Alice Finds Herself in Troubled Waters


I never thought I’d see the day when the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) would be singing the praises of Alice Waters.

Since its inception a little over three decades ago, the conservative pseudoscience group has been on the wrong side of virtually every imaginable environmental and health issue. It is all in favor of the plastic Bisphenol-A (BPA) and the herbicide atrazine. It has come out against regulations banning trans fats and requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus.

Waters all but invented the “local, seasonal, organic” mantra at Chez Panisse, her Berkeley, Calif. high temple to politically correct cuisine. She was also a prime mover behind the White House organic garden. The ACSH pooh-pooed that garden, and Elizabeth Whelan, the center’s president, has called organic folks “elite and snobby.”

But in a  post on its website early this month, the ACSH applauds Waters’ stance on sewage sludge, praising her for “not caving in to the party line” when an environmental group asked her to come out publicly in opposition to the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer.

For the last several months the Bay Area has been embroiled in a true sludgefest. On one side are environmental and consumer groups such as the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). They have been pushing hard for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) to end its three-year-old program of giving away composted sewage sludge for citizens to spread on their yards and gardens. Sludge, say the groups, contains toxic chemicals and hazardous chemicals. It’s a position supported by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has found that sludge can contain heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, PCBs, flame retardants, and endocrine disruptors.

A sign of the past. Photograph courtesy of San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center
A sign of the past. Photograph courtesy of San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center

In February, the Organic Consumers Association wrote a letter to a number of environmental groups in the Bay area asking them to sign on to the anti-sludge campaign. Many joined, but the Chez Panisse Foundation, Water’s charitable arm, declined through an email sent from Francesca Vietor, the foundation’s newly hired executive director. Vietor is a respected environmental activist, and she is also vice president of the SFPUC, the organization behind the sludge give-away.

Vietor asked that San Francisco issue a moratorium on the sludge program in March, ahead of a planned protest march in front of City Hall by the OCA. The moratorium will remain in effect until the city completes a scientific evaluation in a few weeks and subsequently holds public hearings.

But a moratorium was not enough for the OCA. They wanted the program terminated. The OCA wrote Waters directly, this time asking her to publicly oppose growing food on sludge, which is not permissible under USDA Organic rules. The letter said: “Given the work you and the Chez Panisse Foundation have done to champion the organic, locally grown, slow food movement in California and elsewhere, we imagine that you would want to be one of the first to unequivocally and publicly state that sewage sludge is unacceptable—in home gardens or in school gardens, on small a scale or in commercial agriculture.” The OCA also said that Vietor’s dual roles at the SFPUC and the Panisse Foundation created a “clear conflict of interest.”

In response, Waters wrote: “I have been involved with the organic garden movement for 40 years. I believe in the transparency of public institutions and count on the government to offer the highest standards outlined by the Organic Consumers Association and other reliable advocates. I look forward to reviewing the science and working with the SFPUC to ensure the safety of composting methods.

“I support  Francesca Vietor, Executive Director of the Chez Panisse Foundation and a PUC commissioner, whose environmental work I have admired for many years and whose integrity has been questioned.”

On April 1, the OCA ratcheted up the pressure by picketing Chez Panisse. Then the sludge hit the fan. In a statement issued the day of the picketing, the Panisse foundation claimed that as soon as John Stauber, who was working with the OCA, brought the sludge program to Vietor’s attention in March, she asked the SFPUC staff to put the give-away on hold pending “rigorous testing of the material.” The statement also accused Stauber and the OCA of “attempting to taint the reputations of Alice Waters and Francesca Vietor” and called on Stauber and the OCA to “retract their false statements and issue Alice Waters and Francesca Vietor a public apology.”

“I think the OCA tried to make this link to me to draw some attention to the issue,” said Vietor, in a telephone interview. “Forming an official policy on sludge is something that the foundation has not looked into.” Vietor acknowledged that the application of sludge to cropland runs contrary to organic standards, but said, “There are a lot of practices that would not qualify as organic under government regulations that the foundation has not come out vocally against.”

Stauber said that the OCA plans to intensify its anti-sludge campaign by pressuring the city to pay for the removal of contaminated soil. He also said he had no plans to retract anything.

“It’s been a very odd journey,” said Vietor.

That’s one thing all parties should be able to agree upon.

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  1. Sara says:

    I think the way Vietor and Waters wanted to handle the situation was just fine.
    Wait to see what the scientific results were before jumping to conclusions.
    In some other countries human waste compost is used in the garden. It is a long
    time before the compost is sufficiently composted to a healthy level and it should be
    tested regularly to be sure there are no chemicals, metals, drug residuals, etc.
    But nothing should ever be immediately and entirely ruled out before looking into it.

  2. Stefani Smith says:

    OAC seems a little over zealous in it’s attack on Waters and Vietor. Was there no effort to consult them on a less public level to effect change? did it have to go to such shit slinging? I think the moratorium and research is in order and a productive use of sludge waste needs to by found.
    I think alliances in the good food movement have to be treated with more respect to continue deep changes.

  3. susan rigali says:

    As one who has been involved in actions such as this on GE issues, this one is a bit hard to swallow. I am also a chef who has grown food in Los Angeles one of the most polluted cities in the country. I have been involved in community based agriculture for several decades, and although none of us are looking for certification due to our geography, we are members of OCA. I have catered for OCA donating time, money and effort in Santa Monica several years ago. We support local agriculture through small farmers who are primarily organic growers and recognize social, economic, environment, and health benefits. I have worked hard for thirty years promoting fresh naturally produced foods and we do the best we can to influence others through our efforts.

  4. Without doubt Alice Waters has been a great contributor towards bringing to light the quality of food, the use of natural, organic products. I applaud her efforts into turning concrete jungles into edible schoolyards, but I am greatly disappointed at not wanting to be outspoken against the pollution that use of sludge brings to any kind of farming, be it home patch gardens, or larger fields. We know organic matter is part of the natural fertilizers that the soil uses to bring out more nutrients, but not a matter ridden with chemicals, pharmaceutical drugs and the myriad of highly toxic pollutants that are part of the sewage system in the Bay Area. Sometimes you have to pressure people into taking action. We have become so lazy about becoming responsible for our own rights, that it beholds me to see Alice Waters to be so slack on this issue. I like Alice Waters and I applaud all her good deeds, but she needs to come out and stand for what is right.

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