Los Angeles magazine, May 2010
I met Alice Waters in the garden under a shade tree. California’s most famous foodie was wearing rose-colored glasses, which was noteworthy, though at the time it didn’t register. I was too excited to get my moment with the chef, activist, and gustatory icon, whose Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, sparked what can only be described as a revolution in the way America—or at least a rarefied slice of it—eats. I had become a believer in her Chez Panisse Foundation, which uses fresh fruits and vegetables to empower and educate youth. I hoped some of her wisdom would rub off on me.
“Every kid has to experience the pleasure of the garden and wholesome food,” Waters told several of us assembled beside the lettuce patch. She was in Los Angeles to announce the affiliation of her foundation’s Edible Schoolyard program with the Larchmont Charter Schools. I was a founding parent of one of those schools, and I was thrilled that Waters would soon be expanding the palate of my six-year-old son, Theo. “The health implications of this are so powerful,” Waters continued, forceful despite her soft voice and elfin aura. “It has to do with revising our pedagogy and combining it with gastronomy and ecology and making a commitment to a greener future in California…. We have to reinvent school lunch!” Wow, I thought. Does that mean no more fish sticks?
In 2008, my husband and I joined 56 other parents to establish Larchmont Charter West Hollywood. Our goal is to provide a racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse community of students with an exemplary public education through a curriculum of project-based learning and an emphasis on family engagement and social responsibility. In other words, we are shooting for utopia on earth.
When the school decided it would participate in the Edible Schoolyard in the fall, I rejoiced. Waters was one of my idols. I owned her cookbooks, had visited her flagship restaurant, and had embraced her assertion that food can be a vehicle for social change. She created the program in 1995 to prove her theory: If Americans would simply choose seasonal, organic food grown sustainably and eat it together at a common table, we could raise healthier children, restore family values, rebuild our communities, and take better care of our environment. The first Edible Schoolyard was at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. Our school would be the fourth.
How Waters’s principles are interpreted is left to each school. Our strategy was for children to plant a school garden to understand where their food comes from. Sometimes they would cook the food they grew (but not enough to feed all the kids—our food would be outsourced). Each day the Farmer’s Kitchen—a nonprofit that provides local food sources, nutritional education, and microenterprise development in the Hollywood area—would deliver healthful lunches to campus. Students would sit at long tables with individual place settings. Milk and water would be poured from pitchers into biodegradable cups, and parents, not paid lunch workers, would serve meals.
Feeding our children better-quality food did not seem revolutionary to me. Of course everybody wants to eat well. Of course everybody would be willing to spend more money to do it. And of course parents would support a program that would form the basis for a lifetime of healthful eating. Of course, indeed: The kale was about to hit the fan.
We served our first Edible Schoolyard lunch in September. The menu: chicken fingers, homemade applesauce, and locally grown cherry tomatoes and greens with ranch dressing. Not too weird. I didn’t hear many complaints. My son was thrilled not to be eating peanut butter and jelly every day. The first signs of trouble came three weeks later, just minutes after Marguerita Mees, the hot lunch coordinator at LCW, posted a menu on the school’s online message board:
Monday: summer squash, zucchini, sweet bell peppers, creamy polenta with cheese, marinated strawberries in orange juice. Tuesday: J&J grass-fed beef chili with veggies and white rice, mixed greens with house-made French dressing, seasonal fruit. Wednesday: cannelloni stuffed with ricotta and spinach (red sauce on the side), steamed carrots, cold melon…
The food sounded delicious on paper, but many of us started to worry. Would our children waste away? Salad has always made Theo gag. My four-year-old son, Benji, seems genetically predisposed to consume only processed foods that come in bright, unnatural colors. My husband and I had sautéed, pureed, diced, sliced, baked, and fried vegetables in an effort to sneak nutrients into our sons’ bodies. No dice. Like archaeologists, the boys expertly probed until they picked out even the tiniest pieces. They took to this task with a concentration I wish they applied to their schoolwork. They staged mini hunger strikes when unknown fiber appeared on their dinner plates. Only the promise of the most transfat-dense, sugar-packed desserts would motivate them to try even a bit of leafy green chard or broccoli rabe. I knew that children in India (which has one of the oldest, most famous, and most sophisticated vegetarian cuisines in the world) eat vegetables. Why wouldn’t mine?
