A Better Way To Eat?

Alice Waters and the Slow Food movement are bringing edible education to a school near you.

Alice Waters at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California. Photo by Hannah Johnson.

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Noted chef and author, Alice Waters is leader of a movement to change how Americans eat. (Photo by David Liittschwager)
Noted chef and author, Alice Waters is leader of a movement to change how Americans eat. (Photo by David Liittschwager)

If you’ve noticed better bread at your grocery store, a farmers market where there wasn’t one before, and artisan coffee roasters popping up everywhere you look in recent years, you probably have Alice Waters and the Slow Food movement to thank. Waters, who in 1971 opened the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California—an homage to the simple, seasonal fare she discovered as a young woman in France—is often credited as the mother of sustainable food in the United States. Slow Food, an organization that began in 1986 as the concept of one zealous Italian man—Carlo Petrini—now has members in 160 countries and 225 chapters in the U.S., all committed to food that is “good, clean, and fair.”

Organically grown, locally sourced, and artisan-made foods taste wonderful, but Waters and the Slow Food movement are concerned not only with flavor, but with the health benefits and political implications of what we eat. As a result they have turned to what are called “SLO” foods (for seasonal, local, organic). “It’s not just thinking about what we’re eating,” says Waters. “We have to begin to question where it comes from, how it was grown. That’s the way we can make decisions that are good for ourselves, for our health, for the agriculture, and for our culture.”

Waters and Petrini, who joined forces in 2003 when Waters became vice president of Slow Food International, encourage the sensual enjoyment of eating. Petrini wrote of “a firm defense of quiet, material pleasure,” in Slow Food’s founding manifesto, and Waters’ efforts have been dubbed “the delicious revolution.” Indeed, the appeal of intensely flavored, farm-fresh, whole foods is Waters’ most effective tool in converting doubters who frequently level charges of elitism against the soft-voiced, delicately boned 68-year-old. Waters’ small stature should never be correlated with her might though. In 1995 she set her sights on a barren concrete schoolyard in her neighborhood and decided it was time to bring her message of mindful eating to those who needed it most: children. With the support of the principal at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, along with the Center for Ecoliteracy, the Edible Schoolyard was born. Today, its model of a school garden and kitchen curriculum is replicated nationwide, including at six “Founding Edible Schoolyards” in such locations as New Orleans and Brooklyn. “The reason I want to go in the public school system is so that we can reach every single child,” says Waters. “This is an incredible way to educate the population of America, whether they have money or whether they don’t.”

At the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, head chef and teacher Esther Cook and director and AmeriCorps grad Kyle Cornforth are among the staff that lead children in lessons that integrate food into the academic curriculum. For instance, eighth graders study the mathematical concepts of percentages and concentration while preparing apple and carrot salad with sesame oil dressing. At the end of kitchen sessions, students sit around a table and enjoy their creations. Students in the program also have a chance to get physically active in the garden through such tasks as weeding and turning compost.

The goal of the program is to educate children so they understand the impact food has on personal health, health of the environment, and health of the community. In an age of increased childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes in pre-adolescents, programs like the Edible Schoolyard are seen as part of a larger public health effort to improve the eating habits of youth. Cornforth says that visits to the yard by leaders in the medical community have increased recently. But Edible Schoolyard teachers are careful never to lecture students directly about what to eat.

Slow Food pioneer Alice Waters (left) works with students at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Hannah Johnson)
Slow Food pioneer Alice Waters (left) works with students at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Hannah Johnson)

“We’re increasing their awareness and interaction with fruits and vegetables,” says Cornforth. “We encourage positive behavior through group activities, fun activities. There might be 10 kids working together to prepare a green salad. They are working together to make the salad, but also doing their individual tasks. Kids have their own aha moments. We let that happen on its own.” Waters describes this approach as “an education of the senses,” and in the 17 years since the program started, staff say they’ve seen children “come alive.” A youngster who might not excel academically turns out gifted in the kitchen and earns new respect in the eyes of his peers. Other positive outcomes were backed up with numbers by a 2010 study by the Atkins Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkeley. The study, commissioned by the Chez Panisse Foundation, found higher rates of fruit and vegetable consumption and increased nutritional knowledge among children who had participated in the curriculum versus those who had not.

Studies aside, Waters says that when people visit the garden “it feels as right as rain; it feels like every school should have this.” Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel couldn’t agree more. “We believe every child has the right to grow up knowing where food comes from, and to have a basic understanding of how to grow, prepare, and share it,” says Viertel. Slow Food in Schools is building school gardens, teaching cooking classes, and getting whole foods from school gardens and local farmers to school cafeterias. The group recently helped establish gardens, from-scratch cooking, and farmers markets at 60 percent of the public schools in the Denver area. In Miami, Slow Food set a goal to create 44 gardens in 44 days and ended up planting 63. “We are working to build more school gardens than McDonald’s has franchises,” says Viertel.

Most importantly, those working directly with kids in such gardens say they see how much students gain intellectually and emotionally from them. “There’s no 100 percent sustainable way to be on the planet,” says Cornforth, “but understanding how their choices affect things is very important. They start to see that there are trade-offs. They start to see the consequences of their choices.”

When it comes to raising children’s consciousness around food and combating childhood obesity, it turns out the carrot is the stick. And if Waters, Petrini, and company have their way, children will be savoring every crunchy orange, yellow, or purple heirloom bite.

[See Page 2 for recipes.]

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