Alice Waters: Activist Angel or Foodie Fascist?


Poor Alice has been getting beaten up regularly these days, particularly after her recent appearance on 60 minutes. On the show, she came off as quite out of touch with how normal people live. In essence, she said that she chooses to spend more money on good food and, well, why shouldn’t other people?

She even made an unfortunate comment about how some people prioritize buying two pairs of Nike sneakers. After mulling over the show, reading the many opinion pieces all over the web, and thinking about what she has accomplished, I still don’t really know where I stand on the issue, so I thought I’d put it to you readers.

Without at doubt, Waters lives in her own rarefied world. Berkeley has a year-round temperate climate and an abundance of farmers’ markets. She has a lovely house with a gorgeous kitchen, complete with open hearth. I’m sure she worked hard over the years to get where she is, but now she has personal assistants and staff to take care of the boring little details of life, so she may not have a very good grasp on the struggles of us everyday plebes who have to get to work on time, keep the house clean, pay bills, answer our own emails and feed our kids, while also making sure they get back and forth to all their school activities. And I’m pretty sure she regrets having made that comment about Nike sneakers.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, her insistence on serving only local, organic food in our nation’s truly abysmal school cafeterias is a little nuts considering how far they have to come. I think she probably truly does believe everyone deserves good, wholesome, organic food, but this piece read rather disingenuous, like it was a response to the criticism she’s been getting.

On the other hand, we have Waters to thank for things like locally-grown baby salad greens, the joy of knowing where our food comes from, the pleasure of enjoying the best ingredients cooked as simply as possible and most recently, the fact that the Obamas are planting a vegetable garden at the White House (she has lobbied for this since the Clintons lived there). For people who care about food, she is a hero.

The Edible Schoolyard she founded in Berkeley is a triumph, and she had a big hand in the fact that 85,000 people showed up to Slow Food Nation last summer in San Francisco. The fact that 60 Minutes is covering local, organic food is a huge step forward.

I think we need many changes in this country in the way we eat: in schools, in hospitals, in grocery stores, and convenience stores, and our own kitchens. We need individuals to jump on board and we need different government policies around food.

But every individual working on these changes needs to do it from where they are. Alice is simply making changes where she lives. Maybe other communities less blessed cannot replicate her Edible Schoolyard, but if she inspires some teachers and parents to work with kids to plant a few seeds, perhaps that’s better on balance. Or is she so out of touch she alienates the very people she’d like to inspire?

Image: San Francisco Chronicle / Carlos J. Ortiz

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.