WHEN ALICE WATERS first launched the Edible Schoolyard Project in 1995, the venture was entirely new, but it was also a natural extension of the principles she’d been practicing for years. The culinary icon, best known as founder and owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, had long been a pioneer and champion of the Slow Food movement. She wanted to bring that ethos into the American classroom.
“We all eat, and we all go to school — or we should,” she says. “They’re both universal.” But she was depressed by the industrialized, loveless approach governments often take to feeding children. So Waters set out to change the way we think about school, to transform learning “from a necessity to something that wakes up all of your senses.” And to put students in touch with that most basic pleasure: sitting around the table and sharing food with family and friends. “It’s been happening since the beginning of civilization,” she says. “It’s in our genes. When you touch that place, you know it already. You want it.” She goes on to say, “It’s like baking bread.” When the smell of fresh bread is in the air, it activates a kind of primal knowledge. “Everyone looks around and says, Where did that come from? I want a bite.”
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Waters set out to change the way we think about school, to transform learning “from a necessity to something that wakes up all of your senses.” And to put students in touch with that most basic pleasure: sitting around the table and sharing food with family and friends.
The Edible Schoolyard began in Berkeley as a collaboration with Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School’s principal, Neil Smith. Smith embraced the initiative, Waters raised funds, and soon they were transforming a vacant lot at the school into a garden. Shortly after, they were building out a kitchen classroom where students could learn and cook. Smith was taking a risk — he allowed teachers who were not traditionally accredited to participate and let students have “sharp knives and pickaxes. He let me do whatever I felt was needed,” Waters recalls with gratitude.
Waters was guided by Montessori principles, especially learning by doing and the idea of developing the senses. “Those are our pathways into our minds,” she says. It’s a method she has used for decades to engage diners at Chez Panisse. “I wanted the restaurant to smell good,” she says, “to taste good, and I wanted it to be beautiful, and to have sounds that weren’t jarring, sounds that were easing. All of your senses would be activated so that people who came in would fall in love with food.” She hoped the same would happen at the Edible Schoolyard — that students would fall in love with learning through growing, preparing, and eating food. “It worked like a charm,” she smiles. “It was designed to do that.” (The curriculum is now implemented in whole or in part in over 5,800 schools worldwide.)
That idea is now being carried forward by a new generation of leaders at the Edible Schoolyard who are particularly focused on expanding the reach of the organization’s mission. This includes the executive director, Angela McKee-Brown. “I grew up in my mother’s kitchen,” says the Houston, Texas, native. “Food has always played a central role in my life in terms of connecting with family, but also understanding the kitchen table as a place for community building.” Before joining the Edible Schoolyard, McKee-Brown worked with La Cocina, a nonprofit incubator that supports women of color and immigrant women in the Bay Area to launch and grow their food businesses. She also led an initiative to redesign San Francisco’s school cafeterias, a project that transformed her thinking on food access and policy.
Meals at school have a fraught history, and for McKee-Brown, it’s personal. She recalls “never knowing where to sit in the school lunchroom — all those things. I kind of dreaded school lunch my whole life.” It’s worth noting how many of us look back with horror on the social and gustatory traumas of the cafeteria. “How we value children is how we feed them,” McKee-Brown says.
So how can the lunchroom experience be made not only more tasty, but also more dignified, comfortable, joyful, and better for the climate? How can we create a more just society and a more just world through food?
So how can the lunchroom experience be made not only more tasty, but also more dignified, comfortable, joyful, and better for the climate? How can we create a more just society and a more just world through food? These are questions that animate McKee-Brown’s work. And under her leadership, the Edible Schoolyard is accelerating its efforts. When in-person schooling was on hiatus during the pandemic, the organization was forced to pivot. “That was a true moment,” she recalls. But, she says, “joy is central to my work,” so she connected with her staff of 17 to figure out how they could preserve joy and creativity during a dark, uncertain time.
