USDA authority to set nutritional standards and expand the use of local farm products in the school meal program. We’re very encouraged that the Administration is putting its muscle into getting more money for healthy school lunches. It certainly helps that the First Lady, Michelle Obama, with her Let’s Move! Campaign, has made ending the obesity epidemic in children her number one priority. If we can get Congress to pass this bill this spring, it will affect what the kids are eating at school next fall. Again I am very, very hopeful.

WG: Thanks so much Alice. I so appreciate your taking the time to talk with us this morning.

AW: My pleasure.And thanks to all your readers who are pushing for reform of our school lunch program. It’s desperately needed.

Editors’ note: The Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act bill is now before the Senate. Blanche Lincoln (AK) and Saxby Chambliss (GA) are its main sponsors. The bill’s biggest impact would be felt in schools that offer free or cut-rate meals, by:

* Giving the USDA new powers to set nutritional standards for any food sold on school grounds, particularly junk foods that contribute to obesity.

* Expanding the use of local farm products, organic food and school gardens, and

* Requiring the government to notify schools more quickly about tainted foods.

It also provides the first real increase in funding for child nutrition in 40 years.

However, this measure deserves more funds than the Senate bill currently provides. The White House, encouraged by Michelle Obama, has asked for an additional $10 billion over the next 10 years for child nutrition, more than twice what the Senate version provides. Urge your legislators (your Representative and your Senators) to act promptly on the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization and to provide adequate funding. If we improve what millions of children eat every day at school, we can help battle childhood hunger and obesity and significantly improve their chances for a healthy life. That would be real health care reform.

And for those living in DC, we urge you to make sure your council person votes to enact The Healthy Schools Act. The vote is set for Tuesday May 4th so let them know now how important this is. It stands to improve the health, wellness, and nutrition of the districts 75,000 public and charter school students – who have the highest rate of adolescent obesity in the nation. In some parts of the city, half of the children are overweight or obese.

Article provided by: Simple Steps.org