Thursday, November 23, 2006

California Food Revolution

On Thanksgiving I'd like to thank Alice Waters, who started both a restaurant called Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971 and a California food revolution.

For the last year every Sunday I go to the huge Farmer's Market in Hollywood to buy fruits and vegetables as I've been inspired by Alice Waters who argued that one should only buy in season frfom local farmers. I've long heard of Waters as we were both in Berkeley at the same time and both arrested in the huge Free Speech Movement sit-in, but I left Berkeley in 1969, a few years before she started her restaurant.

After Waters graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in French in 1967, she then spent a year in France and returned to Berkeley to start Chez Panisse with a group of friends--her restuarant clearly was inspired by French cooking and named after the character Panisse in classic Marcel Pagnol French movie. From the beginning of the restaurant she haunted the farmer's markets, searching for the best organic fruits and vegetables to serve in her restaurant. She developed a philosphy that one should buy only fruits and vegetables in season from local farmers.

Three decades later she has developed relationships with many Bay Area farmers, fishermen and ranchers who supply her restaurant with wonderful produce, fish and beef. Her actions helped these farmers and ranchers make money using sustainable agriculture. She also wrote eight books including the famed cookbooks Chez Panisse Vegetables, Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook, and Fanny at Chez Panisse, a story and cookbook for children. Her work influenced the both home cooks and top chefs throughout California. In the coastal cities farmer's markets have sprouted like mushrooms after a good rain. In Santa Monica, for example, chefs regularly frequent the Santa Monica's farmers' market to get produce for their best meals.

Alice Waters had a larger vision of food, so she started her Chez Panisse Foundation in 1996. The Foundation ( tries to improve how children eat. They started by setting up the Edible Schoolroom at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, a Berkeley public school. The children work in the garden Chez Panisse created learning how to raise food, and then take cooking classes to learn how to cook the food they have grown. Over the decade 1000 schoolchildren have taken part in the Edible Schoolyard which also has attracted 1000 visitors and inspired "several hundred kitchen and garden programs around the country."

Water's Chez Panisse Foundation also started the School Lunch Intitative aiming that every child in the Berkeley school district has a freshly prepared lunch and wanting to establish a kitchen, garden, and lunchroom in every Berkeley school. They've eliminated almost all processed food from the school lunch menu and introduced fresh, organic foods yet staying within the district's budget.

Alice Waters works with with Slow Foods in Schools (, a program that attempts to do similar work on the national level. Slow Foods in School has 20 garden-to-table projects in schools nationwide. Waters, Chez Panisse Foundation, and Slow Foods in Schools have taken on the awesome task of trying to get junk foods out of the public schools and fighting the multi-national food corporations who spend millions advertising to children starting when they are pre-schoolers. Research has clearly shown that fast food eaten by U.S. schoolchildren result in the current epidemic of obesity and its related diseases like diabetes, so Alice Waters, Slow Foods, and their allies are fighting the good fight for the children. Here in Los Angeles two years ago the Los Angeles Unified School District banned soda from its schools--one small victory.

Besides schools that traditionally served awful foods, hopsitals also served wretched food. The October 30, 2006, Newsweek has an article "Fresh Ideas About Ideas" describing how Kaiser Permanente's Dr. Preston Marin, chief of the Oakland Medical Center, has worked with John Silvera, head of the Pacific Coast Farmers Association, to start a farmer's market in 2003 at the Oakland Medical Center on Friday's that is frequented by 4,000 hospital staff, outpaients and Oakland community people. Next Dr. Martin started a pilot program August, 2006, to serve "fresh, local, sustainable grown produce to patients in Kaiser's 19 northern California hospitals."

Alice Water's ideas are slowly changing the foods served in both California hospitals and schools from processed junk to organic, local foods grown on sustainable farms. It's a long, slow revolution. Next Sunday I'll return to my Hollywood Farmer's Market to revel in the beauty of the foods there and buy my fruits and vegetables for the week. But this Thanksgiving I'll give my many thanks to Alice Waters, Chez Panisse, organic farmers of California, farmer's markets, the Edible Classroom, and Slow Foods.

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