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Deborah Koons Garcia and Alice Waters Talk GMOs


February 2005

At Common Ground's Invitation, Alice and Deborah Do Lunch

Two food activists, filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia and Alice Waters, founder
of Chez Panisse discuss Edible Schoolyards, the obesity crisis, organic
farming and GMOs.

by Paul Shalmy

Last November Alice Waters, founder of Berkeley's Chez Panisse, introduced a
special screening of Deborah Koons Garcia's documentary The Future of Food
before a full house at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in a benefit for
Slow Food U.S.A. That memorable evening gave Common Ground the notion of
bringing these two food activists extraordinaire together for a

In a PBS American Masters program, Alice Waters and Her Delicious
Revolution, the New York Times' R. W. Apple said of her that "there is no
more influential person in American food." Chez Panisse became world famous
for its revolutionary insistence on using only the freshest and best organic
food from local farms. But, locally, she is equally renowned for starting
The Edible Schoolyard at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Middle School. Nine
years ago, Waters, an ex-Montessori teacher, saw some unused tarmac in the
schoolyard and thought there could be a garden there so the kids could grow
food and learn how to cook it.

In The Future of Food, Mill Valley filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia tells the
disturbing story of the introduction of GMO foods by agribusiness. The
documentary is fast becoming an underground classic at film festivals and
universities, and among environmentalists, food activists and concerned
citizens. It is available now at and will be sold at
Whole Foods Markets this spring. Deborah is also known to her neighbors as
the widow of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia.

Their conversation, excerpted below, took place over lunch at the upstairs
caf at Chez Panisse. As culinary guide books counsel, Alice asked the chef
for his suggestions. He recommended the fedilini pasta with razor clams,
green garlic, and marjoram, which excited Alice; winter couscous with
chickpeas, delicata squash, harissa and charmoula which intrigued Deborah;
and Sierra mackerel roasted in the wood oven which appealed to me. As we
started the conversation, we were aware that Alice had to participate in an
important conference call right after lunch about potential federal support
for her program.

Alice Waters (AW): When I was in New York recently I spoke with a former
Senator who said he could help us get U.S. Department of Agriculture funding
to kick-start the School Lunch Initiative. I said, "Well, good, let's get
that right away." That's what this conference call is all about. Berkeley
Unified School District, the Center for Eco-Literacy, Children's Hospital,
and Chez Panisse Foundation are collaborating to teach school lunch as if it
were an academic subject. We are thinking about moving school lunch from the
maintenance division and making it a legitimate part of the academic life of
every child, K-12, in Berkeley's 17 public schools. The kids will be
involved in the preparation of the food from the garden to the table.

Deborah Koons Garcia (DKG): That's great. In my trips around the country to
show the film I've heard about a similar school program in Santa Fe.
Apparently the kids love to eat something they've grown. Their interest in
food changes.

AW: A Harvard professor did a preliminary study that validated a lot of what
we've done at The Edible Schoolyard for the last nine years. We're going to
evaluate this as we go along. Some money is earmarked for evaluation; some
for educating the parent body; and some will make up the shortfall for
purchase of food. It will cost more because we want to pay the farmers more.
Can you imagine what it will mean to have the buying power to feed 10,000
kids a day? We only feed 500 a day here at the restaurant.

DKG: I showed my film at Commonweal in Bolinas for some people from Health
Care Without Harm [See CG December '04]. There was a woman doctor there who
uses a book called Food and Mood that shows how food alters brain chemistry
and how you feel. Parents ought to be educated about how eating wholesome as
opposed to junk food affects their children's minds. I think that would
motivate parents.

AW: You would think a lot of things. [Laughter.] Parents just don't have
time to eat dinner with their kids. That's why the schools have to take up
the slack, teaching kids that there is something valuable in sitting around
the table with their families. It's all of a piece.

DKG: How far do you think this can go?

AW: I see no limits. Teaching kids to become stewards of the land, to
nourish themselves, and to communicate at the table ‹ that's essential for
the future of the human race. It teaches kids a whole set of values. Forty
years ago, when we had a physical fitness crisis, we decided to add physical
education to the school curriculum. So we built gymnasiums and tracks, and
everyone was obliged to take PE. Well, we're in another crisis, an
environmental crisis and a health crisis.

DKG: Childhood obesity has become an enormous problem.

AW: Which is one of the reasons there is so much interest in the program.
The obesity crisis is at our back. Children's Hospital is involved in this
program because they have identified 4,000 kids in Berkeley and North
Oakland who are at risk for obesity. Their clinic can only take care of 150.
So they were looking for ways to be in the public school system. When they
heard about this program, they thought it offered them a way. There's no
other program that will reach every single child at an early age. So they
want to be a part of this. You know, it's really about timing, like when I
opened Chez Panisse. We have a fantastic moment right now. Despite the
results of the election, doors are opening. Everywhere. I'm talking about an
emotional opening. People need something hopeful, and what could be more
hopeful than this? When you see how deeply the kids are engaged in The
Edible Schoolyard, you know it's as right as rain. This isn't a Democratic
or Republican issue. It's something everybody can relate to.

DKG: I agree. The food issue unites people.

AW: We all must eat. But many adults have no idea what the consequences are
of the [food] choices they make. Corporations have made a deliberate attempt
to obfuscate what's at stake. They don't want you to know where your food
comes from. So, the more we educate the public to the path you go down in
your film, the more awakened we are and shocked by it. Everybody is going to
be shocked by it. If you saw a slaughterhouse, you wouldn't want to buy beef

DKG: I don't eat beef anyway.

