Skip to Content
Report an accessibility problem

Sustainability Videos & Lecture Series

We Are What We Eat: Teaching Slow Food Values in a Fast Food Culture

March 27, 2019 | Alice Waters, famed chef and founder/owner of Chez Panisse restaurant, discussed the dangers of fast food culture and presented slow food values as the antidote.

Read an interview with Alice Waters conducted by the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.


This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a generous investment by Julie Ann Wrigley. Wrigley Lecture Series. World renowned thinkers and problem solvers engage the community in dialogues to address sustainability challenges.


Joan McGregor:

Let me just tell you a little bit about the Wrigley Lecture Series. Julie Ann Wrigley has generously supported this series. We try to bring in thought leaders, people who are really making a difference and changing our ways of thinking and doing things around questions of sustainability and really trying to solve problems in the world. So we've had a number of speakers here. And today, we're going to hear another one.

So what you should know about the Wrigley speakers is they're chosen by a select committee of sustainability scientists, graduate students, undergraduates, and Wrigley Institute staff members. And we ask these visitors to come and not only give this lecture to all you but also engage with the community and students and faculty as well. So we really try to get them here and have them interact in a lot of different venues. And of course, Alice Waters has been very gracious in doing that over the last two days.

The other thing I would like to do is make a few other thank you's. As we will hear from in a minute, we have a new sustainable food system center, the ASU Swette Center for sustainable food systems. They supported this. The PREP Program, which is a collaboration from the office of entrepreneurship, innovation, and the College of Nursing and Health innovation, which helps food business incubators, designed ventures owned by women and underrepresented minorities. So that program has supported this event.

And also, my own school, the school of historical philosophical and religious studies. And I also wanted to thank some of the groups here-- Slow Food Phoenix, Good Food Finder, Blue Watermelon, and all the other groups. I'm not mentioning them all that came but also all the people in the community that really support changing and making our food system better.

So I'd like to introduce to the podium Kathleen Merrigan. Kathleen Merrigan is the first executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems. She also holds the position of the Kelly and Brian Swette professor of practice in sustainable food systems with appointments in the School of Sustainability, the College of Health Solutions, and the College of public programs.

Most recently, Dr. Merrigan served as the executive director for sustainability at George Washington University. But she's also had decades of experience working in agriculture, sustainability, and food systems. She is the former US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and a leader in sustainable food systems.

She managed USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative. She helped write the organic food production acts in 1990. She was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in the world in 2010. So you can see she's a pretty accomplished person. So let's welcome Kathleen Merrigan.


Kathleen Merrigan: So, so great to be here. I recently found a lovely little paragraph that I treasure. And I wanted to share it with all of you here today. It is found in the foreword for a 2013 Random House book by Jane Nolan entitled From the Ground Up-- a Food Grower's Education in Life, Love, and the Movement That's Changing the Nation. That foreword was written by Alice Waters. And this is the paragraph that I found so delightful.

Alice wrote, "my own life's path has been rooted in gardens. My mother tended a victory garden. And one fourth of July for a costume contest, she actually dressed me up as the queen of the garden. I was only three or four years old. But I vividly remember my outfit-- a skirt made from big lacy stalks of asparagus gone to seed, a lettuce-leaf top, bracelets and necklaces made out of peppers and radishes, and a wreath of strawberries on my head."

So clearly, from the very start, Alice was destined for garden greatness. Yesterday as I stood beside Alice at the Echo Canyon Elementary School in the garden where the kids were so excited and lined up to have Alice sign their backpacks and later in the evening as she took the time to hug and thank every one of the many chefs who prepared our dinner, I reflected on how much impact Alice has had on American cuisine and, of course, school food.

As I withered in the heat in the schoolyard, I couldn't help but admire how strong Alice is, how determined, how she engaged on a personal level with almost everyone she met. Alice does not want to waste a minute as she continues on her quest to change hearts, minds, and palates. What a remarkable woman.

So now, my job is to introduce this great visionary knowing full well that this is a woman who needs no introduction. But such is the task before me. So here goes. As you likely know, Alice Waters is a chef, author, food activist, and the founder and owner of Chez Panisse, a restaurant in Berkeley, California.

