Alice Waters has moved from café to cafeteria in her four-decades-long drive to change how Americans relate to food. From the venerable Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café to the institutional kitchens and rooms of California schools, the mother of the slow food movement remains focused on the notion of food not for the soul but of the soul.
“In this country, we have to bring people in a very pleasurable way back to their senses," Waters says. "We’re not talking about a food trend; we’re talking about sustenance and humanity—the way that we behave toward other people.”
Waters will share this vision and more as the Natural Products Expo East keynote speaker at 9 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 21. Get a sneak peek in our Q&A.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: As the mother of the slow food movement, how would you describe your child today?
Alice Waters: The child has an edible education. She is very oriented toward health and is more like her grandmother in that she really, really takes care of herself.
NFM: How have natural foods retailers helped the movement?
AW: Without any question, natural foods retailers have been essential. I’m always trying to get people to the farmers market and to create permanent farmers markets across the country, because I’m trying to get money to the people who take care of the land. That’s my priority.
But I also have been buying in small stores over the years, and they are a big piece of the education we need to have. It’s difficult to be in the conversation in a very big store. It’s the really small places that can have a real connection with the person who is buying, who undoubtedly has questions. It’s there that they can have those questions answered by somebody who is competent and passionate.
NFM: You are now active in the political realm as a food and farming advocate. Can you tell us about that work?
AW: We all have to become advocates both for our children and for the land. Without the land and the sea and the air, we aren’t going to have pure food. It’s a crisis that requires attention.
I am political, but I think we all have to get in that place of being educated and being able to eat with intention and understanding that when we buy certain food, we support certain people who are doing the right thing, and when we eat other kinds of food, we’re destroying cultures around the world. I feel compelled to speak out for what I believe in and to speak out for the children who don’t have someone who’s advocating for them.
NFM: Why work on food culture in public schools with the Edible Schoolyard Project?
AW: What better place than beginning with children? It’s very difficult once people develop habits. Americans have been educated by the fast food industry. And they adopt the values of fast, cheap and easy.
We’re not just talking about food—we’re talking about architecture, we’re talking about entertainment, we’re talking about everything we do: We want it fast, cheap and easy. And food is something that’s precious, really, really precious.
We need to touch every child and bring them up with a set of values that they need to live on this planet. Number one is stewardship of the land, number two is nourishment and number three, from my point of view, is communication.
NFM: As a longtime proponent for organic, what most concerns you about the state of the organic industry?
AW: I think all of the things everyone talks about. Big organic and small organic—they are very different. But I am absolutely talking about it in terms of slow food.
To me, the right kind of food needs to be purchased from people who take care of the land; they need to have the right kind of relationship with the people who work with them; they need to pay the people who are taking care of the land a living wage; and they need to be farming as if they really, really care about the nourishment of others.
It’s not just trying to meet the letter of the law; we’re trying to nourish people. I think we understand how to take care of the land; I think we understand something about taste and ripeness; but I think we haven’t paid attention to the fair piece.
NFM: People say you’ve done more to change how we eat than anyone in America. What would you really like to change today?
AW: Education is number one. I want every child in this country to eat real food. I think it’s a critical, moral issue. And I want that food to be purchased from the farmers, the ranchers, the fishermen, the people who care about sustainability. It’s critical for the future, for the kids.