Bill Clinton, President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500
December 17, 1996
Dear Mr. President,
The prospect of your second term fills me with hope-hope that you'll seize this opportunity to help bring about vital change. Last year I wrote you a letter about how communities are brought together when people care about what they eat. I had hoped that this urgent issue would be addressed publicly during the campaign, because I believe our destiny as a nation depends on how we nourish ourselves.
It may sound simplistic, but I continue to believe that the very best way to bring people together is by changing the role food plays in our national life. There is a growing consensus that many of our social and political problems have arisen because we are alienated from meaningful participation in the everyday act of feeding ourselves. The way in which we produce, prepare, and eat food expresses the bedrock values on which our public and private lives are built.
In just two generations, the number of farmers has declined so much that very few Americans know anything about the people who grow their food. Even fewer have ever met a farmer, or know what it means to take care of the land. In the same span of time, a majority of American families have given up sitting down and eating together. How can we teach basic human values-such as courtesy, civility, honesty, and generosity-without that daily demonstration to our children that actions have consequences, that survival requires cooperation, and that people and nature are interdependent? These are precisely the lessons that are instilled in an elemental way by the family meal. It is also clear that they are not instilled by a reliance on processed and fast food, a way of eating that teaches us that we can fill our bodies with cheap, impersonal, quick fixes and that eating is little more than refueling, devoid of any seasonal, agricultural, or social context.
If these lessons aren't being taught at home, isn't it the responsibility of public education to teach them? The public school system is our single most democratic institution,
down to the bakery and say hello and buy your bread. Repeated contact makes people become sympathetic to one another's situations and lives. The bonds that are formed create an atmosphere of caring and sharing.
Buying food in the anonymous way you do in a supermarket simply does not allow for these kinds of transactions to take place. If the staff of life comes to you prepackaged, from far away, you may belong to a virtual community, but not to a real one.
If we choose to feed ourselves responsibly, if we feed ourselves with fresh, living, local food, we have to interact with purveyors who are trying to live on the earth in a harmonious and responsible way. After several years of buying food from such people in a farmer's market, one has all kinds of understanding: about agricultural economy and risk, and the heroic effort required to husband the land and its life-sustaining resources; about who the farmers are and what they grow best; and about the freshness and seasonality of food and what things smell and taste like. And these kinds of understandings contribute to the health and stability of local agriculture and to a real sense of belonging to a local community.
When I say these things, often somebody will complain that it is all very well for me-the owner of an expensive restaurant, with a sophisticated clientele located in a mild climate, with a long growing season-to prescribe this kind of eating, but for most Americans it is a luxury that is all but out of reach. Not so! Wherever there is a farmer's market, there is always someone there who is selling unbelievable food-plentiful, ripe, and inexpensive. If people continue to want to shop this way it will come to pass. Farmer's markets are spreading and farmers everywhere are diversifying and reconnecting with people who live in their regions. Community-supported agriculture is the most positive-spirited movement in the country. Not only have farmer's markets proliferated, bringing pleasure to everyone who goes to them, but consumers are cooperatively supporting farms, and programs like the WIC program-food stamps for women, infants, and children to be used at farmer's markets-make it possible for the most disadvantaged people to enjoy ripe, pure food.
Over the past twenty-five years I have seen an interdependent community of producers and consumers grow up around Chez Panisse. This makes me feel certain that the same growth can happen nationwide. Fresh, nourishing food need never again be stigmatized as elitist. Wholesome, honest food must be the entitlement of all Americans, not just the rich, and its availability should be a public goal. In my experience, people react strongly and positively to these ideas. If you were to talk about food with the same fervor with which you now talk about Americorps, it could accelerate and strengthen our movement toward a healthier diet and a saner society.
Part of the problem is that we are brought up to believe that food just isn't that important. Unfortunately, the study and practice of growing and eating food is not now part of most school curriculums. At the beginning of this century, however, the state of California actively encouraged school gardens. In 1909 an educator named James Ralph Jewel wrote a booklet entitled Suggestions for Garden Work in California Schools. He said: "School gardens teach, among other things, private care for public property, economy, honesty, application, concentration, justice, the dignity of labor, and love for the beauties of nature."
In my own neighborhood, we have formed a partnership between the local junior high school and many neighbors, parents, and interested small businesses. Our purpose is to educate our children about food. Our project, called The Edible Schoolyard, plans to create and sustain an organic garden and landscape that is wholly integrated into the school's curriculum and lunch program. Students will be involved in all aspects of farming the garden-as well as in preparing, serving, and eating the food they grow. The purpose of this is to awaken their senses and teach the values of community responsibility, good nourishment, and good stewardship of the land. I am delighted that Delaine Eastin, the California State Superintendent of Education, has decided that a school garden should be an integral part of each demonstration school that is participating in the United States Department of Agriculture's Team Nutrition program for improving school lunches.
I have long maintained that the two most honorable professions are farming and teaching. Yet politics is an honorable profession, too, when politicians articulate a national yearning and get people to follow them. The present administration has the chance to invigorate public dialogue by turning our attention to how food must be at the center of our lives. We long for a positive vision for change, but we will never have community until we are all participating in solutions to our current crises.
Help us nourish our children by bringing them back around the table, where we can pass on our most humane values. Help us create a demand for sustainable agriculture, for it is at the core of sustaining everyone's life. Talk about it; promote it as part of the school curriculum; encourage the spread of farmers' markets; and demonstrate it with organic gardens on the grounds of the White House and the Vice Presidential mansion. To do these things would be in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, who believed that we had to be a nation of farmers in order to preserve our values of freedom and community.
Your administration began by invoking Jeffersonian ideals. I believe that this is your best opportunity to bring them to life.
With admiration and support,
(letter from Alice Waters to Pres. Clinton)