Food activist, restaurateur and co-founder of the Yale Sustainable Food Program Alice Waters spoke at the Yale University Art Gallery Tuesday afternoon about the universal value of preserving “slow food” approaches in a world governed by fast-food principles. She said she believes that the core themes in the debate of fast food versus slow food can extend to many aspects of life, including business ethics, early childhood education and prison rehabilitation.

“The effect of fast food doesn’t just happen in cafeterias,” she said. “It permeates everything, from the way we perceive the world to the way we belong in it.”

Waters explained that while slow-food culture revolves around growing food according to seasonal cycles and appreciating the natural origins of food, the fast-food world values affordability and immediate availability. She added that due to mass-production practices, food markets tend to distort the true value of their goods to the point where the cost of foods fails to reflect the labor required to cultivate them. Consumers who have the means to purchase organic produce from small farms have a responsibility to pay the true cost, Waters noted.

Waters said she thinks slow-food value systems are closely connected to America’s obesity epidemic.

“[Obesity] is a physical manifestation of the ‘fast-food value’ that more is better,” she said.

In her talk, Waters emphasized that underlying all of the featured issues are values of dignity and respect, citing fair wages to workers and ethical business practices as examples. She also highlighted the corruption of words such as “sustainable” in the marketing of food, when such terminology is “used indiscriminately until it becomes meaningless.”

Waters also said she believes that the food industry is too willing to compromise on regulatory standards, noting that the term “grass-fed” can be used if an animal has been grass-fed for only two weeks.

“Values shape behavior, so if the culture around is glamorizing values that dehumanize us, we will naturally act in dehumanizing ways,” Waters explained.

Waters drew parallels between the racial issues behind the protests on campus last semester and the free speech movement of the 1960s, which served as her initial source of inspiration for becoming an activist. In order to make dramatic change, she added, people must articulate themselves and say things out loud.

Waters, who owns the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, said Yale was one of the first universities to place a heavy emphasis on food education. This academic year, there are 14 courses spanning over a dozen departments, including activities at the Yale Farm.

Jacqueline Munno, programs manager for professional experience at the Yale Sustainable Food Program, attributed her own career path to her past encounters with Waters, who inspired her to pursue further education in slow food.

“[The movement] really began in Yale’s dining halls and has reverberated into classrooms,” Munno said. “It inspired this whole new generation of understanding the food we eat and the systems that deliver it to us, and now interesting academic ties to agriculture are happening across the University.”

Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program, described Waters as a visionary, noting that her activist approach uses food as an “avenue for social transformation.”

Waters was awarded the National Humanities Medal last year by President Barack Obama.

  • Nancy Morris

    Alice Waters is a fabulous chef, and Chez Panisse is the bomb.

    But as a social theorist Ms Waters needs to spend a lot more time and effort crafting coherent definitions for her terms (“fast food values?”) and providing at least some evidence for her arguments and analogies. For example, it’s fine for Waters to feel in her heart that “fast food … permeates everything, from the way we perceive the world to the way we belong in it,” but she presents no evidence for this sweeping and, unfortunately, self-aggrandizing claim. She doesn’t even provide much of a meaning that would allow for real-world testing of the claim.

    Arguing that “slow food values” (whatever those are) lead to dignity, respect, fair wages and ethical business practices mostly suggests that Waters just defines “slow food values” tautologically to include essentially everything of which she approves. People really don’t care that someone preparing a tasty dinner thinks in such short-circuited ways, but require quite a bit more explanation and evidence that this kind of analysis actually leads to effective approaches to social problems if the person in the kitchen starts to dictate social policy. The current Chez Panisse menu features dinners ranging from $75 (for onion and olive tart, salad and radishes, fish and shellfish soup and Crème caramel) to $125 (chopped raw tuna and steelhead roe, “truffle agnolotti in squab brodo,” duck, celery root purée, salad and a piece of cake). Those prices do not include wine. Is this supposed to be the diet of social inclusion? It seems more like the diet of rich Bay Area Limousine liberals. How many people are prepared to drop $75 to $125 on a single dinner?

    Yes, obesity is a big and intractable problem, but where is the evidence that Waters has actually facilitated its elimination in any significant and controlled study? It’s not as though she has lacked time and resources to have had such studies performed. Her “slow food values” mantra comes across as a fancy way of telling people that they wouldn’t be so fat if they ate less.

    The rest of Waters’ edicts as presented in this article are just as insubstantial.

    But, man, she sure can cook!