Chef, Author, Community Activist (1944— )
To Alice Waters, food is not a necessity to sustain life. Nor is it just a profession for this award-winning chef. Food represents an integral part of our civilization, a part Waters fears is disappearing in a culture of fast, junk food consumerism.
Alice Waters earned a degree in French Cultural Studies in 1967 at the University of California—Berkeley. However, it was in 1965, when Waters spent time studying abroad in Paris, that she discovered a natural connection between people and the food they ate and developed a passion for food herself. She saw that “there is an intimate connection between food and the quality of one’s life.” Waters brought that knowledge back to California and in 1971 opened her restaurant Chez Panisse. In the eighties she opened Café Fanny, named for her daughter.
The focus in her restaurant is on using only the freshest food available to create the changing daily menus. This translates into using whatever produce is in season and relying on venues like local farmer’s markets for supplies. Waters firmly supports establishing small, sustainable communities—where people buy from local farmers to help keep them in business, and have the freshest, healthiest food available to them in return. Food everyone can prepare and eat together while sitting around a table. In looking around her at the way people eat, Alice Waters is convinced that the fast food culture is not only nutritionally unhealthy, but is destroying our sense of community with one another. Where once we sat down with friends and family and interacted with them over a meal, we now are apt to grab a packaged meal on our own and on the run. As she says, “We must value and respect each other, and we learn best how to do this at the table. And since the family meal has become more and more rare, we must start thinking about what the schools can do to teach these lessons.”
With these concerns in mind, Waters helped develop the Edible Schoolyard program in 1994 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. Using a vacant lot adjacent to the school, a literally edible classroom was created. The grounds were cleared, a garden was planted, and all of the students began having lessons in gardening and cooking. In Waters’ view, “From the garden, and the kitchen, and the table, you learn empathy—for each other and for all of creation; you learn compassion; and you learn patience and self-discipline.” She wanted children to slow down, to learn where food really comes from, and to take pride in having a hand in the whole process. As a bonus, the children would want to prepare and eat what they’ve grown—eating healthier in the process and helping to combat the alarming obesity problem in this country.
The Edible Schoolyard Program has worked so well that it has been adopted in other school systems across the country. The King School has expanded its garden and even added chickens into the mix. Most importantly, every student helps with all of the work, and healthy meals are always the order of the day.