When we arrived in our new North Berkeley, California neighborhood in July of 2015 we did what any family with Montessori children would do - explored our new environment. Strolling by the Berkeley bungalows adorned with solar panels and compost bins the size of small Volkswagen Beetles, it was not hard to fall in love with the progressive city on the Bay. Our children skipped ahead towards Monterey Market as the moving company unloading our beds and boxes faded into the background. "Back in an hour!" I called to the movers. My wife, Andrea, noted that every home on the block seemed to have a plug-in electric vehicle. In that brief walk, I saw a city that was ahead of the curve and the future of American living. A future that seemed to be deeply rooted in the past.
Crossing under the tree-tunnel canopy of live oaks on Hopkins Street, we passed a butcher shop, bakery, flower shop, bottle shop, and cheese monger, all while families buzzed about - children staying on the sidewalk with the family dog while mom and dad popped in the stores for their daily needs. In our new neighborhood the supermarket lifestyle had been replaced by the small market economy of shops and vendors prevalent almost anywhere but America. We picked up a few items in each store for dinner and continued to stroll past the community center and outdoor space behind Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School until we arrived at an unlocked (but closed) gate with a graffiti-tagged sign that read "No Dogs Please, Chickens At Play." Our kids wanted to go inside, but we were unsure as to what we had stumbled upon until a wooden sign came to light, it read: "The Edible Schoolyard." Seeing other children and adults inside, we pushed past the gate and wandered about the wild looking garden.
Signs hand-painted by children were everywhere to tell us what herbs, vegetables, and fruits lay beyond the well-worn paths that rambled throughout the 4,000 square meter garden behind the school. Chicken coops beneath the shade of redwoods were situated in one corner while a small barn bracketed the other side, the barn was used to process the over one thousand pounds of produce and eggs - turning them into fresh snacks and lunch for the school throughout the year. This was Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard, and it was only two blocks from our new home.
That night we did some research and learned that Alice also owned a restaurant, the famed Chez Panisse, which was located a mile from our doorstep. Chez Panisse was started in a Berkeley home after Alice returned from a semester in France - and following a short career as a Montessori teacher in Berkeley. Alice was fascinated with the farm-to-table restaurants of Paris in the late 1960's and wanted desperately to bring these experiences and flavors home. She felt that the processed food and supermarket lifestyle of mid 20th century America was robbing an entire generation of the joy of natural flavors and ingredients, and that the experience of eating a fresh cooked meal together with friends and family was receding in the advent of TV dinners, frozen vegetables, and canned fruit.
"She (Maria Montessori) was thinking about the world in the same way I am, the idea of opening your senses because those are the pathways into our minds. That you are touching, tasting, smelling, listening, seeing... and that's what happened to me in France. I had an awakening of my senses." - Alice Waters, NPR's How I Built This Podcast (April 8, 2019)
Alice wanted to take the Montessori philosophy into the restaurant business - initially just for her friends and family - but eventually to everyone that she could reach through her non-profit Edible Schoolyard foundation. You can learn more about the life and journey of Alice Waters by listening to her episode of the wonderful NPR Podcast hosted by Guy Raz titled "How I Built This." Alice's devotion to the idea that food should be served fresh from the farm has helped revolutionize the restaurant industry and led to the rise in popularity of Whole Foods and Farmers Markets. Have you been to a restaurant with the name of the farm or even the farmer that supplied your food listed in the menu or proudly displayed on a sign? That is the influence of Alice Waters.
The day we discovered The Edible Schoolyard we had an awakening of our senses. We took home some fresh mint and basil to include in our dinner recipes. That year we shrunk our grid to the shops and markets in our neighborhood - walking down the street to buy items fresh every day, cooking our meals from scratch, and gave our children the independence to shop on our behalf or to go down to the bakery for a treat. Almost every week while we lived in North Berkeley we returned to see what the students were growing in the Edible Schoolyard or to say hi to the chickens. Just visiting the garden inspired our children to use the lemons from the tree in our yard to make lemonade, and to grow our own herbs for daily cooking. We filled our compost bin weekly and rarely filled the garbage container beside it.
That year on my birthday, Andrea took me to Chez Panisse. The experience was all that I hoped it could be... and more. Alice had demonstrated to me, once again, that Montessori wasn't a philosophy for education it was a philosophy for life.