Berkeley freelance writer Sarah Henry, who muses about food and family matters on her blog, Lettuce Eat Kale, was so hot under the collar after reading Caitlin Flanagan’s “Cultivating Failure” article in The Atlantic, she had to wait a week to cool off before responding. Henry volunteers at King Middle School’s Edible Schoolyard. Here’s her view, first published on Lettuce Eat Kale:

I was so royally peeved by Caitlin Flanagan’s hatchet job on Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard in her Atlantic piece “Cultivating Failure,” that it’s taken me a week to simmer down enough to write about the matter with some decorum.

The snarky article takes a swing at public school gardens everywhere and it made me choke on my chard for professional and personal reasons.

Thankfully, lots of thoughtful –and less riled up — writers rushed to Alice’s defense — and called Caitlin on her strident screed, which begins with a weird fantasy sequence to set up her story. That’s fantasy folks.

If you missed the whole Flanagan flap last week (what one tweeter dubbed Garden Gate) here’s her thesis in bite-size chunks:

  • Public school gardens enslave kids in back-breaking labor and deprive them of valuable instruction time at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley and elsewhere in the nation.
  • Students would be better served spending an additional 90 minutes in algebra or English class rather than tending tomatoes or cooking carrots.
  • The achievement gap that plagues so many public schools would vanish if only Alice Waters would stay in her kitchen and out of our schools.
  • School kids, especially migrant ones, who dig in the dirt will likely wind up illiterate sharecroppers.
  • Folks in the ‘hood can find healthy food if they really want to (in Compton anyway).

Crazy stuff, huh?

I was appalled by the inaccuracies and false assumptions running through Flanagan’s polemic like water through a colander full of freshly-harvested lettuce.

For well-reasoned rebuttals read what slow food chefs, food policy wonks, garden teachers, and sustainable ag advocates had to say over at Civil Eats, Serious Eats, Grist, ChewsWise, Salon, and La Vida Locavore.

Or check out the self-styled Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann Cooper on her blog. The Atlantic even gave their own Corby Kummer a chance to refute much of Flanagan’s inflammatory rantings. And Ruth Reichl spoke.

Meanwhile, my friend and fellow PTA parent Andrew Leonard, also at Salon, penned the wittiest retort with the most humorous header “Rage against the vegetable garden: Caitlan Flanagan declares war against public school foodie propaganda, exposes evil Alice Waters plot.”

Here’s a taste of what Andrew had to say: “When I dismiss Flanagan’s thesis that the time spent tending vegetable gardens is preventing disadvantaged Berkeley kids from getting the rigorous education that would enable them to successfully reach for the American dream as laughably absurd, I could be accused of having an axe to grind, or at least an organic garden row to hoe.”

While many writers weighed in, I have a unique P.O.V. to add to the mix.

For the past five years I’ve been a volunteer in the kitchen at the Edible Schoolyard. No surprise, then, that on a personal note I was completely offended by Flanagan’s mean-spirited characterizations of those of us who donate our time to the program.

When I moved to Berkeley I didn’t know much about the place, other than it was a gown town with a gourmet ghetto and a population that favored sensible footwear. I chose to get to know my new community by helping out on the school food front and Edible was an obvious place to show up.

Clearly Caitlin hasn’t spent much, if any, time in the Edible kitchen, run by head chef teacher Esther Cook since its beginnings 14 years ago.

But I have.  And I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things take place in that cooking classroom, not least of which is the making of fabulous, school-grown, organic feasts.

Here’s what I’ve witnessed:

  • Kids from diverse backgrounds working together to cook food.
  • Middle schoolers who might not excel in conventional classes discovering other talents such as knife skills or cooking chops.
  • Teenagers discussing everyday events, controversial topics, or answering a thought-provoking question over a shared meal.
  • Students absorbing a healthy dose of curriculum along with healthy food.
  • A whole lot of love. As a cynical reporter, I don’t type those words lightly.

While many kids leave the Edible kitchen classroom with recipes, culinary skills, or a new appreciation for a previously unfamiliar dish or piece of produce, they also receive a warm welcome, respect, attention, hugs, and encouragement from Esther and, until recently, former assistant chef teacher Nicole Thomas. (The very capable chef Joyce Lin-Conrad recently stepped into that slot.)

I’ve stayed as long as I have as a volunteer at Edible in large part because of how Esther and Nicole work that kitchen.

Caitlin got this right: There’s seduction going on in that room but it ain’t Alice Waters who’s doing it. Flanagan argues Alice has an “almost erotic power she wields over a certain kind of educated, professional-class, middle-aged woman (the same kind of woman who tends to light, midway through life’s journey, on school volunteerism as a locus of her fathomless energies.)” Please. Enough. Alice is an icon, so such attacks, however misguided, come with the territory.

