Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project changed how Berkeley students eat. Its next goal: to fight climate change

Sitting in the sun-drenched dining room of her famed Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, Alice Waters explained the philosophical principle guiding much of her life since 1944, the year she was born:

“Our senses are our pathways into our minds.”

Waters lingered over the point, which like her food, is deceptively simple.

“So,” Waters continued, resolute, “we need to be educating those senses that have been dulled by fast food culture, indoctrination. We need to touch, we need to taste, we need to listen.”

And that education, an edible education, is what the chef, author and activist has attempted to provide not just to guests at Chez Panisse, but to a much wider, perhaps even pickier, swath of the dining public — children — since 1995, when she launched the Edible Schoolyard (ESY) Project, a garden, kitchen and cafeteria curriculum at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. Two-and-a-half decades on, the organization has partnered with more than 5,600 schools around the world.

Now, as ESY launches into its 25th year, Waters and the organization’s staff talked lessons learned, challenges and their most ambitious pledge yet — to help Americans eat their way out of climate change.

How it all began

It’s hard to say exactly where and when Waters began contemplating edible education. One thread traces to 1967, the year that Waters graduated from UC Berkeley. Soon after, she learned about the Montessori pedagogy from a family friend, according to her memoir, Coming to My Senses. Waters was immediately captivated by the aesthetically conscious, experiential approach to learning.

“I could never learn in the abstract, and Montessori was all about learning through your senses, learning by doing,” she wrote.

Waters’ fascination led her to an internship at a Montessori school in Berkeley, followed by a training program in London, and ultimately back to Berkeley for a teaching position.

But, as history would have it, Waters proved to be a far more effective chef than school teacher, and she was eventually let go from her Montessori position. Still, the experience gave her a guiding framework that she applied when Chez Panisse opened in 1971.

“I’ve used my Montessori principles in running this restaurant,” Waters said. “There’s flowers. There’s lights. There’s soft music.” “We want people to smell what’s happening in the kitchen, so it’s engaging people in almost an unconscious way.”

As Chez Panisse got its sea legs, life for Waters proceeded apace, and, in 1983, she had a child. Waters pondered: Where would she go to school? What were the schools like in Berkeley? These questions sparked an extension of the revolution that Waters began in the kitchen.

“I was going by King school, and I noticed how run down it looked. I thought it was abandoned. Truly I did. And I thought: How in this city, in Berkeley, could this be happening when we have a great University of California?’”

Waters voiced her view publicly to a reporter at the time. Not long after the story broke, her phone rang. It was Neil Smith, then the principal at King Middle School. “We immediately had a meeting of the minds,” Waters recalled. “He said, ‘I want to do something here. Can you help me?’”

By then, King Middle School had, according to Waters, outgrown its facilities on Rose Street, which are located just a half-mile from Chez Panisse. The buildings, Waters said, were built to accommodate roughly 500 children; in 1995, though, the school had a student population of 1,000 (a number it retains to this day). Still, King had an asset — room to grow. “It was built on 21 acres of land, which is kind of amazing,” Waters said.

So while on a visit to the school, Waters had an epiphany.

“I looked around with Neil Smith, and I just had this complete vision, I guess, a kind of Montessori vision. I thought, let’s make a garden classroom.”

A place of learning by doing

“Honestly, it could have used more olive oil.”

“Maybe a little more crisp.”

“It was okay, but not: ‘Oh My God.’”

“You didn’t put salt in it!”

Are these the takes of discerning guests at Chez Panisse? Or critiques from its studied cooks, huddled over some new dish? No, these are the honed opinions of seventh graders at King Middle School, dissecting a kale-pesto bruschetta that they’d spent roughly 90 minutes preparing during a class in the ESY kitchen.

Esther Cook (far left), the senior chef teacher at Edible Schoolyard during the tasting portion of the kitchen class.
Esther Cook, the senior chef teacher and kitchen operations manager at Edible Schoolyard during the tasting portion of a kitchen class. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

The students’ assembly of that bruschetta demonstrates a similar culinary confidence, one that belies their age: a diminutive girl with spiraled hair eagerly grates Parmesan; three boys in athleisure huddle around an oven toasting bread. One student pounds garlic in a mortar and pestle, while another liberally adds olive oil that cascades into the receptacle.

