Food Matters: Alice Waters is on quest to make school lunch grow up |

Food Matters: Alice Waters is on quest to make school lunch grow up

Amanda Rae
Food Matters
Alice Waters
Photo by Amanda Marsalis

When Alice Waters sees the future, no child is scared of the school cafeteria. Whether because of bland, unhealthy food or fear of shame about not having money to pay for lunch — issues that plague public schools across the United States.

In 1995, the acclaimed chef-owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant, celebrated author and food activist founded The Edible Schoolyard Project, launching a program of “edible education” at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. Waters built an organic garden and kitchen classroom and discovered that when kids actively participate in growing and preparing food, they actually consume — and enjoy! — nutritious, balanced meals. Her mission: to create free school lunch for every child from kindergarten through 12th grade across the country.

Now the Edible Schoolyard has trained hundreds of teachers, administrators, food service staff, nutritionists, community leaders and parents of kids who attend 367 schools worldwide, representing more than 1 million students in 42 U.S. states. Locally, The Edible Schoolyard Project engages some 500 students at the Aspen Community School, 1,000 students at Aspen Elementary School’s Magical Garden, and 500 children and adults though the Aspen Honeybee Guild.

On July 22, Waters spoke about her work during an Aspen Institute presentation at Paepcke Auditorium, aptly titled “Lunch is an Academic Subject.” Here are a few choice kernels of her wisdom.

Montessori training inspired Chez Panisse — and the Edible Schoolyard Project

“It was an education of the senses … I was looking for taste. I didn’t think I was using all of those Montessori ideas, but I was in the way I ran Chez Panisse. I wanted everybody to taste everything. Compare this grape with that grape.

(Maria) Montessori worked a hundred years ago in the slums of Naples (Italy) and in India with children who were hungry in neighborhoods that were very, very poor. She had huge success because she was teaching practical life exercises and opening their senses, which are pathways to our minds. She was having (kids) smelling and tasting and creating a beautiful classroom. She made it a desirable place to learn.”

Fast food is a cult — SAVE THE KIDS

“How do we teach Slow Food values in a fast-food culture? I decided the best way to do this is through our last truly democratic institution: the public school system. We can reach every child when they’re young, and feed them these values.

When you eat fast food, you digest the values that come with it: It’s OK to eat in your car. Time is money. More is better. Everything should be available 24-7. Cooking is drudgery. Farming is drudgery. It’s OK to be a little dishonest. It’s OK to be greedy. We’ve digested this, accepted this. I think it’s hard to reach people when they’re addicted, when they’re in these habits. Eighty-five percent of the kids in this country don’t eat one meal with family!”

Alice Waters went Dumpster diving to discover how bad school lunch really is

“I wanted to see what they ate before school. It was coffee cups and candy bars and fast food trash! Kids would scrape off, right into the garbage, anything that was a vegetable. They kept the meat and fries. Huge waste goes on in the schools.

I was principal for a day at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley right at the beginning of the project. Out of 1,000 kids, maybe a third brought (food) from home. Out of that third, maybe 5% brought something I thought was good. A lot of bagels and cream cheese, things in bags. Then there were a whole group of kids who didn’t eat at all.”

Kids waste less food when they grow and prepare it themselves

“We’ve been practicing this at MLKJ Middle School for all these years: when kids are growing it and cooking it, they eat it all. It’s the empowerment and pride in having grown it and cooked it. Every kid who graduates from that school could probably give a TED Talk; they have learned from osmosis. When you’re going out for a math class, you might be planting seeds, but you’re picking raspberries while you’re out there. You’re in nature. There isn’t a kid who wants to miss a class in the garden or the kitchen.”

School lunch can teach kids about world culture

“(The Edible Schoolyard Project) has developed into a much bigger idea. This is one of the placemats from a geography class: We’re learning about what grows in the Arabian Peninsula, at what altitude, sea level. Where it is in relationship to Asia and Africa. This might be something served for lunch: falafel and pita bread, carrot salad. You might be studying India and what foods they took on the Silk Road: curry in a chapatti with raita on the side. In a ‘Civilizations of the Americas’ class: tortilla soup, maybe jicama or radishes. When (kids) know about the culture a little bit they are very curious. And they are empowered to do the cooking themselves.”


“Discrimination happens for the kids who get a free or reduced lunch: they have to be in this special line. That was one of the reasons that New York City made that decision (to give every public K-12 student a free school lunch). When everybody is sitting at the same table, then that becomes the place of equality.”


“When we were designing the cafeteria (at MLKJ Middle School), I said I don’t want a white, stainless kitchen. We can make it a light color that’s cleanable. Good lighting, but it doesn’t have to be fluorescent lighting. You can have pictures on the walls. The dining room we made so beautiful with wooden tables and little chairs. We created a space with copper lamps and windows that open up to the outside. Dishwashers are always persecuted: they’re in the hottest place, no (space), just awful. We made the dishwashing room the most beautiful part of the kitchen.”

Aspen Times Weekly

This week in Aspen history

“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.

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