“I don’t know what I am going to do,” one mother confessed to me. “My son is a really picky eater. I mean there was a time when he only ate prosciutto for six months!”
The school had required all 120 kindergartners through second graders to sign up—at the not-so-cheap price of $5 a day. (Those eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches receive them.) But most kids prefer chicken nuggets and mac and cheese to carrots and ricotta. Most kids haven’t even heard of ricotta.
The school’s Web bulletin board became clogged with frantic, desperate pleas for more kid-friendly fare. One parent wrote that her child climbed into the car after school every day “starving and cranky” from lack of food and suggested that “maybe plain pasta with butter and Parmesan cheese could always be available as an option? It’s not the healthiest option, I realize, no veggies, etc., but at least if they had something they felt comfortable with, they might be more open to the interesting stuff.” Another mother was concerned that her son was “not eating anything but bread.”
Mees had to remind herself not to take the comments personally. “I feel like people hate me,” she said. “I have to remember people are just worried about their kids.”
Principal Kristin Droege also felt the pressure. “I anticipated resistance,” she said. “But I don’t think I knew what it would feel like to go through it.”
Just as our children endlessly test us to see if we will stick to our rules, parents tested Droege. As charter school families, we expected to have a say. Droege welcomed our input. What she didn’t welcome was the suggestion that she cave, back down, make exceptions, give up. To Waters’s idealistic vision for the program the principal added her practical, on-the-ground commitment. Watching her, so determined to stay the course, I realized that to succeed, our lunch program needed both kinds of resolve.
For a month the program hung in the balance. Droege did not waver. She met with parents to allay their fears, reassuring them that she would not let their children go hungry. She sat beside the most finicky kids and e-mailed their parents about what they had eaten that day. Gently she offered advice on how to make food less of an issue (don’t talk about it so much, don’t interrogate your children when they get in the car after school).
Still, some parents were so anxious that they stuffed huge morning snacks in their children’s backpacks and met them at day’s end with what amounted to a second lunch. Some complained that their children’s mealtimes, and consequently bedtimes, were thrown off because they were eating at unusual hours. Others begged the school to serve more traditional meals: pizza, pasta, chicken fingers.
“I go through phases where I get so upset about the whole thing” said Marisa Tranquilli, a real estate agent and Spinning instructor whose seven-year-old son, Luca, is particularly discerning about food. “The idea that we pay all this money and he isn’t eating—it makes me crazy,” she said. “I pay $5 a day for water!” But it wasn’t the money she was missing. It was the sense of control.
“Sometimes I see the menu and I think, ‘Really? Shepherd’s pie? Lentils?’ My husband says, ‘Come on! I wouldn’t even eat that!’?” she said, admitting that occasionally she’d like to send her son to school with his own food “because that would solve everything.”
I felt her pain. It frightened me not knowing exactly what my son was eating at school, or whether he was eating at all. But I saw what was happening at lunchtime and could imagine the potential: Before the meal a teacher claps her hands and the children sing a song of thanks (a secular thank-you to the natural world for its bounty). An adult—a parent or a teacher—sits at each table, eating, explaining the food, and trying to hew to “The Principles.” Yes, that’s right, Waters’s vision has been memorialized in a pamphlet from the Chez Panisse Foundation called Principles of an Edible Education. Part of it is posted on the school bulletin board:
The students take their seats…. Fresh bread and a salad with cucumbers and peppers are already on the table, along with real dishes, and real glasses and silverware…. Imagine if all students ate together and were engaged in conversation. Maybe it’s talk about where all this food comes from—it’s a geography class or a study of California history. Maybe they are trying to guess which herbs are in the chicken, or they are asking, “What is polenta?”
