Alice Water: Chef and Healthy School Lunch Crusader

06/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I 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.

Today, with a health crisis in America that is the result of horrible eating habits, I wanted her to consider with me what it really will take to change the way Americans eat and how to start the conversation with our families and ourselves. We talk as well about meat and how it might fit in a healthy, planet-friendly diet. And finally we look at what is most needed, a system-wide course change in what we feed our kids at school -- and the steps that many, including many schools and school districts as well some cities and even our federal government, are taking. 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.

Here are excerpts from our conversation which can be read in its entirety here.

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: 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: 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

WG: Where next?

AW: We're working to bring it to Washington, D.C. 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.