D.C. Public Schools is abandoning longtime school food provider Chartwells in the wake of allegations of poor food quality and fraud, and it's moving forward with new vendors for 2016. But questions remain about the selection process and future oversight.
Alice Waters is best known for her iconic Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., but she’s also a pioneer in planting school gardens and teaching kids to cultivate and crave local produce. Cathal Armstrong is a celebrity chef at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va., and a fellow-crusader in the effort to teach kids good health through healthy eating. They join Kojo to discuss how schools can encourage kids to skip the french fries and reach for the fresh fruit.
- Alice Waters Author; Executive Chef, Founder and Owner, Chez Panisse (Berkeley, CA); Founder, the Edible Schoolyard Project
- Cathal Armstrong Owner and Chef, Restaurant Eve (Alexandria, VA); Founder, Chefs as Parents
Video: Inside The Studio
Chez Panisse executive chef and sustainable food activist Alice Waters discusses ways that schools can prepare healthy meals and get kids excited about eating them. “We want to have the kids feel that they’re loved. And when you bring kids around the table and they eat together and they eat something that’s good, they feel like they’re being taken care of,” Waters said. Restaurant Eve chef Cathal Armstrong also spoke about improving school cafeterias.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, why thieves are stealing Tide laundry detergent and trading it for drugs. But first, for more than 30 years, she's been a household name to anyone who cares about where their food comes from. Alice Waters is the founder and owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. and the dean of the organic food movement.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd while grownups delight in her menu filled with local fresh produce, kids tend to be less excited about eating their vegetables. So Waters has been promoting healthy eating in schools too. Her Edible Schoolyard Project is a model for teaching kids to grow, harvest, prepare and eat fresh food at school and at home. That mission resonates with Cathal Armstrong too. He's owner and chef at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. and founder of a local program to improve school food called Chefs as Parents.
MR. KOJO NNAMDITogether, they're challenging educators to transform school lunches and to persuade kids that something green from the garden can taste even better than something brown from a box. They join us in studio. Alice Waters is founder and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project. Alice Waters, welcome. Good to have you.
MS. ALICE WATERSThank you.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is the aforementioned Cathal Armstrong, owner and chef of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. and founder of Chefs as Parents. Cathal, good to see you again.
MR. CATHAL ARMSTRONGGood afternoon. Good to be here.
NNAMDIYou can join this Food Wednesday conversation by calling 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Alice Waters, you helped create an edible garden at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley in 1996, and now your Edible Schoolyard Project is a model that offers best practices to schools around the country. What have you learned about what makes a school garden successful?
WATERSWell, I've learned that when the kids -- and these are teenage kids. There are about 1,000 of them at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. And at home, they speak 22 different languages. So it's a really good cross-section of teenagers. And I've learned two things from this project that are, I think, terribly important.
WATERSOne of them is when kids are engaged in an interactive way with food and with gardening -- and, mind you, these are not gardening classes and cooking classes per se. These are -- this is where they do their math and their science. So when they are brought out to the garden or go into the kitchen, it doesn't feel like school and...
NNAMDIThis is a good thing.
WATERSWhich is a wonderful thing. They're out there in nature, and they're collaborating with their friends to do projects in a different way. And so they like it, so that's a fun thing I've discovered. And I'm very interested in that. I want them to like it. I want them to fall in love with it. And the other thing that we've learned in this 16-year project is that when kids grow their own food and they cook it themselves that they all want to eat it.
WATERSAnd that's -- I mean, it's something very controversial that's been happening in schools around the country. And there was a big story in The New York Times not long ago about just new guidelines in the cafeterias, and the kids need to, you know, eat healthy things. And so we're going to put those on the menu.
WATERSAnd the kids haven't responded. And it made me very sad because I think when they're empowered to be cooking that food themselves and they know where it comes from, they really do want to eat it. But when you drop this food down in a sort of circumstance of a cafeteria that has neither beauty or civilization, it's not surprising.
NNAMDIThe kids take ownership of the food themselves.