In 1995, she founded the edible schoolyard project, which advocates for free school lunches for all children and a sustainable food curriculum in every school. She's been vice president for Slow Food International since 2002. She conceived and helped create the Yale sustainable food project in 2003 and the Rome sustainable food project at the American Academy in Rome in 2007.

Now, a few of her many honors. She was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007, Harvard Medical School's Global Environmental Citizen Award in 2008, inducted into the French Legion of Honor in 2010. I've gotta remember to ask her about that over cocktails. And undoubtedly my favorite, in 2015, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama proving that eating is a political act and that the table is a powerful means to social justice and positive change.

Alice, in her spare time, has authored 16 books including her critically acclaimed memoir, Coming to My Senses-- the Making of a Counter Culture Cook; New York Times best sellers, The Art of Simple Food, 1 and 2; and The Edible Schoolyard. And I understand there are more books on the way-- wow. Alice has been a champion of local, sustainable agriculture for over four decades. It is a great honor to have her at Arizona State University. Please join me in giving her a warm Tempe welcome. Alice.


Alice Waters: I was very touched by your introduction. Thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me here. I have never been to this university before although I have eaten here in Phoenix before, a wonderful pizzeria. And I have friends. But I'm very pleased to come onto this campus. I'm really excited to give this talk to you.

And I love the fact that there is a sustainability department. It's so rare. It's so needed at every university, every college on the planet. And the enthusiasm from the students that I met makes me know that this is the right thing to do.

Well, I've been giving this talk in various forms for quite some time. And I'm ultimately writing a book about it. So let me begin. We all know that there are grave issues facing the world today-- violence, addiction, environmental degradation, political and economic inequalities, land use poverty, childhood hunger, the overarching fear of climate change.

But all these very serious issues, in my opinion, are really the outgrowth of one deeper, more fundamental condition. They're all the byproducts of something more insidious, something more deep rooted, so destructively elemental and pervasive. It provides the soil, if you will, for all of the other issues to grow out of. And unless we deal with this deeper, darker systemic issue, I think all the other issues won't ever really go away.

They might get a little better. But they're always going to be there in some form or another. By not addressing the extensive underlying condition, I fear that we're trying to cure the symptoms of a disease without dealing with the root causes of the disease itself. So what is this deeper condition? What is this?

The well-known author and activist, Eric Schlosser, has pointed out that, in the United States, we live in fast food nation. Sad to say, fast food is the predominant way that people feed themselves in this country. Surprisingly, most people don't know this or don't want to know. I mean-- I mean, it's incredible. It's incredible that Eric wrote that book 20 years ago. And most Americans are still addicted to fast food today.

For example, in the United States, 20% of all meals are eaten in cars. And 85% of our children don't have one meal sitting down with their family. Just imagine, 85%. And people still think fast food is more affordable than cooking at home.

But the thing that people really don't see-- and it's something that I've really just come to see in the last decade or so-- is that fast food isn't only about food. It's bigger than that. It's way bigger. It's about culture. And culture is the knowledge, experience, beliefs, behaviors, myths, and customs of a society. It's the invisible moral structure underneath everything that's guiding us all subconsciously and therefore affecting everything that we do.

Culture defines our points of view. It dictates the way that we look at the world, how we operate in it, how we relate to our environment, how we see ourselves, how we express ourselves, how we feel, how we do business, the ways that we set up our homes, the architecture, our schools, our entertainment, our journalism, how we treat each other, the clothes we wear, our politics, and on and on.

Fast food culture has become, as far as I can see, the dominant culture of the United States. And as I said, I fear that it's becoming the dominant culture of the world. This is the deep insidious condition that I'm talking about, fast food culture. And this is happening because fast food culture, like all cultures, has its own set of values, what I call fast food values.

So if you're eating in a fast food restaurant or in a fast food manner, not only are you malnutrition yourself. You're also unwittingly digesting the values of this culture. Those values become part of you just like the food. And once those values become part of you, they change you. Begin to have a different outlook on things, different cravings, different moral standards and expectations.

Now, your desires and hungers are being programmed by a fast food culture. And because of that, you start to create a dehumanized world for yourself without even knowing it, a world with fast food values inherent in it, a world where fast food values seem actually appropriate.

