Nikki Henderson: On the Frontlines of Edible Education

by Sarah Henry on August 21, 2011 · 26 comments

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Nikki Henderson strives to keep it real in a new course at UC Berkeley this fall called Edible Education 101. Photo: Rick Gilbert

People seem to have an insatiable appetite for food matters right now. Case in point: the public tickets for Edible Education 101 at UC Berkeley were snapped up in 12 minutes on Monday, according to a tweet from Alice Waters, who played a key role in bringing the curriculum to the university.

The 13-week course, co-taught by J-school professor and The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan and Nikki Henderson, the executive director of People’s Grocery, a food justice organization in West Oakland, will examine the rise and future of the food movement. Student enrollment for the one-semester course also filled within minutes after it was listed online, as Berkeleyside reported earlier this month.

Why such interest? The class offers undergrads, grad students, and regular folk a chance to critique current food systems and dissect food politics with Pollan, Henderson, and Waters, as well as a slew of other big names in the food movement, including Marion Nestle and Eric Schlosser. The course kicks off with a lecture by Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini on August 30. The class also coincides with the 40th anniversary celebration of Chez Panisse restaurant.

“UC Berkeley is my alma mater so I feel a real connection to the institution,” Waters explained to Berkeleyside earlier this week. “The opportunity arose to develop this course and we pulled this program together quickly. We also wanted to show our support for the university and public education.” Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation (soon to be renamed The Edible Schoolyard Project) is footing the bill for the fall semester course to the tune of $30,000.

“I hope that students will have a stronger grasp of the concept that what we eat has consequences for our health, culture and the environment,” Waters said, adding that she hopes that the course will continue beyond the fall.

If Waters is the iconic idealist and Pollan the affable academic, Henderson is the unapologetic activist. She’s also young (26), African-American, and spends her work days at a nonprofit devoted to dealing with food security issues for low-income people of color.

Prior to coming to People’s Grocery 18 months ago, she worked for Slow Food USA and Green for All, the environmental organization co-founded by Van Jones. Not surprisingly, Henderson, who grew up with seven older foster brothers and two blood brothers in L.A., brings a different perspective and sensibility to the Berkeley bourgeois food scene.

Berkeleyside recently met Henderson for lunch — in Oakland — to learn more about why she decided to come to the table with Waters and Pollan.

Members of the People's Grocery team meet with Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

How did your involvement with this course come about?

Well, the Chez Panisse Foundation came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in doing it. This class was important to me because it’s an opportunity to have a real exploration of the issues of race, power, class and privilege in relation to food, which is something we do every day at People’s Grocery. When Chez Panisse approached me I told them I was only interested in teaching the course if we hit those bases and a good third of the curriculum does that.

It was also important for me that people speak for themselves. The whole class could have been taught by people who have written books about other people’s experiences. But we’ll have practitioners like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers [immigrant farm workers who have brought about historic changes for tomato farmers in Florida], for instance, who will come and tell their stories themselves. It’s important for the students to experience that, because one of the dynamics of not having privilege is that you don’t get to tell your own story. Those with means and access get to spend their time telling your story.

I wanted to ground the syllabus in the struggle for food justice and food security. There wouldn’t need to be a movement if there weren’t deep injustices happening and divisions within the movement. This college course explores the complexity of these issues within the context of the food movement.

How involved have Waters and Pollan been in shaping the curriculum?

Alice Waters really laid the groundwork for this to happen and her message is so consistent that you know what she’s going to say, so she just sort of gave me her marching orders and made a lot of suggestions, but then she just leaves it in your hands.

Michael wanted to make sure that the course was academically rigorous and that it involved deep, critical thought. He wanted the mix of practitioners and academics. He didn’t want it to be just a good conversation about the food movement but that there was a component that explored the complex question: what is there to do now?

They both made it clear since the beginning that they wanted me to feel it was very much my course too. And they’ve been generous with their time and expertise. Michael’s been coaching me through putting the lecture series together. One piece of advice he gave me: don’t have the same format every week or people will fall asleep.

Can you tell us a little about your personal connection to food?

We grew up eating very healthy food. We ate home-cooked meals that consistently included a grain, a protein, and a vegetable, usually something like brown rice, baked chicken, and steamed broccoli. My mom was a kind of ’70s hippie, though I don’t think she’d classify herself as such, she is vegetarian and has a deep interest in health and nutrition, and she passed on those good habits to her children.

My great aunt and uncle were diabetic amputees. My aunt has the disease and my grandfather, who is no longer alive, almost lost his feet to the condition. With this exposure to diet-related diseases it hit me early on: what you eat is not something to play with.

What can young people interested in the food movement learn from those who have worked on this cause for decades?

There’s a lot of context that younger people need, of what’s actually happened so far in the food movement, like the current middle-class mainstream food movement is very much centered in an older struggle for food security and it’s important to have that context. You need to be grounded in the history. I’ve only been in the food movement the past three or four years and I’m well aware of how much there is to learn about what’s happened historically, so we in this younger generation can be truly effective in bringing about change. I want to soak up every bit of that in this course.

Is this the right time for this class?

It should have happened two years ago because the window of opportunity is closing. The mass media switches from one thing to the next pretty quickly and food has been hot for the last two years and it’s probably only going to be hot for another year or two and then it’s going to fade into the background. I’m going to do everything I can to move some things along while I can.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished on Civil EatsThe Bay Citizen, and SFGate.