NNAMDIThey participated in growing it. They participated in fixing it. And so it's theirs. They want to eat it. Cathal, you've made kids and food a focus of your work as well. You founded a group called Chefs as Parents with the goal of transforming the local school lunch system. Who's involved? What's your game plan?
ARMSTRONGWell, we're probably a good example of some of the slightly frustrating aspect of the -- how chefs can participate in school lunch. And, you know, the first frustrating thing for me is that there are only 24 hours in a day, and we in our idiocy opened three new restaurants last year. So I've been struggling for a while with the limited amount of time that I have available to participate in something that's very important to me.
ARMSTRONGI'm a father. I have young kids, and I watch what they eat. And then I've seen inside the school lunch program, and it horrified me so much at that time that I felt compelled to do something. And I've struggled since then with the limited amount of time that I have available and this passion that I have for something that I want to correct.
NNAMDIAs a result of which you have decided to dedicate more of your time to it.
ARMSTRONGAnd I think it's possible that I found a solution that suits my schedule and my ability, and that is the Alexandria Public School System has a culinary program in their schools. So they're teaching elementary school kids how to cook food, and it's like that -- the terrible thing that we lost home economics out of school. This school has the unique opportunity to teach kids again how to prepare food.
ARMSTRONGSo we're developing a partnership with the chef there -- his name Craig Scheuerman -- and with the support of the head of D.C. -- of Alexandria Public Schools. His name is Mort Sherman, Dr. Sherman. And they are very much advocates of this idea. So with a partnership with the restaurants, we have a garden at Restaurant Eve.
ARMSTRONGWe're bringing the kids there to see how food is grown. We're bringing the kids there to participate in growing the food and then taking it back and teaching them how to cook it. And I agree with Alice that there is probably noting more important at this stage than getting the kids involved in understanding what they're eating and where it comes from.
NNAMDIWe sure do miss home economics. My sister used to make the worst fudge I ever tasted in my life, but at least she was out there trying. 800-433-8850 is the number you can call. We're talking kids and foods with Alice Waters, founder and owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project, and Cathal Armstrong, owner and chef of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria and founder of Chefs as Parents.
NNAMDIHow would you rate the lunches at your kids' school? 800-433-8850. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Alice Waters, this year marks the 10th anniversary of the partnership between the Chez Panisse Foundation and the Berkeley Unified School District. How has that partnership transformed, if you will, what the district offers its 10,000 students for breakfast and for lunch?
WATERSYeah, we began this program at one school, the middle school of Martin Luther King Jr. And there were various programs in the other 16 schools around Berkeley that had to do with gardening. And I wanted very much to have a demonstration of how school lunch could be sort of woven into a big picture of academics.
WATERSI didn't think that school lunch should be a satellite out there run by a catering company, not engaged in the whole life of the school. And so I proposed that idea. And the superintendent of schools felt that it was really unfair, and truly it is unfair that the rest of the kids in the other schools are subject to that sort of fast food catering.
WATERSAnd so what we ended up doing was hiring a woman to work on all the school food in Berkeley. And her name is Anne Cooper, and she's a kind of radical in the school lunch reform movement. And she came and changed the buying practices for all 17 schools in Berkeley. And, mind you, all the kids, they still have a choice of whether to have that or not. And I am looking in a big vision of edible education, which I call it, to feed every child at school the same.
NNAMDI...as opposed to fast food.
WATERSTo fast food. Exactly. But in order to do that, you really need that criteria, and I think Anne Cooper did a lot of the legwork, demonstrating that within the existing budget, believe it or not, that she could buy local organic food. Now, mind you, it wasn't all prepared in the ways that she might have liked or certainly that I would like and engaged with the kids in that way. But she proved that it's possible to have that farm-to-school piece of that distribution piece.
NNAMDIWithout excessive cost.
WATERSWithout excessive cost, exactly.
NNAMDICathal, you're starting a collaboration with T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., where all the food for Alexandria Public Schools is made. What are you doing there to help make the food choices healthy ones?
ARMSTRONGWhat the -- I think the important thing for us is what I refer to as the plus one campaign, and that is that everything that we've put in the positive column, the plus one column becomes plus one. And again, we've struggled with this notion that we have this catastrophe of school lunch, which is a disaster that took 30 years for us to create, and now how do we upset that apple cart and get back to where we were 30 years ago when lunches were prepared from scratch in schools.
