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Alice Waters, school officials talk teaching with food

April 26, 2013|By Mary MacVean
  • First Lady Michelle Obama has been advocating for better school food; here she gardens with students. Celebrity chef Alice Waters and food officials from UCLA and the Los Angeles Unified School District discussed food and culture during a presentation at UCLA's Royce Hall.
First Lady Michelle Obama has been advocating for better school food; here… (Getty Images )

Fast food begets a fast-food culture that has seeped into pretty much everything going on in the world today, the chef Alice Waters told a crowd gathered at UCLA for a presentation about edible education.

Fast food, Waters said, affects our laws, rituals and “ways of doing things”; and it permeates business, journalism, architecture and how we treat one another.

Royce Hall was nearly full Thursday evening with, among others, school cafeteria workers, master gardeners, public health students and teachers and fans of Waters. But David Binkle, the Los Angeles schools food services chief, got nearly as loud an applause as she did – presumably a rare moment for people who provide school lunch.

The event was part of a science and food series and also included Dr. Wendy Slusser, associate clinical professor of pediatrics and medical director of the UCLA Fit for Health program. She is the leader of healthful nutrition activities for the UCLA chancellor’s Healthy Campus Initiative.

From a podium at Royce Hall surrounded by tomato plants and lemon trees, Waters outlined the results of a fast-food culture and its values, including uniformity that leads to a pressure to conform, cheapness and availability.

 "We should be able to get a tomato in Switzerland in November or Evian water in Nairobi,” she said.

Waters offered an antidote – a "slow food" culture that is “not as flashy” but that is “richer, deeper and life-affirming.” That sort of culture would “place food at the center of the curriculum of the whole school.” She envisions learning through food, with math, science, history, language and other subjects taught through growing, cooking and studying food.

Waters, whose Berkeley restaurant is known for its use of local ingredients, developed the Edible Schoolyard; at a middle school in Berkeley, students use a one-acre garden and kitchen classroom, and that led to an expanded project. She also has been advocating for free school meals for all students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

School food is a long way from what gets put onto the plates at Waters' Chez Panisse, considered one of the best restaurants in the state and perhaps beyond.

The Los Angeles Unified School District serves more than 650,000 meals a day – 80% of them to students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals because of their family’s incomes.

Binkle, the district’s director of food services, talked about the increase in use of locally grown produce and improvements to other food. The audience was given some samples – including banana bread made by a local bakery for the district from a recipe that students helped test to reduce the sugar used.

“We don’t have to be a fast-food nation,” he said. “We’ve stopped the cycle of being fast. We’ve gone back to our suppliers and said we don’t really want what you have.” And they worked together to get what LAUSD does want.

Slusser outlined steps at UCLA to improve the food atmosphere, including a new dining hall opening in the fall with healthful, minimally processed food and medicinal gardens at the UCLA hospital. 

Binkle closed the evening on an optimistic note: “Things are changing; the stars are aligning."

Mary.MacVean@latimes.com

@mmacvean on Twitter

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