You might also like:

Alice Waters’ 40 Year Campaign for Good Food
Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education
Michael Pollan Talks Food Rules in San Francisco
First Lady, Food Deserts, and New Fund for Hungry
Author Raj Patel’s Food Revolution: From Chips to Salad

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl August 22, 2011 at 4:36 pm

It’s easy to see how this class would fill up so quickly. Sounds fascinating.

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Sarah Henry August 23, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Indeed, Sheryl. Folks already emailing asking if I know how to score a ticket.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi August 22, 2011 at 4:48 pm

I hope the window doesn’t close as quickly as she fears. This is a big issue and deserves to stay in the forefront for much longer!
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Celtic Earrings and Bracelet Winner

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Sarah Henry August 23, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Agreed, Melanie. But since I’ve been in the news biz a while I’ve watched different “hot topics” cycle in and out. Twenty years ago few outlets wanted environmental stories, now the mainstream press can’t get enough. We shall see.

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Alexandra August 23, 2011 at 9:52 am

We need such classes straight across the country! What goes into our bodies, food, water, meds … we need to think over each item, realize these substances may be giving us disease, check labels. I wish this movement well. May it spread and prosper.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..What I Like Best About Innkeeping

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Sarah Henry August 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Yes, Sandy, such curriculum should be available in other parts of the country too.

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Meredith August 24, 2011 at 6:46 am

I think when something comes from the heart and soul (like this), the timing will always be right. This is the type of thing that evolves anyway, so as awareness grows, the class shifts and new elements are included.
Meredith´s last [type] ..The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Alisa Bowman

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Sarah Henry August 24, 2011 at 7:23 am

You may well be right, Meredith. Also: Sometimes you have to wait until the money can be raised too.

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Derek August 25, 2011 at 8:47 am

Haha…this class just deepens the confusing mix of love and hate we Stanford grads have for Berkeley:) What a great course! I share the sentiment that this kind of thing should be spread far and wide; enabling thoughtful consumers and food advocates is paramount to the current generation making a healthy tomorrow possible.

Sarah, if you could connect me to Nikki, we at Foodtree would love to know if we might help in some way. Our mission is to empower a healthier food system, and to enable deeper insights into local food communities at a global scale. We’d love to help however we could.

Cheers!

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Sarah Henry August 25, 2011 at 10:41 am

Hi Derek, Thanks for writing. Nikki is easy to find via email via People’s Grocery. But I took the liberty of sharing your contact details with her.

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Kerry Dexter August 25, 2011 at 10:50 am

interesting behind the scenes insights on how they’ve gone about structuring the course together. thanks, Sarah.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] ..bagpipes with a different sound: Seudan

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Sarah Henry August 30, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Pleasure, Kerry. And if you’d like to hear the course in action, tune in here at 6 p.m PT today: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hr5receWm4A&feature=youtu.be

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Jeanine Barone August 25, 2011 at 6:30 pm

This sounds like a fab class. And, no wonder it filled up so fast. It’s funny that I’m one of the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter but I never get to go to Berkeley. Too bad. Would love to hang out there for a semester and take this class.

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Sarah Henry August 30, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I didn’t know that, Jeanine, about your UCB connection. We should tawk offline some time — when you’re not traveling.

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Jane Boursaw August 26, 2011 at 6:05 pm

That’s amazing that the tix were snapped up that fast. It just shows that people are hungry (couldn’t resist) for info on healthy eating and food issues. Good for them – the educators and students and folks who take the time to learn.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..The Hunger Games: First Teeny-Tiny Peek at Katniss in Motion

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Sarah Henry August 30, 2011 at 4:13 pm

I think you’re right, Jane, about the hunger (groan) for food news and education.

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MyKidsEatSquid August 27, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I do think classes and instruction like this will spread–it’s already happening in formal and informal ways elsewhere in the country. BTW–did you hear Alice Waters interview on NPR?

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Sarah Henry August 30, 2011 at 4:18 pm

I did, MKES, also on KQED’s Forum, my local public radio station. In fact, in the last couple of weeks she’s been hard to miss. Check out this list of just some of the Alice Waters coverage of late. My favorite story title: Does Alice Waters eat in the nude?, which pretty much sums up the frenzy of coverage of late and the desire to come up with, um, a fresh angle (guilty here too):

http://www.berkeleyside.com/2011/08/26/the-frenzy-around-chez-panisses-40th-anniversary/

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Lisa September 2, 2011 at 8:58 am

this is such an important conversation to be having. wish i could have attended this course, but glad to see there is a live stream of the lectures online!
Lisa´s last [type] ..Win a Hunger Action Month T-shirt

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Sarah Henry September 2, 2011 at 9:37 am

Agreed, Lisa. Glad you can listen in via live stream too.

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Anna, The Lemon Lady September 3, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I think every school child should have the homework of identifying what local, urban edibles grow in their own neighborhoods. I’ve actually met adults who have no idea what a pear is, or that they grow in abundance in the Bay Area.

Children should write a list of ten fruit trees they pass on their way home. Urban fruit tree mapping can be accomplished by children with notebooks jotting down good, old-fashioned names of fruit and where the trees are located. Very much like a paper route or any type of delivery route. Getting off the IPODS (at least long enough to cross a cross walk) and keeping your head up high, looking at your surroundings and noticing the lovely food (trees) available for the asking and sharing.

If every one of us had this homework assignment, urban fruit waste would be abolished and hunger for fresh, nutritious sustenance would be satisfied. Education is key. Education comes in many different forms.

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