“You’re seeing this program two-decades plus in, it wasn’t always like this,” said senior chef teacher and kitchen operations manager Esther Cook with a laugh. “Early on, it was crazy! It was so fun because it was new. We probably made every mistake in the book, and still managed to feel successful, because we knew that what we were doing was landing the students in a really positive way.”

Edible Schoolyard class schedule in the kitchen classroom at King Middle School.
A rundown of the Grand Finale Showcase in the ESY kitchen class at King Middle School. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Cook is at once affable and earnest, with a name that well suits her profession. Before she began at ESY, Cook worked for years as a chef in the Bay Area, which is how she heard about Market Cooking for Kids, a program hosted by CUESA, in which local chefs led youth-targeted tastings and cooking projects.

“I was doing that twice a month for four years, and I started realizing how much I was looking forward to those days. And what exciting work it felt like,” Cook said.

So when a position with ESY opened up in 1997, Cook jumped at the opportunity. She got the job, and that year, Waters and Smith launched a kitchen classroom at King to complement the garden curriculum.

Now, ESY at King is a veritable operation. “We have 10 classes a week, roughly 30 students per class… it’s well over 250 people a week in each [kitchen and garden] class,” said Geoff Palla, the operations manager and senior garden teacher at King. Which means that, all told, King’s ESY teachers see about 500 students a week, or roughly half the school’s population of sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

Like Cook, Palla radiates an educator’s energy, and comes to ESY with ample applied experience. Before joining the organization in 2008, Palla ran his own farm for about five years, and worked on several others. “I came into this job identifying as a grower, coming from a deep agricultural background, and I would say I blossomed into a teacher,” Palla reflected, a transformation that he attributes to professional development at ESY.

“I really believe in working with youth, and particularly this age group — middle school — with respect and kindness and patience,” Palla said. It’s an approach that takes assiduity, especially considering the volume of students that Cook and Palla oversee. One key to their success, Palla observed, is the team’s devoted staff, which comprises three full-time chef teachers, three full-time garden teachers, a part-time garden specialist, and a teaching and research fellow. But they have other strategies, too, that have allowed ESY at King to flourish.

Aprons hang in the kitchen classroom at King Middle School.
Every 90-minute kitchen class at King Middle School starts with a meeting where the teacher explains the dish that students will prepare. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

“There’s a lot of routines that we’ve designed in order to make [classroom] experiences efficient,” Palla said. For instance, every 90-minute kitchen class commences with a chef’s meeting, when a teacher explains the dish that students will prepare. And in the garden, students begin by congregating under a wooden ramada to volunteer for positions harvesting, cultivating or composting that day (the process is surprisingly democratic). “After that flow of the class experience is dialed in, kids know what to expect. Then we can go deeper,” said Palla.

These routines, Cook and Palla explained, also facilitate a natural progression as students move through grade levels at King. Sixth graders in their first semester focus on familiarization with systems, staff, the sequence of the class, and the connection between garden and kitchen.

Kids tend to trees in the Edible Schoolyard garden classroom at King Middle School.
Students tend to trees during the garden classroom at King Middle School. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

“When they come back in the spring, that’s when we start to make the academic connections to what they’re doing in the classroom,” said Cook.

One popular ESY series, she noted, covers the Silk Road, in which children learn about Chinese, Indian and Roman influences by making rice pudding (the lesson plan and corresponding recipe is available online, like myriad ESY materials).

When students reach the eighth grade, Palla said, “there’s much more autonomy.” Cook added: “By eighth grade, we’re asking and raising a lot more questions than we’re answering.”

Those questions are posed as part of a series called Debate Plate, which covers topics that are tough, timely and important to consider — for individuals of any age: How do your food choices affect your own personal health? How do they affect the environment? How do they affect farm workers? Is access to healthy, clean food a right or a privilege?

The idea is to have students in their final year at King “think of themselves as consumers, and [to understand] that the choices that they make as consumers have repercussions out in their own lives and in the real world,” Cook said. Debate Plate’s analytical component brings the entire experience — growing and preparing and eating food — full circle.

“With that mentality, you’re maybe a more informed voter on environmental things. You’re maybe a healthier person with your diet choices. Maybe you’re even more involved in local political decisions that affect you,” said Palla. “It’s untold what can come from that.”

