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Organic Consumers Association

Sludge Campaigners Press Alice Waters to Speak Out

Alexis Baden-Mayer

In early 2010, the Organic Consumers Association took on an important cause for the organic movement: Ending the practice of dumping toxic sewage sludge on land. As a first target, we took on the City of San Francisco, whose Public Utilities Commission has been giving toxic sewage sludge to community gardeners calling it "organic biosolids compost." For this Bay-area campaign, the first person we thought of to call on for support was organic chef and advocate Alice Waters.

The Organic Consumers Association has always admired Alice Waters for Chez Panisse, the Chefs' Collaborative, the Edible Schoolyard and her campaigns for organic agriculture and against GMOs. We love the work she has done to expose the hidden costs of industrial food, and for school lunch programs, local food, slow food, sustainable dining at universities and cafeteria curriculum for elementary schools. We nominated Waters for White House chef and have promoted her advocacy work aimed at getting the Obama Administration to improve food policy. We've encouraged our members to read Waters' book The Art of Simple Food and take what Waters called the giant step to make a choice about what to eat. On our site you will find scores of articles about Alice Waters and many she has written herself, including, "School Lunches: A Healthy Constitution."

On February 9, 2010, our request for Alice Waters to get involved in our campaign against San Francisco's sewage sludge fertilizer program was rejected by Marsha Guerrero, Director of Edible Schoolyard, who said the project could not engage in advocacy. Guerrero sent us to Francesca Vietor, Executive Director of Waters' Chez Panisse Foundation.

On February 10, 2010, Vietor wrote a note to us explaining, "We do not generally sign on to letters so can not offer you support at this time."

This was disappointing, but we didn't read anything into it.

Then, we learned that Francesca Vietor was also the Vice President of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. On March 5, 2010, we reached out to Vietor personally, asking her to use her management role at the PUC "to be a hero on this issue by stopping the sludge on gardens in San Fran."

She wrote back saying, "My understanding is that there are no further plans for giveaways. The bigger issue is how to best use, and dispose of, sludge, and waste."

Then, Vietor forwarded statements from the PUC's external affairs manager defending the sludge giveaways and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer.

In response, we urged her not to take the PUC propaganda at face value and to take her own look at the dangers of using sewage sludge to grow food.

She replied saying, "I have not had a chance to take a closer look as I have recently started a new job, and I won't be able to in the near future, as I need to focus on other PUC business at present. I have asked Ed Harrington to respond to your concerns..."

Having reached a dead end with Vietor, we decided to go back to Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse Foundation to see if Waters might see the importance of speaking out against contaminating San Francisco's community and school gardens with sewage sludge, even if her Executive Director, who had an obvious conflict, didn't.

On March 23, 2010, we sent Alice Waters a letter asking her to personally speak out against the growing of any foods in sewage sludge.

She wouldn't do it. On March 30, 2010, she sent a letter saying that she looked forward "to reviewing the science and working with the SFPUC to ensure the safety of composting methods."

We went to Chez Panisse on April 1, 2010, with a banner that read, "Please, Alice, No Toxic Sludge."

But, she still wouldn't say she opposed the use of sewage sludge to grow food. On April 1, 2010, the Chez Panisse Foundation issued a press release stating that "[t]he Foundation looks forward to ensuring public review of the science on this matter and working with the SFPUC and other relevant stakeholders to insure that safe practices are followed."

Sewage sludge has always been banned from organic. Why is it so hard for organic advocate Alice Waters to say that sewage sludge shouldn't be used to grow food? Why won't she speak out against a program that has contaminated community and school gardens with toxic sludge?

ASK ALICE: Please CLICK HERE to sign our petition to Alice Waters, asking her to say, "I oppose growing any food in toxic sewage sludge."

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-- Alexis Baden-Mayer

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