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President honors Alice Waters’ vision of ethical food with medal

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

Sep. 10, 2015

Berkeley pioneer of the farm-to-table movement Alice Waters received the National Humanities Medal at the White House on Thursday, the kitchen garden she inspired now rooted on the lawn outside where first lady Michelle Obama frequently showcases the virtues of real food.

Honored for “celebrating the bond between the ethical and the edible,” Waters was one of 10 recipients of the Humanities medal, joined by 10 recipients of the National Medal of Arts. Actress Sally Field and author Larry McMurtry, storyteller of the American West, also were honored.

President Obama presented the awards in the East Room of the White House, where each honoree was called by name to the podium and a brief summary of his or her achievements was read. Waters, 71, her head reaching barely to the president’s chest, beamed as Obama stood next to her and then draped a large ribbon and medal around her neck.

Chef, author and advocate Alice Waters of Berkeley (right) stands with President Obama before being presented with the National Humanities Medal in the East Room of the White House. Evan Vucci / Associated Press

“Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it,” Obama said, quoting poet Emily Dickinson, lauding each of the honorees for having “some urgent inner force” that led them “to express the truth they experience.”

Waters’ urgent inner force, a headstrong devotion to locally grown and organic food and a zeal about introducing those foods to schoolchildren, has profoundly influenced not just American cuisine but food policy in Washington. Her ideas about eating and producing foods that are healthy for people and the environment lie at the heart of the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity.

Looming dispute

They are also at the center of an ongoing brawl, about to heat up this fall in Congress, over whether the National School Lunch program should continue to adhere to stricter standards on the foods served to schoolchildren. Republicans and their allies in the School Nutrition Association, which represents school lunch administrators and counts major food manufacturers among its contributors, contend that children are rejecting the healthier food, leading to waste and financial losses in the program.

Waters exchanged a warm greeting with the first lady, who came to the event after the awards were presented. The president singled Waters out in his closing remarks, joking that she had promised to cook for him, but “nothing unethical” that would violate rules against gifts.

A New Jersey native whose family seldom dined out, Waters traces her activism to her days as a student of French cultural studies at UC Berkeley, where she was deeply influenced by the Free Speech Movement, and where her junior year abroad took her to France.

There, according to a 2009 essay, she said she fell in love with French food and also the way “life and food were seamlessly woven together.”

Waters opened her restaurant, Chez Panisse, at age 27 in a Shattuck Avenue bungalow in the Berkeley flatlands, contravening conventional wisdom about how to run a restaurant, French or otherwise. Her father mortgaged his house to loan her the cash to open the restaurant, where she promptly lost $40,000 in the first three months. It took eight years, she said, to make a profit.

For years, she said she lived with friends and took no salary, but persisted in her dream. She was looking, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities medalist biography, “for taste, the taste of food I’d eaten in France. I was looking for a certain way of life. I was thinking about a philosophy of food that’s been around since the beginning of civilization: You buy what’s in the market, you eat what’s locally in season, you share it with family and friends, and you take care of the land.”

Waters founded the Chez Panisse Foundation in 1996, creating the Edible Schoolyard Project, whose first experiment with a 1-acre garden at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School has since spread to several other cities, including New Orleans and New York. The White House organic garden, which Waters first urged, without success, on President Bill Clinton, is a kind of replica of the idea, where Michelle Obama invites schoolchildren to plant and harvest foods each year as part of her antiobesity campaign.

Catalyst for reforms

She was initially dismissed as an annoying but harmless Berkeley eccentric by the conventional food and agriculture industries, but Waters’ focus on school lunches became a catalyst for reforms of the the $10 billion federal school lunch program that reaches millions of children in every corner of the country. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, requiring higher nutrition standards, was enacted in 2010 with Michelle Obama’s strong support and now is the target of Republicans aiming to roll back the standards.

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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