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Food Fighter

Alice Waters to receive UCSC’s
highest honor on its 50th anniversary

Photo by Amanda Marsalis

By Deborah Luhrman
Photography by William Abramowicz and Amanda Marsalis

Activist-chef Alice Waters was in Paris on her junior year abroad when UC Santa Cruz was enrolling its first students back in 1965. Fifty years later, she calls the experience her “edible awakening.” That trip and subsequent summers in France inspired her to try to replicate the French obsession with quality ingredients back here in California at Chez Panisse, the restaurant she opened in Berkeley in 1971.

Well before there were farmers’ markets nearly every day of the week, Waters searched out organic growers and local fishermen who could provide the type of exquisite seasonal ingredients she had enjoyed in France. Trendsetter is perhaps too mild a description—she was more like a fairy godmother who showed the way towards the sustainable, seasonal, organic, locavore food movement now in full flourish throughout the San Francisco Bay area—and taking root in most parts of the country.

As UC Santa Cruz hits the half-century mark this fall, it will celebrate by awarding Waters the university’s highest honor—the Foundation Medal—at a very special farm-to-table dinner on Sept. 26. Previous honorees have included poet Toni Morrison, architect Frank Gehry and ocean advocate Jean-Michel Cousteau, but this is the first time the award will go to a chef.

Waters is elated.

“It’s just something great, especially in light of the UC Global Food Initiative,” she says, referring to the UC’s ambitious commitment to improve food security, health and sustainability throughout the world. “It’s so important that I have an opportunity to be recognized and can carry that banner.”

Ever the evangelist, Waters helped birth the UC Global Food Initiative in the dining room of Chez Panisse last year. “We gathered all the UC chancellors and Janet Napolitano [UC president] together for a dinner. I was prepared to talk the talk and I had Michael Pollan there, just for insurance,” she recalls.

Napolitano was convinced.

“At the end of the meal, she [Napolitano] stood up and said, ‘I want to create a compact for sustainability and I want to weave agriculture into every subject, to change the buying practices of University of California campuses and I want to shout out best practices to the rest of the world.’

“I was astonished!” Waters says. “Then she sat down and wrote it out long hand on the back of a menu and had every chancellor sign it.”

Where it all began: Waters with students from Martin Luther King Jr.
Middle School at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley.
Photo by William Abramowicz

The initiative is now a year old and has funded research projects, launched a video series called California Matters with New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and sponsored a UC Berkeley course called Edible Education 101, which is available for viewing online and features food movement heroes like Pollan, Bittman and Waters, as well as Eric Schlosser and Marion Nestle.

It is all really an outgrowth of the Edible Schoolyard Project and school garden, which Waters started 20 years ago at a Berkeley middle school and has expanded across the nation.

“At Edible Schoolyard we are teaching dramatic arts through improvisational cooking. We are teaching Egyptian history by eating the dishes that they cook. Information is coming in through all the senses, through their nose and their mouth, their ears and their eyes,” she says.

“There isn’t a subject I know of that couldn’t be taught through food.” UC Santa Cruz has played its own pivotal role in the food movement, beginning with the Alan Chadwick Garden in 1968 and the eventual additions of the UCSC Farm and the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Many students educated in the CASFS program at UC Santa Cruz have gone on to work with Waters at Edible Schoolyard.

While she sees some progress, Waters is dismayed that America doesn’t care more about child nutrition. “Half the people in this country are divorced so the children are kind of left behind and schools need to help them right now. It’s very serious,” she says. “We need to feed all children in this country real food—a free, sustainable school lunch.” And this, Waters argues, will require significant investment.

“We don’t need $0.05 more. We need $5 for school lunch so we can feed children and support farmers who are taking care of the land. Anyone who thinks we can do it on $1.80 or $1.90 or even $2.20 is dreaming. That’s fast food and that’s what’s making our kids sick,” she adds.

But she reserves her harshest criticism for big food and the advertising industry, which she believes have hijacked her farm-to-table principles. “The fast food culture is trying to grab onto these words, dilute them and mislead people, as a way of getting market share,” she says. “We have to know that one of the biggest values of the fast food culture is dishonesty.”

So what’s a confused consumer to do? How does an authentic farm-to-table restaurant demonstrate its authenticity?

Chez Panisse still lists on its menu the names of the farms that grow its produce, and Waters says that long-time customers often come in asking how farmer Bob is coping with the drought or inquiring when Mas Masumoto’s peaches will be on the menu.

“Customers can go out and visit the farms, and restaurants can bring farmers into the restaurant. They can also open the kitchen door and allow people to see what’s going on,” she says. “I think it’s really valuable right now to introduce the farmer and the fisherman.” Home cooks, meanwhile, should “stay away from the supermarkets,” Waters advises.

“The most important thing is to buy from farmers directly, either at a farmers’ market or by getting involved in Community Supported Agriculture” by buying a share in a local farm and receiving produce directly from the farm in return.

Or, Waters says, plant a garden.

“I really think growing your own food is the best way and most affordable way to be connected in a deep way,” she says. “You have just got to get through the advertising and indoctrination of the fast food culture to believe there is something else happening that is valuable.”

UC Santa Cruz has adopted a new motto for its 50th anniversary—” the original authority on questioning authority”—and, clearly, Alice Waters fits right in.

Deborah Luhrman is deputy editor of Edible Monterey Bay and editor of our weekly newsletter. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

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At Edible Monterey Bay, our mission is to celebrate the local food cultures of Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey Counties, season by season.