It was all very Alice: a fire pit outside, a large screen projecting Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the stage, and, next to her chair, an artfully arranged assortment of fresh-picked fruit delivered to her door by farmer friends.

Alice Waters, a one-time Montessori teacher, wanted to stimulate her students’ senses. So, last Tuesday, that’s how she kicked off her turn to talk at the Edible Education 101 fall lecture series at UC Berkeley, funded by her own Chez Panisse Foundation.

And, in an inspired piece of programming, the woman with a big, broad vision for food reform in schools and beyond, who speaks in a small, wispy way and sometimes appears uncomfortable, even a little lost alone in the spotlight, invited the jovial Cal public policy professor and economics expert Robert Reich to join her on stage for a conversation in front of a close to capacity crowd at Wheeler Hall.

Reich, who has served in three federal administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton, and who can be heard regularly offering financial commentary on public radio’s Marketplace, was more than up to the task of speaking for Waters when she couldn’t, per her request.

He called the chef-turned-edible-education-advocate the only 1960s revolutionary who had succeeded, a comment that remained unchallenged during the course of the evening.

Even though this class is ungraded, some of us did take notes. Highlights included:

  • Waters said she’d heard author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation, Chew on This), a previous presenter, speak numerous times but she learned something new at his recent Cal talk. Herself a longtime champion of small-scale, sustainable farmers, the restauranteur vowed to make a concerted effort to make farm workers’ struggles front and center.
  • Robert Reich, a finicky eater when young, got kicked out of preschool, he said, for extreme sarcasm when he claimed that the inedible food served at school was delicious.
  • Waters referenced a bumper sticker that reads: “If we are what we eat, then I’m fast, cheap, and easy.” This drew laughter, naturally, but she pointed out the slogan’s serious implications.
  • Ever the economist, Reich, who dubbed himself an edible education convert, sought to bring Waters back to practical matters when she got caught up in the vision thing. When he asked: how do we do this? She replied: I was going to ask you that.
  • One way such programs might find funding, suggested Reich, is if the government stopped corporate welfare, such as giving Big Ag huge subsidies for their produce. Cue applause.
  • Waters called public schools the last truly democratic institutions in this country and made her by-now familiar case for school gardens, kitchens, and edible curriculum, healthy food in the cafeteria, and free meals for all school children.
  • Reich, playing devil’s advocate, countered with the pesky money matter — again — and questioned whether there was physical, palpable, visible benefits from such programs. Waters referenced a recent Cal study on that subject, which her foundation commissioned, as evidence to support her cause.
  • The food movement, Reich noted, needs not just visionary leaders but political strategists too.
  • Governor Jerry Brown has agreed to a task force on edible education in California, with the goal of providing model school food programs across the state, said Waters.
  • Where to find the funds for a federal school-nutrition program that meets Waters’ goal of feeding every child well? Time ran out to tackle that multi-billion dollar question in any depth.

This week’s Edible Education topic is Food and the Environment  — tickets still available — and features Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet and co-founder of Food First and the Small Planet Institute, as well as academic Gidon Eshel, who teaches environmental science, geophysics and applied mathematics at Bard College in New York. His research addresses climate physics as well as geophysics of food production and he lectures on food-climate interactions.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Chez Panisse’s birthday kicks off with party to remember
Nikki Henderson: On the frontlines of edible education [08.19.11]
Fundraising underpins Chez Panisse’s birthday festivities [08.1.11]
Tickets expected to go fast for Michael Pollan’s food class [07.28.11]
U.S. Surgeon General visits UC Berkeley, Edible Schoolyard [03.17.11]
Berkeley’s school lunch program is flawed, say insiders [02.14.11]
Berkeley Bites: Alice Waters [10.22.10]

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