The event is the brainchild of Waters, the mother of the 'slow food' movement and owner of Berkeley's Chez Panisse, who five years ago called cookbook author Joan Nathan with an idea: a series of dinners to raise awareness about hunger and poverty in the Nation's Capital during the weekend of President Barack Obama's first inauguration. "Whenever I get a call from [Waters], I know it's trouble," laughed Nathan, who introduced her friend as "the most extraordinary symbol of food in the country." (José Andrés is the event's third co-host.)
What started as 12 dinners in 2009 has grown to a two-night extravaganza, including Saturday's 'Sips' at the Newseum and Sunday's 'Suppers,' which brought some of the nation's top chefs into 26 private area homes. Just since last year, the event has doubled in size.
More than 40 D.C. area chefs, mixologists, sommeliers and artisans donated their time for the cause. Among them: minibar's Andrés, The Chew co-host Carla Hall, Graffiato's Mike Isabella, Scott Drewno of The Source and Equinox's Todd Gray. Pouring sips were mixologists like Gina Chersevani (Hank's Oyster Bar), Rob Yealu (The Federalist) and Dan Searing (Room 11).
Held in a city where one-fifth of residents live in poverty and 18.9 percent have experienced 'food hardship' (answering yes to the question, "Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?"), Sips & Suppers has raised more than $675,000 for D.C. Central Kitchen and Martha's Table since its inception; Nathan said 'Sips' alone was on track to bring in an additional $50,000 this year.
Speaking Saturday, Waters praised the event's diversity:
"There are so many kinds of people here. Really young people and old people. We have gardeners. We have educators. We have farmers... This is what we're trying to do. We're trying to bring us all together."
The choice to hold the benefit at the Newseum, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol and less than a mile from the White House, was deliberate as Waters called for a shake-up in America's food system. Her suggestion: free school lunches. "When you eat fast food, you eat fast food ideas... We need to feed our children slow food ideas."
"There is a great place where we can demonstrate social justice in this country, and that place in in the public schools. It's the last truly democratic institution. We have to make the schools really our most important priority in this country. Number one is public education."
In a 2009 New York Times editorial, Waters said it would cost $27 billion a year ($5 per child) to provide nutritious school lunches to 30 million American schoolchildren; the current National School Lunch Program cost $11.1 billion in 2011. A nationwide three-year study of 42 middle schools found in 2012 that "[t]here was no negative impact on the finances of the school" when lunch menus added more produce and whole grains, and got rid of sugary drinks and desserts. In fact, "there was a greater profit in the schools that implemented the healthier nutritional goals... [T]he intervention schools made $1.1 million more profit than the control schools."
In January 2012, Michelle Obama spearheaded an effort to overhaul the National School Lunch Program, supporting new guidelines that mandated more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in every meal. The results were disappointing: Students in one Florida school district threw away an estimated $75,000 of produce, while a New York school district is dropping the program altogether. After critics complained students weren't getting enough to eat (high school students are allocated 850 calories for lunch), the USDA announced last month it will add more meat and grains to the school lunch program.
The two organizations feted at Sips & Suppers already support Alice Waters' "delicious revolution" through their actions. D.C. Central Kitchen's School Food Program provides locally-sourced, nutritious meals to more than 5,000 low-income D.C. kids every day, while the "school pantry program" at Martha's Table brings nutritious grocery items to four Washington elementary schools so parents can shop for healthy meal options.
WATCH: Alice Waters on 60 Minutes: