RECONNECTING: A CULINARY REVOLUTION - A Speech by Alice Waters
Few things could be considered more important than the food that we eat everyday. What we eat, where our food comes from and how it is prepared is critical to so many aspects of our lives. Alice Waters understands the power of food and as a result she has magnified the urgency of eating consciously by identifying the relationships between how the food that we eat and the quality of our lives.
Whether we live well or not has everything to do with what we are putting into our bodies and this is the inspiration behind Alice Waters and her culinary revolution to inspire us to think before we eat.
Founder, Chez Panisse and The Edible Schoolyard
Thank you very much. I first have to say that I didn't study culinary pursuits at the Montessori School in London. I was learning about early childhood education there in London.
I actually learned about food by living in France when I was 19, and I wanted to eat like that and live like that.
So I have come a long way since then, but I want to talk to you today about something that I call "a delicious revolution" and it's about the choices that we make about food.
Why am I so convinced that making the right choices about food are the most important choices that we make?
Well, I'm going to tell you a little story. I went to New York last summer and I went to the Museum of Natural History with an old friend of mine. I had had a couple of wonderful meals and I was walking across Central Park and seeing everyone out there rollerblading and having picnics and having a good time.
Then I went into the museum, which is such a monumental piece of Romanesque Revival Architecture. And I remembered what it had been like when I had gone there as a little child, and I felt uplifted by the soaring spaces, and I was inspired by the Dioramas celebrating the natural sciences and the family of man.
The museum still feels a lot like that. It's almost as if it was a sacred space. All those animals, all those activities of so many different people hunting, gathering, fashioning sheltering, clothing and so many dwellings.
There were igloos and yurts and huts and pavilions and tea rooms and palaces - the whole world on display. Native American canoes and totem poles, Japanese ceramics and textiles, African masks and musical instruments, and there were Dioramas in displays and plates and tableware of all different kinds - activities centered around food and cooking and the hearth.
And there were exhibits of agriculture down through the ages and it was so wonderful to see it all again, how everything was so celebrated and revered.
And then we came to this brand new exhibit about contemporary environmental disaster - the destruction of the rainforest. It was a very impressive, high-tech exhibit with lots of grass and statistics.
In 1996, Alice Waters, pioneering cook, restaurateur and food activist, created the Chez Panisse Foundation in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. The Foundation supports an educational program that uses food to nurture, educate and empower youth.
The Foundation envisions a nationwide public school curriculum at all levels that includes hands-on experiences in school kitchens, gardens, and lunchrooms. This curriculum will inspire students to choose healthy food and help them understand the impact of their choices on their health, the health of their communities, and the planet.
In addition, we envision public school systems providing delicious, healthy, freshly prepared meals for all of their students as a regular part of each school day-in lunchrooms that appeal to all the senses and are ecologically designed. To create real change in students' eating habits, we must rethink their education and experiences with food, beginning with their experiences in school.
The Challenge Our mass consumer culture has created an unprecedented crisis of diet related disease among our nation's youth. The fast-food industry dominates school lunch programs, serving highly processed high-fat foods. The shared family meal, where children have traditionally been nourished, is now a rare experience for most kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as a result of diabetes and obesity, this generation may be the first to die younger than its parents.
Not only are children eating unhealthy food, they are absorbing the values that go with it: the notions that food should be fast, cheap and easy; that abundance is permanent; that it doesn't matter where food comes from; and that it's ok to waste. While we did not begin our work with the obesity epidemic in mind, comprehensive programs such as ours are an effective way to reach children, especially those at greatest risk.
Over the past ten years, we have worked to establish groundbreaking models in the Berkeley Unified School District: the Edible Schoolyard and the School Lunch Initiative. Learn more about our work.
It was about biodiversity and it showed the number of square miles destroyed everyday. And here was an exhibit that wasn't about the past, but about the survival of the planet - something that's happening right now.
But then we walked into the museum cafeteria and suddenly everything changed. There was a crowd of people in a sort of sunken space, badly lit and it seemed like some other kind of exhibit, a display, a vast Diorama of late-20th-century life.
And then it hit us - that steamy, industrial, waterlogged, hospital food smell. You know that smell. We've all smelled it. The one where you immediately imagine how pre-cooked, portion-controlled plastic pouches are being cooked and microwaved and then opened and slit onto trays. I had to leave.
Yet this was how the people in this place were choosing to feed themselves. It was an overwhelming moment. This is the way things really are--here where all these people in this magnificent space, surrounded by exhibits of biological and cultural splendor, celebrating all aspects of being human and being alive.
But when it came to this other aspect of their experience--their real, everyday experience--they seemed to just stop thinking. And that cafeteria could have made you think and could have delighted your senses.
It could have been a kind of continuation of the environmental lessons of the rainforest exhibit and the biological and anthropological lessons of other exhibits. It could have been serving delicious food made in a way that taught you where food came from and how it was made.
You could have learned about composting and recycling. It could have been set up so that at least you could have had some friendly interaction, and it could have inspired you to head out of the museum and see the world in a different way. But instead, it was like a filling station.
And I was struck again by the fact that until we see how we feed ourselves as just as important and maybe more important than all the other activities of mankind, there is going to be a huge hole in our environmental consciousness.
Because if we don't care about food, then environmentalism will always be something sort of outside of ourselves. And yet, environmentalism can be something that actually affects you in the most intimate and sort of visceral way.
It can be something that gets inside you and you digest it. Why is it that people don't understand the profound disconnection between the kind of human experience that we value so highly and put on display in ethnographic museums and the way that we actually live today?
How can most people submit so unthinkingly to dehumanizing experiences of food, not only in museum cafeterias, but the lifeless fast food that's everywhere in our lives.
