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Alice Waters push for local, organic setting national agenda

Alice Waters' push for local, organic ingredients drives the national agenda

May 09, 2010|By Stacy Finz, Chronicle Staff Writer
  • story
    Alice Waters has been preaching the value of organic food that comes from local farms for 40 years.
    Credit: Photos by Russell Yip / The Chronicle

Food crusader Alice Waters is making the rounds to promote her new cookbook.

McDonald's, she told Bill Maher on his TV show, "Real Time," "is never the answer," not even for impoverished families trying to put food on the table. Then, in her signature breathy voice, she lambasted the microwave.

"That's not cooking," Waters said, somewhat flustered that Maher would even ask about the common kitchen appliance. "I don't know how to relate to it. I need a little fire."

Last week on Martha Stewart's program she tried to impress the importance of learning how to chop an onion, peel garlic and make chicken stock.

Food bloggers responded with their usual snark. Waters' appearance on Maher's show was "cringe worthy," wrote Grub Street San Francisco, going on to describe her performance on "Martha" as "loopy." When she roasted an egg on a giant iron spoon in her kitchen fireplace during an earlier "60 Minutes" interview, you could almost hear the nation gagging.

Yet, despite the scorn she sometimes evokes, Waters is steadfast. Her message is hitting its mark.

For nearly 40 years, "St. Alice," as she's been called for her unrepentant views, has touted the importance of eating local, organically grown food; emphasized the necessity of being good stewards of the land; and tirelessly advocated and funded nutritional meal programs in public schools. For many of those years she was mostly ignored, seen as a Berkeley radical whose ideals were not only elitist and unrealistic but also a bit wacky.

But as Americans began grappling with an obesity crisis, and journalists and documentarians began exposing the ills of factory farming, Waters' little movement motored away from the fringes and into the mainstream.

First lady on board

Michelle Obama wasted no time in planting an edible garden, some believe at the urging of Waters, on the South Lawn of the White House. Obama's Let's Move campaign, which replaced her predecessor's literacy drive, addresses much of what Waters has been preaching. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" on ABC-TV has taken Waters' message to prime time. Even former President Bill Clinton, famous for his love of Big Macs, has taken up the cause, combining forces with the American Heart Association to form the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

"Alice and people like her, along with my own weight and heart problems, inspired me to take on the issue of childhood obesity," Clinton wrote in an e-mail. The former president says he met Waters while dining at her restaurant Chez Panisse - where the activist supposedly tried to talk him out of blueberry ice cream in favor of a "perfect" peach - and has read her books.

"I know how passionate Alice is about fresh foods and the importance of Americans living healthier lives," he wrote.

This helped inspire Clinton to work with the soda companies to wean students off high-calorie soft drinks and to help schools improve their meals and exercise programs. "The first lady's leadership on this issue will make a big difference," he added. "And Alice's involvement ensures even more success."

Thrilled with progress

Waters, 66, couldn't be happier with the momentum.

"I feel empowered," she says while sipping mint tea at her Chez Panisse Cafe, upstairs from the restaurant that inspired the farm-to-fork movement and will celebrate its 40th birthday next year.

And perhaps she feels a bit vindicated.

"I always knew it had to happen," she says. "I just didn't know it would happen so soon.

"These are not my ideas," she continued, a bit teary-eyed. "It's the way people have been eating for hundreds of years."

Still, Chris Lehane, a political consultant who has worked for Al Gore and Bill Clinton, sees Waters as "the George Washington of the movement and Northern California as the 13 colonies."

"If you're going to pick a figure who's responsible for it all, it all comes back to her," says Lehane, adding that even 10 years ago food probably wouldn't have crossed a politician's mind as a public policy issue.

"Not unless you include Ronald Regan calling ketchup a vegetable," he laughs.

But now, Lehane says, people don't see the campaign as more of those "San Francisco values." "This has become a health issue - even in the red states."

About 32 percent of children and adolescents today are obese or overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Being overweight is a health risk that can lead to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression and other life-threatening illnesses.

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