About 15 years ago, I sat down to lunch with Alice Waters at her restaurant Chez Panisse on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Afterward, we took a short drive to a public school nearby that was the first home of her Edible Schoolyard project. It would be years before the hue and cry against the fast and frozen food invasion of our nation’s schools would crescendo, but as usual, Alice was far ahead of the times.
First, let me tell you that lunch 15 years ago was extraordinary, for rather than order off the menu, Alice was tasting a good number of new dishes for that day’s dinner. Not only was I privy to her commentary and suggestions to the chefs, but—how delicious it was—I had a lovely first taste of the season’s tiniest baby pea shoots.
A few weeks ago, I returned for another luncheon with Alice, and as before, she was so eloquent, so thoughtful about many issues surrounding food. Her Edible Schoolyard project for grades K-12 is long-since a proven success, having educated (and fed!) thousands of children at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley alone, as well as spawning the direct spinoffs that make up the Founding Edible Schoolyards. Immeasurable is the program’s influence on thousands of other schools across the country who have taken a hard look at what they’re serving their children.
But there is much work to be done, and as I left, Alice handed me several recent printouts of her writings about healthy food programs. I’ll share more about her latest project with the University of California campuses called the Global Food Initiative, but first—here’s Alice writing once again on the importance of school lunches. I hope it will inspire you to approach your children’s schools to initiate—and demand—action to protect not only their health, but also be part of a national mandate for healthy school lunches.
“The Fate of Our Nation Rests on School Lunches” by Alice Waters
It was the French philosopher Brillat-Savarin who wrote, “The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.” And it is this, his most famous idea, that is now never far from my mind when it comes to the discussion of school lunch in this country. When I read last week that there are those in Washington who would dismantle the recent positive gains that have been made in improving the way children are fed at school, I was appalled—yet sadly not surprised. As with many institutions and universal ideas in this nation in recent years, it seems that even something as right and as basic as feeding children food that is good for them has become politicized.
Right now we all need to pause, step back and look at the bigger picture. The costs associated with not investing in real food are too great, and we need to acknowledge honestly the far-reaching consequences that the current program has had in every area of American life. By allowing fast-food culture into the cafeteria, we have effectively endorsed that industry’s values, helped facilitate the obesity epidemic, widened the achievement gap and aided an addiction to junk. Even in the short term these costs, both tangible and intangible, dwarf the budget for a universal—and real—school food program. The idea of school lunch as an egalitarian mechanism to nourish our nation’s potential has long been discarded and devalued. We are faced with an enormous crisis of health, education and inequality.
We need to have the courage and conviction to establish a nutritious, sustainable, free school-lunch program for all.
The incremental steps the First Lady has fought for, as valuable as they are, are never going to address the challenges we are facing. Lunch must become integrated into the daily lessons. Like physical education, we need edible education. Until lunch becomes about learning andn is central to school life, children and lunch ladies are bound to reject changes. A plan of this scope and scale may not be realistic in the current Congress, but it is where we must go. I truly believe that decisionmakers on both sides of politics will come to realize this is the most logical place to reach every child and have the most lasting impact. The public school system is our last truly democratic institution.
Having worked in it—and in this field—for more than 20 years with the Edible Schoolyard Project, I have seen that engaging all children at the table with a delicious meal made from real ingredients transforms their attitudes and behavior for life. By making lunch an interactive part of the curriculum, we empower children to make their own informed decisions.
When children learn about where their food comes from, their eyes open to the billion-dollar marketing campaigns that target them. They are also freed from the prison of fast-food addiction. It is my experience—and that of many other educators in the U.S.—that once there is a real alternative, children do not throw out their healthier options. In fact, they embrace those healthy foods and never look back.
I know that many in government on both sides of politics now realize that in food we find the root problem of many of our nation’s ills: diet-related disease, hunger, environmental devastation. And I am sure that by redirecting ourselves to real food, we find also the solution. We need to start at school. By radically changing the way we thing about feeding our children, we not only change the nutrition of individual children and the diet of all Americans in a generation, we also restore the health of the land—and the essential values of this country.