Alice Waters: Cultivating the Farm-To-Table Movement

Ashleigh Smith + photo

Ashleigh Smith

May 13
7 min read
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Hands holding fresh potatoes with other vegetables on the table
Written By Lara Wadsworth

The farmers grow the food, the people eat the food. That’s how it goes, right? Well, that’s how it is supposed to be. What really happens is the farmers grow the food, the suppliers buy the food, then store it, and then ship it to hundreds of grocery stores across the country who display it for days or weeks where it sits, waiting for the average consumer to buy it. Then they store it in their refrigerator for another couple of weeks, waiting to be eaten or discarded in a municipal dump, where it may never fully decompose properly. Geez.

That’s what Alice Waters is trying to change. Alice grew up in New Jersey, where she first fell in love with food. Her family tended a garden each year from which she cites her sweetest childhood memories. Her family ate and canned fresh fruits and vegetables from their garden for the family to enjoy year-round. In the 1960s, Alice attended the University of California Berkeley to study French culture. This education, combined with the era's civil rights movement, prompted her to take a trip to France.

France taught her that food truly could be an experience. She ate locally sourced foods at restaurants because that’s all they had. She was incredibly inspired by this direct sourcing of food and wanted to transform how Americans eat. She then studied for a year at the International Montessori School in London, where she learned all about how gardening and food could enhance children’s lives. This, too, inspired her to want to change her home for the better.

Returning to California, Alice Waters and her friends embarked on a challenging journey to open a restaurant. With little resources and no prior experience but a wealth of motivation, they founded Chez Panisse. The name, inspired by a classic of French cinema, reflects a time when people’s connection to food and farming was more direct. This spirit of connection and authenticity would become the cornerstone of their restaurant.


The Farm-to-Table Movement is Born

Waters’ objective was to serve only locally grown produce from farmers with whom she had created a relationship. She wanted only in-season fruits and vegetables, which caused their menu to vary significantly from season to season and even day to day. Luckily, the idea was a huge hit, and over 50 years later, the restaurant is still operating today with global acclaim for its revolutionary ideas and delicious eats. This became known as the farm-to-table movement, and Alice is now seen as the initiator and perpetuator of this phenomenal cause.

Alice Waters

When I first heard of the farm-to-table movement, I was confused. Don’t we all eat that way? Nope. Most foods in the grocery stores are fruits or vegetables grown in a different state (or even a different country), and everything else is processed and packaged for high sales and low nutrition. Of course, there are always exceptions to these statements, but that is the general reality of our day.

Grow Local For Better Flavor and Healthier Soils

When food is harvested, whether it be lettuce, apples, or green beans, it immediately starts changing. When it is removed from the plant, the nutritional content begins to decline. The Chicago Tribune reported, “Studies show that vegetables can lose 15 to 55 percent of vitamin C, for instance, within a week... Some spinach can lose 90 percent within the first 24 hours after harvest.” Therefore it is obvious that eating freshly harvested produce is the best way to fully enjoy both the taste and nutritional benefits.

Not only is the freshness important, but so is the growing method. Waters chose to forge relationships with local farmers engaging in regenerative agriculture. These farmers care for the earth and the soil. Researchers have found that “Several independent comparisons indicate regenerative farming practices enhance the nutritional profiles of crops and livestock.” Meats, fruits, and vegetables contain anywhere from 10-35% greater nutritional content when grown on regenerative, organic, soil-friendly farms when compared with conventional farming products. Do you see the power in this yet?

To be clear, I realize that eating at high-end farm-to-table restaurants and having huge, lush gardens is not possible for everyone. High-end restaurants just aren’t accessible or attainable for the everyday citizens of America. I believe that Alice knows this, too. That’s why she also works in schools to teach children about the value of gardening and preparing your own food. I believe that her objective with her restaurant and the Edible Schoolyard Project is to show people what is possible for them to do on their own. Anyone with a yard or a balcony can garden. Even gardening indoors in apartments is possible thanks to things like grow lights and heating mats. The point is that growing and consuming local produce is powerful. As Ron Finley put it, "Gardens equal freedom."

Eat Fresh and Support Local

We also have power through our dollars. When we choose to grow our own food or purchase locally grown produce and meats, we let companies know what we really want. I used to think locally grown produce was way more expensive and less attainable than the stuff at large chain grocery stores. I was so wrong! I recently discovered this adorable little corner market just a five-minute drive from my house where I can buy seasonal produce, local free-range eggs, milk, and meats, as well as other canned products from local companies! I was astonished. Not only was it close to my house, but the prices were the same or even cheaper than the other grocery stores I had been going to! I’m sold!

After learning about Alice Waters and finding this local shop, my husband and I decided to plan a “Local Month.” We plan to spend an entire month only purchasing things that are made locally—that includes food and anything else! I also did some more digging and found out that there are at least five different farm-to-table restaurants in my area that follow Alice Waters’ ideas. I have never been to any of them, but I intend to make myself a regular when possible.

I think this awakening I experienced is exactly what people like Alice Waters, Ron Finley, and other horticultural heroes want for the world. Don’t resign yourself to the fact that you have no control over the quality of your food. Food is fuel and the quality of fuel matters. This movement doesn’t have to be limited to a certain demographic of people. It can be for everyone! More and more shops and restaurants are popping up around the country that are living these principles and empowering others to do the same. You can too!

Lara Wadsworth, True Leaf Market Writer

I am a native of Southwestern Michigan, where I also reside, and I love all things plants! I got a Bachelor's Degree in Horticulture and found the first work-from-home job I could get. Now, I spend my days writing for TLM, playing with my dog, eating delicious food with my husband, and plotting my next landscape or gardening move. I believe everyone should get down and dirty in the soil now and then. Happy Gardening!

Become a True Leaf Market Brand Ambassador! You’ll enjoy awesome perks, free products and exclusive swag & offers! Help us create a gardening revolution and help others experience the joy of growing!

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