Credit: David Sifry
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Alice Waters is a busy woman. After three months of emails, phone calls and missed opportunities to speak about her work in organics and sustainability, I'm nervously biting my nails as the day of our interview approaches.
What if she postpones? (Again.) What if she gives me just a few minutes? (She has numerous projects across the world of food education taking up her time). Even worse, what if I mess up the time difference between Australia and her home base in Berkeley, California, and it's all over before it begins?
For those who know her work, Alice Waters regularly inspires reactions otherwise reserved for bestselling authors or Oscar-nominated filmmakers.
On a recent US trip, I mentioned to California locals I had eaten at Waters' flagship restaurant, Chez Panisse. Their eyes literally shone with excitement.
Chefs and serious foodies also lit up at the mention of her name.
I soon learned that expressing an appreciation for Waters' work was like a shortcut in communicating my understanding of a new philosophy on food, which promotes organics, sustainable farming practices, knowing where your food comes from (hopefully it's local), and quality over quantity, just for starters.
Slow food, fast pace
Waters counts Jamie Oliver as a friend - "We have the same philosophy, it's just expressed differently" - and her school garden project has drawn the attention of none other than the Prince of Wales.
Yet in Australia, she is a virtual unknown. (Although it must be said that serious food folks, including Stephanie Alexander, hold her work in high regard.)
While the current interest in Waters may be assisted by a new awareness of the issues surrounding global food production, it's worth noting that she has spent over three decades advocating sustainable food.
There are eight cookbooks, all selling well; Chez Panisse, where her efforts in practising what she preaches have earned the restaurant dozens of awards - including 2001 Gourmet Magazine Best Restaurant in America; and her work educating American children on food and healthier eating.
If that weren't enough on her plate, Waters is also an International Governor of the Slow Food movement.
This title suddenly strikes me as ironic, given that her life sounds, well, quite fast-paced.
"It has been a little crazy these days," she admits.
Food the saviour of the planet?
While looking at the list of Waters' local and international affiliations is enough to make one's head spin, her approach to food is anything but hectic.
Waters has built her reputation on the premise that we should know who grows our food, buy locally wherever possible, and always eat with the seasons.
"I'm always looking at where it came from. Who produced it? I'm looking for what is local, sustainable and ripe. I can't eat anything out of season, I don't want to. But not just because it doesn't taste good; I also don't want to as it disconnects me from a cycle that I've always found very renewing in my life."
This sustainable approach to how we eat, grow and distribute our food, says Waters, could literally be the saviour of our planet:
"People don't understand that the cost of doing this makes complete sense: because the cost of not doing it could be the destruction of this planet," she says.
"We need to pay in advance, to pay the real cost of food, and we need to let the schools be the engine for changing farming practices."
If her home country's homogenised approach to food is one of Waters' biggest frustrations, her greatest joy lies in her work in the US school system.
Formerly a teacher, trained in the alternative Montessori Method of education, and parent of a grown-up daughter, Fanny, Waters is passionate about the capacity of education to create change in how we see food.
"I'm involved in a global movement for edible education in public schools, beginning in kindergarten. We teach children how to take care of the land, how to feed themselves, and how to sit at table and communicate with one another. It seems to me an essential education that we all need to share this planet."
These are skills, Waters says, that have been lost in the USA.
"In this country it's becoming more and more rare to see families that eat together. It's where we learn to become civilised. It's hard for people to know where their food comes from, and we aren't cooking anymore. All of this is contributing to a lack of education about health, the environment and our culture.
"We need to come back to our senses. We need to engage in an interactive way in schools, and learn how to cook."
Growing young minds
Water's food education project is called the Edible Schoolyard.
Based at Martin Luther King Junior Middle School in Berkeley, the school's 900 students learn how to grow, harvest, and prepare seasonal produce.
The ultimate goal of the Edible Schoolyard is to foster environmental stewardship, and revolutionise the American school lunch program.
Established 12 years ago, the project has gained global attention.
In Australia, chef Stephanie Alexander (who leads her own successful kitchen garden program) cites Waters' work as an inspiration.
In the USA, Edible Schoolyard is the most high-profile of numerous similar projects, but Waters says their reach is not nearly extensive enough. Still, she hopes that by using Edible Schoolyard as a model (they are currently launching others across the USA), it will inspire action by State and Federal governments to take the programs a step further.
Food at the forefront
Outside of the school system, Waters says those who truly care for the environment should keep their food choices at the forefront.
"It's strange to me that people who are environmentalists don't fundamentally understand the food decisions they make every day. We vote with our forks two or three times a day. Factory food production is a huge contributor to global warming, yet we continue to buy fast food."
Agreeing that a vegetarian diet is the "ultimate" environment-friendly gesture to make, Waters says understanding the resources used in the creation of food is vital.
"At the very least we have to understand meat is something that is precious. We need to use it in a minimal way."
As we've been chatting, a voice in the background has been issuing Waters gentle reminders about her time.
Finally, the voice wins out, and Waters has to leave.
With the apologetic but resolute acknowledgement of someone who regularly moves to keep ahead of the crowd, she bids me goodbye, and heads back to changing the planet for the better, one meal at a time.