Uniformity. An example of a fast food value is uniformity. The idea that everything should be the same wherever you go. The hot dogs that you get in New York should be exactly like the one you get in LA. And that Starbucks macchiato you can seemingly get anywhere these days should be exactly like, well, the one you get here in Scottsdale. And if it's not, there may be something wrong with it.

We take uniformity for granted. We actually like it a lot. It helps us feel familiar in unfamiliar places. Well, it's just like the hamburger I have at home. That taco looks and tastes the same as it does in Mexico City. Uniformity comforts us. It helps us feel safe. Or we think it does. Because uniformity, like all fast food values, hides a deeper, darker side. In terms of what you eat, it limits what you think is good for you. With uniformity, you don't even want to try anything new, especially if it looks different. Suddenly, there's something suspicious about it, something to be rejected, something even to be afraid of. Eventually, you want everything-- not just your food, but everything to look the same, be the same.

You look for the same kind of TV shows wherever you go. You design the same kind of buildings in every town. You start wanting the same kind of clothes that everybody else has. And you search out hotels that are familiar wherever you go that are recognizable, restaurant chains, and brand outlet stores.

Uniformity as a value fosters the loss of individuality, the pressure to conform, the disrespect for uniqueness, even prejudice and control. All eggs should look the same. All houses should be the same. Everyone should behave the same way, or you should report them.

Speed. Speed is my favorite one. Things should happen really fast. The faster, the better. You order, you should get it. You want it, you should have it-- right then, no waiting. The faster things are done, the better-- in and out. As many of you probably know, Amazon now delivers groceries to your door as fast as they can get them to you.

There are even companies who refund your money if they can't get your food to you fast enough. It's amazing. It's amazing really. And when we live like this, I feel like not only do our expectations become warped. But we become easily distractible. We lose the sense that the best things take time like growing food or cooking or learning a language or growing a business or getting to know someone for that matter.

These days, if there's not instant gratification, we get frustrated. There's no maturity, no reflection, no patience. The faster it's delivered, the faster it's communicated, the more time. Time is money-- very important. Time is money. How many cows can you slaughter in the slaughterhouse in a day? How many patients can you see in a doctor's office in a day? How quickly can you down your lunch? How fast can you download your messages on your phone?

Ah! Availability. That's another one. The idea that we should be able to get whatever we want wherever we are, 24/7. You should be able to get a peach in Tucson in the middle of winter-- or maybe you can get that, can you? You should be able to get Evian water in Nairobi or a pineapple in Tierra del Fuego.

The twisted idea of availability to me not only spoils people but causes them to lose track of time and space. With this constant availability, seasons stop mattering. Why wait for the late summer apples that are grown right down the road when you can get cryovaced ones at the discount store all year long?

Suddenly, what's indigenous to certain places becomes unclear and even irrelevant. Local culture and the specialness of what's happening here and now becomes less important than that big homogenized fast food "get anything you want" global reality-- or in my view, unreality.

Cheapness. Ah, yes, cheapness. This is one that's omnipresent in the United States. There is a complete mixing up of affordability with cheapness. There's a deep feeling that value equates bargains. Buy two, get one for free. Four hamburgers for $1. Food for less.

One of the first things you know that Jeff Bezos, the president of Amazon, did when he bought Whole Foods was-- of course, you know that semi-sustainable grocery chain. The first thing he did was to drop prices. Yes, I think it benefited some people. But what about the people who were growing the food and bringing it to the market? Fast food culture makes you conveniently forget about them and also about the environmental costs of farming on a massive scale and the amount of carbon needed for the transportation and the refrigeration.

With cheapness, no one understands the real cost of anything anymore-- 1, because no one ever tells them, and 2, everything is priced artificially supported by subsidies and corporate sleight of hand and credit. When cheapness has such a high value, no one talks about the quality of things anymore or how bad or good they might be for the planet. It's just what a good deal it is. What a good deal.

And the truth is-- and it's something that we all need to learn-- food can be affordable. But it can never be cheap. When I hear someone say, I just got it cheaper here, I just feel intuitively that somebody somewhere is being sold out. You cannot not pay for something here and somebody over there not getting what he or she deserves. And it's usually the farmer or the farm worker. You cannot not pay and not expect other problems in your life over there such as those we're having now with the environment and climate.