ARMSTRONGSo, you know, you can bury your head in the sand and say, well, it's such a big problem. How are we going to resolve it? Or you can look at it with a more optimistic outlook, I guess, like I have, which is, you know, every plus one is plus one. So if we can make soup from scratch one day and distribute that for one lunch, then we've added to their plus one side. That's one less processed food that the kids eat. And so with that notion in mind, what I try to do is introduce one little thing at a time that affects small change in a steady constant way.
NNAMDIWell, how hard it is it to ramp up from one school with a garden or a kitchen to an entire school district that buys local produce and feeds tends of thousands of students healthy meals?
ARMSTRONGI mean, I would probably defer to Alice for that. She has more expertise on it than I do. I would imagine that it is just a tremendous task, you know? And definitely, as she mentions, the buying process is probably the first step to correcting the problem that in this idea that the schools have to buy from the USDA and their budget is limited to what they buy on commodities market and years in advances is probably the first problem that could easily be resolved if we change how we shop for food.
NNAMDII guess the underlying principle is the same. But it's the expansion of scale, I guess, that, I guess, some people would find intimidating.
WATERSIt is intimidating. But I think we need to think about it in the biggest possible way so that we have a vision for what this transformation could look like. I remember back in the '60s, President Kennedy cheer-leaded for physical education to be put in the curriculum of every school in this country. And consequently, people -- the schools built the tracks, they hired the teachers, they -- we all had to take physical education from kindergarten all the way through high school. And it wasn't a matter of spending money from the government -- the federal government to do that.
WATERSIt was up to the local governments to do that. And they found money because it was that important to do. And that was a long time ago. And now, we're talking about the environment. We're talking about climate change. We're talking about kids dropping out of school. We're talking about the obesity epidemic. We're talking about the -- just the falling apart of public education in America. So we need to do something really fundamental.
WATERSAnd I think when you talk about changing school lunch, the way that our kids eat, and we decide that there's going to be a criteria for the buying of food like Cathal said, that we determine that food should be bought from local, sustainable producers, that that, in and of itself, is giving money to the people who are taking care of the land for the future of this planet.
WATERSAnd so it's really having a very strong collaboration among the people who care about hunger -- about childhood hunger in this country with chefs who really have good taste to fold in to that whole proposition because if it doesn't taste good, the kids aren't going to eat.
NNAMDIAnd there's probably nothing more fundamental than healthy food and nutrition for kids. That's what we're talking about with Alice Waters and Cathal Armstrong. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think we adults can do to make healthy foods more appealing to our kids? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation on kids and food. We're talking with Cathal Armstrong, owner and chef of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. and founder of Chefs as Parents and Alice Waters, founder and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project. They both join us in studio. Allow me to go directly to the telephones. Here now is Robert in Fairfax, Va. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTThank you, Kojo. Great program. I like both of your restaurants -- your speakers' restaurants. One question is when you're planting a school garden, do you test for toxins first, especially here in Washington. How do we know that we're not planting our gardens in lead-laced soil?
NNAMDIWell, I don't know if Alice Waters has been planting gardens in Washington. But let me ask her if she tests for toxicity in California.
WATERSWe certainly did because the space that we dug up had asphalt on top of it, sort of broken asphalt. And so we had to go in there with a backhoe and take out all the asphalt. And what we ended up doing was planting a cover crop that was designed to pull the toxins out of the soil. And I'm not a gardener in that deep way.
WATERSBut we found people that really understood how to make that soil really something that's healthy again. It took us several years with lots of compost in semis being dropped off at the school. But, in fact, it turned something that really was poisonous into something that is nutritious and healthy.
NNAMDIRobert, thank you very much for your call.
ROBERTYou're very welcome.
NNAMDIWe move on to Valentin in Catonsville, Md. Valentin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VALENTINHi, Kojo. Great show again. But I was wondering what you and your guests thought about the viability or even desirability of -- in inner cities where you have the poorest schools, you also have the most number of restaurants, like, per square mile.
