Slow food crusader and James Beard award-winning Chef Alice Waters was in Louisiana this week to visit two edible schoolyards. First she stopped at Avoyelles Public Charter School, celebrating its 10th anniversary and a recently completed garden. (I’ve heard that every child in the school wrote a letter asking Chef Waters to come – and right away she booked a flight.)
A few days later, Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans hosted Chef Waters at a twilight party in their edible schoolyard, the first one built outside California. (Waters and her Chez Panisse Foundation created the original edible schoolyard in Berkeley in 1995.)
The March 18 Edible Evening raised money for the New Orleans schoolyard, which features row crops, a citrus grove, butterfly garden, wetlands and an outdoor classroom area. (See below for pictures of the event, which included food from some of the city’s top chefs. My apologies to Boucherie – I ate their excellent duck liver paté before getting a picture.)
Chef Waters talked to me about why the new “healthy kids” legislation doesn’t go far enough, what it’ll take to get local farmers into school lunch programs, and shushes edible schoolyard critics:
You had a great turnout at the Edible Evening garden party.
Chef Waters: It was so fantastic to have a party there, and there was such a diverse group of people in that open space. It was magical.
What’s the future of the edible schoolyard?
Chef Waters: It’s the future for this country, in every way. It’s hard to come into a new relationship with food unless you’re engaged in an interactive way at an early age; it’s hard to change your values. If we want children to learn to tend the land and nourish themselves and have conversations at the table, we need to communicate with them in ways that are positive. It’s a model program for public schools that nourishes kids from all points of view and predisposes them to care for the future of the planet. I have grandiose ideas.
How do you integrate the edible schoolyard into the kids’ curriculum?
Chef Waters: Measuring [crop] beds and counting seeds are taught as part of a math class. Improvisational cooking is part of a theater class. They’re writing essays related to the environment and the growing, cooking and serving of food. They’re counting beans instead of buttons. We haven’t even begun to imagine every way we can do this.
Do the students influence their parents?
Chef Waters: No question. This becomes a community project. [At the edible schoolyard in New Orleans, students attend seasonal cooking classes and bring home meals to serve to their families. The school also holds Family Food Nights in the kitchen classroom, to teach local families how to cook nutritiously on a budget.]
This week, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) introduced the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which basically expands the number of kids receiving food at school and increases the quality of that food. Will this cover the $5-per-student meals that you say we’ll need?
Chef Waters: It won’t cover the cost of $5 per meal, because nobody believes in the price of real food, which means no herbicides, no pesticides. No one thinks it’ll cost twice as much, but they don’t take into account labor. It’s all upside down. You want to pay people to take care of your food. You want the middleman who handles the food to care about what they do.
Most local farmers can’t afford the cost of high liability insurance, which is what they’d need to work with public schools. How do we get around that?
Chef Waters: You do need some dispensation for local farmers, because the fast food industry will promote the unsanitary conditions of farming. With vegetables, you have to be careful where they come from; you have to know the farmers and trust them. If you buy from the farmers’ market, it’s already been investigated. Richard McCarthy [executive director of Market Umbrella] has been to the farms and knows the farmers. He can vouch for their integrity. I personally know 70 farmers of the 85 we source from, at Chez Panisse.
Chef Waters: What’s important is that people do this for the right reasons. We’re going to have to have dispensations (for farmers) at the state level, we have to set up our own criteria that’s due diligence.
Where did you eat while in New Orleans?
Chef Waters: Cochon, because I know the guys who run it, and I know where they buy the food. That’s important to me, the provenance of food, where the cucumbers and eggs came from, not just the pork. I ate at a number of places, and that’s my criteria.
Chef Waters: There are more restaurants like that in New Orleans now; more per person than maybe anyplace else. I think it’s because people are shocked about contamination. Also there’s a great interest in gastronomy in New Orleans.
Tell me about your latest book, In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart. What’s the most challenging technique you cover?
Chef Waters: I’ve included a soda bread recipe; I make it when I’m in a hurry. You need a certain feel for making bread. Poppy Tooker [founder of Slow Food New Orleans] makes rice in it. These are simple recipes – cutting onions, making stock, sautéing greens. You’ll see what you’re meant to do, and know them by heart.
Do some people avoid cooking with fresh ingredients because they’re intimidated by these techniques?
Chef Waters: Maybe they don’t know how to begin. We demystify these techniques, to get to that place where you get over the fear, and understand the simplicity.
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Chez Panisse Restaurant, 1517 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, Ca. (510) 548.5049
In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart by Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter, 2010) will be released on April 6. Pre-order it here.
Samuel J. Green Charter School is located in New Orleans at 2319 Valence St. (504) 304.3532. Their 1/3-acre edible garden also serves students at Arthur Ashe Charter School, located at 3649 Laurel St. Contact them at (504) 373.6267.