Reading the words here, I am moved nearly to tears. I also see how easy it is to mock. I want to live “The Principles,” but a table full of wriggling, hungry, hyperactive six-year-olds earnestly discussing geography? Or polenta? More like Star Wars and farting.
When Waters visited, our school was by then in the throes of its own foodie revolution. I approached her. “What would you say to parents who complain that the lunch served at the Larchmont schools is not kid friendly?”
“Oh, the lunches have to be first-rate and they have to be kid friendly,” she said. Was she, I wondered, avoiding the question?
“So what about parents like me who feel they are capable of making a healthy lunch for their kids and would rather not pay $5 a day?”
“This is a problem,” she said, acknowledging that she had packed her daughter’s lunch every day through high school. “I just felt like what I made was better.”
For a moment I thought I’d won the point. Then I realized that when she made her daughter lunch, it was an Alice Waters creation. Waters believes in the seductive powers of a perfect summer peach or a ripe persimmon. When I hear her talk about it, I do, too. But has she ever seen the junk we feed our kids? More important, does she understand why? We are busy. We are harried. Every one of us is scrambling to get work done, to do laundry, to make sure the kitchen floor isn’t so filthy that our feet stick to it as we attempt to cook meals to put on the table. We aren’t chefs. We don’t work in the gourmet food industry. We are just trying to staunch our children’s never-ending hunger, ideally while enduring minimal whining.
Waters told me that the ritual of a shared meal has all but disappeared in most families. Her hope is it can be reinstated at school, during lunch and perhaps, if she has her way, at breakfast. She said she would like kids who don’t eat at home to receive their first meal of the day on tables covered with colorful oilcloths, with a little note. “There should be a picture—a few words saying where the food came from,” she explained. “And it can’t be wrapped up on a sterile tray. It needs to be packaged differently. With some love.”
By December things were quieting down—slowly. Mees, the hot lunch coordinator, kept making the rounds, showing the kids what the fruits and vegetables look like before they are sliced and used as ingredients. She talked about why the carrots are purple and the apples taste like pears. Maybe it will take three months before a child tries something new, maybe a lifetime, but Mees thinks this basic introduction is the first step. From this day forward these foods will be in the kids’ repertoire.
“Change takes commitment,” said Mees. “Change takes work. But I believe that if we all stick to it, if we are patient with each other, it will happen.”
I have to admit I started to see changes in my son. One day Theo came home and told me he had discovered a strange, delicious yellow fruit. He was as excited as he gets about Transformers or lightsabers. No one knew what the fruit was, he said, and that had started the kids talking. As they swung from the monkey bars at recess, they had speculated on what the mystery fruit might be. The next day he came home from school jubilant. “Mommy!” he cried, “it was yellow watermelon!”
During its first year, our school learned a few tricks and made a few concessions. Principal Droege began storing snacks in her office so that ravenous kids could be excused from class to pay her a visit. Lunches now feature more pasta, chicken, and pizza—and fewer lentils. New fruits, vegetables, and sauces are added around the edges, into, or on top of familiar dishes. Serving sizes are smaller, so trepidatious children seeing their more adventurous classmates asking for seconds are motivated (we hope) to do the same.
The message of discovery, pleasure, and good food filters home. When I take my turn serving lunch, I hear parents whispering to Mees about the foods their kids are eating: Asian pears. Celery. Golden tomato salsa. Moms and dads are incredulous—and grateful.
In flashes, Mees feels hope. “When the kids come up to me during the day and they tug on my shirt and say, ‘What is for lunch today?,’ then I know they are getting into the ritual,” she says. “They are looking forward to it. And they want to tell me about it.”
Photograph by Ethan Pines