Alice Waters serves up food for thought at Futurewell

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The message was clear at the inaugural Futurewell summit held at west Marin’s Stemple Creek Ranch this past Friday: America’s food system is broken, and it’s harming our people, our economy and the Earth.

But the resolution was uplifting. As panels of food, health, science and public policy professionals gathered for a daylong symposium on the inextricable connection between healthy people and a healthy planet, solutions for change were shared, debated and celebrated.

At its most simple, the consensus was that consumers need to connect directly with farmers, ranchers, creameries and all other sources of natural food, while shunning processed and chemical-laden products. Which, while certainly not a new idea, is increasingly being accomplished as modern food producers, consumers and community groups work together.

“For us to think this change is difficult is wrong,” said panelist Alice Waters, the chef, author, food activist and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. “It was never difficult. We always connected with the farmers, ever since I opened the restaurant in 1971.”

Today, rather than being disheartened that the country still faces many of what she calls “the Fast Food Nation” problems she first tried to address after arriving as a wide-eyed culinary optimist in Berkeley in 1964, she pointed to the gathering around her as proof of evolution. Some attendees for a sold-out program spanning topics that included panels on Regenerative Agriculture For Human Health (or, the importance of organic farming for protecting soils and producing the most nutrient-rich, flavor-packed foods), in-depth workshops on soil composting and talks on innovation in feeding school children healthy, sustainable meals.

“It’s working,” Waters said, of decades of effort and communication. “The Fast Food nation wants us to believe that eating well is too hard, that children don’t want fresh food. But it’s not true. They love it. That’s what 25 years of the Edible Schoolyard Project taught me.” (Waters founded Edible Schoolyard in 1995, involving students directly with their food by planting organic gardens on campus, teaching the children how to farm, and prepare and share good meals.)

Adults are getting the message as well, she noted.

“Forty-eight years ago, people thought nettles were weeds and didn’t know why we cooked them,” she said. “And now, our nettle pizza is the most popular dish at Chez Panisse. They’re actually so nutritious.”

Formed by founders Meg Adelman and Lily Riesenfeld, the summit brought together 25 local and international food luminaries including Dr. Zach Bush, a physician specializing in internal medicine and metabolism, and creator of the docu-series “Farmer’s Footprint,” exploring the social, economic and educational incentives to steer farmers away from chemical agriculture practices.

Sharing the stages were food authorities including Loren Poncia, fourth- generation owner of Stemple Creek Ranch, and a pioneer in the organic and carbon farming movement for his grass-fed cattle; plus Andy Naja-Riese, who holds a master’s degree in public health and is CEO of the Agricultural Institute of Marin.

The mood was mostly positive, as Naja-Riese shared success stories like the institute’s Rollin’ Root food truck, stocked with seasonal fruits, vegetables and dairy from area farmers’ markets.

“It really comes down to getting healthy food to people, and transportation to underserved areas is a barrier,” he said. “So we really focus on ways to make it more accessible, and bring the healthy food directly to the food deserts.”

He seconded Waters’ assertion that children — and even adults — often will choose healthy food over fast food, especially if it’s presented in joyous, communal settings.

“Health is not just about nutrition, it’s about interaction,” he said. “Food is very social. One of the challenges we have with children and older adults is loneliness and isolation. Farmers markets bring people together, celebrating food and healthy living. Some of our most successful programs involve engagement, letting the participants be ambassadors to spread the word. ... Children are really the best advocates for their own health.”

Some topics were grim, as author, and food justice and sustainability advocate panelist Anna Lappé recalled a visit to Punjab, India, some 20 years ago, where she met with dozens of farmers who had been inducted into corporate studies using synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides and huge industrial machinery.

“Farmer after farmer got up to testify about how theirs soils had been denigrated, their crops weren’t growing anymore, how they’d gone into debt because they owed so much to the chemical and machinery companies,” she said. “One farmer told the heart-wrenching story about how his neighbor was so indebted that he had gone into his field and drunk the very pesticides that had caused the debt, to kill himself.”

Many discussions were realistic, and forward thinking, acknowledging challenging economic times.

“We have to make things more affordable and easy, since working parents don’t have time to put a lot of effort in accessing and preparing healthy food,” said Regina Benjamin, M.D., M.B.A, former United State surgeon general and current CEO of BayouClinic, Inc. in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. “Our whole goal for (President Barack Obama’s) National Prevention Strategy was to change our health care system to one not based on sickness and disease, but one based on wellness and prevention. But it’s hard to tell someone who is worried about whether they’re going to eat at all that they should focus on organic, unprocessed food..”

But mostly, the takeaway was encouraging and promoting the mission of changing how Americans eat, keeping food companies accountable and supporting farmers.

“We want to make it very, very desirable to be a farmer or rancher,” Waters said. “I would like to see farmers delivering fresh food directly to the school cafeterias, with all the money going directly to them. Farmers need to be paid the real cost of growing that good, healthy food.”

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