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Alice Waters and Impenetrable Apples

For some kids, going back to school this autumn is going to be a bit better, thanks to the work of chef and food activist Alice Waters. She founded the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in 1971, and gets a lot of credit for kicking off the modern local, sustainable food movement. She also founded The Edible Schoolyard Project, which works to bring gardening and cooking into schools. In a recent piece she wrote for The Wall Street Journal, she argues for connections between education in classrooms, healthy eating at home, and a sustainable agriculture system for all.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: How are school lunches different than they were twenty years ago?

Alice Waters: Well I think probably not too much has changed. I can only imagine what school lunch was like twenty years ago. It was full of fast food and fried food and not very many fruits and vegetables.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Cardboard pizza was something I remember. Square pizza.

Alice Waters:  I think there is an effort, certainly on the part of the First Lady, to bring more fruits and vegetables into the cafeteria, but I’m just afraid that the kids who need it the most don’t even go into the cafeteria. They carry the junk food in their backpacks. And I’m always seeing that in the dumpster very early in the morning, things like candy bar wrappers. And [healthy food] may be coming into some cafeterias. It takes an extraordinary person and system to edibly educate the children so that they want to eat things that are really good for them.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I was lucky. My mom packed my lunch, and I had sandwiches and a juice, but she always packed an apple, and if I’m being honest, I never ate the apple. I kept it in my locker, which smelled like rotten apples. I mean it’s almost biological, right? When you’re a kid, I wanted cookies.

Alice Waters: Exactly. It is something that is not thought of to be tasty, an apple. I never ate my apple or my banana either.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh wow.

Alice Waters: But you know, when you’re given a whole apple, it feels a little impenetrable. Some are too big; you’re a little tiny child. If you cut up the apple it gets all brown by the time you get it to school. I think there are beautiful ways to incorporate apples. They can be shredded, they can be made into something that is really inviting and delicious. So I am completely a lover of organic, local, rare varieties, heritage apples.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I wasn’t trying to indicate that you were a non-apple lover, but you bring up some interesting points. So it sounds like what makes an ordinary apple an extraordinary meal is education, is time to make that, and you also identified some items that are kind of hard to get to folks, and this is something your project talks about and works on. Tell me: what sort of things need to happen for people to have more interesting lunches?

Alice Waters: I think we really need to integrate food and agriculture into all the academic subjects. So what we’re doing at the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley in a middle school is we’re not trying to teach agriculture or farming per se, or even teaching cooking per se. These are academic classes that are conducted in the laboratory, if you will, of the garden or the kitchen. And right away, children are engaged because it’s a hands-on learning. You’re actually in the garden collaborating on a math project of calculating how many seeds need to be planted. Or you’re in the kitchen and it’s part of an English class, and you’re writing and essay about food, or you’re writing a recipe. You’re actually eating what you’re writing. You are really participating in that roundtable discussion if you will, almost like the dinner table, which we’ve lost in this country. We don’t have time to sit down and eat, and that is, as many people have identified, it’s the primary rite of civilization. And we’ve let it go.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There’s a graphic that accompanied the Wall Street Journal article. Did you see this? It shows how food has changed in the past 10 years. What people eat in their free time has changed.

Alice Waters: I was kind of shocked by that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, so soft drinks have dropped like five places and been replaced by fruit. That’s cause for optimism, no?

Alice Waters: Well, yes and no. I mean, I think people are really being a bit deceived by what people are selling as ‘fruit juice.’ You know, this is again the fast food industry trying to figure out another drink that we’re going to be addicted to if we stop drinking sodas. And so there’s all of these fortified waters and all of these fruit juices that are made from concentrates and have a lot of sugar in them. I mean, granted they’re better than the sodas, but they aren’t really what we should be drinking, because we should be drinking water.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, man. I was excited. I was like, way to go world, we’re getting better.

Alice Waters: I know. Well, I wish I had optimism about big companies changing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I will say as a fan of sandwiches, I was happy to find that sandwiches are still number one.

Alice Waters: But what kind of sandwiches are those?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, I’m picturing mine like toasted multigrain, with maybe some turkey and lettuce and tomato.

Alice Waters: I think they’re probably thinking of another kind of sandwich.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh man, Alice.

Alice Waters: I’m sorry to say. And I certainly know there’s not an organic ingredient in those.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Okay, all right. Well I will you know, turn my smile upside down a little bit on that, but it’s okay. Speaking with you has given me some cause for optimism. Alice Waters, thank you so much for coming by our show and chatting with us.

Alice Waters: You’re welcome. Thank you.