Edible Schoolyard's senior garden teacher talks to students in the garden classroom at King Middle School.
Edible Schoolyard’s senior garden teacher Jason Uribe talks to students in the garden classroom at King Middle School. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

An edible future for everyone

Any smelling of celebratory roses will be brief for King staff, as they push ahead with improvements to commemorate the 25-year-old program. There will be a bundled restoration effort, says ESY’s partnerships and events manager, Claire Sullivan, which includes plans to upgrade the wooden ramada that serves as a physical touchstone for the garden class; build a new greenhouse; and plant a lavender hillside.

And while King’s ESY program has evolved in its complexity, the organization has also expanded globally, spreading to over 5,600 partner schools in 75 countries as well as 53 U.S. states and territories. Accessibility and value-scaling play key roles in driving that growth, said ESY’s deputy executive director, Angie McKee-Brown.

“We don’t want to own what it means to become an Edible Schoolyard,” McKee-Brown said. “We wanted to make it free and accessible to anyone who wants to implement within their school and their community. So that’s why we provide our curriculum online for free.”

Accordingly, to become part of the ESY network, schools just have to sign up — in addition, of course, to embracing the project’s pedagogy and practices. But Waters said that’s not as difficult as it seems:

“Even with planting plants in pots, on window sills. I mean, it can be the simplest thing.” She added: “I bet in every school, there’s a teacher who’s a gardener and who would love to connect children.”

Palla agreed. “It’s absolutely possible in other places,” he said, when asked whether ESY can be replicated as successfully outside of Berkeley. He pointed to summertime training sessions hosted at King, where educators learn to implement their own ESY projects. “People in these trainings are literally coming from every single type of town and city you can imagine. So that’s been a huge eye opener for me,” he noted.

What’s more, those training sessions are about to grow. On Jan. 16, ESY announced a partnership with UC Davis to establish The Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education, in Sacramento’s Aggie Square.

“We’re about to launch into a whole new era,” said McKee-Brown of the opening. “The Institute will enable us to provide training, year-round, to edible educators.”

Signs in the ESY kitchen classroom at King Middle School.
ESY is expanding, with a partnership with UC Davis to establish The Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education in Sacramento and a new program at Taylor Leadership Academy, a school in Stockton Unified School District. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Plus, in January, the organization kicked off on-the-ground efforts to implement Waters’ ambitious “Pledge to Public Education,” starting at Taylor Leadership Academy, a school in Stockton Unified School District (SUSD).

The pledge, which Waters announced at the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, has three components: to provide free, sustainable school lunch for all students, from kindergarten through 12th grade; to shift procurement practices in public schools to buy directly from local farmers and ranchers with just environmental and labor practices; and to teach students the values of nourishment, stewardship and community through a cafeteria curriculum that McKee-Brown analogizes to ESY’s garden and kitchen programs.

The pledge is an extension of ESY’s values, which as applied to the organization’s work in SUSD, McKee-Brown described as “school-supported agriculture.” Ultimately, it’s about responding to climate change by investing in farmers who adopt regenerative agricultural practices.

“There’s 30 million kids eating school lunch every single day,” McKee-Brown said. “Imagine if we were to shift where that food comes from, and what that could mean for our agricultural sector, for small to midsize organic farmers, and for the health of our community.”

Taylor Leadership Academy is, in many ways, a litmus test for the pledge. After the program is rolled out there, McKee-Brown said the organization will develop a timeline for implementing similar efforts across the south side of Stockton. That area includes 15 public schools, the program’s focus for now.

“But ideally, we’re building tools and resources that are able to translate, and scale up,” she said.

A student handles lettuces picked in the garden classroom at King Middle School.
A student handles lettuces picked in the ESY garden class. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

A delicious revolution

“No question,” Waters responded, when asked if climate change is the most important issue facing the next generation: “It’s number one for me. Above everything; it has to be.”

Towards that end, school-supported agriculture, she said, could be a bellwether of efforts to address climate change, through regenerative farming — and at the same time, boost the financial prospects of organic growers. “I could imagine every school adopting a farm, buying locally, reestablishing a rural economy, with the schools being the engines. And that’s what we have to demonstrate in Stockton.”

Waters, then, strides with ESY into the next 25 years, exulting in the transformative potential of its core values — stewardship, community and nourishment — even as applied to more exigent circumstances. “Addressing [climate change] with food is a delicious revolution,” she said. “We can do it, and I want to make it feel so easy.”

Read more of Nosh’s coverage of Edible Schoolyard Project.