Alice Waters, one of the world's best-known chefs and an icon of the sustainable food movement, is making plans to bring one of her signature projects to Sacramento.
For the last 15 years, Waters has developed what is known as an "edible schoolyard" at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley.
With the help of a project coordinator, students, teachers and staff grow food in a school garden, prepare it in the school kitchen and enjoy it together in the cafeteria.
Perhaps most importantly, the school's curriculum is designed around the garden and the kitchen helping students understand how biology, botany and mathematics are applied to the world around them.
"I thought right away that edible education should be integrated into the curriculum, in the same way physical education came into schools," Waters told me in a telephone conversation on Friday. "It is not just an upgrade in the cafeteria. It is not just home economics. It is about creating an environment where kids can really be stimulated in a positive way."
Waters, owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, has been making plans to expand her project for some time. Last year, she renamed her Chez Panisse Foundation the Edible Schoolyard Project, with a goal of making "edible education not only possible for every child, but a reality."
She then stepped up her networking with people who share her goals. This includes numerous people in and around Sacramento among them Gov. Jerry Brown; Craig McNamara, president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture; educator and writer Ann Evans; and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.
Waters said she met Johnson a few years ago. She then invited him to Chez Panisse, and he took her to a Cal basketball game. The two noticed they had much in common.
"He is impatient like I am," she said. "We both have a sense of urgency and the importance of taking care of kids right now. With the health crisis right in front of us, we can't wait another minute."
Waters envisions initially expanding the Edible Schoolyard to 10 schools statewide, with Sacramento being the first. The state capital has all the right qualities, she says rich soil, a warm growing climate and innovative farmers nearby. Being in Sacramento will also help raise the visibility of the project, she said, "with all the legislators there and the seat of government."
Also helping Sacramento is an unnamed philanthropist who has agreed to fund the project for at least a year.
"It is somebody who has been in close with the Chez Panisse Foundation," Waters said. "They live in Sacramento and it just feels right for them to help out, and they were excited by the enthusiasm from the mayor's office."
Julia Burrows, a managing partner with Valley Vision who also leads the Greenwise Joint Venture program, said the donor's generosity will allow Greenwise to hire a project coordinator, possibly in the next month.
Greenwise will then develop a process for selecting which school or schools will become the next Edible Schoolyard. Additional fundraising will be needed, she said, to pay for the capital costs of developing the gardens.
Several local schools are already incorporating edible education into their programs. Folsom's Theodore Judah Elementary School, for instance, has received wide attention for its school garden, composting and food-based class assignments.
But the Edible Schoolyard Project is far more ambitious, and could be contentious among school officials and staff. The goal is to incorporate garden-grown food into nearly everything served in the school cafeteria, an undertaking that requires a large plot of land and garden managers who know how to work it.
It also requires cafeteria workers to work with students on menus that are not only healthy but appetizing to kids.
In Berkeley, said Waters, the cafeteria workers and janitors were initially resistant. But over time, they became supporters because "the program elevated the work they did." Teachers embraced it because it helped them craft coursework in science.
Ultimately, the success of edible education in Sacramento will depend on community commitment. It will take donors, volunteers and collaborators to make the program work and demonstrate that edible schoolyards can be replicated outside of the hometown of a wonderfully romantic and idealistic Berkeley chef.
Yet I have little doubt Sacramento can step up to the challenge. Waters is convinced as well.
"These ideas are as old as civilization. This is not something new I am advocating," she said. "This is about taking care of the land, nourishing yourself, eating with family and friends and being in harmony with the season, growing up knowing how to cook. This is what we have been about. It is only in the last several years this connection has been broken."
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