One thing they did was craft new curricula, like Cooking with Curiosity, a learning plan that focuses on skill-building and can be implemented at home. (The teachings are free and accessible online.) “There’s one really cool lesson where you’re flipping rice in a skillet,” says McKee-Brown. “You’re learning how to do that beautiful flip. That was a ton of fun. The lessons engage the student; the student is at the center of the learning experience, but the lessons are also meant to be fun for caregivers, teachers, or perhaps the older sibling who’s home that day.” Other activities include using food scraps to grow new plants and learning a recipe by calling an elder.
The Cooking with Curiosity curriculum, which has over 100,000 downloads, was designed by Raquel Vigil, who worked for many years at the intersection of food, education, and social justice. Vigil’s desire to be hands-on with food led her to pastry school and farming school. But it was her interest in education that led her to design programs for kids, with “food as the subject and site” of learning. She is now the curriculum specialist at the Edible Schoolyard and has authored close to 180 lessons.
Vigil talks about her work with the contagious enthusiasm of a chef sharing their cooking philosophy, lighting up as she tells me how she combines rigorous research with an emphasis on students and an awareness that each individual is coming from different circumstances. “There is a vibrancy that’s created when you look at curriculum design as a creative process,” she says. For Vigil, food affords a special opportunity to create a curriculum that is holistic, humane, sensory, multidisciplinary, student centered, and, above all, pleasurable.
Food also illuminates the issue of equity in ways that all students can understand. Access to healthy, local food is something many young people intuitively recognize as a human right. With the Edible Schoolyard, Waters wanted to nurture that idea in children and demonstrate to adults that it is necessary, feasible, and even economically wise to operate this way. Waters explains, “I wanted to make a model of how food could teach the values we need to learn to live on this planet together.” Teaching stewardship, Waters says, “happens naturally, like it did at Chez Panisse when we started to buy food directly from the people who took care of the land, who were right there: the producers. The values came right through the kitchen door, and we became friends, and then all of our compost went back to the farms. That relationship is what I’m imagining for the school system.” Additionally, she points out that this approach is never more expensive, because it leaves out the middleman.
Waters’ current work is focused on what she calls school-supported agriculture: connecting schools with local producers and deindustrializing both systems through the school lunch program. Through the nascent Alice Waters Institute for Regenerative Agriculture & Edible Education — a collaboration with the University of California, Davis — she and her colleagues will bring together experts from the fields of education, health care, agriculture, policy, and business to continue to innovate solutions for equitable food systems.
The success of the Edible Schoolyard Project has shown how seamlessly what she calls “edible education” can be woven into the instruction of more traditional subjects. For example, at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, students visit the garden with their science class and the kitchen classroom with humanities classes. They learn about diversity and respect, and they feel a sense of dignity from cultivating and harvesting food, and enjoying the fruits of that labor. “Who knew that kids would like kale?” Waters laughs. But if there’s one thing she has learned, it’s that “if they grow it and they cook it, they all eat it.”
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Alexandra Brodsky Director
Alex Brodsky is a photographer and filmmaker whose films have screened at venues such as New Directors/New Films, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Nantucket Film Festival, among others. Her film "Bittersweet Place" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, garnering a special jury commendation. She is a founding partner, along with Mary Stuart Masterson and Cassandra Del Viscio, of Quality Pictures, a production company dedicated to social impact, located in the Hudson Valley.
Mary Stuart Masterson Director
Mary Stuart Masterson is an award-winning American actress and director. Her film, TV, and theater career includes roles in "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Fried Green Tomatoes," "Benny and Joon," CBS’s "Kate Brasher," and the Broadway musical "Nine." After moving to New York’s Hudson Valley, Masterson founded Stockade Works, a nonprofit that trains, hires, and mentors the local workforce in film production across all departments. She is also the founder of Upriver Studios, a state-of-the-art soundstage complex in the Hudson Valley, and co-founder of Storyhorse Documentary Theater Company.