VALENTINWould it be possible or even discernable to have maybe those restaurants -- ask those restaurants to cater lunch, I think, once a month or something and alternate between them, thus having some advertising for themselves and of those for the kids and providing the children with lunch from better or more nutritious than they'll get through the school lunch program?
NNAMDIYou know what's interesting, Valentin, and Cathal can tell you more about this than I can, is that the chefs in this area got together and decided on a slightly grander project than that. Cathal.
ARMSTRONGYeah. I mean, we always find that the chefs in this area are particularly inclined to participate in charitable ways. You know, we're often, very often called on to do these things. And invariably, we choose the ones that we care about and that we love to do. You know, I remember at one stage, one of the guys that works for me asked me about it, a charitable event that I was going to.
ARMSTRONGAnd he said, oh, yeah, and they'll be lots of press there. And I said, look, I don't care about press. There's press down the walls here. You know, I'm doing this thing because I care about it, you know, so there's never an issue with chefs participating at things. We do school-related activities year round.
NNAMDIWith your parents, too.
NNAMDIAnd so this is why those chefs decided that they would involve themselves in schools in a much bigger way.
ARMSTRONGRight. So, and, you know, as soon as the leadership from the White House, you know, both from the first lady and to the excellent leadership of Sam Kass, we've really developed a great community of chefs that are so interested and involved in this subject that getting them to participate in ways that you would think are financially ridiculous, you know, are never a problem for us.
NNAMDIWell, go ahead please, Alice Waters.
WATERSI would just wanted to say that, you know, I looked at what Jamie Oliver did in England with the lunch ladies, and I think in a way that that may be our best place is in teaching the people who are cooking at the schools the really -- the ways to cook food that comes from local farms, that we can have that kind of boot camp. But it's very difficult to ask chefs to prepare food at the restaurant and take it to schools.
WATERSI think we need to be in that place of taste, really in that place of taste because if the food tastes good, the kids eat it, and when they eat it, they want to come back and do it again. So it is critical that this is -- when you're sautéing those greens, that you have a lot of garlic in there, and that you get the kids to be doing that sautéing. And as I said, this is not really a home ec class or a cooking class. This is maybe an English class where they're writing the recipe for sautéed greens with garlic.
WATERSAnd maybe it's a language class, and they're speaking in Spanish, or they're speaking in Chinese, who knows, but they're cooking the food of that place. And it is digested in a very different way, deeply digested. And I think that that's the critic -- we want to have kids feel that they're loved. And when you bring them around the table -- I'm sure, Cathal feels the same way, when you bring kids around the table and they eat together and they eat something that's good, they feel like they're being taken care of.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Lindsey in Takoma Park, Md. Lindsey, your turn.
LINDSEYHi. Thanks for taking my call. I am part of a parent organization called Real Food For Kids - Montgomery that is working to improve the food in the Montgomery County schools. And this is one of the largest school districts in the country with 202 schools and more than 149,000 students. So my question for you is whether you have a device for working with such a large school system and by getting their buy-in and also whether you're aware of grants for organizations trying to do this work.
WATERSWell, I just want to say that my -- I think my best piece of advice is less is more, and truly, deeply, it is. I mean, slicing tomatoes and putting a vinaigrette on them is very, very easy to do. And I think people overcomplicate the food. I think that kids, in general, like to eat food separate, one taste separate when -- especially when they're young.
WATERSThey like to taste it. They like to put it together themselves. And I think there's a lot of food that's really affordable and nutritious and that we have to brainstorm as chefs, come up with the kind of dishes that really work for the kids and work in terms of the preparation. And I think we can do that.
NNAMDILindsey, thank you very much for your call. You mentioned earlier, Cathal, that it took us, what, 30 years to finds ourselves in this situation. What's your prognosis for how the school lunch program, how long it will take to turn it around? How long will it take before we've replaced all the French fries with fresh food?
NNAMDIBut I want to ask it in the context of Alice mentioning earlier the effect that President Kennedy had. And you mentioned the First Lady and her Let's Move campaign for healthy eating and more exercise. How important is that in the process, the fact that it comes from the White House, and how can that help if you will to speed the process up?
