Journalist Katrina Heron takes the reins at the Edible Schoolyard Project. Photo: Alex Stock

Veteran writer and editor Katrina Heron — who has done stints at The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, and Wired — was recently named the new director of The Edible Schoolyard Project, the nonprofit started by school food champion Alice Waters which seeks to promote edible education and reform the National School Lunch program.

While taking the reins at the school cooking, gardening, and lunch advocacy organization is a departure from Heron’s journalism career, she has long been associated with the group and reported on a range of food matters for high-profile outlets.

Heron began working with ESYP (then the Chez Panisse Foundation) 11 years ago as a volunteer, joined the board of directors in 2003 and served until 2010.

“When I learned, on quite short notice, that the director role was open, it just seemed like the right time to assume a more active role in advocating for edible education,” said Heron, who follows in the footsteps of several short-lived leaders of the institution, most recently Quinn Fitzgerald, Francesca Vietor, and Brian Byrnes. Prior to that, the post was held by Carina Wong, who departed to work for the Gates Foundation in Seattle.

The 57-year-old has a reputation as a doer in food movement/media circles: Heron was board chair of Slow Food Nation in San Francisco in 2008 (and edited and produced a companion book to the event, Come to the Table). She also co-founded the food politics blog Civil Eats and the nonprofit journalism startup the Food and Environment Reporting Network. One of the first orders of business on Heron’s watch at ESYP, which began a couple of weeks ago, will be to translate lesson plans in Spanish.

“Of utmost importance is to be accessible and useful: we are making our own lesson plans and collateral materials — as well as those from our expanding network membership — available online,” she said. “We’ve constructed our site so that users can explore and choose materials from a range of different sources and then create their own, customized curricula.”

If kids grow and cook it, they will eat it. Photo: Sophie Constantinou/Lunch Love Community

Launched nine months ago, the ESYP site is a central focus of her work, as the nonprofit builds a virtual edible education network. As of mid-October, nearly 4,000 kitchen and garden educators, school-lunch reformers, involved parents, and other supporters have joined the site. Some 650 map pins document edible education programs in 47 states and 18 countries. There’s more.

“We are working with several other nonprofit initiatives to bring together additional programs dedicated to a sustainable food system and a healthy school lunch program — and to keep developing curriculum,” said Heron. “We plan to recognize these ground-breaking groups by means of individual badges on member profiles.”

The site allows the group to work globally and reach a wide audience hungry for the information and expertise ESYP brings to the subject of school food. But the organization, founded on the importance of experiential learning, will continue to do that work as well, said Heron. Since 1995, ESY Berkeley at King Middle School has hosted thousands of people on public tours, and for the last four years, a small number of educators have participated in its summer ESY Academy, an intensive training ground for those keen to bring edible education to their communities. “We’d like to keep developing this hands-on outreach. Our immediate goal is to extend the Academy training from three days to four in 2013,” said Heron. “Ultimately, we hope to establish an Edible Education ‘pop-up’ institute that could travel between many participating member locations.”

King Middle School garners a “cool school” award, in large part due to the Edible Schoolyard
King Middle School garners a “cool school” award, in large part due to the Edible Schoolyard

Down the track she’s also eager to compile an ebook that chronicles how ESYP has served as “the mustard seed” for similar programs around the U.S. and internationally. Not to blow their own horn, she said, but to share inspiration, stories, and practical advice from hard-working edible educators who took a tour of Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard and then went on to start something like it in their own hometowns.

And while the group reaches a wider audience with its current efforts, it also remains firmly rooted in the local community, said Heron, who lives in South Berkeley with twin daughters who attend Berkeley High School. Case in point: Kyle Cornforth, director of ESY Berkeley, is leading ESYP’s participation in the recently formed Berkeley School Gardening and Cooking Alliance, which sprouted in response to funding threats to edible education programs in the schools, as reported on Berkeleyside.  (A community meeting of BSGCA is scheduled for 7 p.m. next Thursday, Nov. 1, at Malcolm X Elementary to discuss next steps on the financial front for these school cooking and gardening programs.) “We will be actively involved in fundraising and other activities on behalf of the local school-food community,” Heron said.

Children in the Malcolm X school garden. Photo: Rivka Mason

That may come as welcome news to school cooking and garden educators around town who sometimes privately sniff at the attention and praise pointed in the direction of Alice Waters’ school food efforts, noting, for instance, that cooking and gardening programs were alive and well in public schools here well before Waters and crew ripped up asphalt at King to make way for a garden. And, these critics also contend, many other dedicated Berkeley edible educators have done a lot to reach students with far fewer resources than ESYP has at its disposal.

Heron is aware of the tension and offers an olive branch in her new role. “Many different groups and individuals have worked tirelessly for many years on these issues — we are greatly indebted, for example, to the work of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley,” she said. “At times, though, and despite our almost complete ideological unanimity, there’s been friction between various parties over the degree of public attention or ‘credit’ one or another initiative receives. We can remake our food system, but I dare say human nature will be harder. Still, I know that all of us are ultimately pulling together in the same direction. It’s my responsibility to keep reiterating ESYP’s deep commitment to the common good.”

Heron is jazzed about her new assignment and thinks the time is ripe for an edible education revolution. “This is actually a tremendously optimistic moment. All across the country (and the world), people are beginning to stand up and challenge the appalling consequences of our industrial food system,” she noted. “Our nation’s single biggest food program, public-school lunch, is now sparking unprecedented calls for reform. This movement overall is coalescing in remarkable ways, bringing together educators, farmers, parents, children, environmentalists, scientists, technologists, student activists, progressive business leaders and even many of our politicians.”

For this risk taker, who is also working on a book (loosely revolved around her adventures motorcycle racing) about women and risk — a topic that weighs heavy on her heart with the recent killing of foreign correspondent and friend Marie Colvin — fighting to overhaul school food seems like a safe bet. Stay tuned.

Berkeley’s King School voted one of nation’s “coolest” [10.01.12]
UC Berkeley serves up an edible education for the fall [08.28.12]
Berkeley group has plan to fix school food in Oakland [06.15.12]
School edible programs get reprieve from the feds [06.14.12]
Berkeley district votes to fund at-risk edible programs [04.12.12]
Community seeks life support for school edible programs [03.30.12]
Berkeley school gardening, cooking face cuts [03.23.12]
New guide aims to improve school food beyond Berkeley [11.11.11]
Alice Waters, Robert Reich talk up a delicious revolution [11.07.11]
Chez Panisse birthday fundraising declared a success [10.18.11]
Nikki Henderson: On the frontlines of edible education [08.19.11]
Berkeley’s school lunch program is flawed, say insiders [02.14.11]
After Berkeley, school lunches will never be the same [02.02.11]
Berkeley Bites: Alice Waters [10.22.10]
Berkeley Bites: Kyle Cornforth [08.16.10]
“Flanagan made me choke on my chard” [01.19.10]

[Reporter’s Note: This is my final Friday food column for Berkeleyside. Thanks to the editors for taking a chance on a writer new to the food beat some 2.5 years ago and to readers for coming along on the ride. It’s been my pleasure to cover the rich and diverse edible community here — food icons and restaurant owners, artisan producers and edible entrepreneurs, unsung urban farmers and real food advocates. I’ll still be writing food stories for local and national outlets; you can find links to my articles on my website and blog Lettuce Eat Kale.]