Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Lunch Brings Farm-to-School to Conference
The “school cafeteria” came together quickly. The place settings weren’t arranged; rather, stacked plates and piles of silverware were carefully placed in the center of the long, running tables. Seasonal February flower arrangements, sourced from 3 Porch Farm northeast of Athens, dotted the tables and flanked the edges of the room. Minutes before the doors were opened, bowls of peanut hummus and platters of turnips, carrots, and flatbread were spread along the tables.
At 12:45pm, the doors opened, and the largest Edible Schoolyard Project lunch ever put on by Chef Alice Waters and her team began. The lunch was an exciting addition to the Georgia Organics’ annual Conference and Expo programming, held in The Classic Center in Athens, Georgia.
Chefarmer Matthew Raiford, the Georgia Organics board member who had invited long-time friend Waters to the conference, worked in the kitchen with Chef Peter Dale of Athens’ The National and other cooks. The menu was fun to work with, Raiford said, with Georgia Organics, local farmers, and the chefs coming together to make sure that “everything except for the salt and pepper came from within 150 miles of Athens”.
With the chefs placing the finishing touches on the family-style plates, the lunch crowd filed in and found seats. The energy in the room was palpable as Alice Rolls, President and CEO of Georgia Organics, took to the stage to briefly introduce Alice Waters and the Farm to School Lunch. “Interactive education is the best way to learn,” said Rolls, “and that’s what we’re gonna do today”.
Alice Waters, famed owner of Chez Panisse and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project (ESP), took the stage recounting some of her favorite memories in Georgia. She told stories of Edna Lewis bringing her cow to a Southern Foodways Alliance to make biscuits with fresh cream, saying “that’s my kind of purist, yes, but that’s also my kind of determination”. Waters also spoke of President Jimmy Carter’s impactful work with Habitat for Humanity, recalling a shared visit to an elementary school in San Francisco, a “school-raising” to build a school garden and complete classroom makeovers over the course of a single day.
Although Waters is widely known for buying food directly from farmers for Chez Panisse’s kitchen over the last 48 years, she brought the Edible Schoolyard Lunch to Georgia to present a different kind of a meal: a healthy, locally-sourced school lunch she envisioned for the public school system.
With these school lunch demos, Waters “wanted to dispel the myths: that there’s no time for kids to sit at a table to eat lunch, that is impossible to serve wholesome food. I wanted to show that for a great number of people eating together, it could be a civilized, nutritious, delicious experience, both in terms of the food and the aesthetics,” she said.
Waters is promoting “school supported agriculture” with the Edible Schoolyard Project, an organization devoted to building the capacity of edible education programs in public schools through tools, resources, and trainings. Over the past 25 years, in work in Berkeley, California and around the country, the Edible Schoolyard Project has collaborated with teachers and created curriculum to show that “there is really no subject that you could not connect with food that you’re serving in the cafeteria,” said Alice.
“This initiative is also to give the real cost of food to farmers,” added Waters. Supporting farmers was more important than ever, she explained, as regenerative organic farming was needed to address climate issues. A direct relationship with farmers “who are taking care of their land and their farm workers” allows for closed loop initiatives, like sending kitchen scraps back to the farmer to compost.
After her overview of Edible Schoolyard work, Alice changed gears. School lunch was becoming an academic subject, and attendees were going to get credit for eating it.
“Now I’m going to give you an assignment”, she started, starting to smile mischievously. “Our fast food culture does not believe that we can serve a huge group of 650 students in the cafeteria seated. So we’re going to prove them wrong,” explained Waters.
Long tables were split into groups of eight, and individuals were tasked with different responsibilities, to be completely silently: setting the silverware, getting napkins, or grabbing lunch items like fritters, vegetables, or iced tea. The cafeteria started to murmur, but before anyone could move, Waters joyfully called out, “…and we’re timing you. Go!”
The entire “cafeteria” was a flurry of movement, as groups moved quickly to accomplish assigned tasks. Attendees quietly laughed and smiled at one another as they gathered lunch components, some comparing it to being in school again.
Three minutes and 43 seconds later, Waters called the time. “You’ve beat all other lunches with twice the people!” she proudly announced. The crowd applauded, and to celebrate, the “students” eagerly dove into lunch.
The food was delicious, with reezy-peezy fritters served atop collard greens, cornbread and root vegetables on the side. Participants passed family-style platters of salad greens with Meyer lemon vinaigrette and finished off the peanut hummus.
As attendees ate, many studied the placemats lining the table. The placemats, designed by the Edible Schoolyard team, beautifully displayed a map of Georgia and the farmers who participated in the lunch. “I want people to really feel like they were in time and place,” recounted Waters later. “This is February in the South, and this is what we could eat for a school lunch from [local farms].”
Sarah Dasher, Schools Program Manager at the Wylde Center, a nonprofit that does environmental education in City Schools of Decatur and some Atlanta Public Schools, reflected on what she sees as powerful in ESP’s focus on accessible edible education. “Schools are starting to see that this is something they need to do consistently every day, not on a weekly basis, in order to make an impact,” said Dasher.
Paula Burke, an extension agent with University of Georgia in Carroll County, also expressed belief in the staying power of locally-sourced produce for a school lunch. “People used to think that this was just a trend that was going to go away—I don’t think that’s true at this point,” she added.
As plates were cleared, Kimberly Della Donna, Farm to School Director with Georgia Organics, introduced the next speaker: Georgia’s State Nutrition Director and a “Farm to School champion”, Dr. Linette Dodson.
Dodson spoke of the efforts to serve 1.1 million kids a day in Georgia’s schools. “We are the only state with a focus on an academic food program,” said Dodson. “It’s not just the service of the meal, it’s also food-based learning activities that can be done in the classroom that continue to expand student palettes”.
Dodson reflected on the Edible Schoolyard Project lunch, drawing connections to Breakfast in the Classroom, an expanding program in Georgia.
“When I see our students eating together during Breakfast in the Classroom, it models a community environment while maintaining nutrition and food safety standards,” said Dodson. “It gives the students and the teacher an opportunity to start the day with the kind of community that I think we saw here this afternoon [with the Edible Schoolyard Project]”.
“One of the reasons I wanted to bring Alice Waters here,” Chefarmer Raiford later explained, “is our farm to school program that has been spearheaded with Georgia Organics and Georgia Grown. Georgia has one of the most amazing programs I’ve seen, and I think can be very easily modeled in other states”.
As apple crisp with vanilla ice cream was brought to the long tables (to audible murmurs of excitement), Dodson surveyed the audience about how many people had eaten a school lunch in their district the last year. “I would like to encourage farmers, parents, and community members to visit and eat a school meal,” she added. “Learn what is happening in your local school nutrition program and what is being served as part of your school meals. When you visit, ask how you can be a partner for supporting quality school meals in that district.”
Raiford, joining Waters on stage once the final plate was out of the kitchen, offered his own call to action. “What city do you live in? What action can you take?” he asked, prompting farmers who had sold to schools to raise their hands. To the rest of the audience, he challenged, “Go back to your district, find out who’s in charge at your schools—there is work that needs to be done,” he urged.
To close out the lunch, Waters echoed Dodson and Raiford’s advocacy for farm to school. “And I know I’ll never forget the reezy-peezy today,” she said, hugging her friend Raiford as the audience laughed. She added, “I call this a delicious revolution”.
Based on the applause, empty plates, and full stomachs, the students in the audience couldn’t agree more.