ARMSTRONGWell, I think the primary role of the president of the United States and the people around the president of the United States -- and we've seen this particular first lady but other first ladies -- give leadership, and that's really what their role is is that they're helping the people understand the goals for the people of the country. And Mrs. Obama has given tremendous leadership on what we believe are the right goals for the children of this country which is a healthier food, but not just healthier food, a healthier lifestyle, a healthier well-being in schools.
ARMSTRONGAnd without leaders like Alice and the White House, these things don't come about. You know, these changes don't come about. Somebody has to be crazy enough to say, we should put a school garden in Martin Luther King Middle School, you know? And without leaders like that and without the commitment and dedication, it's never going to happen.
NNAMDICrazy like a fox. We got this email from Brian for Alice. It says, "When you started this work 40 years ago, it was considered radical. Now, local seasonal produce is far more mainstream, even if children and schools haven't entirely embraced it yet. Can you reflect on how attitudes have changed over the years you've been involved in this work?"
WATERSWell, I can really speak from the experience that I've had at Chez Panisse. Now, we serve 500 people a day which is a rather small amount compared to any kind of school feeding. But we have bought that food from local people, and we built a community around the restaurant. We feel responsible to them, and they feel responsible to us.
WATERSI can't really describe how easily that really came about. I mean, it was hard in the beginning to find the people. But once you found them and figured out how to cook in that seasonal way, then you couldn't imagine doing it any other way. And it's that we're so programmed, so indoctrinated by "Fast Food Nation" that we are told that it's too difficult to have enough farmers who can supply the schools, that it's too expensive, that it's -- that cooking is treachery, let us do something easily at a factory and send it over.
WATERSWell, these are all values that we have digested as a country because that's what we eat. We are what we eat. And so we have to go back to the beginning to when kids are little and bring them into a new relationship to food that is connected to nature and that it really feels right for the kids, and it tastes good because it is ripe, you know? Who could resist a peach?
NNAMDIYou are in town for the 5th annual Sips and Suppers fundraiser which I met you while participating last year. I was, of course, doing the real hard work of narrating and commenting on the football game for the real sous chefs. But this is something that you helped create to support two local groups, the D.C. Central Kitchen and Martha's Table. Why are they on your priority list?
WATERSWell, it was Joan Nathan that have brought these two organizations to our attention. And she insisted that I go and visit them.
NNAMDIYes, that's how she got me there too.
WATERSOh, yeah. And then I was so impressed. I -- two projects that they have, one in each organization, just surprised me. At Martha's table, they were going to schools with the donations of food and offering them to the parents and the children after school and teaching them, talking to them about how to cook that food. That's a beautiful thing.
WATERSAnd at D.C. Central Kitchen, the astonishing work that they are doing is not only gleaning from the farms as a second harvest for the organic farmers but they're bringing that food in and processing it. Now, they're also training the young people, I think older ones, too, to be cooks. And when I went to visit one of the schools here in D.C., it's the first time that I have ever walked into a school kitchen where the food smelled good.
WATERSAnd what was she doing? She was just baking sweet potatoes. That's all she was doing. She was baking them in the oven so simply. Maybe they had a little olive oil or garlic some place. But it just made me -- and so -- I mean, I was excited that there was this young person who would actually gone to that school, who was cooking in the school something that really tasted good.
NNAMDIWe talked with Robert Egger, the founder of D.C. Central Kitchen last week.
NNAMDIHe is moving on to Los Angeles where he'll be doing essentially the same thing, but he leaves a great tradition here. Afraid we're out of time in this segment. Alice Waters, thank you so much for joining us.
WATERSOh, thank you.
NNAMDIAlice Waters is founder and owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Ca., and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project. Cathal Armstrong, thank you for joining us.
ARMSTRONGThanks for having me. A pleasure.
NNAMDII'll be seeing you again. Cathal Armstrong is owner and chef of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria and founder of Chefs as Parents. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, why thieves are stealing Tide laundry detergent and trading it for drugs? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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