AW: The beautiful thing is what you showed at the end of your film. It's a
huge pleasure to know the people who grow your food, to meet them at a
farmer's market and buy from them. Community is about connecting with people
in a regular way. You are supporting them with your purchases, and they are
enriching your life with delicious food.

DKG: And it's a healthy pleasure. Unhealthy consumerism, more and more junk,
does not satisfy people. I hope we're in the middle of a shift where people
can get back to what is pleasurable, what sustains us rather than drains us.

AW: That's why we have to go into the school system and teach kids in an
academic way about the consequences of the decisions they make. We have to
educate them in what I hope will be a delicious way.

DKG: Will all the food be organic?

AW: We are organizing the lunch program so that what we serve the kids is
consistent with what we are teaching them in the classroom. We want to
support the farmers who are taking care of the land for the future. I can't
imagine not having as our goal serving 100 percent sustainable food.

DKG: I showed the film a few nights ago at Google. The two guys who started
the company hired a wonderful chef a few years ago when only 50 people
worked there. Now he serves 4,000 meals a day. He serves as much organic
food as possible, local produce, grass-fed beef. Employees can eat
breakfast, lunch and dinner free. They showed the film in the dining room
with all these people eating and watching. The food was delicious. If kids
are served that kind of food every day, they'll taste it and feel better.
The key is to get them into it long enough so they experience the changes
and appreciate the difference.

AW: That's the goal: To bring them into it without telling them "Don't eat
this, don't eat that" ‹ bringing them into an entirely different
relationship to food, one that has to do with a ritual at the table, with a
really deep understanding of what's on their plate, and that does it in a
delicious way.

DKG: For some progressives and activists, there is this notion of pleasure
being forbidden fruit. Why not have it all? As we go forward, let's protest
and have a great meal.

AW: Exactly right. In America there's work and there's pleasure and they're
a million miles apart. The Edible Schoolyard project succeeded in bringing
them together, so that the kids experience the pleasure of work as a value.
It's not drudgery for these kids to be in the kitchen or to wash dishes.
They stay after class to wash dishes because they're having fun. I love to
do that at the end of a meal. All my friends hang out, we wash the dishes,
play music, and it gets done in no time.

DKG: I love that idea. When I was in school we had a cook. In the eleventh
grade they brought in a food service. The quality changed from someone who
cared about the meal to the impersonal ship-it-in, heat-it-up, and

AW: Kids do notice that. Food is about care. Yes, kids are hungry, but not
only for food. They're just as hungry for people to care about them. To see
the worst kind of processed food come into school kitchens day after day
makes you want to cry. How can you think about feeding this to a child? It's
really wrong. I've been able to mobilize a lot of support because of the
relationships I've forged thanks to Chez Panisse. But I think that a lot of
people connect the restaurant with a kind of food elitism. I want to
demystify that assumption and show the public schools that we can make
affordable, delicious, wholesome food. It's the subject of this new book I'm
going to write. People have to realize -‹ and it's an important message ‹ we
need to pay more for food. We need to pay the farmers well. It's
unacceptable the amount of money that they make for doing the hard work and
bringing us the bounty of their labor and knowledge, this beautiful
nourishing food.

DKG: Farmers need to make a living wage.

AW: They should make more than just a living wage. They are heroes.

DKG: I mean a healthy living wage. As opposed to having certain crops
subsidized so that they end up growing tons of corn, soy, and all those
things that get fed to animals while food for people becomes a kind of
kibble. A lot of these corporations want us all to eat kibble. [Laughter]

AW: That would be fine with them.

DKG: Bio-engineered kibble. When I decided to make this film, I thought it
would be about pesticides. But a friend who's an organic farmer told me that
the big story now is that they genetically engineer seeds so that you can
spray herbicides on the plants and the plants don't die. When I started
researching the film, I learned that Monsanto was genetically engineering
seeds with bacteria that made the plants resistant to Monsanto's Roundup,
the best-selling herbicide in the world. Instead of spraying once before
planting to kill the weeds, they spray over and over again.

AW: They just can't leave well enough alone.

DKG: When you do that, even though Roundup is less toxic than some other
chemicals, you basically turn soil into dirt. You wipe out the
micro-organisms that make it soil, that breathe life into it. Then I found
out Monsanto was buying up seed companies, patenting seeds and suing farmers
who used their own seeds but whose crops had been inadvertently contaminated
by pollen drift from Roundup Ready crops. They sue farmers who've just been
minding their own business for "patent infringement."

AW: They'll go to any lengths to make money, won't they?

DKG: I wanted to make a film that's a cross between Silent Spring and Battle
of Algiers, a film that makes you want to do something. A lot of the people
who've seen it end up going through their cupboards, reading labels, and
throwing stuff out. The film shows how the world is closing in on us. My
generation could drop out and do our own thing, but in the age of
bio-technology, a person can't say, "You do your thing and I'll do mine,"
because your thing will blow over and contaminate my thing and I won't even
know it unless I get my crops tested.

AW: And then they have the gall to foist that stuff on unsuspecting
consumers and their children without ever having to prove its safety or even
label it.

DKG: Which has created a big conflict with foreign countries that don't want
genetically engineered foods. I think we're living in the era of the
Takeover Bully. Are we really a people who believe in democracy and equality
of opportunity, as I was taught, or are we just on a giant power trip? In
bio-engineered agriculture, the seeds and pollen themselves become Takeover
Bullies. They are more aggressive than other plants. We need to fight
against this, because once bullies take over it's hard to get rid of them.
We're at a crossroads. That's why The Edible Schoolyard, your school lunch
initiative and all food activism are so important.

Paul Shalmy is a Berkeley-based freelance writer.