More is better. More is better. The more you pile on your plate, the happier you'll be. The more cans on the shelf in the big box discount store, the better. The bigger the buffet, the more awesome. Basically, the more you have and the more choices that you have, the better. And I find this fast food value so strange.

Because to me, when I get too much stuff and I have too many choices, I just get overwhelmed. And I feel burdened by it. There's no room for discernment. There's just weight and volume. And with that volume comes so much waste. Our garbage cans and landfills keep getting more and more filled with boxes and bubble wrap from things shipped from halfway around the world.

There are self-storage units that I've seen in New York City that are popping up everywhere. And it's a place where you could put all that stuff so that you can buy more. There's a place right there on the East River in New York City, a whole block that used to be apartment buildings that they have been turned into storage units. I mean, it's just crazy.

And then there's terminology. Fast food culture also co-ops the meanings of words in order to make profit, what I call a terminology problem. I mean, what does organic mean these days? What does natural mean for that matter? Local. Fair trade. Fresh.

How could you call something fresh when it's maybe a week or two old and shipped from thousands of miles away? The definitions of these terms have been hijacked. And they seem to fluctuate and have more to do with marketing and presentations than any attempt to clarify and inform.

And what's scarier is how fast these terms are hijacked. When the food movement finds a new term that works for us like sustainable, it gets absorbed immediately by the fast food culture. And it's used everywhere indiscriminately. And in no time, the term is misleading and cloudy and sometimes just completely meaningless. Take the term pesticide free or government approved. How about pasture raised? There are so many slippery terms that I'm aware of. And I think you can probably think of many.

And then there are standards. Behind the use of terminology is the issue of standards. What standards are we really using? And where do they come from? There seem to be standards. But they don't mean anything. And they shift from one country to another. What's organic for a farmer in China, for example, may not be at all what's organic for a farmer in California. And so it confuses everybody, defeating the purpose of standards in the first place.

Even worse, some standards reduce standards as in the case of food companies who lobbied to get fabricated compounds like corn syrup considered natural ingredients in their products. Another standard that's just baffling to me is this idea of carbon credits. If you pay for them, you get kind of a free pass in a sense to pollute in other countries. What kind of standards are those? They feel like entitlement standards. I mean, do carbon credits really help save the rainforest?

I was just down in Sao Paulo for a big discussion about this. And I'm not sure they do. In many cases, standards are kind of a deception, kind of a lie, another fast food value-- dishonesty. Perhaps the biggest value of all. Actually, I used to think that dishonesty was the biggest of the fast food values.

And now, I've come to understand that it's greed. Greed is the value that is causing the most destruction in our world. The impulse to honor profit and financial accumulation over human value and environmental protection. I should not be shocked, but I am, by the persistent collusion between corporations and governments and those responsible for nurturing our precious food supply and natural resources.

So yes, there is a fast food culture. And yes, it's permeating every aspect of our lives. And yes, it's literally changing the world. But fortunately, there is a counterforce. There's an antidote. And I call this antidote-- no surprise-- slow food culture. And fortunately, slow food culture has its own set of values-- slow food values.

Slow food values are earthbound agrarian values that have been cultivated since the beginning of civilization through customs and practices. And we all know them. We all know them-- taking care of the land, eating seasonally, celebrating the harvest, sharing our work and our bounty, gathering together at the table with family and friends.

These are non-regressive, backward-looking values. They are not. They are grounded in traditional methods. And yes, they are evolving with us. And they're moving forward. And they're guiding us if we pay attention. Sustainability is one. You know all of these. Sustainability, seasonality-- you can flip these very quickly, Andy, because I know you know them. Diversity, economy.

Interconnectedness, this is a beautiful one. These pictures were all taken at the edible schoolyard project at Berkeley. Interdependence, responsibility, collaboration, authenticity, and generosity. So how do we awaken values like this? How do we champion slow food values in a fast food world? How do we rediscover them and cultivate them and make sure that they take root and flourish? In other words, how do we educate and show them how to nurture slow food values? How do we nurture them in our everyday life?

