October 17, 2005 12:00 PM

Jamie Oliver will try anything to get kids to eat healthy food. The Naked Chef, as he’s known, even donned a corn-on-the-cob costume at a London primary school. “I felt like an idiot,” he says. Alice Waters, by contrast, rarely dresses as a vegetable. The chef, who opened the famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., 34 years ago and helped pioneer the organic-food movement, is as soft-spoken as Oliver is brash. But she shares his passion for transforming kids’ diets. “He’s trying to reach kids through humor, taste and pleasure,” says Waters. “That’s the kind of place I come from.”

Last week the two chefs joined forces at a Yale University symposium in New York City to compare notes and promote their common goal: fresh, nutritious meals for schoolkids. Waters’s approach: A decade ago, she created the Edible Schoolyard, a one-acre garden at a local Berkeley middle school, where students plant and harvest such foods as spinach, chard, basil, figs and apples—ingredients they use in preparing meals as part of classwork. “I am trying to engage them in a hands-on way,” says Waters, 61.

Not to mention expanding their palates. Tabbouleh salad, hummus and homemade pita breads are student favorites. They even devour veggies their parents might shun. “You get them involved in the growing of the kale—the cooking and the serving—they eat it,” says Waters. “They love it.”

Next fall the school will offer breakfast, lunch and snacks made with food from area farms, and eventually the program will go district-wide. Waters envisions dishes like roast chicken, salad and polenta—a menu that nearly doubles the cost per student. “No question it will be more expensive,” she says, “But either we pay now or we pay for the illnesses on the other side.”

Oliver has taken a different tack. “We have the most unhealthy kids in Europe,” says the 30-year-old father of two. “It’s a scandal.” So in 2004 he volunteered to overhaul menus at a 1,200-pupil secondary school in Greenwich, a borough of London. He converted the deep fryer into a pasta cooker and traded burgers and fries for dishes like slow-cooked balsamic beef and bean wraps. It was a tough sell at first. The kids rebelled, protesting in the street and shouting, “Jamie Oliver, go away.” Even their parents resisted, slipping fast food “through the railing,” says Oliver, who chronicled his battle in a four-part television documentary. But he stuck it out, asking teachers to weave food into the curriculum. “Instead of counting horses, they were counting oranges and subtracting peaches,” he says.

It took a while to bring students around, but many now relish the healthy choices—Thai green curry and chicken pie are popular, says Oliver. “At first I didn’t like the vegetables,” says 10-year-old Ayten Manyera. “Now I do. I have lots more energy. It’s made me happy and healthy.”

Teachers eventually raved about the changes too. Kids were no longer nodding off in the afternoon. “They are sharper,” says Oliver, whose Jamie’s School Dinners program was expanded to include the 15,000 kids in 80 Greenwich schools. Though some schools have been quicker than others in embracing the new menus, last March Oliver presented Prime Minister Tony Blair with a petition signed by almost 300,000 people demanding improved school grub nationwide. Since then, the government has pledged £280 million (almost $500 million) to the cause.

“He shamed Tony Blair into putting money into the lunch program—we need to do that in this country,” says Waters, who wants to cook up a joint project with Oliver. “It’s worse here,” says the British chef, who spent a month stateside preaching his gospel. Still, “it only takes a few mothers to make radical change.” Begin at home, he tells parents. “If you have fun, you’ll get results straight away.” No need for a vegetable getup. But “having fun is the strongest weapon you’ve got.”

Ericka Sóuter. Eve Heyn in New York City and Sara Hammel in London.

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