A letter to Clinton and Gore by Alice Waters

Here is the full text of Alice Waters' letter dated 12/9/95, 
from which excerpts were printed in EarthLight EL #23, 
Fall 1996, p 3-4 

Dear Mr. President & Mr. Vice President,

When we met not long ago in San Francisco, you both talked inspirationally about building community. This is a goal that I believe all Americans wholeheartedly endorse. All of us would agree that it has to do with people taking responsibility for one another and communicating with one another. But how can we reasonably expect people to know how to begin to do this when so many of them believe that nothing they do will make any difference?
A sense of community rarely happens spontaneously (except maybe at a concert- or in a crisis). It doesn't work to just exhort people to be responsible. It has to be demonstrated- with determination and persistence, over and over again. The best way is when something that you do every day of your life has community values right at its heart.
I am convinced that food can again be, as it once was, the everyday vehicle for learning mutual responsibility. When food preparation and service was both the solemn shared duty and the reward of family living, community values were instilled at the dinner table. Families eating together passed on values such as courtesy, kindness, generosity, thrift, respect, and reverence for the goodness of Nature.
The ritual of coming to the dinner table was once the very basis of community. As Francine du Plessix Gray wrote recently in the New Yorker, 'The family meal is not only the core curriculum in the school of civilized discourse; it is also a set of protocols that curb our natural savagery and our animal greed, and cultivate a capacity for sharing and thoughtfulness....The ritual of nutrition helps to imbue families, and societies at large, with greater empathy and fellowship.'
The bonds between people that give them a sense of community are forged not only at the table, but throughout the whole process of putting food there. Meaningful feeling is built up from small relationships - such as the one with the baker; you go down to the bakery and say hello and buy your bread. Repeated contact makes people become sympathetic to one another's situations and lives. The bonds that are formed create an atmosphere of caring and sharing.
Buying food in the anonymous way you do in the supermarket simply does not allow for these kinds of transactions to take place. If the staff of life comes to you prepackaged, from far away, you may belong to a virtual community, but not a real one.
If we choose to feed ourselves responsibility, if we feed ourselves with fresh, living, local food, we have to interact with purveyors who are trying to live on the earth in a harmonious and responsible way. After several years of buying food from such people in a farmers market, one has all kinds of understanding: about agricultural economy and risk, and the heroic effort required to husband the land and its life-sustaining resources: about who the farmers are and what they grow best; and about the freshness and seasonality of food and what things smell and taste like. And these kinds of understandings contribute to the health and stability of local agriculture and to real sense of belonging to a local community.
When I say these things, often somebody will complain that it is all well for me - the owner of an expensive restaurant, with a sophisticated clientele, located in a mild climate, with a long growing season - to prescribe this kind of eating, but for most Americans it is a luxury that is all but out of reach. Not so! Wherever there is a farmers market, there is always someone there who is selling unbelievable food - plentiful, ripe, and inexpensive. If people continue to want to shop this way it will come to pass. Farmers markets are spreading and farmers everywhere are diversifying and reconnecting with people who live in their regions. Community-supported agriculture is the most positive-spirited movement in the country. Not only have farmers markets proliferated, bringing pleasure to everyone who goes to them, but consumers are cooperatively supporting farms, and programs like the WIC program - food stamps for women, infants, and children to be used at farmer's markets - make it possible for the most disadvantaged people to enjoy ripe, pure food.
Over the past twenty-five years I have seen an independent community of producers and consumers grow up around Chez Panisse. This makes me feel certain that the same growth can happen nationwide. Fresh, nourishing food need never again be stigmatized as elitist. Wholesome, honest food must be the entitlement of all Americans, not just the rich, and its availability should be a public goal. In my experience people react strongly and positively to these ideas. If you were to talk about food with the same fervor with which you now talk about Americorps, it could accelerate and strengthen our movement toward a healthier diet and a saner society.
Part of the problem is that we are brought up to believe that food just isn't that important. Unfortunately, the study and practice of growing and eating food is not now part of most schools curriculums. At the beginning of this century, however, the state of California actively encouraged school gardens. In 1990 an educator named James Ralph Jewel wrote a booklet entitled Suggestions for Garden Work in California Schools. He said, 'School gardens teach, among other things, private care for public property, economy, honesty, application, concentration, justice, the dignity of labor, and love for the beauties of nature.'
In my own neighborhood, we have formed a partnership between the local junior high school and many neighbors, parents, and interested small businesses. Our purpose is to educate our children about food. Our project, called The Edible Schoolyard, plans to create and sustain an organic garden and landscape that is wholly integrated into the school curriculum and lunch program. Students will be involved in all aspects of farming the garden - as well as in preparing, serving, and eating the food they grow. The purpose of this is to awaken their senses and teach the values of community responsibility, good nourishment, and good stewardship of the land. I am delighted that Delaine Eastin, the California State Superintendent of Education, has decided that a school garden should be an integral part of each demonstration school that is participating in the United States Department of Agriculture's Team Nutrition program for improving school lunches. 
I have long maintained that the two most honorable professions are farming and teaching. Yet politics is an honorable profession, too, when politicians articulate a national yearning and get people to follow them. The present administration has the chance to invigorate public dialogue by turning our attention to how food must be at the center of our lives. We long for a positive vision for change, but we will never have community until we are all participating in solutions to our current crises. Help us nourish our children by bringing them back around the table, where we can pass on our most humane values. Help us create a demand for sustainable agriculture, for it is at the core of sustaining everyone's life. Talk about it; promote it as part of the schools curriculum; encourage the spread of farmers markets; and demonstrate it with organic gardens on the grounds of the White House and the Vice Presidential mansion. To do these things would be in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, who believed that we had to be a nation of farmers in order to preserve our values of freedom and community. 
Your administration began by invoking Jeffersonian ideals. I believe that this is your best opportunity to bring them to life.
With admiration and Support,
Alice Waters
Proprietor, Chez Panisse, Berkeley, California


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