For the record, I’ve run into the Chez Panisse founder just a few times at ESY, including when Prince Charles came to call. (I served Alice a bowl of bean soup…the woman was hungry…but that’s another story.)

This is what really put me off my food: Flanagan disses what Esther and the rest of the Edible Schoolyard staff does every day, and she’s never even met these folks.

It’s the day-to-day work of teachers like Esther, along with the garden crew Geoff, Ben, and Jonah, that engages students — and volunteers — in the world of where real food comes from.

By the way, the  folks who donate their time to ESY aren’t mostly like me (middle-class, middle-aged, white-as-whipped-cream women).  Currently I volunteer alongside a keen as mustard male chef, my previous partner was a young, Asian, female student. So much for Flanagan’s stereotypes. And, um, we do paid work too.

Oh, and if Ms. Flanagan had done her research, she would know that though Alice is the most famous figure in today’s school-garden movement she was by no means the first, not even in Berkeley, not by a long shot, to introduce kids to amaranth, sour sorrel, and kale.

Just wrong, wrong, wrong on so many counts Caitlin.

Here’s where I do see eye-to-eye with the contrarian with a capital C: California’s public schools face many challenges. I know this first hand as a parent of a 5th grader in a Berkeley public elementary.

Wanna really find ways to fix this problem? How ’bout addressing more funding, smaller classes, or doing away with the anachronistic three-month summer for starters? But blaming the state’s school woes on Alice Waters and her passion for sustainable produce is just silly.

I do need to thank you, though, Caitlin, for giving me the opportunity to write a long overdue mash letter to my friend and mentor Esther Cook.

And it’s not even Valentine’s Day yet, her favorite holiday, natch.

Join the Conversation


  1. Oh, so now we can’t take someone seriously because they were born and raised in Berkeley?

    Sorry, as another person who was born and raised in Berkeley let me tell you Flanagan was spot on.

    It’s about damn time someone said it.

  2. Lance: for decisions like that…. one view is that sustained content quality matters most. E.g., if I know that when there’s an article whose subject I’m interested in is on Berkeleyside, it’s probably worth reading – the click-to-see-the-full-article thing is no obstacle.

    Eventually, you have to decide if you make editorial decisions like that kind of formatting mostly based on aggregate statistics of how “web sites in general” behave, or if you make them based on your intended and idealized audience. Is your goal to maximize clicks and linger time and such – and then hope that gives you breathing room for content you believe in? Or is your goal to have good content and then optimize presentation for appreciative readers?

    It’s a lot easier to make the transition to formats friendlier to appreciative readers if you do it early. It’s a lot easier to fail to ever have a sustainable set of appreciative readers if you make that switch later. You don’t want just looky-loos here to find out why Berkeley is anti-science, and such. I’m with Ryan R. and would wish for you to take a leap of faith on that one.

    As a side effect, that would also help get content creators in the habit of writing a compelling lead and not burying it below the fold.

  3. p.s. Sarah, thank you for volunteering!


    a parent of two kids at Rosa Parks who will–someday–be middle schoolers.

  4. Ryan, thanks for your support. We wrestle with whether to adopt your favored approach when we have lengthy posts. You have one good argument for putting the bulk of the story “below the fold”, as they say. The other view is that many readers see the “click here to read the rest” and never click through. So that reduces the number of people reading the whole story.

    Web mavens will show data supporting both sides. I’m still undecided. Thanks, however, for the feedback.

  5. I’m a frequent reader of berkeleyside and am rooting for it to thrive. I love having a blog about my community and I think this is the future of local journalism. This article and the one about the Berkeley High gym prompted me to make a suggestion about how berkeleyside could be better. Most other blogs I read include the first paragraph or two on the main page and the rest on a page that has been linked to and includes an area for comments. This makes for better flow on the main page and gives the reader the opportunity to easily skim the headlines and pick and choose what to read. And it may even encourage people who make the jump to comment since they’re already on the comment page. Just a thought. Again, I love berkeleyside. Keep up the good work!

  6. Having read various Flanagan pieces over the years, it’s clear to me that she’s one of those writers whose profession is provoking reaction. It doesn’t matter whether she believes something or even whether it’s true, the only thing that counts is provocation.

  7. Sarah, thank you for laying the smackdown. I don’t know Alice Waters, but that article was so blithely mean-spirited it just got under my skin. It’s always so much easier to tear down than to build up, especially when you’d rather entertain than inform.

  8. My cursory reading of Ms. Flanagan’s writings over the years have brought me to the conclusion that she’s a Berkeley native with issues about growing up in Berkeley.