Well, I feel very deep in my heart that schools are the best place to do this. And I love that Gloria Steinem said way back when that "public education is our last truly democratic institution." Almost everybody goes to school or should. Schools have the best places where we can introduce and teach a new way of living and caring for the environment to the next generation.

They're a common place in our culture where we can reach every student equally and rapidly when they're young and learning before they have been indoctrinated into a fast food culture. And I wish I had a picture that I took in Spain of a woman that was pushing a stroller of a little two-year-old in there. And there was a bottle of coca-cola as big as the child sitting in the stroller at the front.

And we're not understanding how deeply that impression, that branding is going on. And even Marion Nestle has a picture in her presentation showing how baby bottles have been branded with Coke labels so that it's happening practically at birth.

But right now, schools are not places of equality. And maybe this is truly globally happening. It's assembly-lined all the way. They become industrialized like our farms. The buildings are laid out like factories, even some like prisons with barbed wire and security checkpoints. Students are treated like products rather than individuals sort of one size fits all.

Pupils report to teachers who report to principals who report to superintendents who report to higher ups just like in a corporation. And just like in a corporation, the teachers are paid less than those higher up in the management positions. And the school systems are literally funded by groups or companies that make fast food products.

Every single moment of our children's life, they're confronted with fast food culture-- on TV, on their phones, in their music, in their clothes with corporate branding of all their favorite sports teams and events that are happening in the schools, the branding in their textbooks, the advertising inside the school hallways. It's really inescapable.

And the school cafeterias have become the venues, as you know, for fast food culture, more like food courts with prepackaged foods in vending machines and flashy corporate marketing emblazoned on the walls. Advertising confers value in a fast food culture. What's being valued in a place like this? What's being taught? What's being passed on?

Well, for the last 25 years, I've been working on and building an alternative-- an edible education curriculum for all schools. It's a curriculum that uses an interactive kitchen and garden as classrooms to teach slow food values to the students in their academic subjects. We have now a network of 6,500 schools around the world. And it's a network that we've only been working on for a little over five years.

And people enter their own projects into the system. And they are mapped. And then all of the information can be shared, downloaded for free. It's just all there. And these are schools that believe in sustainability. They understand that all children should be eating a free, sustainable school lunch.

And they all believe that they can teach much more easily if they have a garden classroom or a kitchen classroom because there isn't a child who would not like to be outside or cooking something in a kitchen while they're doing and learning the history of a particular country.

So it's what we've really been doing at Chez Panisse for a very long period of time. We've been buying directly food from the farmers and taking all of the scraps from the restaurant and bringing them back to the farm. And we've cut out the middleman, the distributors.

And we give all of the money directly to the people who are taking care of the land and where they can be appropriately compensated for the hard work they do. They're not having to sell anymore at wholesale price to a grocery store. They're selling it to us at the real price. And this is what can really, really benefit the farmer.

When schools, and even universities, change the way that they buy and source food, it sends a message into the world that it's possible to rely on local sustainable farmers everywhere. I call this school-supported agriculture. I think we need that one slide up here.

Nope, not that one. Do we have the pledge? Oh, I hope. The pledge has disappeared. No, it's before that. No. It's lost, the pledge. I'm so sad. It's in my purse. But I'll pass them out to you later. But what we've done in the state of California, because we have an enlightened governor and many political people in Congress and a very needy population of students, we're number 47th in academic achievement in the United States. And it's so shocking considering the wealth of the state.

But we have put together-- and Barbara Boxer was then Senator and helped me to put this together. And it's called Our Pledge to Public Education for Children and Farmers. To provide a free sustainable school lunch for all students K through 12. Number 2-- to buy food directly from farmers and ranchers who take care of the land and their workers. And third-- to teach all students the values of nourishment, stewardship, and community.

And so this is how we envision making change in the state of California. And already, you may know that there is a free school lunch in the city of New York. You may know that already. And we're really trying to help them to make it nourishing and to support the sustainable farmers that live in and around New York City.

So that's the plan. And so we need your help. And I think when this begins to happen, the values of the farmers will come right through the cafeteria door. And I call this a delicious revolution. Thank you.


This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability for educational and noncommercial use only.