How can you marvel at the world and then feed yourself in a completely unmarvelous way?
I think it's because we don't learn the vital relationship of food to agriculture and of food to culture and how food affects the quality of our everyday lives. To me, food is the one central thing about human experience that can open up both our senses and our consciousness to our place in the world.
Consider this: eating is something we all have in common. It's something we all do two to three times a day, and it's something we all share. Food and nourishment are right at the point where human rights and the environment intersect.
Everyone should have the right to wholesome, affordable food. What could be a more delicious revolution than to start committing our best resources to teaching this to children by feeding them and by giving them pleasure - by teaching them how to grow food responsibly, and by teaching them how to cook it and how to eat it together around a table?
When you start to open up a child's senses, when you invite children to engage physically and involve them in the gardening and food, there's a set of values that's instilled effortlessly.
It just sort of washes over them as part of the process of offering good food to other people. Children become so wrapped, so enraptured by being engaged in learning in a sensual and kinesthetic way, and food seduces you by its very nature.
The smell of baking for example, it makes you hungry and the smell of garlic in this room makes you hungry. Who could resist the aroma of fresh bread or the smell of a warm tortilla coming off the comal. There's nothing else as universal. There's nothing else so powerful.
I think if you really start caring about the world this way, you see opportunities everywhere. Wherever I am, I'm always looking to see what's edible out there in the landscape. It may seem like sort of a trivial example, but every time I see that median strip out in front of Chez Panisse, I can't help but imagine it being planted with waving rows of corn.
I see garbage in an entirely different way too. Every little scrap can be turned into beautiful, rich soil.
At the restaurant a couple years ago, the compost buckets must have been looking particularly beautiful because on April Fool's Day, one of the local radio stations advertised that Chez Panisse was serving compost croutons. And people actually called to ask for the recipe.
I do look at them sometimes and think "Ugh!" Fortunately, it goes at the restaurant, back into the garden that we are connected with, and then we get the vegetables into the restaurant.
Now I see nature not only as a source of spiritual inspiration with beautiful sunsets and beautiful purple mountains' majesties, but as a source of my physical nourishment.
And I've come to realize that I'm totally dependent on it in all of its beauty and richness, and that my survival depends on it.
In order for there to be a future to the environmental movement, we must teach our children that taking care of the land and learning to feed yourself is just as important as reading and writing and arithmetic.
For the most part, our families and institutions are not doing this. Remember the cafeteria and the museum?
Therefore, I believe that it's up to the public education system to teach our kids these important values.
There should be gardens in every school and school lunch programs that serve kids things that they grow themselves, of course, supplemented by local, organically grown products. But this could transform education and agriculture at the same time.
At a typical school like King School where I work, there are a thousand kids there and for one meal, they need 250 pounds of potatoes. For one meal. Imagine the impact of this kind on the demand for organic food. Just imagine what could happen...
Which brings me to The Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. It is a public school program and I helped to start it six years ago. Everything that's happened at The Edible Schoolyard has convinced me that we're on the right track lobbying for this kind of education in ecoliteracy. It works.
The students at King are so hungry and they learn the best lessons of the garden quickly and unforgettably. They're hungry not only for the food, but they're hungry for the attention and the care that's given to them around the table. But there's nothing new about these lessons.
In a pamphlet published in 1909, a California educator argued for a garden in every school. "School gardens," he wrote, "will teach students that actions have consequences, that private citizens should take care of public property, that labor has dignity, that nature is beautiful. And they teach economy, honesty, application, concentration, and justice. They teach what it means to be civilized."
I've seen all this happen at King. I've seen the kids sitting around the picnic tables in the schoolyard, eating salads they've grown themselves with the most polite manners.
And they want these rituals of the table. They like them. I've seen troubled kids given a second chance and allowed to work in the garden to be transformed by the experience--so much so, that when they go to another school, they come back to King in the summer and they become mentors for the students.
Right now though, there's no cafeteria at King School. We have a kitchen classroom and a garden classroom. But at lunchtime, the only option for the kids is a concession stand that's run by fast food vendors. And that's what happening in all the schools around this country.
What we want to do next, though, is to build this cafeteria - this ecologically designed cafeteria, where the messages we are trying to get across will be reinforced everyday through the experience of working in a beautiful place, a really beautiful place.
I imagine a wonderful kitchen with an especially beautiful dishwashing area. And maybe an orangery and greenhouses that are connected and warmed by the ovens and maybe a fireplace in the center.
And when this is finished we would hope to gather volunteers from the community to help with the shelling of the peas or the fava beans or just being part of the whole project of feeding these kids.
And we'd expect to see the kids involved in the whole process because it is their participation that gives them the investment, the interest in eating the food.
The Edible Schoolyard--with its garden and its kitchen curriculum and a school lunch program built around it--could then be a model for teaching in every single school in this country.
It is a truism of progressive thought that communities are created through interactions like these. But it is nevertheless true.
You can't just ask people to be responsible for one another. You have to create the circumstances where it is clear that it is in their very best interest to do so.
The Edible Schoolyard creates that kind of clarity, and its potential lies in the multiplication of these epiphanies of responsibility two or three times a day right there in the school. The closeness, the understanding of life that comes from the experience at the table - this is what environmentalism must have at its very core.
And it is through the development of the commitment to food that the values of the environmental movement in this nation can be most effectively advanced.
Wendell Berry has written that eating is an agricultural act. I would like to go further and say that eating is also a political act, but in a way that the ancient Greeks used that word "political"not just to mean having to do with voting in an election, but to mean of or pertaining to all of our interactions with other people - from the family, to the school, to the neighborhood, to the nation, to the world.
Every single choice we make about food matters at every level. The right choice saves the world. Thank you.
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