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.” 

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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).
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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