Alice Waters’ Chez Sludge

The world-famous advocate of local, organic food now advocates controversial “organic biosolids compost” for gardens.

John Stauber

Chef Alice Waters, who built her career on serving good, organic, locally grown food, now supports fertilizing Bay Area gardens with municipal sewage sludge.

Celebri­ty chef Alice Waters is the world’s most famous advo­cate of grow­ing and eat­ing local, organ­ic food. In Feb­ru­ary 2010, Waters’ Chez Panisse Foun­da­tion chose as its new exec­u­tive direc­tor green socialite” and lib­er­al polit­i­cal activist Francesca Vietor. But Vietor’s hir­ing cre­at­ed a con­flict of inter­est that has mar­ried Waters and her foun­da­tion to the San Fran­cis­co Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion (SFPUC) and its scam of dis­pos­ing of tox­ic sewage as free organ­ic biosolids com­post” for gardens.

San Fran­cis­co May­or Gavin New­som appoint­ed Vietor as one of the five SFPUC com­mis­sion­ers in 2008, just a year after the com­mis­sion began giv­ing away sewage from San Fran­cis­co and eight oth­er coun­ties as organ­ic biosolids compost.” 

In ear­ly 2010, John May­er, then with the Organ­ic Con­sumers Asso­ci­a­tion (OCA), began orga­niz­ing envi­ron­men­tal, gar­den­ing and food safe­ty groups to endorse a let­ter to New­som oppos­ing the sludge-to-gar­dens giveaway. 

In Feb­ru­ary, May­er sent Vietor an e‑mail at the Chez Panisse Foun­da­tion, includ­ing the sign-on let­ter call­ing for a per­ma­nent ban on the sludge-to-gar­dens give­away. May­er did not know that Vietor was on the SFPUC board and that she was and is its vice pres­i­dent. Nor did Vietor men­tion this to him when she declined to add the Chez Panisse Foun­da­tion to the protest let­ter. Wear­ing her hat as head of the foun­da­tion, she wrote back to May­er, Thank you for your note and the good work of the Organ­ic Con­sumers Asso­ci­a­tion. We do not gen­er­al­ly sign on to let­ters so can­not offer you sup­port at this time.”

On March 3, CBS TV affil­i­ate KPIX in San Fran­cis­co report­ed that test­ing of San Francisco’s organ­ic Biosolids com­post” found tox­ic con­t­a­m­i­nants, includ­ing diox­ins. The next day the tox­ic sludge give­away was placed on tem­po­rary hold, where it remains today.

On March 7, author and food writer Jill Richard­son broke the news of Vietor’s dual and con­flict­ing pro­fes­sion­al capac­i­ties on her blog. Seem­ing­ly now aware of the con­flict of inter­est in which she had put her­self, Vietor sought advice from SFPUC Gen­er­al Man­ag­er Ed Har­ring­ton, writ­ing this is get­ting sticky. lets talk in a.m. [sic]”

On March 23, the OCA hand-deliv­ered a let­ter to Waters, ask­ing her to unequiv­o­cal­ly and pub­licly state that sewage sludge is unac­cept­able for farm­ing and gar­den­ing – organ­ic or conventional.”

One week lat­er, Waters pub­licly respond­ed to the OCA let­ter. But an open records request revealed that Vietor had emailed Har­ring­ton a draft of Waters’ response, ask­ing him to review it. Har­ring­ton respond­ed, Sounds per­fect to me. Let me run it by a cou­ple of folks in case I’m miss­ing some­thing and get back to you quickly.” 

Waters’ SFPUC-vet­ted response read, in part: 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.”

The merg­ing of the sludge dumpers at the SFPUC and the organ­ic gar­den purists at Chez Panisse Foun­da­tion is now com­plete. Waters has been made into a sewage sludge indus­try shill, its lat­est PR con­quest and per­haps its great­est vic­to­ry in a decades-long effort to green­wash haz­ardous waste as organ­ic biosolids compost.” 

John Stauber is the founder and exec­u­tive direc­tor of the non­prof­it Cen­ter for Media and Democ­ra­cy in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. He is the co-author with Shel­don Ramp­ton of Weapons of Mass Decep­tion: The Uses of Pro­pa­gan­da in Bush’s War on Iraq (2003) and Mad Cow USA (1997).
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